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Digital sages

Public intellectuals Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager are speaking powerfully to a young generation trying to find its bearings

Digital sages

Left to right: Peterson, Shapiro, and Prager (Peterson & Shapiro: Mark Peterson/Redux; Prager: Michael Brochstein/Sipa/AP)

The first time Youp Timmer heard Jordan Peterson speak in a YouTube video, he thought his voice sounded like Kermit the Frog’s. And like Kermit, this 56-year-old University of Toronto psychology professor was a skilled communicator, hands gesticulating and brows furrowing as he spoke about personal responsibility and bearing one’s suffering.

At the time, Timmer, a 30-year-old data analyst in Nijkerk, Netherlands, was battling suicidal thoughts, desperately clicking through streams of motivational videos for inspiration to live on—and he says he found it in Peterson. In that video, Peterson was unpacking the meanings behind the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood. Be prepared, he warned, because storms of tragedies are coming. Life, he declared, is “really complex, short, finite, full of suffering, and beyond you.” It doesn’t take much effort to suffer, but if you lie around merely suffering, “then it accumulates. … It turns into the dragon of chaos. It waits until you’re not at your best, and then it eats you.” Timmer was transfixed. Every word from Peterson struck close to heart: He had been doing exactly that—lying depressed, mulling over how he had gotten the job he wanted but still couldn’t find meaning in it. He was struggling with marriage and financial issues, tension with his parents. He felt unhappy and directionless—until he heard Peterson’s challenge: “Pick up your [profanity] cross and walk up the hill.” Yes, life is painful and unjust—“So what are you gonna do about it? Accept it voluntarily and try to transform as a consequence.”

It’s a message that falls far short of the gospel, but it spoke to Timmer. Nobody had been able to reach him in his darkness, not even psychologists or his baby daughter, but for some reason, Peterson did. The way Peterson used Biblical stories to illustrate his points made sense to him: “It felt as though he told me what I knew for a long time, but couldn’t phrase correctly.” Something about the way the man spoke—that straightforward, unapologetic manner, like a stern father to a delinquent son, spiced with a thick Albertan accent and old-fashioned swear words, shook Timmer awake: “I realized I was only making things worse by my own choice.”

From then on, Timmer listened to every Peterson lecture, some more than 10 times. He credits Peterson for saving him from suicide twice, once under suicide watch at the hospital. He set up specific life goals, starting with cleaning up his room. His parents told him he became a more pleasant presence. After being a “very earnest” Muslim for 10 years, he now concludes that Islam is “not the right tool.” He estimates having spent 600 hours poring through Peterson’s materials. And he wonders, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”

Timmer is one of thousands of young people tuning in to Peterson’s lectures, podcasts, interviews, and books. When Peterson went on a global speaking tour across North America and the United Kingdom, many venues (1,000- to 2,000-seat auditoriums; cheapest ticket in Los Angeles was $55) sold out weeks ahead. His new self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a string of essays on how to live one’s life, has already sold more than 700,000 copies in the United States. The book reigns as the No. 1 best-read book on Amazon in North America. He now has more than 790,000 Twitter followers, 340,000 followers on Facebook, more than 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube—and many are willing to support his work financially: Peterson earns about $80,000 a month on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform where “patrons” fund influencers to create content.

Why is a middle-aged guy like Peterson commanding such influence on young minds? To understand the larger movement, I listened to hours of Peterson’s work, read his book, and spoke to about a dozen of his followers ages 22 to 35. I also met with two other influential thinkers, Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro. What I found is that neither Peterson, Prager, nor Shapiro is hawking new truths. Nothing they say is a smack-the-head revelation. Instead, they seek to help people understand what they already know deep within their souls—timeless, elementary, common-grace truths and values that are embedded into our very being, nature, and substrata of consciousness. Their messages won’t save a single soul, but they appeal to people because of the law of God written on the listeners’ hearts.

Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Peterson delivers a lecture during a class at the University of Toronto. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

People have hailed Jordan Peterson as a father figure, a modern-day prophet, a free speech warrior. Stripping all those fancy titles aside, Peterson is a grim-looking Canadian scholar who lectures in a quaint three-piece suit. He was an obscure professor until he criticized a bill in Canada that proposed banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression. He said the bill threatened free speech and was a slippery slope toward totalitarianism. Student activists heckled Peterson on campus, and a video of that confrontation gained millions of views and comments.

