The Persistence of the Charlatan
Jordan Peterson Will Not Go Away
First off, I want to give an update for subscribers. I mentioned vacation a few weeks ago and now that’s finally coming into view. Starting next week, I’ll be traveling abroad and will probably be posting less—at least, initially. I’ll most likely find something to write about over there pretty quickly or comment again on the situation in the U.S. I’ll also be doing another mailbag post, so if you have any questions for me, either comment or e-mail in response!
Way back in 2018, my friend Steven Klein and I wrote a piece for The Baffler on Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson who was then just emerging as a cultural phenomenon. I’m somewhat surprised that 5 years later he is still a thing, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Peterson has been in the “news” (i.e. on my Twitter feed) a couple times this week. First, because of the video pictured above, where he’s wearing this absurd get-up. And second, because he got into a fight with MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan. In the course of this, Peterson called Hasan, whose parents are from India, “Caucasian.” Now, this might appear to be just geographic or ethnic confusion—India is nowhere near the Caucasus mountains and Hasan is not an Ingush, Chechen, or Circassian—until you realize that Peterson is employing an old racial classification scheme cooked upon by the Göttingen School in the 18th century. Peterson wrote: “You're not black And you're not Asian What's left? Caucasian It's not that difficult.” Göttingen anthropology divided the world into three component races: Caucausoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. This division formed one of the bases of race science as it developed in the 19th century and its subsidiary disciplines like craniometry—skull measurement.
That Peterson would employ this old pseudoscience as if it were self-evident fact is not surprising but kind of amusing. This is exactly the kind of bogus idea that he would be attracted to, along with other quackish conceptions like Jungianism and going on an all beef diet. Peterson himself is a bit of throwback:. The term for him is not used much in the parlance of our times, except sometimes ironically: he’s a charlatan or a mountebank. This is the first thing that should be understood about him, before giving him other, political labels. I once attempted to argue this case in a Times op-ed with the help of a book from the 1930s called The Power of the Charlatan by Grete de Francesco, which sadly has long been out of print.
It’s really comical how much of a textbook case Peterson is. First, just look at his clothes. He constantly wears these outrageous suits. As Jason Linkins quipped on Twitter, “somewhere a commedia dell’arte troupe is missing its Harlequino.” The charlatans who hawked their dubious medicines in the town squares of early modern Europe dressed up precisely in exotic costume to attract attention. They often even employed troupes of clowns to create a spectacle. As Francesco writes in her commentary on a 17th century engraving of a quacksalver, “Here a charlatan is standing quite alone, dispensing with the usual troupe of assistance and relying upon his own personal grace…He is dressed as a harlequin…” Or consider the 18th century painting below, titled The Charlatan: —
Then there’s the way he expresses himself, the “theatricality” that accompanies the quacksalver: full of brow-furrowing seriousness and faux gravitas, affecting an “air of dignity” or “ solemn air of mystery.” Observe how Francesco describes one charlatan: “[He] carried himself with pedantic stiffness, giving himself ‘a peculiar air of gravity,’ and adoring his person with tinsel. His speech was ‘learned’ jargon of his own invention and his delivery full of the labored pathos of the pundit…” Francesco: “The charlatan avoids responsibility; he has no real ideas. Hence he is the natural foe of precision, of intelligibility. For clarity he substitutes great heat and emphasis; he makes his pointless remarks in the most pointed manner possible.”
The content of Peterson’s discourse is identical with that of a classical charlatan: a melange of half-science and pseudoscience, occultism, astrology, New Age ideas, old time religion, and pop psychology that both impresses with its mock profundity and can be widely understood. De Francesco: “Through his mysterious and appealing lectures, they were guided away from the cold sobriety of genuine knowledge into the picturesque realms of pseudoscience. … These fake scientific talks were indeed excitingly mystical, yet to all appearances they could be understood by the common man.”
And like the quacksalvers and charlatans of the past, Peterson portrays himself as a doctor—he is a former clinical psychologist—who sells cures in the form of his self-help books. He sells nostrums, in both senses of the word: dubious medicine and oversimplifying opinion. This combination of doctor and “molder of public opinion” is another feature of charlatanry. As one 18th observer of quacks wrote, “Here elixirs—there opinions—it is all the same.” The charlatan works as a perpetual propaganda machine on his own behalf: “The charlatan knows that is it not enough to lie; he must refine upon the lie, prepare it for the market place and make it saleable by a variety of arts, with exotic costumes, pompous processions, cleverly designed handbills, verbose speeches that awaken dread, and the japery of buffoons who relieve and divert the masses.”
Peterson is of course not alone in this trade, just notably typical. The proximity of opinion-makers on the right to cons and scams has been pointed out at length by others. Ben Shapiro, Don Bongino, and Alex Jones all sell supplements and snake oil as well. Quackery and pseudoscience is a successful propaganda technique on the extreme right, with vitalism and bodily purity paranoia as a particular locus of attention. Charlatans are talented at preying upon the fears and hopes of eras in disarray and change, when there is “rapid development of the sciences, or quickened progress in technology” when “minds are overburdened with the effort to keep up with these accumulations of facts…Mental insecurity, emotional confusion, fresh stimulation of the nerves, new desires, new needs—and to these, one must add, new apprehensions—combined to produce an atmosphere favorable to charlatanry.” Probably little can be done, except to remember that the “market” is more than a metaphor. It actually does help to conceive of the public sphere as a kind of vast marketplace. Can you easily imagine a public figure jumping on a bench or putting on an elaborate show to hawk their wares in a town square? If so, they are probably a charlatan.