Matthew McConaughey Keeps Flirting With Alt-Right Darlings
The “Dallas Buyers Club” actor, who’s been promoting his book “Greenlights,” most recently appeared on men’s rights activist Jordan Peterson’s podcast this week.
When Matthew McConaughey’s book, Greenlights, debuted last fall, the memoir included an interesting acknowledgement. In the back of the book, McConaughey thanks Jordan Peterson—a controversial Canadian professor and public speaker who has risen to prominence by fearmongering about “political correctness” on college campuses, advocating for men’s rights, and battling a bill meant to protect trans and nonbinary people.
Peterson is just one of several controversial figures who have coalesced in the past few years within the so-called “intellectual dark web”—a lot that also includes podcaster Joe Rogan and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, among others. But that moniker belies the true mundanity of these guys’ belief system—most of them largely spend their time complaining about anything that smacks of “political correctness” and waiting for the yet-t0-be-seen Armageddon that “cancel culture” will surely one day usher in.
For instance: Peterson’s name recognition skyrocketed in 2016, as he misrepresented and fought against Canada’s C-16 bill—which aimed to enshrine protection for gender identity under Canada’s Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed it was totalitarian-oriented legislation that would make misgendering people punishable by law—a provision that was nowhere to be found in the actual legislation. He also stated in a video that he refused to use students’ and fellow professors’ proper pronouns, deeming them “compelled speech.”
So, what’s a guy like Matthew McConaughey—an Oscar winner whose easygoing attitude has allowed his early-career role catchphrase “All right, all right, all right” to follow him for decades—doing reading a twerp like that? Alas, it appears he’s decided that Peterson and his ilk make some good points.
This week, McConaughey appeared on Peterson’s podcast, about a year or so after the actor said he’d begun corresponding with Peterson.
“Many of the things you said I had been thinking about, but I heard you putting them into words and contexts, I was like, Wow, that’s what I’m talking about, that’s what I'm trying to get to,” McConaughey told Peterson. “And a lot of it goes back to self-determination, which we've talked a lot about. Self-authoring.”
“You see a lot of those threads through my book,” McConaughey continued. “Maybe in a different way, in a more folksy way. But a lot of what you’ve said gave me confidence to go, ‘I’m gonna put my story on paper.’ So I thank you for that. And that’s why I thank you in the back of the book.”
In particular, McConaughey said, he connected with Peterson’s ruminations on humility and vulnerability.
Like any podcast conversation, McConaughey and Peterson’s meandered across a variety of subjects—the “wet dreams” that prompted the actor to make trips to the Amazon and Mali, his decision to write a book, and his upbringing. McConaughey noted that after his father died, he learned some information about the man that ran counter to what he’d learned from him growing up.
Soon enough, McConaughey and Peterson were discussing cancel culture—and how imperfect people can still become sources of creativity and enlightenment. That theme has permeated McConaughey’s press tour.
“When I see someone like Louis C.K., for example, pilloried terribly, I think, ‘Well, yeah he did some things that were unseemly—certainly even by his own standards, obviously,’” Peterson said. (For those who need a refresher: that “unseemly” act would be that C.K., by his own admission, masturbated in front of women who’d never consented.)
“So what do we make of that?” Peterson continued. “Well, there's plenty of people who do unseemly things but not—but very few of them are as masterful a comedian as Louis C.K. So do we want to lose him because he’s flawed?”
“Right,” McConaughey replied.
“It seems inappropriate, because we’d lose everybody that way,” Peterson said. “And then we just have loss. That’s not helpful.”
“Yes. Yes!” McConaughey said. “I mean, I think you’re leaning into a lot of what we call cancel culture today. You know, in the name of rehabilitation, we have to have a world in which we are able to grow and evolve, if that’s what we’re trying to do. Now... I’m not for repeat offenders or tyrants, but if someone screws up and they have sincere—they sincerely want retribution (sic), I think it’s fair to give...”
“I mean, it better be,” Peterson said. “Because otherwise we’re all doomed.”
Louis C.K., for the record, waited less than a year after apologizing for what he did before he came back with sets that pandered to the alt-right—bashing the Parkland shooting survivors, mocking gender identity, and, later, joking about sexually harassing women. You’ll be shocked to learn that neither Peterson nor McConaughey opined on that during this discussion.
