Nietzsche writes in the first section of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.” Possibly foreshadowing the innumerable misinterpretations and false generalizations that politically-minded individuals will be determined to make out of the philosopher’s writings in the generations to come.
The most useful interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics is to simply reject the notion that the man had any clear political inclination to begin with, or at least not any that fit clearly within the political models commonly made reference to in his day, or ours. Indeed, over the past few decades, academia has done its best to instil just such a post-political framework into Nietzschean philosophy. Unfortunately, the effort has yet to trickle down to the self-styled public intellectuals, who have cleverly deduced that context-void quotations, from context-heavy philosophers, make for a more digestible expression of their own personal ideologies than actual self-reflection (why bother thinking about defenses for your own position on sociopolitical matters, when someone long dead has already done all the work for you, right?).
Now, since there is little point disputing the fact that Nietzsche directly called himself anti-political (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 3), the only reasonable question left to consider is what sort of political implications a person might be justified in deriving from the philosopher.
Above all else, if there is one consistent fact that must be understood about Nietzsche’s relations to the politics of his day, it’s that (in stark contrast to many of his claimed admirers today) the man loathed and ridiculed everything associated with his native Germany; from its culture right down to its cuisines:
Against the Germans I here advance on all fronts: you’ll have no occasion for complaints about “ambiguity.” This utterly irresponsible race which has on its conscience all the great disasters of civilizations and at all decisive moments of history had something “else” on its mind / now has “the Reich” on its mind—this recrudescence of petty state politics and cultural atomism (from NIETZSCHE’S LETTER TO OVERBECK, October 18, 1888).
Only the complete worthlessness of our German education—its “idealism”—explains to me to some extent why at precisely this point I was backward to the point of holiness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever, Section 1).
The German climate alone is enough to discourage strong, even inherently heroic intestines (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 2).
The few cases of high culture I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 3).
The Germans are incapable of any notion of greatness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 4).
The way I am, so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).
As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).
This is just a small sample of the disdain Nietzsche repeatedly expresses for his place of origin in his writings.
It is a clear reflection of the philosopher’s rejection of ideological identification, illustrated by his extensive attacks on what he considered to be the most evident of its mindless incarnations: the growing sentiment of German nationalism in the late 19th century. To Nietzsche this sentiment represented the antithetical of critical thought, and he was not shy about using the grand image of its idolatry (i.e. the German “Reich”) as the irredeemable symbol of all things decadent in modern civilization. Thus, it becomes highly ironic to consider how in popular thought today the man has been cast into the same ranks with nationalists and fascists, and their wannabe modern descendants; not to mention the bemusing fact that many of these nationalists and fascists will ignorantly promote Nietzsche as their intellectual muscle—bearing to all just how sickly and illiterate their cognitive fitness truly is.
Very well, Nietzsche has no place in nationalist politics, or any traditional Left/Right political spectrum. But what about something less categorically restrictive? After all, Nietzsche talks a lot about individualism, and the need for self-creation, doesn’t this give credence perhaps to anarchist thinkers, or (on a more moderate tone) at least libertarians? In short, no. Just as people make the mistake of radicalizing Nietzsche in with fascist-crackpots, the folly of romanticizing the man as some sort of idol of individual strength and responsibility would be equally mistaken.
At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not about individualism, nor does he promote the notion of self-governance; what he really aimed at was to promote the message that one must be strong enough to conceive reality as it is, for “only in that way man can attain greatness” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am A Destiny,” Section 5). Following a political narrative would have been pure poison to Nietzsche’s program, as the parameters of any such narratives are by definition restricted solely to the acceptable party platforms.
As far as individualism goes, the man clearly states in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule” (“On Old and New Tablets”). It is true that Nietzsche believed that society placed too many restrictions on the individual, but it is also true he considered human society to be a long trial, with the herd-mentality being an innate manifestation for most people. Nietzsche’s rejection of free will (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 6; also see Nietzsche on Free Will) leaves no room for personal self-improvement. You are either one who rules or you are with the herd, hence to act in any other way than your innate nature dictates for you to act would be nonsensical to Nietzsche. Most the majority of us, we cannot and we will not, rise above our herd-minded instincts, according to Nietzsche, hence a political model celebrating individualism (or emphasis on individual responsibility) would have have seemed self-defeating to the philosopher.
The point of the matter is that you simply cannot defend your political ideology through anything Nietzsche wrote, without negating one or more important aspects of his broader philosophy. And, on that note, you shouldn’t want to. And shouldn’t need to waste time defending your convictions by desperately attaching them to the musings of any one philosopher or another. As is the repeated theme throughout this article, Nietzsche is not someone to be admired or canonized to an infallible guru status. Like all thinkers, past and present, he is to be examined and scrutinized, allowing little to no romantic idolatry to cloud one’s judgment.
Whatever politics you personally support you are to defend it by the merit of its own tenets, not by the virtues you think some third party would approve of. Especially, not by the virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would no doubt instinctively scoff at and ridicule any such attempt.
Throughout the history of American cinema in the 20th Century film narratives served as a decent reflection of where the general public consensus stood in regard to America’s domestic or foreign affairs. Westerns in particular played a vital role in being able to encapsulate the nation’s mood, and broaden it by promoting a nostalgic wanting for the country’s simpler, if largely mythical, frontier past.
Although the initial tone of this cultural molding was done in favor of the American ideal by the likes of John Ford and Michael Curtiz, the impact of Vietnam, the collapse of President Johnson’s Great Society, and the near universal betrayal felt by the nation through the Watergate scandal, all worked together to gradually shift the tone in the public consciousness, and as a result, the movie narrative right along with it. John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York is the culminating product of this trend, set in a dystopian American in the not too distant future (1997), the once heralded ideals of lawfulness, respect and responsibility in governance has vanished, leaving less than a handful of individuals who still embody the true rugged sense of American virtue.
The film begins by introducing the audience to the events that have led up to the dire world America has found itself in. In 1988, the crime rate has risen by 400% (no doubt an allusion to the growing crime rate seen in American urban centers in the 1970s), and Manhattan island, of the once great city of New York, has been turned into a maximum security prison to keep the dangerous forces of society at bay. Left to roam on their own in the streets of Manhattan, the thugs, murderers, and crazies, forge a Hobbesean social order in their own image, which while confined, is ultimately without constraints.
The central plot of the movie is a symbolic parallel of the disillusionment Americans have been experiencing towards their government for the better part of the preceding decades, and what happens when the authorities responsible for creating such an environment find themselves at the receding side of the contempt they have created.
In the film, the President of the United States is forced to crash land in the Manhattan prison-state after his plane is hijacked by the anti-government terrorist group National Liberation Front, from which point on he is left at the mercy of the criminals running the area (primarily the self-appointed Duke of New York). Both of these casual events are brought about from the policies the President himself either enacted or was associated with through the system that helped foster it. Therefore, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for the man, a message Carpenter may have intended on the grounds that he opted to keep the character nameless throughout the plot, leaving him to be the ideal bureaucratic representation of any and every administrative and legislative figure of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, the protagonist is the rogue fugitive Snake Plissken, whose role in trying to save the President is one of staunch reluctance brought on through outright entrapment by the state authorities; a strong nod to the fuming Vietnam draft generation.
Whereas in the past the heroes of cinema, in particular Westerns, fully displayed a sense of idealist fervor towards protecting and living up to the quasi-mythical notion of what America is and ought to be, Plissken shows no such romantic illusions. The sub-plot of having to rescue the President in time for him to attend a summit with the USSR and China to divulge information on nuclear fusion, vaguely explained as vital for “the survival of the human race,” is treated with utter disinterest by Plissken who sees his own personal survival as being of far greater importance than the political quarreling between despots.
