“Men have to toughen up,” Jordan B. Peterson writes in 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, “Men demand it, and women want it.” So, the first rule is, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and don’t forget to “clean your room.” By the way, “consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.” Oh, and “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being.” Many such pronouncements—didactic as well as metaphysical, ranging from the absurdity of political correctness to the “burden of Being”—have turned Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, into a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author in several Western countries.

12 Rules for Life is only Peterson’s second book in twenty years. Packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles, Peterson’s brand of intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity; and it is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media. It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual. For his apotheosis speaks of a crisis that is at least as deep as the one signified by Donald Trump’s unexpected leadership of the free world.

Peterson diagnoses this crisis as a loss of faith in old verities. “In the West,” he writes, “we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures.” Peterson offers to alleviate the resulting “desperation of meaninglessness,” with a return to “ancient wisdom.” It is possible to avoid “nihilism,” he asserts, and “to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience” with the help of “the great myths and religious stories of the past.”

Following Carl Jung, Peterson identifies “archetypes” in myths, dreams, and religions, which have apparently defined truths of the human condition since the beginning of time. “Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” In other words, men resisting the perennially fixed archetypes of male and female, and failing to toughen up, are pathetic losers.

Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.

Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.

Peterson himself credits his intellectual awakening to the Cold War, when he began to ponder deeply such “evils associated with belief” as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and became a close reader of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is a common intellectual trajectory among Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag. A recent example is the English polemicist Douglas Murray who deplores the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and wishes that the idea of equality was “tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders.” Peterson confirms his membership of this far-right sect by never identifying the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism.

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.

This new object of belief tended to be exotically and esoterically pre-modern. The East, and India in particular, turned into a screen on which needy Westerners projected their fantasies; Jung, among many others, went on tediously about the Indian’s timeless—and feminine—self. In 1910, Romain Rolland summed up the widespread mood in which progress under liberal auspices appeared a sham, and many people appeared eager to replace the Enlightenment ideal of individual reason by such transcendental coordinates as “archetypes.” “The gate of dreams had reopened,” Rolland wrote, and “in the train of religion came little puffs of theosophy, mysticism, esoteric faith, occultism to visit the chambers of the Western mind.”

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency; Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.

Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell. The Swiss sage sported a ring ornamented with the effigy of a snake—the symbol of light in a pre-Christian Gnostic cult. Peterson claims that he has been inducted into “the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe”; he is clearly proud of the Native American longhouse he has built in his Toronto home.

Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailed Vladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.

Indeed, the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda. Richard Wagner, along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens—largely Jews—who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil. By the early twentieth century, ethnic-racial chauvinists everywhere—Hindu supremacists in India as well as Catholic ultra-nationalists in France—were offering visions to uprooted peoples of a rooted organic society in which hierarchies and values had been stable. As Karla Poewe points out in New Religions and the Nazis (2005), political cultists would typically mix “pieces of Yogic and Abrahamic traditions” with “popular notions of science—or rather pseudo-science—such as concepts of ‘race,’ ‘eugenics,’ or ‘evolution.’” It was this opportunistic amalgam of ideas that helped nourish “new mythologies of would-be totalitarian regimes.”

Peterson rails today against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

Like Peterson, many of these hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.

It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealized traditional realm of myth and ritual.

In the end, deskbound pedants and fantasists helped bring about, in Thomas Mann’s words in 1936, an extensive “moral devastation” with their “worship of the unconscious”—that “knows no values, no good or evil, no morality.” Nothing less than the foundations for knowledge and ethics, politics and science, collapsed, ultimately triggering the cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, “psychological and social dissolution.” But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure.

—Panjak Mishra, Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism

In Romania, God Was A Fascist


[Please note: This post includes historical accounts of horrific massacres. Further, several quoted passages include antisemitic slurs.]

It’s March of 2017 and all 100 United States Senators are urging Donald Trump to do something about the sharp rise in antisemitism since his election. If you follow the Senate, you’re aware 100% agreement in that august body is akin to seeing a real-life unicorn. One unbalanced former journalist aside, the sickening spike in bomb threats to Jewish community centers/synagogues and desecration of Jewish cemeteries is real – and should trouble us all.