It might seem somewhat surprising that McConaughey’s book tour has offered a platform for people like Peterson to fret over comedians’ right to jerk off in front of whoever they want, so long as they make sure to issue a quick apology afterward. But then again, the actor’s past comments about Hollywood’s disdain for Trump—and his more recent complaints about the “illiberal left” last winter—might have offered a hint of where things were headed.
In 2017, days after Donald Trump signed his “Muslim ban,” the BBC published a video interview in which Scottish journalist Andrew Marr asked McConaughey whether it’s time for Hollywood to give Trump a “break.”
“Well, they don’t have a choice now,” McConaughey said of Trump’s critics in Hollywood. “He’s our president. And it’s very dynamic, and as divisive of an inauguration and time that we’ve ever had. At the same time, it’s time for us to embrace, shake hands with this fact, and be constructive with him over the next four years.”
“So anyone, even those who most strongly may disagree with his principles and those things he’s said and done—which is another thing, we’ll see what he does compared to what he had said—no matter how much you even disagreed along the way, it’s time to think about how constructive you can be, because he’s our president for the next four years, at least,” McConaughey concluded. “President of the United States.”
Breitbart was thrilled with this response; others weren’t so ready to normalize the newly elected bigot in the White House. Speaking with The Daily Beast a year later, McConaughey reluctantly addressed the firestorm that his comments and their subsequent coverage had birthed: “What I said, or thought I said, is that people were in denial and we have to accept the fact that he’s president,” he said.
Since then, it appears McConaughey has become wary of speaking openly about Trump—but he hasn’t eased up on his criticisms of Hollywood’s “elite,” and especially what he loves to call the “illiberal left.”
The first controversy came in early December, when McConaughey preached the value of “aggressive” centrism on Russell Brand’s podcast, framing it as a dare.
“There is a lot on that illiberal left that absolutely condescend, patronize or are arrogant towards that other 50 percent,” McConaughey said, adding once more that many in the industry were in denial about the election.
“Well now you’ve got the right that’s in denial... and I understand they’ve been fed fake news. No one knows who the hell to believe, right? So they’re putting down their last bastion of defense.”
That “last bastion of defense” for the right turned out to be an armed insurrection at the Capitol fueled by Trump and the alt-right’s insistence, despite the absence of even a shred of evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen. It’s hard to imagine how, precisely, one might find a morally defensible centrist “middle ground” between liberalism and white nationalism, but McConaughey has stayed fast in his insistence that we try anyway.
During a December appearance on Good Morning Britain, which published days after the Brand podcast, McConaughey told hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, “We need liberals. What I don’t think we need is illiberals. What I don’t think some liberals see is they’re being cannibalized by the illiberals. There are extremes on both sides that I think are unfair… the extreme left and extreme right completely illegitimize (sic) the other side. They exaggerate the other side’s stance into an irrational state that makes no sense. That’s not fair.”
“You’ve got to have confrontation to have unity,” McConaughey added later. “That’s when a democracy works really well. I would argue we don’t have true confrontation right now—confrontation that gives some validation and legitimizes the opposing point of view. We don’t give a legitimacy or validation to an opposing point of view, we make it persona non grata, and that’s unconstitutional.”
This echoed other interviews McConaughey had previously given with hosts including British comedian Russell Howard and, yes, Joe Rogan, who welcomed McConaughey as a guest last October.
McConaughey’s appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience does not feel quite as left-field as his amity toward Jordan Peterson. Plenty of Hollywood personalities—including Dan Aykroyd, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Kroll, and Edward Norton—have sat down with the mega-popular host. One could argue that all of this is harmless—but then again, celebrities’ presence on Rogan’s program only enhances his ability to launder bad ideas from dangerous people when they appear on the show. Rogan treats all his guests with the laid-back attitude of a stoner shooting the shit in his living room—which is fine when a celebrity is chewing over some stale cultural malaise, but less fine when he’s, say, offering alt-right hatemonger Milo Yiannopoulos a platform to defend hebephilia.
At one point during their two-hour interview, Rogan asked McConaughey if he’s had trouble navigating the entertainment industry as a Christian. The actor said he’d never had much trouble but noted that at times, he’s noticed people he’s prayed with before dinner stop themselves from clapping when he thanked God on stage.
That’s when, once again, the “cancel culture” and “illiberal left” boogeymen reappeared.
“Some people in our industry… go to the illiberal left side so far that it’s so condescending and patronizing to 50 percent of the world that need the empathy that the liberal side gives, and should give, to throw somebody—illegitimize them because they say they are a believer,” McConaughey told Rogan, echoing his interview with Brand. “It’s just so arrogant and in some ways hypocritical to me.”