This general mood is a clear indication of the cynicism the American public had been feeling about its government, and the breakdown of the American myth in cinema signaled an end to “the sanctioning of ‘cowboy’ or vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to ‘to do what a man’s gotta do.’” However, rather than disappear completely, the envoy of the American spirit was simply transferred from the national scale to the disgruntled individual, which is what Plissken’s character is meant to signify. He was a war hero, turned criminal in a country that is probably unrecognizable to him from the one he once fought for, and possibly once believed in. Hence, the old nostalgia characteristic of the Western is still present, but the prospect for hope in the future has been extinguished.
Snake Plissken is easily recognized by every character he happens to run into on his rescue mission in New York, often being met with the bemused statement, “I heard you were dead.” To which he once tellingly responds, “I am.” If Plissken is meant to be the stand-in for the American public at large in the midst of a corrupt, disengaged social order, than as the remaining glow of what was once the shining light of American values, the aforementioned greeting takes on a highly pessimistic overtone. “In a healthy society the political and cultural leaders are able to repair and renew that myth by articulating new ideas, initiating strong action in response to crisis, or merely projecting an image of heroic leadership.”
But in the dystopian society Escape from New York depicts, the political leadership is not so much portrayed as too tyrannical to project a heroic image, but too impotent to even attempt it. The President is easily kidnapped, and his life is held at the will of the lowest sectors of society, and even with all the vast resources of the nation unable to do anything about it; this is not an image of a power that has over-asserted its might, but the measly shadow of a tamed and defanged creature. The fate of the country and the world is at stake and the people (or person, in Plissken’s case) are too disillusioned to give a damn.
The final conversation Plissken has with the President after rescuing him is the most revealing, as Plissken asks him, “We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. How do you feel about that?” Coming from Plissken this sort of curiosity is interesting, because it shows that behind the cynicism and lost hope there is still at least a memory of a former ideal, when such things may have seemed to matter. Of course, the President’s response of mindless political rhetoric only works to further cement the disgust Plissken has for the public figures running the country. A sentiment many Americans in 1981 would have easily identified with.
In contrast to similar movies like Deathwish, which explore the widespread cynicism prevalent in America in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York leaves the viewer with no foreseeable remedy for the decadent situation. In fact, judging by the act of sabotage by Plissken against the President’s urgent message to the other superpowers of the world, the message Carpenter appears to be trying to convey is that although things are bad now, things will get worse, with no prospect of recapturing the optimism of a bygone era. No doubt resonating fears in the audience of an imminent last man scenario, where the cherished ideals of yesterday are not just fading away, but ultimately not worth fighting for.
Never in the history of the United States have we had a sitting President refuse to give a clear answer to the question of whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of powers were he to lose the election. Donald Trump has repeatedly, and unambiguously made reference to the fact that any outcome in the election which does not declare him the victor should be considered illegitimate, simply because he cannot accept the possibility of him losing the final vote count. This is not normal, acceptable behavior for someone occupying the highest office in the land.
Come next week, it will either be President Biden or President Trump who will be declared the President of the United Stated for the next 4 years. We can cry about our lackluster options all we want, but there is no legitimate third option to choose from in our current election system, and this fact won’t change within the next few days. Anyone who identifies politically with the left (to whatever degree), who thinks that another 4 years of Trump is preferable or equal to a Biden presidency, because of some ideological purity test about needing your political agenda realized all at once or not all, is someone who gives zero shits about actually affecting positive progressive change in this country, or the people they purport to be advocating for in the first place.
With Biden, progressives and left-wingers will still need to work hard to enact reforms and bring about the sociopolitical change we want to see, but at least we have a chance to put political pressure on him and fight for a seat at the table. With Trump, not only is there no seat for us, there isn’t even a damn table! There’s only a podium serving as a bully pulpit from which rights keep getting threatened that have already been fought for and won.
If you lean even slightly to the left, and haven’t voted yet, I implore you to do so this coming Tuesday. Before any reform to the system can be implemented, some sense of normalcy and sanity has to be restored first, and readily handing the presidency over to a man who openly boasts that only election results favorable to him are acceptable, who repeatedly demonizes half the population who happens to politically disagree with him, who had shown careless disregard for public health, and can’t help himself but incite hate and spread misinformation on the topic (and just about every other topic he speaks on), is the worse evil of the choices given that should not be enabled, even passively.
A lot of what passes for Nietzsche’s image in popular thought is a caricature of what was constructed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the 1930s (largely with the help of the philosopher’s own nationalistic, anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth). Of course, if blame is to be assigned, then it is only fair to point out that much of the misinterpretations surrounding Nietzsche stems from the man’s own insistence on expressing his views in rather quick, often intentionally obscure musings and aphorisms, leaving his ideas wide open to be bastardized by opportunistic ideologues.
The reality is that even though it takes little effort to sanction an elitist system through Nietzsche’s philosophy, the actually details that accompany the man’s anti-egalitarian values—namely, anti-politics, anti-nationalism [especially anti-German], anti-group/herd mentality—are by definition incompatible with the belligerent, conformist, nationalistic, fascism inherent to the Third Reich’s state ideology. Nietzsche views on the notion of nationalities and personal identities (and the often times conflicted dynamics between the two), reveal a much more complex and nuanced perspective than the picture that has been (still is) often presented of him as the patron saint of Nazism.
In Part Eight of Beyond Good and Evil (1886), titled “Peoples and Fatherlands”, Nietzsche outlines his analysis of European and Western development, and critiques the modern move towards democratic institutions as a step towards the cultivation of a true tyranny. Nietzsche comments that the tribal affiliations that once dominated Europe are eroding away in favor of a more borderless sentiment amongst the hitherto disconnected people:
The Europeans are becoming more similar to each other / an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man is gradually coming up, a type that possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum art and power of adaptation as its typical distinction.
For Nietzsche, this development is a direct result of the advent of modernity, and modern ideas, which has made a person’s allegiance to a trifling tribe or nation unsatisfactory in light of modern man’s greater awareness of the world. Thus, a grander identity is needed, and a newer, more encompassing, international personal ideology is required to escape the limitations of the narrow worldview of one’s regional clan. Moreover, as identities and ideologies extend beyond the old local boundaries, a person’s interests will also evolve from the tribal group to the global. Politically, one possible result from all of this will be the development of a pluralistic society, out of which democracy will ascend as a means of appeasing the diverging—and converging—interests arising amongst the new, modern populace. It is within this context, Nietzsche argues, that democracy is born.
Nietzsche understands how this rise of democracy is looked upon as a great progress by contemporary society, but the philosopher himself is wary of the implications that such a system holds for humanity, stating that “this process will probably lead to results which would seem to be least expected by those who naively promote and praise it, the apostle’s of ‘modern ideas.’” Nietzsche is distrustful of populist inclinations, because it unduly gives credence to the degenerate, weaker persons of society to regress the progress of the more innovative value-creators, who will be forced to reside amongst the lowly plebeian masses. This sentiment is directly tied in with Nietzsche’s thesis on the dichotomy of master-slave moralities, the relevant part of which can be summarized as follows:
Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.
