Dear Reader (We promise we’ll send you only “news”letters, never spiders or cockroaches),
I’m going to get to some current events. But let’s set the stage.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once laid out his vision of the heroic intellectual:
Only when you have worked alone — when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will — then only will you have achieved. Thus only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought — the subtile rapture of a postponed power, which the world knows not because it has no external trappings, but which to his prophetic vision is more real than that which commands an army.
I don’t know if Holmes had Friedrich Nietzsche—or himself—in mind when he wrote this. (Holmes could be an arrogant jerk.) But I don’t think Richard Posner was entirely wrong when he dubbed Holmes “The American Nietzsche.” That’s a topic for another time, though. So is the question of whether Nietzsche is responsible for the spread of his ideas, or simply a symbol or useful starting point in the unfolding history of ideas we can in retrospect call “Nietzschean.”
But while Nietzsche is dead but not forgotten, I still think he fits Holmes’ bill. That’s because most Nietzscheans have no idea that they are “moving to the measure of his thought.”
I’m going to try to avoid terms like “existentialism,” “pragmatism,” “nihilism,” “postmodernism,” “structuralism,” “post-structuralism,” “deconstructionism,” etc., for two reasons. First, because they get in the way.
And, second, because they’re intended to get in the way.
A lot of philosophical verbiage—particularly for intellectuals who believe that philosophy should be used as a weapon or tool of political engagement—is intended to buy authority unearned by argument. The language used to justify their power also serves to protect their authority to use it. If you don’t know the right terms, you’re not one of us, and therefore you can’t be part of our project and can’t criticize it either. Jargon is both gnosis and shibboleth all at once.
This is why I keep saying I don’t like most talk of “new ideas”—because they’re very often old ideas, or even older desires, gussied up in new disguises so they can slip past the guards of logic, decency, and commonsense.
So whatever label you want to apply to Nietzsche’s ideas or what the Foucaults, Sartres, Marcuses, or Derridas did with them, and whether or not you take his death certificate for the divine (“God is dead”) literally or seriously, the spirit of that syphilitic sage is whispering in our ears.
What were those ideas? In brief: Certainty is impossible folly. Knowledge isn’t about facts, but perspective. What we think are truths—or Truths with a capital T —are really plot points in stories we tell to ourselves. Ideals are really just instruments for attaining or maintaining power. Morality is made, not discovered.
As Richard Rorty put it, these ideas mean “that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form ‘There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.’” Or as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are.”
All truth is contextual, all ideals are instruments. The only thing that is real—i.e. real enough—is what you accomplish with will.
In Nietzsche’s world, public contests over principles are puppet shows with heroes and villains for the masses to cheer or boo, but the puppeteers are fighting for power. They aren’t just fighting for political power, but the deeper power to shape minds, to define the perceptions of reality, which is the only reality we can ever know. According to Nietzsche, Christianity was a weaponized idea used by the priests to defeat the knights, and nothing more.
Cut through all of the fancy words and impressive footnotes, and the “critical theory” arguments about race, intersectionality, equity, institutional this and that, etc. are really just about power. The ideas and ideals held by the “privileged” are hegemonic tools to sustain their “supremacy.” The project of “deconstruction” is simply a means of taking away that power. The morality of that project is determined solely by their success at redistributing that power. When Claudine Gay resigned from the presidency of Harvard, calls that her replacement must also be a black woman were coated in the language of diversity, but the point was about power—power for my group, my team.
Privilege is a term used to reassign privilege elsewhere. Schools should de-privilege certain demographics or kinds of students in favor of other demographics and other kinds of students. They may say they are eliminating privilege, but they’re simply privileging others by changing the criteria for admission. That’s the argument for getting rid of standardized tests—they privilege the wrong kinds of students. After all, the heirs to Nietzsche insist, “objective” standards are impossible, so … why not? Those standards were just tools of oppression anyway.
The Johns Hopkins University chief diversity officer sent out an email earlier this week explaining the “Diversity Word of the Day”—“privilege.” Privilege, she explained, is “characteristically invisible,” which is funny, since it’s her job to see it everywhere. “Privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who are in a specific social group,” she explained. “Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels and it provides advantages and favors to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of other groups.”
That’s warmed-over Nietzsche.
