Is Jordan Peterson the avatar of a 21st century Great Awakening?

The Jordan Peterson event I attended was a “happening” that made me think Americans are craving a spiritual Great Awakening that will bind us as a nation.

Jordan PetersonFor some time now I have had running through my brain the thought that America needs a Great Awakening along the lines of the First Great Awakening in 1730s and 1740s. Large segments of America are suffering from spiritual malaise.

America’s inner cities are in a state of despair and disrepair, plagued by high crime, high poverty, missing fathers, and a general sense of apocalyptic failure. The inner cities, though, are only the most visible symptom of a nationwide disease of the soul.

In small cities across America’s heartland, people who watched their jobs vanish, their communities disintegrate, and their status as worthwhile individuals dribble away have turned to drink and drugs. Once shiny little town are now squalid ghettos.

Although they are dressed better and have more money, many of America’s youth show the same signs of moral and spiritual decay. Both males and white people are told that they are inherently evil, making redemption impossible. Across the spectrum of genders, colors, and socio-economic status, young people are relentlessly indoctrinated into believing that their country is a greedy, oppressive place, guilty of sins past and present, and that the world is facing an apocalyptic ending as boiling seas rise and inundate parched land.

This darkness in the American soul is the inevitable end point of 50 years of cultural Marxism pounding relentlessly away in all of our institutions. We’re currently in free-fall mode, but the bottom is getting rapidly closer — and if you want to get a glimpse into this bottom, look to Europe, which is years ahead of us when it comes to surrendering its institutions over to the cultural Marxists.

England, which gave us the ideas of individual liberty and free speech has become an Orwellian nation in which speech is tightly policed, honest citizens are disarmed (and “disknifed,” although the acid still flows freely), the borders are opened to people whose values are antithetical to traditional British notions about freedom, and the cultural institutions have allied themselves with the most oppressive ideologies, whether Islam or Marxism.

England is not alone, although it’s the most interesting to watch given that our Bill of Rights is a direct descendant of England’s 1689 Bill of Rights. The cultural Marxist claim that western civilization is inherently flawed thanks to colonialism, racism, and sexism (all of which are the poisonous fruit of the Judeo-Christian tradition), has battered Western European nations into a suicidal level of intellectual submission.

The European ruling classes believe that their nations can redeem themselves only through catastrophically destructive immigration policies. This same ruling class also believes that, when the knives flash and the blood flows, no matter the carnage on the streets, the leaders will be protected behind the high walls they’ve erected for themselves in their mansions and elite enclaves. They’re wrong, of course, but that false sense of security is what allows them to use their people as a human sacrifice on the altar of cultural Marxism.

Keep in mind that we in America know that immigration is not inherently bad. For centuries, we successfully invited into our country people who valued our institutions and wanted to assimilate so that they could experience all the blessings a free citizenry can enjoy.

Today, though, both at home and abroad, too many new immigrants have a different attitude. Many have been infected with Marxism, so they seek Western benefits without contributing to Western weal. Especially in Europe, many immigrants are coming as conquerors, not seekers. The millions who are flooding that continent, whether legally or illegally, despise the very culture that is welcoming them and intend to destroy it. Talk about using fire to purify past sins.

Having had 50 years to wreak havoc on the Western tradition, the cultural Marxists are very close to bringing our institutions to dangerous tipping points. Now that our systems face imminent collapse, we do not have 50 years to fix the problem. We need to fix it now.

The Trump administration is making significant headway undoing the political damage the Obama administration caused, but how does one undo generations of self-loathing amongst Americans? How does one tell young people that this is a great country, with equality of opportunity for those willing to work hard? How does one help the despairing drug addicts break free? How does one get people trained in anger and hatred to stop and look at the blessings around them?

Those questions are what left me ruminating for weeks now about America’s first Great Awakening, which started almost 300 years ago. That awakening was a Protestant religious revival that swept like wildfire through the colonies. That first awakening was followed by several others that lasted into the 20th century (with the Reverend Martin Luther King leading what was probably the last of the awakenings). It’s the first, though, the one that took place from the mid-1730s through the early 1740s, that was so necessary for the American experiment.

The leaders of this first Great Awakening were George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Evans, all of whom were evangelical preachers. Although there were different nuances to their teachings, their core message was the same: We are all sinners, but each individual is a child of God, capable of redemption through honestly acknowledging sin, establishing a personal relationship with God and, through that relationship, reforming ourselves to become better people. This was not a faith predicated on ritual but on individual salvation. It is the ultimate in rugged individualism, because each person has a conversation directly with God and is answerable to God for his or her behavior.

It’s highly unlike that there would have been an American Revolution without the Great Awakening. These ideas of individual worth inevitably meant that people had inherently, unalienable rights, the foundational idea behind the American Revolution. Subsequent awakenings furthered the idea of individual liberty, giving rise to the abolitionist movement, industrial reforms, the end of child labor and, as I suggested above, the Civil Rights movement.

So where does Jordan Peterson fit in this rumination? I’ll start with a personal anecdote to explain.