The democratization of society is to Nietzsche a move towards the promotion of mediocrity. It will condition us to be content with the will of others as reasonably equivalent to our own, instead of asserting our own interest in opposition to the whims of the masses. In short, our strive to achieve a more egalitarian mindset, will leave us too eager to be content with compromises with positions we fundamentally disagree with, rendering us potentially incapable of identifying and combating the ascension of any tyrannical entity that might see fit to stealthily encroach its power over our person:
The very same new conditions that will on the average lead to the leveling and mediocritization of man—to a useful, industrious, handy, multi-purpose herd animal—are likely in the highest degree to give birth to the exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality.
Nietzsche proposes that in a society where the primary aim is to create unanimous equality, the ultimate result will be to create an environment of obstinate complacency (the greatest form of oppression that can be leveled against a thinking person). All this will in turn lead to the sweeping infantilizing of the individual, making her/him dependent on the body of the system as a whole for her/his survival, rather than one’s own strength and merit. A trend that will lead to a population “who will be poor in will, extremely employable, and as much in need of a master and commander as of their daily bread.”
However, the degeneration will not be universal amongst all individuals. Nietzsche explains that “while the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense, in single, exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before.” According to Nietzsche, in nature there exist those who can only dominate by virtue of their own values, and those who can only be dominated as a result of their inability to create values (hence, they must leach off of the values of others). These two groups do this by the presence of their will to power, that is to say, the very nature of their existence. As long as they exist, they cannot choose to act differently than the manner in which their nature—i.e. their will to power—dictates.
The problem Nietzsche sees with modernity is that our egalitarian-minded moral system has turned all of this upside-down, allowing for the weaker plebeian caste (who cannot create any values of their own) to dominate the environment on which the stronger noble caste (the natural value-creators) are cultured to stoop to the level of the very masses they should be dominating. This causes a dilemma for those few contemporary men born possessing the noble character trait, where their instinct (their will to power) tells them to reject the moral values of their surroundings and create their own moral values, but their conscience (indoctrinated by the slave mentality of the lowly masses controlling the moral discourse) tells them that subverting their own will in benefit of the herd is the highest virtue of the good modern man. Thus, when any individuals do inevitably rise above the masses (because, in Nietzsche’s view, the masses cannot help but unwittingly condition themselves to be dominated by some sort of master), the resulting value-creators who ascend to power will be as much a perversity of the noble character, as the degenerate culture that has produced them; what will ensue is absolute tyranny:
I meant to say: the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants—taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual.
Reading these dire statements by Nietzsche through the privileged viewpoint of the 21st century, an observer would be justified to marvel at the prophetic nature of the philosopher’s words in predicting the rise of the totalitarian systems that would follow a few decades after his death.
The rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany appeared to emerge out of relatively democratic phases in both nations’ histories. Likewise, the 1917 October Revolution in Russia that brought to power the Bolshevik faction in the unstable country was enabled by the indecisiveness of the democratically-minded Provisional Government that arose from the 1917 February Revolution. In all of these examples the presence of a democratic political institution did not hinder the advent of repressive totalitarian regimes. Moreover (Nietzsche might argue), the presence of said democracies were instrumental in opening the door to these malignant forces, by having no mechanism by which to eject them from the political process besides the whims of a broken, infantilized population (whom Nietzsche describes as being “prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense”).
However, if one wants to be critical about the possibly prophetic nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it would also be apropos to point out that this sort of historical analysis is more the result of selective reasoning then objective inquiry. After all, it is equally true that every single one of the European democracies that yielded the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, were themselves preceded by non-democratic political entities, whose infrastructure crumbled despite their lack of concern for creating an egalitarian society. Furthermore, if the oppression of the totalitarian models of the last century are to be blamed on the insufficiency of the democratic institutions that preceded them, than consistency demands for us to also blame the insufficiencies of these democratic institutions on the failures of the aristocratic power structure that preceded them; and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.
A better way to approach Nietzsche’s position here, is to consider that the philosopher may not be referring to political power at all, but a psychological development: “I hear with pleasure that our sun is swiftly moving toward the constellation of Hercules—and I hope that man on this earth will in this respect follow the sun’s example?” Hercules, of course, is the Roman demigod who is described as having returned from the underworld, and eventually ascended to the realm of the gods by virtue of his strength and valor—a character whose legend for Nietzsche must have served as a fitting representation of the philosopher’s will to power. The fact that Nietzsche states the reference as a question indicates that he was doubtful of the development of man to follow the example set forth by the Roman demigod.
I mentioned before that Nietzsche popular image is heavily, and unjustifiably, linked with Nazism. The falsity of this supposition is verified by Nietzsche’s own rejection of the purity of the German people, a sentiment that is antithetical to Nazi ideology: “The German soul is above all manifold, of diverse origins, more put together superimposed than actually built.” To Nietzsche the idea that Germany is to be cleansed of foreign elements is an absurdity in and of itself, since all things German (for him) are a mixture of originally non-German elements [a truth that I personally believe aptly pertains to all nations and ethnicities]. Nietzsche views the German nationalism emerging in his time as a result of an undefined people attempting to become a coherent identity; it is a compensation for a fault, which in its path “is at work trying to Germanize the whole of Europe” [a statement that perhaps once again hints at Nietzsche’s “prophetic” qualities in predicting the coming decades].
The most surprising fact to anyone whose opinions of Nietzsche have been largely shaped by the man’s false impression as a Nazi-precursor is the philosopher’s staunch abhorrence of European anti-Semitism. Nietzsche seems to understand the potential for his writings to be utilized by opportunistic anti-Semites, causing him to purposefully herald the Jewish people as a superior specimen, in contrast to the anti-Semites who seek to expel them from the continent:
The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions), by means of virtue that today one would like to mark as vices.
The irony here is that Nietzsche is attributing to the Jewish peoples every positive quality the anti-Semitic nationalists of Europe wish to attribute onto themselves. Just how much of this is motivated by Nietzsche’s preemptive desire to separate himself from the bigoted views of some of his potential admirers is an open question, but what is certain is the philosopher’s complete denunciation of the conspiratorial propaganda the anti-Semites are eager to spread into public consciousness:
That the Jews, if they wanted it—or if they were forced into it, which seems to be what the anti-Semites want—could even now have preponderance, indeed quite literally mastery over Europe, that is certain; that they are not working and planning for this is equally certain.
In other words, Nietzsche is of the opinion that if the Jewish people were as eager for world domination as the anti-Semites claim, they would already be dominating the world by now. The fact that they are neither planning nor interested in this is evident by the continued harassment they have to endure by people who claim (and have been claiming for a good few centuries now) to constantly be a knife-edge away from “Jewish-dominance.” Instead, Nietzsche suggests that the history of the Jewish people in Europe indicates a desire to want to at long last be accepted within the public realm:
Meanwhile they want and wish rather, even with some importunity to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe; they long to be fixed, permitted, respected somewhere at long last.
Even going so far as to insist that to achieve the long overdue inclusion of the Jewish people “it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semite screamers from the country.” I mentioned before the possibility that Nietzsche’s motivation for writing this screed against the anti-Semites of Europe is directly tied in with his desire to counterattack any possible conflation between his views and the views of some of his more questionable admirers (it was a move that, while well-intentioned, proved futile in the long run).