Who has privilege? People from the “middle or owning class,” the cisgendered, the Christians, white people, and those of us who speak English. And these groups need to be de-privileged in order to assign privilege to others based on criteria often made up on the fly by those in power, with some allusions to equity or inclusion or remedies for historical misdeeds.
This stuff reminds me of a pithy summation from David Burge (aka Iowa Hawk) on how the Nietzschean left operates: “1. Identify a respected institution. 2. kill it. 3. gut it. 4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.”
Consider anti-racism. People like Ibram X. Kendi argue that racism is determined not by what’s in your heart, but in your objective actions. That sounds more Marxist than Nietzschean. But his definition of “objective actions” is entirely dependent on supporting policies that distribute power and privilege to black people. Any standard that gets in the way of that effort is a racist tool of oppression. The term “racist” is denuded of all meaning save as an instrument of power. That is what I mean by Nietzschean.
Indeed, Nietzsche would have recognized the oppressor/oppressed narrative that suffuses everything from Black Lives Matter, to anti-Israel protests, to calls to “decolonize” everything from architecture and education to language and cuisine as a kind of unconfessed homage to Nietzsche’s explanation of how Christian “slave morality” triumphed. Instead of the meek inheriting the earth, the spoils of this earth will be redistributed (for a fee) to whomever they designate as the “oppressed.”
The mere fact that I was momentarily nervous about using the word “slave” just now is a tribute to the power the thought-policers have clawed unto themselves. The fear of using the wrong word—or the right word!—demonstrates the power behind these forces.
Think of it this way: There is great power—cultural, political, legal, power—in the concept of “powerlessness.” Claiming powerlessness confers its own kind of privilege.
As people have been saying to the countries of the Middle East for decades to no avail, take the Palestinians.
In the years after World War II, the world was awash with refugees. But only one group is still counted as refugees from that era: Palestinians. Unlike all other refugee groups, the Palestinians have their own relief agency: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNWRA. A chimera of bureaucracy, lobbying outfit, and jobs program, its purpose is to keep Palestinians as perpetually powerless refugees until they can be deployed to repopulate Israel after it’s been made judenfrei from the River to the Sea.
This week, UN Watch—an invaluable nonprofit that tracks anti-Israel bias at the United Nations—revealed that some 3,000 teachers who work for UNWRA, had a chat group in which they celebrated the mass rape and murder of October 7. And why not? The butchers were undoubtedly former students, acting on what they were taught. Remember when you used to ask your algebra teacher, “Will I ever use this in real life?” Students in Gaza never ask that when covering the need to kill the Jews.
Palestinian powerlessness is a manufactured reality for the purpose of continuing the political, cultural, and on occasion literal, war on Israel. Hamas may make a big fuss about their martyrs, but they can’t hold a candle to the U.N.’s institutionalized martyrology of an entire people.
Let’s turn to these protests in the United States, where Hamas supporters, or mere Israel haters, block traffic across the U.S. Noah Rothman had a good post on the point of these acts of brazen lawlessness. The purpose isn’t to persuade, he writes; it’s to demonstrate purity.
I agree but see it a little differently, too. These asinine tantrums are a demonstration of radical commitment and a statement of self-righteous powerlessness. They’re attempts to delegitimize the status quo and prove that “the system” simply runs on the power of the privileged. They want to manufacture a morality that says rape and murder is bad, but rape and murder of Israelis doesn’t count.
Also, while I agree with Noah that the participants are happy to be props in their radical cosplay and useful idiocy, I do think the organizers have a theory of persuasion. They know that many liberals have a soft spot for radical commitment. Since they make compromises with the demands of bourgeois life, they romanticize those who do not compromise. The squishy liberals of the 1960s caved time and again to the violent radicals in the streets or on campus, in part because they envied them and their will-to-power, and in part because they feared it.
Central to all forms of unreasonable radicalism is the desire to strike fear in the hearts of the reasonable—because it works. For some people who don’t really believe in anything, not enough to pay a steep price for it, the radically committed look like a kind of force of nature. This thinking is behind why so many believe Vladimir Putin must be appeased, both on the Trumpian right and the anti-American left. Putin is a Force, and expecting him to be reasonable or decent is like expecting a tidal wave to be merciful. Only Putin’s victims have agency, and that agency should drive them to compromise. Don’t make the bear angry, just give it what it wants. Similarly, Hamas is driven by pure will and even purer commitment, while Israelis are oppressors who can make different choices. Hamas’ Aesopian need to rape, murder, and kidnap is a constant; the only variable is how Israeli’s should respond to it.
