Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Jordan Peterson was a relatively unknown clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor until his brave 2016 challenge to a draconian Canadian law on transgender pronouns drew widespread attention. Millions watched his brilliant, wide-ranging YouTube lectures about life, truth, feelings, personality, and values. For a while there he seemed ubiquitous, giving interviews and lectures around the world and, in the process, becoming the planet’s most famous living public intellectual. He published a massive bestseller, 12 Rules for Life.
Then, suddenly, he disappeared. For the last two years he’s been in medical hell, experiencing torturous pain and being brought to the brink of death by a puzzling malady that took him, in search of answers, to hospitals, clinics, and rehab centers in Canada, the U.S., Russia, and Serbia. Meanwhile his wife was diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer from which she now seems, miraculously, to have recovered. On top of everything else, he, his wife, and his deeply devoted adult daughter all contracted the COVID virus.
Emerging from this nightmare and prepared to step back onto the public stage, Peterson agreed to a major interview with Decca Aitkenhead for the Sunday Times of London. The story appeared on January 31; on the same day, Peterson posted on YouTube a recording of the nearly three-hour Zoom conversations that he and his daughter, Mikhaila, had with Aitkenhead. In the recording (which as of Wednesday had accumulated half a million hits), Peterson is friendly and forthcoming, but emotionally fragile as a consequence of his long torment; at one point he breaks into tears and has to step away from the microphone. Mikhaila, for her part, spends an hour and a half telling Aitkenhead the full story of Peterson’s illness, complete with vivid particulars. And Aitkenhead poses throughout as entirely sympathetic, sounding more like a compassionate social worker than a journalist.
But – and this is why Peterson felt compelled to post the audio of the interview – Aitkenhead’s piece for the Times proved to be a masterpiece of pure snideness and dishonesty. She reduced Peterson’s deep learning and richly nuanced wisdom about life to “bracing advice about how to be a real man.” She caricatured the multitudes of people whose lives he’s helped to turn around as “young men who idolise him” as a “fantasy father figure.” Grotesquely simplifying and vulgarizing his message, she described him as “defend[ing] traditional masculine dominance.” Noting that his critics view Peterson as “the respectable face of reactionary misogyny, and a dangerous gateway drug to online alt-right radicalization,” she certainly seemed to agree.
Even worse than Aitkenhead on Peterson was Aitkenhead on Peterson’s daughter, who, as her father faced one health crisis after another, appears to have played a heroic role in scouring the globe for doctors who might understand what was going on and might know what needed to be done. Aitkenhead’s passages about this topic were one long sneer:
If this was a movie, its director would unquestionably be the 28-year-old Mikhaila Peterson, CEO of her father’s company. She and her Russian husband appear to have assumed full charge of his affairs, so before I am allowed to speak to him I must first talk to her. Unrecognisable from the ordinary-looking brunette from photos just a few years ago, Mikhaila today is a glossy, pouting Barbie blonde, and talks with the zealous, spiky conviction of a President Trump press spokeswoman.
Barbie? Trump? What? Where did this nastiness come from? And what’s Trump doing here? Admirers of Peterson who’ve heard him discuss his family in interviews know that Mikhaila herself grew up with a horrific illness that she overcame valiantly. Writing about that ordeal, Aitkenhead was dubious, almost flippant:
According to her website she has suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, since early childhood, which necessitated a hip and ankle replacement at 17. Other symptoms — chronic fatigue, depression, OCD, nose bleeds, restless legs, brain fog, itchy skin, the list goes on — forced her to drop out of university, “and it finally occurred to me that whatever was happening was likely going to end in my death, and rather soon. After almost 20 years, the medical community still had no answers for me.” So she decided to cure herself.
Eliminating everything from her diet except for red meat, Mikhaila found herself getting well. In 2018, Peterson adopted the diet too, and was pleased with the results. Good for them. I don’t pretend to know anything about these matters; all I know, without having looked into the details of their regimen, is that I don’t see any reason for them to lie about it, and that every indication is that Mikhaila is an estimable and conscientious woman who has at all times only wanted the best for her father. But for Aitkenhead, Mikhaila was, quite simply, a dangerous quack and Peterson a patsy.
In the recorded interview, Mikhaila, knowing she’s talking to a reporter, is at pains to get every detail right, down to the dosages of various drugs; but for Aitkenhead, the young woman’s impressive mastery of these specifics merits only mockery:
Like every medical autodidact I’ve ever met, Mikhaila rattles off pharmacological jargon at 100 miles an hour, sweeping from one outlandish tale to another with breathless melodrama that becomes increasingly exhausting to follow.…By now my head is spinning. The blizzard of obscure pharmaceutical terminology keeps on coming, as Mikhaila reels off the names of more antibiotics and antidepressants and antipsychotics prescribed to her father, recounting her objections to this one and that one until it all becomes a blur.