A more intellectual challenge that can be issued on Nietzsche’s passionate defense of the Jewish people, is the seeming contradiction it creates with the man’s staunch attacks against religion, in particular against Abrahamic monotheism, of which Judaism is the founding faith. A reasonable counter Nietzsche could make is that nowhere in his defense of the Jewish people does he defend any of the religious tenets of Judaism; rather he is aiming to point out the prejudice unduly leveled against the Jews as an ethnic group (which is what their most vitriolic defamers classify them as). Another point of consideration is that Nietzsche’s defense of the Jewish people, as an ethnic group, is completely compatible with his broader worldview regarding master-slave moralities. As a quick summary, Nietzsche divides human society into two distinct castes: the aristocratic nobility (the value-creating masters) and the plebeian masses (the herd-minded slaves). Amongst the aristocratic nobility, who–according to Nietzsche–are the rightful arbitrators of what is morally good, a further distinction is made between the knightly-aristocracy and the priestly-aristocracy; the latter of which are the ones who have provided the intellectual means for the lowly plebeians to charge a slave-revolt against the purer morality of the more noble caste—a slave-revolt which has permeated and shaped the moral conscience of modern man. In this scenario described by Nietzsche, the ancient Hebrews would occupy the role of the priestly-aristocracy, which has created the opportunity for the revolting slave-morality of Christianity to perverse the nobleman’s superior morality.
But Germans and anti-Semites aren’t the only groups Nietzsche holds in low regard; his opinion on the English are equally negative, dismissively referring to the nation’s philosophical contributors as the archetypes of modern mediocrity:
There are truths that are recognized best by mediocre minds because they are most congenial to them; there are truths that have charm and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits: we come up against this perhaps disagreeable proposition just now, since the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen.
Nietzsche’s sentiment here could be due to his perception of the historical influence English thinkers have had in fostering the atmosphere for what he considers to be harmful modern ideals. Nietzsche’s reasoning may partly be justified by the fact that English parliamentary-style government has served as a model for many forms of European democracies; a system which, as discussed earlier, Nietzsche views as contributing to the “mediocritization of man.” This reading is supported by the philosopher’s persistent equating of the lowly plebeian values with the English nation, in contrasts to the superior (in Nietzsche’s eyes) French culture, “European noblesse—of feeling, of taste, of manners, taking the word, in short, in every higher sense—is the work and invention of France; the European vulgarity, the plebeianism of modern ideas, that of England.” Here, Nietzsche’s personal biases are leaking through the prose, showing his preference towards the Latin countries he spent a great deal of his creative career residing in, in hopes that the temperate climate would alleviate his poor health. France, in particular, is a place he developed a great deal of fondness for, an affection that was further encouraged by the fact that the German nationalists of his time (à la Richard Wagner) held French culture in very low regard. In contrasts to the barbarianism of the northern cultures of Europe, Nietzsche described the French as possessing a more timid and sophisticated taste and mannerism:
Even now one still encounters in France an advance understanding and accommodation of those rarer and rarely contented human beings who are too comprehensive to find satisfaction in any fatherlandishness and know how to love the south in the north and the north in the south.
Of course, it can be easily argued that Nietzsche is engaging in a very selective form of cultural analysis in his heralding of France as a society that has transcended politics and nationalities. Furthermore, one is even justified in pointing out the apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s reasoning, since the ideals of the French Revolution played a large part in nurturing the call for democratic reforms throughout the European continent—at least in spirit, if not in practice—a historical development Nietzsche claims to despise wholeheartedly. The inconsistency in Nietzsche’s condemnation of the English for their historic role in nurturing democratic principles, but failure to acknowledge France’s equal part in this modernization effort, is a shortcoming that cannot (should not) be easily overlooked by even the casual reader.
On the face of things, Nietzsche’s opinions of nationalities and patriotism appear direct and concise, as he spends page after page polemically dissecting and chastising all who fall for such “infantile” ideals. However, the man’s mindset on the modern development of Western society seems to be somewhat murky at times. He writes as if he loathes the coming uniformity of society (a sentiment instilled through the growing influence of democratic institutions), but at the same time he condemns the narrow-minded tribalism on offer from the nationalists. This leaves open the question on what sort of political development Nietzsche would like to see come about to reverse the wrongs we are currently on. Moreover, is it even possible to develop any political ideals from a man whose philosophy is so staunchly anti-political to begin with; will not any such attempt result in complete failure, on account that one cannot successfully create an ideological foundation on inherently polemical premises? I think Nietzsche’s primary goal on the issue of modern politics ought to be viewed more as a social criticism, rather than a social framework. For instance, when it comes to European affairs, the philosopher distances himself from both the nationalist and democratic factions, but is astute enough to realize that the former is a final gasp of a dying sentiment, and that the latter will be the ultimate trend amongst modern man, because (above all else) “Europe wants to become one.” Yet, despite the potential that lie with the aim in greater social unity, the underlying principles upon which this globalizing trend is based on, is something Nietzsche simply cannot support in good spirit.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, Part Eight “Peoples and Fatherlands,” section 242.
 Ibid, section 243.
 Virgil, Aeneid, 6.395.
 Ibid, section 244.
 Ibid, section 251.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 7.
 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “Peoples and Fatherlands”, section 253.
On Tuesday, October 13th, at 7 a.m., early voting for the 2020 General Election started in Texas. Going by the trend of previous elections, I assumed showing up at 7:30 a.m. would be enough to ensure a quick, no fuss, in-and-out through the process. I was very wrong about this, a fact I found out as I drove through the parking lot of the local Hotel hosting the polls. About the only thing I managed to do that morning was navigate around crowds of people hurrying to join the already sizeable line that had formed from the sidewalk, all the way leading up to the doors of the designated voting polls. Not to be dismayed, I thought there was a chance that it was a case of numerous people having the same bright idea of trying to fulfill their civic duty as soon as the doors opened to allow them to do so.
I reasoned that perhaps as the day went one, the crowd would become less daunting to face. With that in mind, I returned to the same place later that afternoon, thinking an hour long lunch break ought to be enough for me to run through the process. The scene I returned to at 2 p.m. was a somewhat shorter line of people, yes, but not by very much. But I had 60 minutes, and even if I stood there for 45 of them, it would still be worthwhile to have the act behind me. The problem was that whatever the afternoon line lacked in headcount of responsible citizens compared to its dawn-hour counterpart, it certainly made up in its overall lack of forward mobility (as if mockingly striving to serve as a metaphor for the socioeconomic reality of America’s working class).
Suffice to say, I did not vote on the 13th, because I underestimated the rise in political awareness experienced by my fellow Americans over the course of the last four years. Hence, I ventured out again the next day, determined to match this dedication in turn. Waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning., and heading out the door no later than 5:30 a.m., I made it in line just before 6, and before the first rays of sunlight peaked through the horizon. I armed myself with all the essentials: knapsack, a bottle of water, a Neil Gaiman book for company, and a pair of headphones in case someone around me decided to hold a private conversation just enough decibel units too loud to render my reading efforts moot during the hour long wait to the polls.
When the doors opened I was seventh in line, and got to cast my ballot within 12 minutes of entering. On my way back to my car I felt a bit groggy from sleep deprivation, but was reassured about my decision to arrive early when I saw the wait line to the doors had again stretched out to meet the 100 persons mark, same as it had the day prior. All in all, it was a worthwhile effort, and one I hope many of us managed to endure safely to its completion, and will continue to do so for the remainder of the election cycle, for the sake of enforcing the integrity of our electoral process.
The reason why I felt the need to go into so much detail about my voting efforts here, is that almost five years ago, two articles were published on KR titled The Value of Voting? and Is Voting a Civil Duty? in which challenges were made to the de facto assertion that voting is an essential duty, and that it is intellectually lazy to fall back on the trope that those who abstain from participating in the process are exhibiting a personal flaw. The articles also clearly state that they are not attempts to discourage voter participation, but are meant to encourage the politically active among the populace to employ more empathetic strategies when trying to persuade the politically disgruntled and apathetic in our midst to become involved in the electoral process.