Last night I attended Jordan Peterson’s appearance in San Francisco, which was the sixth stop on his book tour. (For those who don’t know, his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a massive best seller.) Peterson spent two galvanizing hours explaining to the audience some of the nuances and ideas behind six of the rules in the book.

Peterson is a great speaker. He’s the college lecturer everyone dreamed of having: Clear, interesting, energetic, erudite, funny and, above all, honest. This is a man who speaks his truth (and, indeed, one of his rules is “Tell the truth” or, if you’re not sure what the truth is, at least don’t lie). For two hours, with passion and wit, he shared incredibly complex, important ideas with us, riffing through religion, literature, psychology, common sense, and politics. He is a polymath who used his incredible breadth of knowledge to infuse new life into ideas about self-improvement.

What matters greatly is that Peterson is not offering the cheap and easy self-improvement, self-realization, and self-actualization that characterized the 1970s, and that still haunts the self-help aisle in any library or bookstore. Al Franken perfectly summed up that type of self-improvement with Stuart Smalley’s catch-phrase, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, gosh darn it!, people like me.” Vapid affirmations are part of what weakened the American psyche, paving the way for safe spaces, triggering, and the politics of perpetual offense.

For Peterson, recognizing that you are an individual worthy of respect is only the beginning. That idea isn’t the end of the self-examination, but only the beginning: Every person inherently being a worthy child of God but it’s after acknowledging this reality that the real work begins. To optimize your potential, says Peterson, you have to stand up straight, organize your surroundings, treat yourself with dignity and respect, choose friends who value and cultivate the best in you not the worst, raise likable children, and have to make yourself a better person every day. These were just some of the messages Peterson gave the crowd.

Peterson ended his talk by telling us two things that transcend the individual and that affect society as a whole: (1) people must do the hard work of making themselves right before they can impose themselves on the world and (2) they must tell the truth or, if they cannot tell the truth, the must not lie.

The first notion is aimed at evil doers — people such as the Sandy Hook or Parkland School killers — who embrace and cultivate their unhappiness and bitterness until it grows to be such a force that they are determined to impose it upon the world. Peterson says that we have an ethical obligation to fix ourselves and not become that person.

I see this concept as consistent with Dennis Prager’s insistence that happiness is a serious problem. As a religious man, Prager believes God gave humans the unique ability to think their way to happiness. In this we differ from animals, who can only react to their immediate circumstances. Because we have this special gift, it is wasteful and disrespectful to God, to ourselves, and to those in our orbit, not to cultivate it. Only when you have squared yourself away ethically, when you have optimized your abilities and your values, should you start trying to manage the affairs of others.

The second notion Peterson raised is that truth is the dividing line between order and chaos. Peterson begins with the first words in the Bible because, separate from its religious meaning, the Bible also represents the core Western myth around which we’ve built our culture (the same culture that the Left seeks to destroy). In Genesis’s first chapter, God confronts chaos, speaks truth (“light,” “sky,” “water,” “land”), and by doing so creates order and meaning in the world.

Lies are chaotic. Truth is clarifying. To the extent that we speak the truth, we align ourselves with reality and order. This is why, Peterson says, it is so important that we have free speech. Government coerced speech too often forces people to live in world of lies, lies that will inevitably collapse, bringing the system down with them. These lies also force people into moral contortions that pave the way to Auschwitz, the Gulags, and the re-education camps. Government has the power to invade the most inviolable core of every individual. That is the fundamental evil of Marxism. At least, that was my takeaway.

Incidentally, Peterson’s speech was only about 1% political. Because his focus is the individual, he only lashed out at Marxism, both political and cultural, precisely because it infringes on the individual, invariably in harmful ways.

For a better and more accurate rendering of Peterson’s thoughts, I highly recommend his book. Alternatively, feel free to spend time watching his videos. I’m a very inadequate Peterson translator.

But I still haven’t gotten to that Great Awakening, have I? Well, now that I’ve laid the predicate, I’m finally ready to make my point.

The event was held in a venue that seats three thousand people at a guess. Although I knew that the event was sold out, I hadn’t forgotten that it was a book tour, not a rock concert or some other hyped Leftist event. It was just an author going on the road to sell his book. How exciting could it be? As it turns out, very exciting.

I arrived 45 minutes early and the place was already swarming with hundreds of people streaming into the building. I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life and I’ve never seen a more diverse group of people. There were more men than women, but not by a large margin. There were people of all races: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern (although San Francisco demographics were such that most were white or Asian). The oldest people I saw were easily in their 80s and the youngest were in their teens. Clothing and hairstyles told me that there were business people there, along with students, punks, suburban types, preppies, hippies, and hipsters. There were also people from across the gender spectrum who came, not to revile Peterson for refusing to allow the Canadian government to coerce his speech about gender, but to hear what he had to say about living a better life.

A friend of mine who attended was struck by the crowd as well:

The audience was made up of older people, younger people, couples, gay men, etc.  I tried to find the neo-Nazis that the mainstream media seems to say is around, but didn’t see any ;-).  There was solid security out front.  One of the first positive signs was when the venue announced a no-tolerance policy for heckling.  Everyone cheered and clapped.  I was concerned about security going to the event when I had seen in-person and online how Dave Rubin (who was there, and opened the show) and Dr. Peterson have been treated by certain activist groups on campus.  I was pleased that it was a considerate and polite and enthusiastic group of about 3000 people.

