Americans breathed a sigh of disappointment last week when the promised super-heavyweight bout between Joe Biden and Donald Trump stalled after the weigh-in trash talk.
“They asked me, would I like to debate this gentleman, and I said no,” Biden said as he stripped to his trunks. “I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’”
“Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy,” Trump replied as he strapped his thumb. “He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”
This pugilistic persiflage reflects everything that is wrong with American politics. There should be more of it. People are half-crazed with partisanship, and they need what the Athenian cornerman Aristotle called the ‘tragic pleasure’ of catharsis. What could be more tragic and pleasurable than the spectacle of Biden, who has a glass jaw and ceramic teeth, and Trump, who loses his breathe climbing onto a golf cart, going at it like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano?
It may be tragic that the entire culture is going the way of WWF. But if that’s where it’s going, then our leaders should show some real leadership and get the gloves on. Voter apathy undermines democracy. Nothing will boost the ratings more than settling policy debates over fifteen rounds toe-to-toe at Caesar’s Palace.
The same goes for culture and the remains of America’s intellectual life. Here too, there are signs of hope. Days after the Trump-Biden rumble, intellectual lightweight Jordan Peterson called out light-middlebrow contender Pankaj Mishra for a rude book review.
Peterson is an old hand at the sweet science, but he leads with his chin. Mishra is a tricky fighter, so passive-aggressive that he floats like a butterfly and stings like one too. He’s been training at high altitude with the New York Review of Books, but many commentators feel that the NYRB’s glove game lacks serious sparring partners. Still, Mishra has form for gouging in the clinch, and this time he landed some nasty rabbit punches.
Peterson had the crowd on his side—mostly alienated young men—but Mishra came out swinging with his opening combination: ‘Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism’.
With Peterson on the ropes, Mishra applied a one-two to Peterson’s flabby midriff: his intellectual lineage. Peterson, Mishra said, is a macho pop Jungian, and so was Jung when he endorsed the Nazis. That second one had to hurt. It might have been below the belt, too.
Next, Mishra swung a haymaker: Peterson is a symptom of the kind of ‘social dissolution’ that previously caused ‘two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust’.
That would be enough to floor most fighters. But Peterson has an unusually thick skull, and he bounced back in the second. “You arrogant racist son of a bitch Pankaj Misha,” he tweeted.
With the claret flowing, Mishra accused Peterson of ‘harmlessly romancing the noble savage’, presumably behind the gym. But Peterson saw him coming, sidestepped, and caught the Indian contender on the chin with a politically-correct rope-a-dope.
“That’s how you refer to my friend Charles Joseph, who I’ve worked with for fifteen years?”
Peterson’s jab stopped Mishra in his tracks. Joseph is a Kwakwaka’wakw wood carver. He’s one of the First People, and Peterson’s house is full of his ethnically impeccable woodwork. He’s been essential to the training regime which has turned an obscure Canadian sociologist into the Norman Mailer of modern letters.
With the left-wing intellectual dazed by cognitive dissonance, Peterson did some carving of his own with a classic right hook: “You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”
Bring it on, we say. Intellectual life hasn’t been this exciting since Gore Vidal pummeled William F. Buckley as a ‘crypto-Nazi’ and Buckley replied with a right-hand cross: “Listen to me, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.
Peterson beat Mishra on points, but the Toronto slugger never put the subcontinental scrapper onto the canvas. We’re already looking forward to the rematch. And though Peterson kept his belt, you might feel both men lost their dignity. Still, nothing new there.
Next week’s card:
WWF favorites Roger Kimball and James Panero of The New Criterion tag-team over museum policy against the board of the Whitney Museum.
Cage-fighting: Steven Pinker and John Gray’s grudge match after Gray’s hostile review of Pinker’s book about the Enlightenment.
A Thai kick-boxing showcase, as toothless veteran Martin Amis takes on every critic in America.