Within the context that they were written, the arguments in the articles are valid for their intended purposes, however, in light of the repeated attempts at voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement via online commentary meant to do nothing else but create obfuscation and confusion among the voting public, it is paramount to not allow one’s words to aid or be hijacked by bad faith actors looking to use them to stealthily signal boost their own toxic agendas.
Sad as it may be to accept, the current political climate is not one that allows for nuanced thought experiments that can just exist unhindered in a vacuum, because political realities and their consequences do not exist in such vacuums. Now, more than ever, effort needs to be exercised at distilling whether self-professed comments looking at “just wanting to have the difficult conversations” are genuine calls for intellectual rigor, or sly trolling attempt looking to smuggle through customs debunked and historically bankrupt ideologies, under the guise of harmless memes. And just as partaking in the electoral process is a worthwhile effort, so is clarifying one’s position to eliminate their potential to serve the needs of those one finds abhorrent.
In case you’ve been leaving on an Amish commune for the past several weeks, there have finally been moves to proceed with a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. In response, conservative political commentators (and even some left-wing commentators) have been going into overdrive to obscure as much of the key details concerning the basis for the inquiry that it’s important to do a quick rundown of events:
In September 2018, Congress appropriated $400 million in military aid to Ukraine for the 2019 fiscal year to assist the Ukrainian military in their ongoing fight against the threat of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The aid continued to be withheld until September 11th, when the funds were finally released.
Two additional facts that give context to the timeline above:
On July 25th, 2019, President Trump has a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky. On August 12th, 2019, an anonymous whistleblower complaint cites the July 25th phone conversation as evidence of Executive abuse of power on the part of President Trump to “advance his [Trump’s] personal interests” as well as to “help the President’s 2020 reelection bid”, among several other troubling points raised concerning Trumps actions and motivations in the course of his conversation with the Ukrainian president.
On September 24th, 2019, President Trump released a non-verbatim summary of his phone call with the Ukrainian president, which shows that Trump does bring up the alleged wrongdoing of Hunter and Joe Biden that he would like the Ukrainians to investigate further. There are no explicit statements by Trump in the 5 page document where he says that he is withholding the $400 million in aid until and unless Ukraine complies with his request to look into the Bidens, or to aid in his 2020 Presidential campaign. Though one could just as easily argue that the very act of holding the aid in the first place (and lying about the reason for the hold, and then contradicting said lie when questioned), and bringing up settled legal matter with a foreign country regarding a potential political opponent–not to mention the fact that this entire document is not an official transcript of what was actually said in the conversation–makes this a very facetious Hail Mary for the no-impeachment crowd to clasp onto. It is also of note that in his conversation with the Ukrainian president, Trump never mentions his concerns regarding corruption in that country; the primary reason he gives for holding the funds months later (which, again, contradicts the dubious interagency process reason he gave to Congress even prior to that).
The fact that President Trump lied to Congress about why he was holding the already year-long approved military aid to Ukraine is enough to warrant an impeachment inquiry. Full stop.
Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution grants the House of Representatives “sole Power of Impeachment”. Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution lists the grounds for impeachment as “conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Constitution does not expand on how to define either “high crimes” or “misdemeanor,” leaving that at the discretion of the House of Representatives. In the Federalist Papers, however, founding father Alexander Hamilton defined impeachable offenses as, “offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
If you want to argue that there is nothing wrong with Trump looking into the corruption of a nation that has already been approved to receive military aid, be my guest. If you want to argue that you just plain don’t care that he lied about his original reasons for refusing to release the aid, go ahead. If you want to say that Trump should not be impeached at the end of it all because he gave contradictory reasons for holding the aid, you are perfectly entitled to your opinion on that But you cannot say that the President intentionally misleading lawmakers as to the reason why funds–which they had already appropriated for a specific purpose–were not being released, does not, at the very least, warrant said lawmakers to investigate his conduct and behavior in the matter, considering a precedent of deceit and outright lying has now already been well established. All which can be argued to fall within Hamilton’s definition of being “an abuse or violation of…public trust”; i.e. conduct that falls well within the realm of warranting an impeachment inquiry, if not outright impeachment itself.
And that is the key issue to always keep in mind when discussing this topic. Absent of any conspiracies and deflections getting thrown around to poison the well against the legitimacy of even holding an inquiry to determine if the President’s actions merit impeachment, the fact remains that Trump admittedly lied to Congress as to the reason why he was holding the $400 million in military aid from Ukraine.
As is to be expected, the Republican members of Congress have shown no principled backbone on this matter whatsoever. They are firmly on Trump’s side, and have remained so through every contradiction, lie, and gaffe on the part of the President and his Administration’s officials. And will most likely continue to do so, regardless of what evidence is presented to them.
An impeachment inquiry is the bare minimal that is called for here given the facts of the case, and it is well within the rights of the lawmakers within the House of Representatives to pursue it. Because if the established law on a President’s potential abuse of his office and position is not pursued to its fullest extend necessary, regardless of political or partisan maneuvering or concern for how it might affect the 2020 election, said law will be rendered a shameful reminder of our public servants’ inability to live up to their oaths to this nation, as well as our inability to hold them accountable to it.
To allow an executive to not even face the formality of an investigation into his potential wrongdoings, sets a precedent from which there is no return; from which only further abuse and corruption is guaranteed to follow.
“Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God who wants this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a new age begins.”
According to former French President Jacques Chirac, these are the words former U.S. President George W. Bush said to him sometime prior to what is now known as the colossal blunder that was/is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I should note that Bush himself has never confirmed, nor denied saying these words. But regardless of whether Bush’s words are actually being quoted verbatim, or are a paraphrasing on Chirac’s part, my reaction to quotes like this is the same as it is to all babble coming from the political mouthpieces of the Christian Right in this country: “What the fuck is he even talking about?”
It’s the same reaction I always have when this same sect of self-appointed moral crusaders will in one breath espouse their belief regarding the sanctity of life, and in another breath oppose legislation that would give people access to life-saving healthcare. Or when they pontificate about the importance of upholding family values (read: their values), while working tirelessly to deprive families of any assistance that would actually help them feed and cloth their loved ones. As far as I’m concerned the only proper reaction this this sort of schizoid babbling is, ” What the fuck are they even talking about?” as trying to humor these disjointed thought processes would be a disservice to the process of thought itself.
Given all this, one might believe that the way in which the Christian Right pledged their unwavering support for a man like Donald Trump is yet another example warranting a snide, rhetorical remark disguised as a question. I disagree. The reason I disagree is that, when it comes to Trump, I know exactly what the Christian Right is talking about.
Undeniably, President Donald J. Trump is a narcissistic, petty, mean-spirited, disgusting shell passing for a human being. He is greedy, selfish, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and incapable of holding the simplest of conversations without spouting out an inarticulate string of lies that both mocks and puts to shame the very language he has such a painstakingly low grasp of. He shows no sense of loyalty towards anyone or anything, let alone the basics of human decency when it comes to how he treats those he views as his adversaries (and, at times, even his supposed allies). He has no qualms about breaking campaign promises, and then berating anyone who points out his inconsistencies to him as the dishonest party in the discussion. Among all these things, Donald Trump is also the darling of the Christian Right; who praise his name, and talk of him as if he truly is the second coming Christ had promised (and, some would say, failed to deliver on) to the followers of his generation nearly two millennia ago. And when I hear them talk like this about Trump, I know exactly what they are talking about.