Everywhere I look these days I see efforts to bend reality to the demands of power. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss has a great piece in the Wall Street Journal on the pervasive effort to make the unconstructed, unmanufactured, physical reality around into a new battleground for literary will-to-power. He cited papers and lectures with titles like, “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study,” and “Undergraduate Mathematics Education as a White, Cisheteropatriarchal Space and Opportunities for Structural Disruption to Advance Queer of Color Justice.” Just the other day, Scientific American published a new installment in its ongoing self-beclownment called, “The Language of Astronomy Is Needlessly Violent and Inaccurate.” Why talk about the “collision” of galaxies when we can speak of them “hugging”?
I know I’m running long, so I’ll just make three final quick points.
First, just to provide a little equal time, I should say that there are a lot of folks on the right who have completely given up on defending norms, truths, principles, ideals etc.—at least when inconvenient to their cause. That’s even more so when the cause is supporting a certain man of strength who will bend reality to his ubermenschian will. But you know where I am coming from on that.
Second, I can anticipate that many will say that none of the people I am describing know the first thing about Nietzsche and don’t see themselves as marching to the measure of his thought. And they’re (mostly) right! But that was Holmes’ point. And more importantly, it was Nietzsche’s too. He didn’t dispute that faithful Christians were sincere in their faith. He claimed that this was the secret to Christianity’s success in redefining reality.
Last, Nietzsche might have been right about a lot of this. I don’t think he necessarily was (it depends on what we’re talking about). Where I think Nietzsche and his postmodern, structuralist, post-structuralist, and nihilist heirs are wrong is to argue that just because some standards and ideals benefit some people over others, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be our standards and ideals. Again, I don’t buy their arguments, but even if they are right to one degree or another that we live in a godless, uncaring, universe, and that the only meaning that exists is transitory and man-made, that doesn’t mean that all standards of good, truth, merit, and decency are fraudulent or unjust. That argument might make (more) sense to me in some prehistoric past where the differences between different groups of savages were essentially aesthetic. Though even then, I am sure that some tribal societies were less cruel than others.
But civilization is real. Humanity has clawed its way out of barbarism slowly (this was the central point of Suicide of the West). And in the process we’ve learned some things. Slavery is bad. Rape is bad. Cruelty for its own sake is evil. Liberty and the rule of law are good. Now, I believe these and similar things as matters of both capital T and lowercase t truth. But even if these are only lowercase truths, or ever “personal truths,” they can be defended with reason, facts, data, and appeals to rightly formed consciences. In other words, even if all standards and ideals are in some sense “socially constructed,” that doesn’t mean that all social constructions are morally or empirically equal. The Taj Mahal is constructed and so is a balsa wood outhouse. We can value one more than the other. The right to a fair trial is a social construct and so is child sacrifice. I’m happy to privilege the former over the latter.
The postmodernists can wage their wars on reason as a heteronormative tool of cispatriarchy all they like. They’ll still be wrong. But wrongness doesn’t settle the matter. Across the ideological landscape, combatants of the left and right believe that “norms” are either meaningless, or meaningfully inconvenient, obstacles to the realization of power for their faction. And if the Nietzscheans of the left or right are correct that all it takes to change reality is to change the “truth of man”—as Sartre put it—then convincing people that all arguments of principle are just contests of power means that might will make right, again.
As Bertrand Russell noted over a century ago, “In the absence of any standard of truth other than success, it seems evident that the familiar methods of the struggle for existence must be applied to the elucidation of difficult questions, and that ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.”
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So the Fair Jessica has finally returned, and there was much quadrupedal (and bipedal) rejoicing. Pippa was so excited she forgot to tell people what day it is this morning; I shudder to think of the cost to GDP by the confusion I sowed. One of the downsides of posting videos of the beasts on Twitter is that I keep getting asked about Zoë’s giant shoulder lump. I appreciate the concern, but having to constantly explain that it’s lipoma, it’s benign, and we can’t operate on it becomes a chore. That said, Zoë has been acting a little weird lately. She gets kinda mellow from time to time. It’s not that her appetite is gone, but sometimes she loses her customary enthusiasm for eating immediately. But she was fine this morning. In other news, Pippa has been working on her snarl.