Then in January, journalist Cathy Newman attempted to paint Peterson as a misogynist during an interview with him on Channel 4 News. That video attracted more than 10 million views on YouTube, and Peterson’s book soon topped the bestseller charts.

Peterson is obsessed with Jung, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and his house is reportedly a showroom of 20th-century horrors: A massive collection of original USSR propaganda art hangs on every wall, even ceilings and bathrooms—a solemn, grotesque self-reminder of what devastation the pursuit of utopia can wreak.

Peterson’s three-hour lectures center on ideas such as: (1) All human beings are capable of unspeakable evil, especially in the name of good. (2) Change starts with the individual. (3) Ancient stories, from the Bible to Egyptian mythology, hold profound, still-applicable truths about human nature and life. He weaves together social science, neuroscience, his own clinical experiences, Biblical literature, and evolution to present a systematic understanding of the world and us in it. But his theories are not ivory-tower abstractions. He drills those ideas down to practical, traditional values: hard work, personal responsibility, and virtue—hardly the most endearing or sexy subject matters.

Yet those ideas are captivating thousands of fans, mostly young men. They’re flocking into Facebook groups, Reddit chatrooms, and Meetup gatherings to discuss all things Peterson, often spouting “Petersonisms” to encourage and motivate each other, like Bible study group members quoting Scriptures. That’s extraordinary, given this age of postmodernism, ever-chirping 280-character commentaries, and pursuit of instant gratification.

Yes, life is painful and unjust—‘So what are you gonna do about it? Accept it voluntarily and try to transform as a consequence.’

To hear the media describe them, Peterson’s fans are mostly right-wing white males shaking their fists at a new social stratum that no longer benefits them. But the people I spoke to were diverse: They were male and female; white and Asian and Latino and Jewish; self-defined conservatives, moderates, liberals, and apoliticals. They work in fashion, tech, construction, film, music.

Meet Irina Hernandez, for example. Hernandez is a 22-year-old fashion design assistant in Brooklyn who grew up nonreligious. She calls herself “left-leaning” and has a brother with whom she shared a close relationship until they began debating politics. When her brother argued that the wage gap between men and women isn’t a gender issue, “I really started to see him as a bad person,” Hernandez recalled.

Then she watched a YouTube video in which Peterson explains the many variables such as personality, interests, and skills that lead to wage gap. For the first time, Hernandez saw someone “bluntly questioning these ideas and doing it in such a mature and empirical way”—without resorting to ideology. She clicked on more of Peterson’s videos, and spent 50-plus hours listening to him outline the biological and psychological differences between men and women using history, psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and storytelling. Those videos taught her more than all her classes in college combined, she said, and that made her angry: “I felt like before, I was consuming a lot of misinformation.”

A career-driven, “super independent” woman who cared deeply about gender equality, Hernandez said Peterson’s lectures provoked questions about her future: “Do I want marriage? Kids? Women my age, we’re so caught up in being equal … but do I really want to be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company?” Those thoughts changed the way Hernandez dated her then-boyfriend, and now they’re engaged.

But whenever Hernandez tried to talk about Peterson with her more liberal friends, she felt shut down. In the last several months, Peterson has become the No. 1 person the media loves to hate. (When I requested an interview with Peterson, his publicist told me they’re cutting down on media interviews.) Forward magazine published an article titled, “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?” Vox stated that Peterson’s views “weaponize the grievances of the kind of young men attracted to the alt-right.” Current Affairs called Peterson a “tedious crackpot,” and several publications suggested that Peterson is “dangerous.”

Perhaps that’s also why Peterson is so popular: People don’t like being told what to think. They recognize that what Peterson is saying is not only important but makes sense, and when a dominant culture so strongly denounces him as a sexist racist transphobic charlatan, they start to wonder what’s missing in modern society.

Michael Brochstein/Sipa/AP

Shapiro: “I’m not going to be sucked into your tribal mentality.” (Michael Brochstein/Sipa/AP)

THE SAME HOLDS TRUE for former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. He also saw an uptick in Twitter followers and podcast downloads with each big controversy. When he came out as a Never Trumper and castigated the alt-right movement, he became the No. 1 target of anti-Semitic tweets aimed at a journalist. Each time protesters tried to shut down his speech on college campuses (UC Berkeley spent $600,000 on security for Shapiro’s visit), he earned more fans.