McConaughey and Rogan’s conversation also raised some points that could be harmful on their own. For instance, while discussing Austin’s development as a major city—where McConaughey attended acting school and now serves as Culture Minister—Rogan asked the actor how he felt about “Defund the Police.”
McConaughey, like many on both sides of the aisle, complained that the name does not fully encompass the concept of reallocating funds—before sharing that he believes the entire proposition appears under-researched.
“The community and the police, and not just in Austin and all over… need to get back together,” McConaughey said. He referenced the “bad apples” trope, arguing that the problem with police boils down to a combination of a few bad cops and inadequate training. (As plenty of people and organizations, including The Brookings Institute, have argued this year, the problem is far broader and more ingrained than that.)
“A few of these bad apples need to be removed,” McConaughey said. “But they also—we need to make sure we’re training them better. Now, also, the cops need to go to the communities and go, ‘Can y’all remember and understand our point of view? That we’re like, the tow truck driver. We’re not called when there’s good news… So we’re already under stress if we even get a call.’”
Regarding cities like Austin, which have begun the process of defunding their police departments, McConaughey later added: “I don’t know if we really had a bird in hand when we made the change.” He wondered aloud whether there have been any successful examples of such strategies in the past. “Have we seen them be improvements?” he said. “I don’t know. So hopefully we’ll see if this is just sort of guinea-pigging the idea, we’ll see how it works.”
Rogan threw in his opinion that calls to defund the police are largely a “popular social sentiment that people are repeating because it puts you in this ideology of a person who cares and is progressive, but I don’t think it’s ever been fleshed out.” (Angela Davis, who has been advocating to defund the police for decades, might beg to differ—as might scholars who have been doing the research and writing books on the subject for years.) The host later repeated a Trumpian talking point, claiming that homicides, burglaries, and armed robberies have risen in New York as a result of efforts to defund the NYPD—which has been debunked.
One might fairly ask why a celebrity and podcast host’s apparently uninformed opinions on police policy should matter; after all, they’re not the ones signing anything into law. But rightfully or not, figures like Rogan and McConaughey do wield tremendous influence over their fans—so as casual as these conversations might be, they can do real harm when they help reinforce notions that simply do not hold up to scrutiny.
To be clear, I am not advocating to “cancel” Matthew McConaughey for these appearances, or any of the views he’s expressed therein. (Whatever that even means.) I am not suggesting a boycott of The Joe Rogan Experience, or a snarky tweet campaign. But I do wish that McConaughey and the so-called “dark web” would engage a little more deeply with the opposing side of these arguments.
The issue with “cancel culture,” to the extent that one even exists, is not that anyone is, to borrow McConaughey’s neologism, “illegitimizing” what these guys are saying. The Jordan Petersons and Joe Rogans of the world are not, as they so often complain, being persecuted or, as McConaughey put it in his Russell Howard interview, erased. They’re simply peddling the losing ends of arguments that have already occurred countless times—perpetuating a culture war while simultaneously trying to frame themselves as its victims.
Whatever wisdom McConaughey has found in Peterson’s work, the fact remains that Peterson also blatantly mischaracterized legislation aimed at protecting trans and nonbinary people. Whatever thoughts Peterson might have on “humility” that so connected with McConaughey, the fact remains that Peterson seems to think of himself as the sole arbiter of whose identity is and is not worth treating with respect. To say that one should consider Peterson’s work within this context—and perhaps think twice before hailing him as a god-tier “intellectual”—is not censorship, but basic critical thinking.
In an incisive, overarching review of Peterson’s work published in 2018, Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson noted that for all his hemming and hawing, Peterson’s writing and interviews demonstrate how little he seems to actually understand about the movements he so often criticizes. But as Robinson posits, understanding does not appear to be the point.
“Peterson is popular partly because he criticizes social justice activists in a way many people find satisfying, and some of those criticisms have merit,” Robinson wrote. “He is popular partly because he offers adrift young men a sense of heroic purpose, and offers angry young men rationalizations for their hatreds. And he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.”
The failings of one side of an argument do not automatically imply validity on the other, and as Robinson acknowledges, the left certainly has problems of its own. But “illiberalism” is a red herring, one that intellectually dishonest people use to bash people with whom they disagree without ever having to make an effort to understand their arguments. If McConaughey, Peterson and others really want to have meaningful conversations, they might start by re-thinking this useless smear.