I realize that I will probably be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel here. Admiral McRaven doubtless means well in a tough-talking sitcom high-school assistant principal sort of way. If he were working in a vacuum, I would say live and let live. But Make Your Bed is only one example of a flourishing genre of pseudo-hardass commentary that is exercising a massive influence over young men in the English-speaking world. Like McRaven, the Canadian academic psychologist-turned-YouTube superstar Jordan Peterson seems to be under the impression that rote performance of mundane tasks (“Clean your room” in the professor’s case) coupled with a kind of vague meta-obsession with purpose for its own sake is a catch-all solution for any number of postmodern afflictions. Joe Rogan, the tattooed podcaster whose stock-in-trade is telling his followers what they should think about whiskey and the keto diet, is another.
I have no doubt that the Petersonists are responding to a real need felt by their audience. The question is whether their answers are the right ones. I am not at all convinced that what lonely disaffected male millennials need to hear most is that performative masculinity will make them feel happy or fulfilled. As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of American men who, under the influence of these no-BS masculinist gurus, have learned to confuse selecting the perfect razor and using it correctly with a sense of vocation. It is all of a piece with the alt-right; indeed as far as its political ramifications go, it might as well be considered the same phenomenon — a retooled social conservatism in which the issues at stake are not abortion or same-sex marriage but complaints about whining SJWs and “political correctness.” The average Petersonist is teaching himself how to use tools and getting really into evolutionary biology and lifting and will tell you all about it over a cigar or a glass of bourbon in his backyard (assuming that he has one).
One of the most tiresome things about the age of “hot takes” is what I think of as “performative quibbling” — making the most of trivial disagreements in order to distinguish oneself. As far as I can tell, the only thing that truly unites these, uh, “Petersonists” is that they put too much emphasis on the necessity and benefits of personal discipline for Walther’s taste (though they also have large audiences, which naturally stirs envy, especially among hack writers for online political tabloids). If that makes them “alt-right” — a term which has clearly become utterly worthless due to rhetorical hyperinflation — then I fear a lot of us will find ourselves classified as Nazi-adjacent before long. At any rate, Walther goes on to assure us that he does have concerns about the robustness and capability of young men today, but if he has a better answer for them than the, uh, Petersonists, he couldn’t squeeze it in under his word count. Milquetoasts to the left of him, meatheads to the right; in between, in the “reasonable middle ground,” stands our hero, thoughtfully stroking his chin, gazing off into the middle distance, sighing over the sheer complexity of it all. I’m reminded of an old XKCD punchline: “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.”