When Shapiro first started his news site The Daily Wire, he had five employees. Now he employs 50. The Ben Shapiro Show, a conservative daily talk show program, gets about 350,000 downloads per day on SoundCloud and YouTube each, and up to a million views on Facebook Live—and about 70 percent of the audience is under 35 years old.

I joined the 34-year-old Shapiro at his Sherman Oaks office where he films his show. He was in a rampage mood that day over the media’s “nonsense” coverage of Trump’s comments on MS-13 and stormed into the studio joking about bringing a sledgehammer next time.

He needs no sledgehammer: Once the camera began rolling, Shapiro raged out an hourlong impromptu monologue—with nary a stutter or pause for air—about media bias, the Mueller investigation, and the Israel-Gaza clash, then signed off with a Bible talk segment on Joshua 2:8-11. He did this completely unscripted, letting me peek at his notes: a single page with little more than links to video clips.

Even off-air, Shapiro is constantly interacting with his audience, mostly on Twitter. In between penning articles, visiting his personal trainer, and writing his new book, his thumbs are ever-scrolling through his iPhone, retweeting things he finds interesting, mic-dropping snarky remarks, and responding to both fans and haters. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: Three years ago, Shapiro had about 100,000 followers on Twitter; now he has 1.4 million.

Part of Shapiro’s appeal is his willingness to buck his own conservative party if it violates his principles: “I’m not going to be sucked into your tribal mentality, even if you think I’m part of your tribe. I’m not.” Taking an anti-Trump stance was “a risky move,” but he gained respect from millennials who saw him holding his ground based on values and virtue, not ideology or politics.

Even as a pundit, he presents other people’s arguments against his own views, then explains why he disagrees with them. He says he’s interested in what certain current events imply about society’s deeper values. To explain anti-Israel sentiments, for example, he reviewed the evolution of nationalism over the last 400 years. He recommends highbrow books such as The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas and The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, plays compositions by Bach and Brahms, and provides weekly commentary on the Bible and the Federalist Papers.

That sort of honest intellectualism is attractive to his young audience members, who tell me they’re sick of surface-level political jabberers who saturate the media. Joshua Charles, a 30-year-old writer and historian in Sacramento, said he doesn’t see many “intellectually serious” media personalities in the spotlight. Many pundits “throw out applause lines that their particular audience wants to hear, but they don’t challenge their audience.”

Like Peterson, Shapiro appeals to many millennials because his approach seems less drivel and more brains, less red meat tossing and more enlightenment. In a generation ravaged by divorce and sexual misconduct, he also seems like a clean family guy—the kind who’s notorious for jettisoning men’s poker night for family time. He’s an Orthodox Jew who says he remained a virgin until marriage, and he prays every day, observes Shabbat, and is devoted to his wife and two children.

Though some modern folks might call his values old-fashioned, Shapiro says they should have never become outdated in the first place: “There are eternal, unchanging values that are important to human life, and if we don’t return to these eternal, unchanging human values, we’re destined to be rolling around in the mud.”

Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Prager: “My task is to communicate very old ideas in a fresh way.” (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

BEFORE ANYONE EVER HEARD of Peterson or Shapiro, there was Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host who kick-started his public speaking life as a 21-year-old Jew from Brooklyn. Today, at age 69, he may be the longest-lasting public intellectual. In a time of blustery political talk, Prager rarely raises his voice, preferring to speak in a calm baritone, crack jokes that make even himself chortle, and pontificate about relationships and happiness.

Prager is a large man with a full presence at 6-foot-4. He has a belly-shaking laugh and the kind of genial social adroitness that’s just as comfortable smoking cigars alone in his study humming Brahms as he is asking an immigrant which language she cusses with when she stubs her toe. He has a bad hip and snowy-white hair but also floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with books that keep his mind sharp, expansive, and curious.

Prager, like Peterson, is obsessed with human evil and suffering. Ever since as a 10-year-old he watched a Walter Cronkite program on Hitler, Prager hated evil—and he determined to “influence as many people to do good as possible.” His lifelong goal, then, is to convince as many people as possible to take seriously the Torah, which he calls “the greatest repository of goodness and wisdom in human history.” In fact, Shapiro was a little boy when Prager inspired his parents to attend an Orthodox synagogue and become more religious Jews.