Well, one wants to say, nobody forced you to do the interview. Appallingly, Aitkenhead asserted that after her 80-minute conversation with Mikhaila, “the one thing of which I’m certain is that, were I as close to death as she assures me her father repeatedly was, this is not the person I would entrust with saving my life.”
The uncomfortable truth, however, seems to be that Mikhaila did save his life. These things happen. Jordan Peterson is not the only person with a mysterious malady ever to have been rescued by the tireless efforts of a fanatically determined loved one to track down just the right doctor, the right hospital, the right diagnosis, the right therapy. Some of us have learned through experience that, yes, doctors can be ignorant, stubborn, lazy, indifferent, or just plain busy, and that a smart layman willing to put in the work can learn a lot more about this or that recondite malady than an off-the-rack specialist is likely to know.
You might think that Aitkenhead would grasp this, and would recognize Mikhaila’s breathless account of Peterson’s medical journey as a story of the triumph of love and determination over even the most horrific of circumstances. But no. For her it’s all one big “medical circus.” For her, all that matters is that Mikhaila “doesn’t have any medical training.” Asked about this, Mikhaila replied that “because of my experience of being ill, I’ve done a lot of research. There’s this trust people have of doctors that I don’t have. Because doctors are just people, right?” On the tape Aitkenhead responds to this attitude with empathy; in the article, she mocked it: “This opinion is not uncommon in North America, where surprising numbers regard YouTube as a viable substitute for medical school.” Oh, those stupid North Americans! You’d think that Mikhaila, instead of simply making endless phone calls and writing endless e-mails to track down the right doctors, had prescribed drugs and performed surgery.
As dismissive as she was of Mikhaila’s efforts to find a proper diagnosis and cure for her father, Aitkenhead was eager to proffer her own diagnosis. What if his book tour – “a different lecture each night at 160 cities in 200 days,” during which was “busy dispensing advice to fans about their mental health” – crashed his mental health? Could “toxic masculinity…have been a culprit”? Could his illness be the price he paid “for his bootstrap philosophy”? She also seems deliberately to have tried to get everybody to think that Peterson is schizophrenic – a lie that media around the world have repeated in the last few days.
Aitkenhead palpably relished the idea “that when life became excruciatingly stressful, Peterson’s stand up, man up, suck it up mentality didn’t work” – that “when the most famous public intellectual on the planet was preaching a regime of order and self-discipline, he was privately in chaos.” In fact, the tale of how Mikhaila went the extra mile – thousands of miles, really – to save the life of her father is something right out of a Jordan Peterson lecture. So, for that matter, is Peterson’s ability during his spin through hell to write a whole new book, Beyond Order, which is about to be published.
But for Aitkenhead all of this was little more than a good excuse for her to mention once again the 45th president of the United States: “Parallels with Donald Trump come to mind; another unhappy man closed off from his emotions, projecting strong man mythology while hunkered down in a bunker with his family against the world.” No one who has seen a representative sampling of Peterson’s online lectures and interviews – or who has heard him break into tears on the recording of his conversation with Aitkenhead – could ever describe him as “projecting strong man mythology” or as an “unhappy man closed off from his emotions.”
As of Wednesday evening, Aitkenhead’s interview had garnered almost three thousand comments, almost all of them justifiably accusing her of misrepresentation and slander and calling her article a “hatchet piece.” A reader named Russell Sharpe commented: “If anyone were in any doubt why people nowadays go to longform podcasts for intelligent reflection on contemporary issues rather than to the legacy media, where they know to expect only conventional platitudes, disinformation and lies, then a comparison of this article with the unedited audio interview now available on Mikhaila Peterson’s YouTube channel would be a good place to start.”
One commenter was puzzled as to how Aitkenhead could be so heartless, given her own personal history. Knowing nothing about Aitkenhead, I looked her up. It turned out that she has had cancer – and, moreover, like Mikhaila Peterson, has challenged orthodox medical treatment. In 2016, she wrote for the Guardian about her discovery that “there are ways to ease” the horrors of chemotherapy “that feature in none of the official advice.” Despite her mockery of Mikhaila’s all-meat diet, Aitkenhead herself, in her 2016 article, urged chemo patients to fast, citing an arcane study’s preliminary finding that “periods of severe fasting significantly increased the efficacy of chemotherapy.”