I’ve been thinking about antisemitism a lot these days, as I slowly work my way through Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), a cornucopia of academic journal articles and the occasional podcast. One particularly incisive podcast, as I’ve mentioned before, is Slate Academy’s limited series named (and concerning) FascismTheir third episode is dedicated to its Romanian iteration. Outside the field of fascism studies and Romania itself, this history is either largely overlooked or unknown in our country. It had barely registered on my radar, and I was at least somewhat actively in search of that kind of information.

It should be noted this history is vast and serpentine. My overview can only scratch the surface. If you’d like to contextualize the emergence of the movement as it relates to Romanian history, see BBC’s Romania history timeline; for a more comprehensive chronology of the fascist takeover, we refer you to the Analytical Chronology of the Romanian Legionary Movement, who were also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael or Iron Guard.

Founded in 1927 and officially brought into the fascist coalition government by Conducător Ion Antonescu in 1940, the Iron Guard led vigorous pogroms against the Jewish population and assassinated their political enemies. These Romanian fascists had many of the ideological markers one might expect: rabid nationalism, malice towards perceived Others and systematized antisemitism/anticommunism were precepts of the movement, but by wedding those currents to Orthodox Christianity they transformed into a mystical “political religion” and a “death cult”.

“God is fascist!”
One of the unique characteristics of Romanian fascism is the incorporation of Orthodox Christianity into the political doctrine and structure of the Iron Guard.  The religious element of Romanian fascism was utilized by the Iron Guard to gain the support of the rural population of Romania where religious beliefs were the strongest.  The Iron Guard used religious themes for most of their propaganda.  The widespread occurrence of “miracles” in Romania during the rise of the Iron Guard represented the utilization of religious propaganda to appeal to the superstitious rural population.  In addition, Romanian fascists made use of collective prayers, religious chants, and processions in order to sway and influence the Romanian people.  Orthodox Christianity was an essential component of Romanian fascist ideology because it was considered one of the most important elements of the “historical continuity” of the Romanian people.  The Iron Guard was initially called the “Legion of the Archangel Michael” because it characterized the predestined character of the legionnaire movement.

In his A History of Fascism, 1914 – 1945 (published in 1996), historian Stanley G. Payne described The Legion of The Archangel Michael/Iron Guard as

arguably the most unusual mass movement of interwar Europe. It is generally classified as fascist because it met the main criteria of any appropriate fascist typology, but it presented undeniably individual characteristics of its own. German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte has written that it “must not only be declared, but also plainly appears, to be the most interesting and the most complex fascist movement, because like geological formations of superimposed layers it presents at once both prefascist and radically fascist characteristics.” What made [Iron Guard founder and martyr C.Z. Codreanu] especially different was that he became a sort of religious mystic, and though the Legion had the same general political goals as other fascist movements, its final aims were spiritual and transcendental—“The spiritual resurrection! The resurrection of nations in the name of Jesus Christ!” as he put it.

The “spiritually resurrected” man viewed the Jewish people with deep suspicion on a good day and murderous intent on a bad one. They were a constant bugaboo, accused of everything from being fifth column communist saboteurs to stealing hardworking Romanians’ jobs (in reality, a poor economy exacerbated by 1929’s stock market crash meant there just weren’t enough jobs to go around). The soil was fertile for the kind of violent reactions that would culminate in a holocaust. In 1941, the newly empowered Iron Guard (at this time lead by Horia Sima) and Antonescu came into serious conflict over the best way to rob the Jews.

[T]he Legionnaires wanted everything, and they wanted it immediately; Antonescu, while sharing the same goal, intended to achieve it gradually, using different methods. The leader stated this clearly in an address to Legion-appointed ministers: “Do you really think that we can replace all Yids immediately? Government challenges are addressed one by one, like in a game of chess.”

The Iron Guard’s plan for getting everything was terrorizing, torturing and murdering Jewish people, then plundering their possessions. Dissatisfied with Antonescu’s gradual legal disenfranchisement stratagem, the Guard began spreading rumors that the Conducător was a Freemason, and worse! had Jewish ties. They were setting the table for a coup that they hoped would put them in full control of the government.