It’s not about the flaws of Trump’s character, either as a person or as a head of state. Any and every fault can be dismissed under the nauseating cop-out, “Is all mankind not fallen and flawed? Are we not all sinners?” When faced with such a boldfaced heap of meaningless platitudes, one is apt to point out the fact that few of us–and no decent person in general–would ever walk up to unsuspecting women and “grab them by the pussy,” like President Trump has bragged about doing. That is definitely one sin I can attest to having never committed, and, yes, I feel quite justified in saying that it morally places me on better footing than those who have. But even mentioning that to this crowd is pointless, because ultimately it doesn’t matter to them if Donald Trump is a chauvinistic, perverted scoundrel. The only thing they care about–the only thing they have ever cared about–is shaping the legal arm of the nation in accordance with their will, and impose their sets of hypocritical edicts on everyone else, whether they like it or not.
It layman’s: The Christian Right is backing Trump because he will appoint the judges who will align with their views of how laws ought to be interpreted in this country. He will give executive backing to legislation that will reshape this nation into what they always wanted it to have been from the start–a fundamentalist, conservative hallmark for Christendom; rife with the great tradition of hypocrisy and intolerance that is entailed by it.
In this context, the fact that they are undercutting their own sanctimonious virtues by throwing their lot with a person as un-Christlike as Donald Trump is irrelevant. The fact that their current actions are causing younger generations to walk away from their congregations is a moot point. It ultimately does not matters what convictions anyone individually holds; as long all are still forced to abide by the laws and legal precedents implemented by the Christian Right, victory has been ensured for generations to come because once a matter becomes the judicial status quo (regardless of how draconian or unpopular) it becomes that much harder to overturn, socially and politically. Rather than flailing in the wind towards irrelevance, this sect is playing what they believe to be the long game in the culture war to reshape American society.
And for once, I know exactly what the fuck they are taking about when they spout their babble, and there is nothing meek or humble about it, in either a Christian or secular sense of the words. If the other side of the political aisle wishes to have a fighting chance against such blatant subversion of the democratic process, the pushback has to be equally biting with a succinct and unrelenting, “Like hell you will!”
The first grocery store I saw when I moved to the United States was a meager looking spectacle called Sellers Bros. in a rundown strip-mall area of southwest Houston, TX. The store’s shelves were as overcrowded with bargain, generic-name products, as it’s aisles were with patrons shuffling from one end of the building to the next, holding tightly to their Lone Star Cards needed to feed their families for the month. The building’s somber looking outer-structure held a passing resemblance to the apartment complexes that surrounded it only a few paces away—one of which my family was living in at the time, serving as our first exposure to the realities of inner-city American life we had immigrated to, and were gradually assimilate with.
The majority of the neighborhood was composed of immigrant families. Though unlike my family, which originated east of the Atlantic Ocean, it was impossible not to notice that most of my neighbors hailed south of the Rio Grande. As a result, while I had come to this country with the advantage of being able to speak English reasonably well—well enough to understand, and be understood by the general Anglophone population anyway—this advantage proved of little value on the very street I called home for these years of my adolescence. It was an early education to the fact many living in urban America are readily familiar with. Namely, that within the reality of American life, reside smaller sects of conflicting realities, many of which can neither communicate nor understand one another, and are set up so that they will rarely meet. Gulfton Street in Houston, Texas, occupies one such reality.
Tucked away between two major highways in southwest Houston, spanning a stretch of 3 to 4 miles of cracked concrete landscape, sits the street of Gulfton. The epicenter of the Gulfton Ghetto, as it’s occasionally called by the local media and by other Houstonians (though never by the neighborhood’s own inhabitants). To those who take a wrong turn off Bellaire and find themselves driving down Gulfton Street by accident, the insulting nickname will seem most warranted.
The immediate sights one is met with are panel after panel of gang graffiti, row upon row of low-rent apartment complexes, and concrete sidewalks that have been in desperate need of repair for a good few decades now. Surprisingly, there is a park/recreational center meant to give some relief to the area’s ongoing problem with juvenile delinquency, though anyone who has ever stepped onto the park itself will be quickly robbed of any hopefulness at the prospect of this endeavor. In short, like many neighborhoods in urban America, Gulfton is a place that has been largely abandoned to the ravages of metropolitan entropy.
Under-funded and halfway flushed out improvement projects that have failed to live up to expectations are pointed to by the rest of the city as reasons not to bother with any future attempts at repairing the crumbling infrastructure. Leaving the residents who have given up on the idea of moving away to either wall themselves off from the unsavory conditions that surround them within their private residences (however meager they may be), or embrace it by becoming a part of its destructive nature.
The first instinct any well-meaning person will have when confronted with a reality like Gulfton is, “Can anything be done to fix this?” It’s an honest question, but it betrays a lot about the person asking it. The idea that there is any one thing that can resolve problems that are decades in the making is a part of the problem to begin with. These sort of problem are such that they have no one facet of origin, but are a delicate, interwoven mess of social, economic, and political barriers erected and maintained through complex systems with interests that themselves compete against and prop up each other in a multitude of ways. The problems of Gulfton, like the problems of similar neighborhoods and populations throughout this country, have no single cause; hence they can have no single solution to curb the path they are currently on.
“Why don’t the people living there work to fix things? It’s their neighborhood, after all. Don’t they care?”
Unfortunately, the reality of all urban areas is that they are landlocked and dependent on the larger metropolitan that surrounds them. They don’t get to make decisions in a vacuum, and resources are finite and sparse in terms of what will be readily allocated to benefit them. The further issue is that once a neighborhood has fallen far enough to be regarded as “hopeless” by officials and administrators who could possibly make a difference, the very hopelessness of said neighborhood is used as the reason against committing long-term funds to improve its conditions, on the basis that it would be unfair to use tax dollars from well-behaved citizens in more savory parts of the city to fund the activities of no-good thugs and gangsters in these low-income, high crime areas. Local agencies will say they are not equipped to handle the expenses needed to undertake the sort of social projects necessary to overhaul the issues plaguing these sorts of areas, while Federal agencies see these issues as strictly a local concern.
In the absence of a robust social safety net provided by the city or state authorities to ensure the most basic of securities and public amenities, opportunistic forces will band together to construct their own safety nets, which for many young people will take on the form of turning to gangs that prey on social instabilities as a means to offer their quasi-organized crime structure as an alternative to festering in a decrepit social system. The reason youths are most susceptible to this, is that they are the most in need of some kind of functioning social order to orientate their lives (and relieve their boredom), and even the violent and dangerous structure of a gang life is to many preferable to the instability of no visible structure at all.
Some people have a natural aversion to hearing that any issues constitute a systemic problem, requiring a systemic approach to resolve. They conjure up images of how the very notion of entertaining such a thought is little more than an attempt to skirt away responsibility from the individuals and let them avoid the consequences of their actions and/or apathy, leaving them no incentive to make things better on their own accord. I can understand the sentiment behind this aversion, though I find it largely misinformed.
In a place like Gulfton, how exactly do you expect the individuals living there to step up to fix the various problems that plague their environment? Should they pool their meager earnings together to pay for the ongoing structural damage to their concrete sidewalks and street signs, despite the fact that we’re talking about city property and as a results is an issues needing to be addressed by the local government? How about the need to improve the resources available to the local schools so that there can be robust after-school programs and activities available for young people to occupy their time with to discourage the need for delinquency and gang activity? Should the low-income earning parents of these youths fund these programs directly, thereby taking money away from them that’s needed to pay rent, utilities, food, clothing, etc.? Would that be an example of individuals stepping up to take personal responsibility to improve the conditions around them, or a neglect of one’s obligations to provided basic necessities for one’s own family first? If donating money is not the answer, surely we can get everyone to at least volunteer their time to improve their community, no? It’s not as if the sort of people who have to live in these sorts of neighborhoods, are undoubtedly also stuck working jobs with little to no flexible hours or time off, after all.