That’s not all. In 2016, Aitkenhead published a memoir, All at Sea, about her ten-year relationship with a man named Tony who couldn’t have been more different from Jordan Peterson. I will quote from it at some length because her relationship with this thoroughly vile fellow is fascinating when viewed in light of her ugly take on Peterson. Tony, she wrote, began his career as “a highly proficient hustler” in Soho, London, where he haunted “the clip joints and late-night illegal drinking dens, promising fictional pornographic beauties to gullible tourists and passing off bags of tea leaves for cannabis, before disappearing into the shadows with pockets crammed full of cash.” After shooting up some pimps and spending five years in prison for it – mostly in solitary because of his hyperaggressive personality – he “became a violent gangster who made a lot of money out of drugs, gunrunning, protection and so forth,” although eventually, after marrying and having a daughter, he “wound up the more ostentatiously lawless aspects of his criminal lifestyle, and confined his business concerns to the discreet wholesale trade of cocaine.” Somewhere along the way he became a crack addict.
Then Aitkenhead entered the picture. She and her husband, Paul, were Tony’s neighbors in London, and while Paul was away in Afghanistan, she and Tony grew intimate. “Why I did not find [his crack addiction] more off-putting was a puzzle,” she claims. But he had such “magnetism.” Also, “charm.” Plus “beauty, mesmerizing to the point of hypnotic.” Aitkenhead even admits that she may have been attracted to Tony not despite but because of his criminality. “I very much hoped it was the former,” she wrote, “and thus pleasing proof of my good liberal credentials. I worried that it could be the latter, and nothing but the cheap thrill of vicarious transgression.”
Of course, the whole thing was a cliché: white lefty journo falls for black “bad boy.” Her attraction to criminals and drugs was hardly a secret: she’d written a whole book, The Promised Land: Travels in Search of the Perfect E (2002), about (to quote a Guardian review) her “global quest for the perfect ecstasy tab,” which led her to some of the seamier corners of South Africa, Thailand, Detroit, San Francisco, and Amsterdam, and into the company of “leading figures in the drug gangs.” Anyway, Tony and Aitkenhead left their spouses and spent ten years together until, on vacation in Jamaica, Tony was swept out to sea while trying to rescue one of their two sons (who survived).
To judge by the testimony of Aitkenhead, the woman who loved him, the best thing you can say about Tony is that he perished while performing a selfless act. But he lived the life of a total creep, profiting from doing great harm to others. In this regard he was the polar opposite of a man like – oh, let’s see – Jordan Peterson. Which raises a question: what to make of a woman like Decca Aitkenhead, whose moral compass appears to point due south? She hooked up – and had two kids – with a total reprobate, knowing that he’d brought pure evil into heaven knows how many lives; but she’s capable of cruelly ridiculing a man who’s done so much good for so many people and who’s still laboriously climbing out of the pit of hell.
How exactly does that work? Is Aitkenhead so defined by the most fatuous and ethically perverse kind of leftist ideology that she’s capable of finding an appealing rebelliousness in a savage monster like Tony but can only be outraged by an extraordinarily sensitive and gentle soul who speaks eloquently about personal responsibility and who openly strives to practice it, even when times are toughest? Does Peterson’s day-to-day struggle to be a better husband, father, friend, teacher, neighbor, and fellow citizen strike too close to home for this woman who wrote a book about her struggle to find the best tab of Ecstasy? Does she experience his very life, which has been focused for decades on helping other people to be better human beings, as a personal rebuke to her own life, which for a long time, anyway, was by her own account focused on the most puerile kind of self-indulgence? Has his determination to dig deeper and deeper into himself, in a preternatural attempt to comprehend, to correct, and to cultivate, shamed her own chronic superficiality?
How else to explain someone who, having lived for ten years with an odious thug like Tony, manages to see Jordan Peterson, of all people, as an embodiment of toxic masculinity?
Or is Aitkenhead, when you come right down to it, just one more supremely callous – indeed, sociopathic – left-wing hack who will destroy anyone to get a juicy story? Maybe it’s really just that. Let’s face it: when you look at what the New York Times and The Washington Post have been doing every day for the last few years, why should any of us be surprised that the Times of London is capable of running a surpassingly disingenuous profile of someone whose greatest offense is being a good man?
Can it be that we owe Aitkenhead, and the Times, a debt of gratitude for showing us just how nakedly hostile the leftist media are, in 2021, to sheer decency?
Investigating Aitkenhead’s background, I ran across one curiosity. A Guardian review by Ian Penman of her Ecstasy book began as follows:
Where is Decca Aitkenhead’s The Promised Land coming from? Is it a drugs book? Traveller’s confessional? Political reportage? All, or none, of the above? There ought to be a German word for it: gimmickschwerk, say. In an ingeniously disingenuous introduction to a determinedly tentative book, Aitkenhead claims that even she doesn’t really know for sure any more.
Reading this, I was reminded immediately of the opening lines of Aitkenhead’s piece on Peterson:
I thought this was going to be a normal interview with Jordan Peterson. After speaking with him at length, and with his daughter for even longer, I no longer have any idea what it is. I don’t know if this is a story about drug dependency, or doctors, or Peterson family dynamics — or a parable about toxic masculinity. Whatever else it is, it’s very strange.
Yes, very strange. Very strange indeed.