But their insubordination would not go unchallenged. With Adolf Hitler’s assent, Antonescu began purging Legionnaires from government through firings and arrests. Sima, realizing the window of opportunity would not stay open much longer, initiated a two-pronged attack. The Iron Guard stormed the Ministry of the Interior, police stations and media outlets, and drafted sympathetic elements of the rural peasantry to fill the streets of Bucharest. At the same time, the Guard enacted a pogrom against the Jews to “legitimize” their uprising. Swaths of Jewish property were destroyed, and 125 Bucharestian Jews were murdered. Christopher Simpson recounts one such mass killing that took place during the rebellion in Blowback: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis and its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy (1989).

Some victims were actually butchered in a municipal meat-packing plant, hung on meathooks, and branded as ‘kosher meat’ with red hot irons. Their throats were cut in an intentional desecration of kosher laws. Some were beheaded. ‘Sixty Jewish corpses [were discovered] on the hooks used for carcasses,’ US ambassador to Romania Franklin Mott Gunther wired back to Washington after the pogrom. ‘They were all skinned … [and] the quantity of blood about [was evidence] that they had been skinned alive.’ Among the victims, according to eyewitnesses, was a girl no more than five years old, who was left hanging by her feet like a slaughtered calf, her body bathed in blood.

Antonescu was able to repel the Iron Guard’s putsch. Some of the guardsmen who weren’t killed in the fighting, like Sima, fled to Germany, while some 9,000 others were imprisoned. Though they had lost, certain members of the Iron Guard would go on to zealously cooperate with Antonescu later that year. Iasi, which bordered Russia, had a sizable Jewish population. As Hitler and his allies went to war with the Soviet Union, Antonescu suspected Iasi Jews were on the side of the communists. He ordered the military to “cleanse” the city; at the same time, Legionnaires in the city were released from prison to assist in the massacre.

Iasi was one of the bloodiest pogroms of the era, resulting in the death of an estimated 13,266 Jews. Radu Ioanid’s article The Holocaust in Romania: The Iasi Pogrom of June 1941 (published in 1993) gives you a sense of the carnage with following eyewitness account:

I saw a multitude of people rushing in confusion towards the Zafiropol garage, near the Chestura, in a hail of machine-gun fire. Two bullets grazed me as I fell to the pavement. I lay in this state for several hours, and saw with my own eyes people die in front of me, some of whom I knew, others who were strangers. For instance a wounded Jewish veteran of the 1916-1918 campaign, with his medals for ‘Courage and Faith’ still pinned to him, in his hands papers that entitled him to rights (as a Romanian citizen), his chest torn open by bullets, died like a dog in a rubbish tip. Then there was young Segal, son of a leather dresser (who also died, together with his two other sons), who kept moaning as he was dying: ‘Mother, father, where are you? Give me water, I’m thirsty.’ But nobody could help him. The soldiers passing by saw Jews in their agony and pierced them with their bayonets to end their misery.

Nor was Iasi an isolated incident. In Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and his Regime, Romania 1940 – 1944 (published in 2006), Dennis Deletant surveys the breadth of Romania’s genocidal fervor:

The statistical story is grim: ‘mass murder’ was ‘carried out by the Romanian authorities under Antonescu’s military dictatorship’. The death toll was ‘the result not only of systematic killing, but also of deportation and its consequences … These figures—almost 300,000 Jews in all—give the Antonescu regime the sinister distinction of being responsible for the largest number of deaths of Jews after Hitler’s Germany’.

As the Axis fell into disarray near the end of World War II, a successful coup was launched against Antonescu by Romania’s deposed Monarch Michael I. Michael I was then compelled to appoint a communist government and to hand Antonescu over to them. The Conducător was put on trial, and executed by firing squad in 1946. The country he had allied with Hitler would be overseen by a repressive pro-Soviet puppet government until the fall of the USSR in 1989. Its legacy of fascism and genocide, however, would remain a deep wound to the national psyche.

*  *  *

Episode 3: Romania: Bloody, Mystical Fascism from the East is behind Slate’s paywall, but I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting a few of the observations Rebecca Onion, Joshua Keating and June Thomas made about this sad chapter in the country’s history.

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