Perhaps the answer is that all these folks ought to work harder to increase their earnings, so they aren’t hostage to their economic conditions. Yet, if they actually managed to do just that, what incentive would they have to spend their extra earnings on repairing a place like Gulfton, as opposed to–oh, I don’t know–simply moving away to a better part of town that already offers all the basics of having dignified living conditions?
Unless you are Bruce Wayne, sitting on an endless supply of inherited wealth, resources, and leisure time, individuals donating money and/or donating time, will never be a solution to the problems that affect neighborhoods like Gulfton. These are problems that took a long time to manifest, and they require long-term investment and planning to be resolved. It requires layers upon layers of overarching organizational resources, to properly oversee and track improvements, that no single individual or clustered group is capable of providing. Private businesses, local or otherwise, also offer little help in the matter, since their is no business incentive in investing in a place simply to improve the lives and environment of its residents, since these residents will not be able to return the gesture on account that, at the end of the day, they’ll still be too poor to ever be able to turn a profit for these businesses.
And it takes an astounding level of naivete to not be able to realize this. The same sort of naivete that leads certain people to make inane points like, “If you like public programs, and think taxes should be higher to pay for them, why don’t you just volunteer more of your money on an individual basis, instead of demanding everyone else do it through the tax code?” Because individual actions and donations will not solve systemic problems like the ones affecting neighborhoods like Gulfton, that’s why. Because many of the problems plaguing inner-city life are far too complex and interconnected to a multitude of surrounding factors to be seriously brushed off with red herrings concerning individual responsibilities.
Areas like Gulfton are the way they are because they have become culturally and economically alienated from the rest of their metropolitan centers, and the rest of the country at large, and little is being done to incorporate them into the greater society that surrounds them. The full reasons for this alienation are legion, and the solutions that will be necessary will by definition be just as extensive, which is a reality that must be acknowledged by those who purport to take the issues of working, urban, and immigrant communities seriously.
If, on the other hand, you simply don’t care about places like Gulfton, then just say you don’t care, and stand by the convictions of your apathy. And stop pretending that there is a greater moral or ideological basis to what is essentially pure disinterest for the plight of people you can’t be bothered to give a shit about. It will make for a much more honest conversation.
In a not-too-distant previous life, when I thought that standing in front of dozens of apathetic teenagers in hope of teaching them why learning proper grammar, writing, and argumentation skills was a worthwhile vocation to pursue, I came up with a nifty little speech to start off every semester.
I would say:
I know exactly what you are thinking right now. It’s the same question every student, in every course, in every land thinks every time they enter a classroom.
Why do I need to learn this?
The simple answer is that it’s because the law requires you to; at least until you turn 18. For most of you that’s a good enough answer to put up with my incessant talking for a few months, scrape together enough effort to satisfy the course requirement, and move on to your next classroom, until the law finally says that you’ve gone through the motions long enough to be let loose into the real world, full of non-classroom-type duties and responsibilities. For most of you this answer is good enough. But there’s a few of you for whom this sort of reasoning is not anywhere near good enough to make you put up with what the education system expects of you for an hour and fifteen minutes of your day.
If you fall within that group, I want you to listen very closely. In life you will meet many people. A great number of these people will make prejudgments about you from the first moment they see you–both good and bad. The good prejudgments will work to your benefit, and the bad will be obstacles that can make your life very, very hard.
People will make prejudgments about you based on your height, your weight, your race, your gender, the way you dress, the way you stand, even the way you choose to cut your hair. The negative opinions formed by these prejudgments, no matter how unfair or shallow, will for the most part be things you have little control over. Except for one important component: The way you communicate. Yes, people will judge you by how you speak, too. And while you can’t do much about someone who simply hates you for the way you look, you can sure as hell do everything to deny them the pleasure to dismiss you for the way you communicate. Even if they still hate you at the end of the day for all the bigoted ways available to them, you should at the very least do everything in your power to make it impossible for them to dismiss you for the way you write, the way you argue–the way you speak! That is entirely within your power, and it is a power that’s learned, not inherited. This is your opportunity to learn it, if this is a power you wish to possess. If you don’t, any prejudgments others make about your person as a results of your decision right now, will be entirely on you.
I’m biased, but I like to think it got the point across as well as anything else could. And while the point was of course to get the students to feel somewhat enthused about the lesson plan, there was also a deeper purpose to my little pep-talk. Namely, I was demonstrating the use of rhetoric to argue the case for learning about rhetoric (none of the students ever really picked up on this, though).
Rhetoric has a few technical (read boring) definitions floating around, but the basic gist of it is that rhetoric is a form of discourse meant at persuasion (typically of a person or audience). This is the part about rhetoric that most philosophical commentators agree on anyway. Opinions regarding the use or ethical standing of rhetoric have been more polarizing, however. Plato looked down on rhetoric as mere flattery that could be used to manipulate the masses, as it’s primary purpose was to convince you to side with the argument, and not to impart knowledge or truth. His student Aristotle took a more favorable view, and considered rhetoric to be an important discipline (and art form), and a necessary part of any well-rounded civics education. Much of the writings and social revolutions that emerged from the Enlightenment relied heavily on rhetoric to persuade the public to a new way of thinking about life (and liberty, and even the pursuit of happiness). The same goes for anti-Enlightenment reactionaries, who argued in favor of preserving the status quo in society.
In the modern world, rhetoric (in its purest form) is most readily seen in courtrooms and legislative bodies, and the political spheres that surround them. It’s no surprise that so many politicians start out as lawyers, and go on to use the same rhetorical tricks they learned in law school on the campaign trail. It’s for this reason that rhetoric takes on a negative connotation in many people’s minds.
Memorable (yet content-empty) slogans, propagated by conscience-devoid politicians, whose only concern is scoring a victory in their (and their donors’) favor. Arguments put worth by their mouthpieces in the form of public commentators and pundits, serving the sole purpose of winning over the electorate’s hearts, often at the expense of their critical thought and personal long-term interests. Honorable mentions also go to the rhetorical tactics of self-professed experts who peddle pseudoscience and conspiracy theories to the affect of fostering a perpetually misinformed populace for the sake of monetary gains. These can all be counted as examples in support of Plato’s skepticism towards rhetoric as a virtuous mode of discourse.
Even my speech above is arguably laced with unwarranted rhetorical hyperbole. (Honestly, most people you meet will probably not form good or bad opinions of you; they’ll probably look right past you with complete indifference, if you offer no value to them as a person). However, one should refrain from getting distracted with unwarranted equivocations. I sincerely believe there’s a big difference between educators using rhetoric to motivate their students to succeed in their coursework, and the sort of rhetoric that contributes to public policy meant to misinform the public (if you don’t, I hope you never get picked to serve on any jury).
I already mentioned the culpability of politicians making use of rhetoric to spread propaganda for ideological gains. And while this is universally snubbed as somewhere on the edge of morally questionable behavior, the only reason its done is because it works so well. In other words, people get manipulated by the bells and whistles of skilled rhetoricians because they don’t care to educate themselves about the hogwash they are being fed (usually because they agree and want to believe what’s being said to them, even if it’s factually baseless).
The public (at least its voting component) is the primary check on politicians in a democratic republic. However, given the ease by which we will readily be swayed by faint words of praise and reckless fearmongering, its not absurd to thing that Plato may have been on to something when expressing doubts with the public’s ability to combat against rhetoricians whose only purpose is to persuade with complete disregard for the truth of their words.