Since I’m not shy, I approached a group of three people — a long-haired, swarthy man in a suit; a computer programmer type; and a gender fluid person with a buzz cut — and said to them, “Hi, I notice you’re all younger than I am and I’m wondering what attracted you to this event.” What all three had to say was that they were drawn to Peterson because he is a polymath who relies on myriad sources to help make sense of the world, because he offers genuinely useful advice for them to improve their lives, and because he speaks the truth.

The last point was really important to them. In a world of endless words and messages, they crave truth. The gender fluid person turned out to be a police detective — and I believe this detective was probably female, which is how I thought of her and the pronoun I’ll apply to her. She said that one of the greatest frustrations in her job is that she cannot speak the truth about the criminal demographic. This politically correct silence hamstrings her ability to function as a detective, prevents her from helping people protect themselves from criminals, and — significantly — makes it impossible to prevent people from becoming criminals. That Jordan Peterson demands truth from others and speaks it himself was incredibly significant to her.

Once inside the auditorium, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was at what the hippies used to call a “happening.” Something profound and meaningful was taken place in this audience. Nobody was a stranger. People were talking excitedly to each other, not just about Peterson, but about other people who have brought meaning and truth to their lives. One of those people is my personal favorite, Dave Rubin, who was there to introduce Peterson and, after the talk, to sit down with Peterson and ask him audience-submitted questions. People were thrilled to be in the same room as Rubin, because he’s also a truth seeker. In addition, they talked about other YouTube stars such as Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro. They mentioned Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein. They applauded Candace Owens and Kanye West.

Speaking of all those people, with incredible timing, just two days ago the New York Times ran an article about the so-called “Dark Web.” That sounds ominous, but it’s not. The Dark Web consists of a loose federation of people, from conservative Jews to Sanders-supporting atheists, all of whom share a desire to speak the truth about important issues and to do so in a spirit of shared intellectual inquiry. All of them, no matter how far to the Left their political orientation, believe that the dominant culture in the West is stifling both speech and thought, even as it as a Manichean view of America that labels people as good or evil and then casts the “evil” people to eternal perdition. Dark Webbies believe this trend must end or America and the free West will end.

People are resonating to this truth speaking. They are resonating to being spoken to with respect and having serious and uplifting demands made upon them at an individual level, whether these demands are practical or ethical. They are resonating to having intellectuals speak to them directly, rather than interacting with them as pre-determined groups, whether victims or victimizers, oppressed or oppressors.

I’m not alone in my impression about the deeper import the Peterson phenomenon shows. Again, this is my friend’s take:

I have come to appreciate his work because he seems to both be working on providing individual people with concrete tools to take steps in their lives to make their lives better, to re-establish the importance of individual responsibility and he is also attempting to revitalize and maybe re-establish the roots of Western Civilization. That seems like a huge task, but my view is that there is confusion and unhappiness in the West among individuals because the validity of Western Civilization has been called into question extensively by the left. When people don’t understand their role in life, nor do they have clear roles laid out for them, it can make them wander without purpose or direction and that is a recipe for unhappiness that can spiral down into hellish consequences.

In addition, he has stood firm against government compelled speech in Canada, which is why the Social Justice Warriors hate him. He is very strong and firm in his stance against curtailing the freedoms of individuals.

Which brings me to the hopeful view that I have after attending. He and Rubin are interested in freedom, individual rights and free intellectual inquiry. They bring humor and respect to their show, and that will always win out. The regressive left that Peterson is not shy of condemning has fear, intimidation, censorship and the denial of common sense and individual experience on their side. When you have freedom, happiness and humor on your side you will win.

When the house lights went up, I turned to go up the stairs and saw a young man behind me. He was letting me pass ahead of him. He had a wide smile on his face and his eyes were shining with happiness.

At the evening’s end, an audience member posed a question to Peterson: “Should we be worried that you’re becoming a cult?” Peterson thought carefully before answering. He concluded that the conditions for a cult do not exist despite his newfound fame: He’s not isolating people from family and friends, he’s not controlling their conduct, he’s not separating them from their wealth, and he’s not physically placing them in a compound. Most importantly, he’s addressing them as individuals and encouraging them to achieve their highest individual potential as a prerequisite for becoming successful members of a healthy society. That is the antithesis of cultism.

As I scanned the packed auditorium — keeping in mind that Rubin noted that he and Peterson had already spoken to 20,000 equally happy people in just five appearances — I suddenly thought, “I am at a revival meeting of another Great Awakening.” This is not a God-centered awakening, although it’s clear that Peterson believes that traditional faith is a vehicle to improvement. Nevertheless, I was witness to a spiritual revival that is reaching out to people across the political, social, racial, and gender categories that currently divide Americans. In a riven society plagued by self-doubt, self-loathing, and existential despair, Peterson and other members of the “Dark Web” offer the possibility of individual salvation.