Prager might not be as hip and technologically savvy as Shapiro—he barely uses Twitter and had to ask a 19-year-old production assistant what “LMAO” means—but he’s constantly gazing into the future. He’s the co-founder of PragerU, an online media portal that condenses complex ideas such as racism and climate change into five-minute videos with nifty graphics and diverse presenters such as comedian Adam Carolla, MIT meteorology professor Richard Lindzen, and economics scholar Walter Williams. PragerU’s 300-plus videos have collected more than 1 billion views since its founding in 2009, and about 65 percent of its viewers are under age 35.

Like Shapiro, Prager says day-to-day news doesn’t interest him, and he realized most young people don’t care much for it, either. Rather, they’re interested in “the big issues”—What is good? What is evil? What is true, what is false? What is the meaning of life? “My task is to communicate very old ideas in a fresh way. You have to make it relevant”—and young people respond with hunger “because they don’t hear this elsewhere. They don’t get wisdom, and they don’t know that they even want wisdom, but everyone wants wisdom.”

Prager and Shapiro say wisdom comes from divine revelation, while Peterson prefers to stick to scientific and symbolic language, but all three share a common message: Traditional values exist for a reason. We cannot invent our own values, and we do so at our own peril. Read the Bible, because it reveals important and relevant truths. And people are listening.

Still, when Prager’s new book The Rational Bible: Exodus, a 559-page line-by-line commentary on the Torah, became the second-best-selling book on Amazon for weeks, he called it “the best shock of my life.” He said that with a delighted grin and bright eyes: There’s hope for our civilization yet.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Mon, 07/30/2018 01:22 pm

    Two Jews and an HONEST secular academic have, for years, been shouting that the Leftist Ideological Emperor has no clothes and the young are finally beginning to see it, and the naked Emperor and his minions are furious.  It is similar to the few OT  prophets who had the courage to speak God's harsh word to the Kings who were being told happy lies by hundreds of false prophets who were only concerned about perpetuating their easy positions.

    Apparently Jordan Peterson did extensive psychological research into how the Germans and Russians were able to be talked into committing the horrors of National Socialism and Soviet Communism and he is determined to stand against that type of mindset in the West. His findings are what drove him to stand against the Canadian laws that were recently passed to criminalize the refusal to address a transgendered person by that person's chosen pronouns.  Under the guise of protecting the feelings of the transgendered, the State is compelling speech on the part of another citizen, with the club of the Law.  

  • od1kenob
    Posted: Mon, 07/30/2018 02:30 pm

    I like all of these guys but would add Matt Walsh. He is very similar and a Christian. 

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Mon, 07/30/2018 05:30 pm

    The ancient ways, the permanent things, just won't go away no matter what we do to ignore or eliminate them. Furthermore, this suspicion is buried deep in our souls so it shouldn't surprise us when the latest trends are seen as insufficient. One doesn't need to believe in God to recognize the truth as even the Greek philosophers demonstrated. What a waste of time, energy, and resources our PC behaviors are. And what's worse, what evil they reveal.  

  • rrm
    Posted: Wed, 08/01/2018 12:28 am

    I loved the article but I think it only brushed on one specific thing that all three men have in common. These men do not hide when their opinions are unpopular, but personally strive to find and engage with people of opposing views. They invite them onto their social platforms to have a civil discussion about real topics. (eg. Ben Shaprio even had Sam Harris on his Sunday show!) They are direct and blunt with ideas and concepts, and actively search out people they disagree with; regardless of background.

    They focus on morals, facts, and reason to defeat bad arguements such as uncalled for emmotionally charged and ad hominem attacks, leftism, socialism, and communism. Their boldness in a search for the Truth is ever present, even if they are still in the search for the true God of this world. I want to beable to sit, like Jesus did, and talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, and these individuals often model that behavior.

    Thank you for always trying to search out the Christian people and stories that are often overlooked by the mainstream media. It is one of the things that keeps me coming back to read World Magazine.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 08/06/2018 07:29 pm

    Good observations, rrm.  For example, I have noticed that Mr. Shapiro, who knows how to be snarky, usually responds very civilly to questions at his campus appearances.  (I say usually instead of always because I have not seen all of his appearances.)

  • Lee's picture
    Lee
    Posted: Wed, 08/01/2018 01:41 pm

    Thank you for this insightful article. 

  • redeemed1995
    Posted: Sat, 08/18/2018 10:33 pm

    I have been follow all three of these men, they have good commonsense arguments for the Political Correct madness in this post Christian culture we are living in today. However, our Lord and Savior, Jesus is left out of their lives and arguments. Who would be their Christian counterpart?