The controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, a prominent figure in the so-called "intellectual dark web," thinks that the current run of the Captain America comics are satirizing his ideas by putting them in the mouth of Cap's Nazi nemesis, Red Skull.
After reading the issues in question, I think Peterson is exaggerating his own influence, but he is definitely right that the comic is making fun of people like him: A certain type of internet influencer who wields powerful and dangerous notions of masculinity, tradition, and patriotism to their own benefit and to stoke reactionary fires.
“Do I really live in a universe where Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a Captain American comic featuring a parody of my ideas as part of the philosophy of the arch villain Red Skull?” Peterson said on Twitter.
Yes, Peterson, you do, though I’d take issue with the use of the word “parody.” In the current run of Captain America, Steve Rogers is once again facing his old Nazi nemesis the Red Skull. In his current incarnation, Red Skull uses videos on the internet to whip followers into a frenzy and make them question the American dream.
Coates is an influential writer who focuses on race in America. He’s best known for writing about the history of redlining in the U.S. and making the case for reparations. He’s previously written for the Black Panther comic and is set to write the script for the next Superman film.
In the panels Peterson posted, Cap is talking with a police detective whose brother was lost to an extremist movement.
“So lemme guess—your brother, he disappears onto the internet,” Cap said. “And when he comes back out, he can’t stop talking about this new theory of the world and that theory comes from one man. The Red Skull.”
The panel shows a blank face staring at the glow of a computer monitor. Red Skull is there surrounded by title cards. One is “Ten Rules For Life.” Peterson—a man who subsists entirely on beef, salt and water—has written a best-selling book called 12 Rules for Life, and recently released a follow up called Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life.
Cap’s criticism of the Red Skull YouTube demagogue is precise and perfect, but it applies to a whole category of internet personalities, not just Peterson. Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Roosh V, and former president Donald Trump himself are just a few of the right-wing grifters who used the internet to sell hate, fear, and simple answers. Coates’ version of Red Skull directly and specifically references Peterson’s ideas, but he's just one part of a larger media environment that plays a role in radicalizing young men online.
“He tells them what they’ve always longed to hear," Cap says to the cop with the radical brother. "That they’re secretly great. That the whole world is against them. That if they’re men, they’ll fight back. And bingo—that’s their purpose. That’s what they’ll live for. And that’s what they’ll die for.”
Red Skull is an avowed Nazi villain and Peterson was angry about the comparison. Ben Shapiro chimed in with a bad take of his own.
“The fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates was trying to come up with the most evil supervillain he could and the best he could do is a Canadian psychologist who writes about Jungian analysis and encourages young men to make their beds is pretty telling,” Shapiro said in a tweet. “In our upside-down world, Captain America goes around telling Americans that their country is irredeemably racist and that systemic discrimination is necessary to rectify the past.”
Both Shapiro and Peterson don’t understand Captain America’s post-war legacy at all. Rogers has been a symbolic vehicle for writers to criticize America’s power structures for decades now. When fascism, hate, and demagoguery rear their ugly heads, Rogers will be there in the comic to smack them down and explain why they’re bad.
“Patriotism taken too far is fanaticism. No matter who you are or where you're from,” a fallen Cap tells the villain Nuke Captain America volume 7, issue 14 from 2013. A recurring feature of Captain America comics is Rogers facing off against evil versions of himself—twisted parodies of the American Dream he represents. It’s half his rogues gallery. U.S. Agent, a character currently appearing in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, is a Pentagon backed hot head with none of Cap’s noble qualities. Nuke is a Vietnam veteran turned into a vile bigot by the trauma of the war. Flag Smasher, another recently resurrected villain, is an anarchist take on Cap.
Writers have always portrayed Rogers as a New Deal Democrat, a hero from a forgotten era, the kind of American they don’t make anymore. When conservative thought leaders talk about the glory of America’s past, they’re talking about people like Captain America. Rogers battled Nixon during Watergate, protected civilians against U.S. troops in Vietnam, fought for Civil Rights and once faced down an evil incarnation of himself and delivered a rousing speech to a troubled nation.
“America is nothing without its ideals—its commitment to the freedom of all men—America is a piece of trash,” Rogers said in What If? 44. “A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth! I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great but because it was fragile.”
The other half is people like Red Skull—fascists who manipulate others as part of their will to power. In Coates’ Cap comics, the Red Skull isn’t out in the streets every day, he’s in front of a camera with a skull mask on, pumping hate onto the internet. He knows that the only way he can defeat Captain America is by degrading what he represents.
Part of that plan involves staging massive demonstrations with the wayward men he’s radicalized online. “To his countrymen, Captain America speaks of dreams. He does not understand it’s not the dream that moves men to the boldest of action, but the nightmares,” Red Skull said over panels of flag-faced men rallying in Lansing, Michigan. “For dreams, men die. But for nightmares men kill.” The panels contain Coates’ direct allusion to the January 6 Capitol Riots. Men wearing strange masks and tacticool gear gather in America's capitol, demanding a return to a past that never existed.
When Cap shows up to these demonstrations, Red Skull captures footage of him beating down patriotic protestors and posts them online to discredit him. In another fight, Red Skull poisons Cap and talks about how weak he is over footage of his cronies beating down the superhero. “What has happened to the men of the world is truly one of the great tragedies of our time,” Red Skull said over footage of men beating down Cap. “I offer you the sword of manhood.”
That Petereson’s ideas map so easily onto an 80-year-old Nazi super villain should give the psychologist pause.