A secondary check on the rhetoric of public officials is the part of the voting public that makes up the free press. The reason why the founders of the United States explicitly mentioned protection for the free press from the government in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, relates back directly to the role the press (ideally) ought to have as the fact-checkers holding those in power accountable. Unlike the public, a respectable free press has several internal mechanisms in play that work to sift through credible and credulous information. It’s also why the first thing clever rhetoricians do is undermine the very credibility of the free press. “Fake News” is a beautiful example of manipulative rhetoric at its finest, as it plays on the public’s distrust of media sources (i.e. its only reasonable to believe that some news outlets fail to overcome the biases of their presenters) and gives it a credulous dose of self-serving generalization (i.e. all news outlets that disagree with me are the biased ones, regardless of any evidence they present to support their position).
Any reasonable amount of critical thought on the subject clearly shows that the fact that news sources can be mistaken (or even outright deceptive), does not therefore warrant the conclusion that all media must be wrong and lying when they report something you don’t want to be true. Once again, it’s up to the public to follow-up on the sources any reputable press will readily provide for them to check the merits of what’s being reported. Shouting “Fake News,” however, makes it easier to muddy this relationship between the public and the press, by equating all sectors of the press as untrustworthy in general, and allows people to lazily self-select only the media they are already disposed to agree with, without having to be burdened with doing any intellectual legwork.
Journalists are also rhetoricians by trade. Unlike politicians and lawyers, however, members of the free press ought to strive to belong to Aristotle’s more virtuous sect of the rhetoric spectrum, which aims to persuade the masses towards truth and knowledge. As journalism moves more towards competing for public viewership to continue to operate–thereby having to appease to the whims and tastes of the public, rather than seeking to simply inform them–the concept of fact-based reporting threatens to descend completely into the realm of vacuous rhetoric meant to do little more than keep up viewer support (which, as mentioned, is prone to succumb to some flimsy and fickle interests).
The elevation of online personalities, whose sole journalistic experience is being able to cultivate an audience around themselves on video-sharing sites like YouTube, under the neologism of “alternative media,” is an example of a free press where rhetoric takes precedence over fact-based reporting. Not to smear those personalities who make every effort to be a respectable source of information, the reality is that the environment of being an online news commentating source is inherently prone to undermine the fact-checking mechanism of traditional journalism, mostly by side-stepping it completely in favor of peddling rhetoric.
These online outlets have little in the way of field-based journalists doing the legwork to uncover newsworthy stories, let alone teams of fact-checkers tirelessly looking through sources and notes to determine the veracity of a story prior to its reporting. In truth, they rely almost entirely on the work of traditional journalists, whose work they present and provide opinionated commentary over, while ever-so-often throwing in jabs at how ineffective traditional journalism is, despite most (if not all) their actual “news” content coming through the efforts of said traditional journalism. The reason why this matters is that it is a clear example in which what could be a respectable profession, and a reliable venue for information for the public, is sacrificing its responsibility to dispel factual knowledge for the convenience of mindless rhetoric because it offers them popularity and financial gains in terms of viewer support and sponsorship.
Understanding the role of rhetoric–its values, its uses, and its prevalence–is vital in being able to identify the difference between an impassioned speaker fighting on behalf of a just cause, and a demagogue looking to manipulate the mob to his advantage. Its vital in being able to distinguish between journalists who go through many painstaking, sleepless nights to report a truth to the people as a public service, and pundit blowhards using the cover of journalism to propagate misinformation for their own gains and egos. In general, to understand the use of rhetoric, is to be able to identify it and (if need be) ward yourself against its more dire influences.
Rhetoric is not, and should not be, a dirty word. Like most things, in the hands of benign and well-meaning hands, it is a powerful tool of communication that can inspire immense good in the world. In the wrong hands, however, it can be the barrier that keeps us permanently free-falling in the abyss of credulity and self-destruction.
I’ve heard it said that the hallmark of argumentation is being able to summarize an opposing viewpoint in a way that the person holding this view would agree with your summary of their position; thereby ensuring that you not only understand the viewpoint you are arguing against, but are also tackling the most robust interpretation of the opposing side.
This principle of charity in arguing has been around debating circles for a long time, but has in the last few years gained traction under the neologism of steelmanning (an obvious negation of its logical antonym of straw-manning, where one argues disingenuously against a position that an opponent never presented, and does not hold). And on the face of it, this seems like a great development I can entirely get behind. Who would come out and seriously propose that one should not have a clear understanding of an opposing argument, let alone that one shouldn’t argue against an honest representation of said opposition? This is simply a case where, in principle (even if not in practice), the majority of reasonable people will be of one mind.
That’s all great so far. However (don’t look shocked, you knew this was coming when you read the title of the post), while it’s not hard to steelman the argument in favor of steelmanning, the way in which the concept has been thrown around lately leaves much to be desired for me personally. Whereas it’s meant to stand as an honorable demonstration of mutual respect between intellectual opponents, it’s also taken on the form among some very, very lazy thinkers (who, nonetheless, fancy themselves as stalwart intellects) where they demand for others to strengthen their arguments for them, in ways they never did, and never could have done to begin with.
As a point of principle, if I’m feeling inclined to engage in an argument with others, I will argue against what they say. Not what I think they should say to make their side more compelling. Not even what I would say, were I to hypothetical be forced to switch to their side on gunpoint. But, strictly, what the arguments are that they give to me to support the viewpoints they deem worthy to state aloud for public criticism and/or derision [no, despite what some people say, mockery does not immediately make one guilty of having committed an ad hominem, as long as the mocking follows a salient line of counterarguments; though weak debaters are usually prone to focus in on any well-placed jabs made against them as a clever means to deflect from the fact that they’ve run out of things to say to support their position.]
So when I come out and say…oh, I don’t know…promoting the concept of a white ethnostate is racist and fascistic, and I in turn get emails lecturing me about how I haven’t dealt with the most robust arguments in favor of the alt-right’s ethnostate position, I’m going to call bullshit on claims of my supposed failure to steelman such a clearly racist and fascistic position, because I didn’t pamper it first with a string of dishonest white nationalist euphemisms used to conceal a proposition invoking outright ethnic cleansing.
The fact that I can follow an argument from its premises to its unpalatable logical conclusion–whether or not its proponents have the reasoning capabilities or the guts to follow the same thread of their own argument–does not require me to waste my time to think of ways to make these kind of arguments more pleasant for mass consumption before I attempt to refute them (personally, I find it far more honest to deal with things in their unfiltered form). Nor am I required to do other people’s intellectual legwork for them, and bend over backwards to make their arguments stronger than they could ever hope to do on their own, so they can feel like they are being given a fair hearing in “the marketplace of ideas” (TM), where apparently every half-baked idea should be allowed to be spouted free of consequences.
Instead, I’d ask the question that if you keep finding yourself in a position in which you have to call on people to give your arguments the most charitable interpretations, you should: 1. Consider the possibility that you are a lousy communicator on behalf of the positions you are looking to promote, and 2. Give some thought to the notion that it’s not really the case that people are misinterpreting your views as absurd, horrendous, or laughable, but that your views actually are exactly that.
If you feel the need to argue a point, go argue it. If you want to have controversial conversations, then have them. But if you’re going to spent as much time whining afterwards about how everyone’s just so mean and unfair to you because they won’t paint every inane thing you say in the best possible light–or take every opportunity to fellate your ego about how brave you are to say dumb shit people will take offense to–save us all the trouble (and the bandwidth) and keep your poorly constructed arguments to yourself.