In the rising far-right, philosophers are seeing a return of the ‘bad’ Nietzsche
|National Post 21 Sep 2018 at 09:58|
A growing chorus of worriers has lately made this point about the 19th century German philosopher. They warn that the often ignored “bad” Nietzsche, the “godfather of fascism,” has returned as an inspiration for current politics. They point, for example, to the American white nationalist Richard Spencer, who has said Nietzsche “red-pilled” him, or opened his eyes to the hidden structure of the world.
More ominous is Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump advisor and leading thinker of the alt-right, whose explicit goal of destroying the modern liberal egalitarian order with a kind of cleansing chaos is nothing if not Nietzschean.
But what to do about this in the classroom is a matter of debate. Some, like the psychologist Steven Pinker, have suggested the more extreme no-platforming solution of blacklisting Nietzsche and his “repellent” writings, as was also done to Bannon at the recent New Yorker ideas festival, leading to similar calls to cancel his November Munk Debate in Toronto. Others prefer more subtle warnings and contextualizations.
Regardless, there is broad agreement that universities cannot simply keep teaching Nietzsche as they traditionally have, as the forerunner of postmodernism and, therefore, an intellectual ally of the progressive left. He is not that and never was, according to Ronald Beiner, chair of political science at the University of Toronto Mississauga and author of the new book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right.
On the contrary, Nietzsche and his philosophical successor Martin Heidegger have inspired political reactionaries from Adolf Hitler to current far-right leaders in Europe. All have taken on some form of Nietzsche’s political project to undo the moral legacy of equality and freedom that emerged from the French Revolution.
There is “a little more poison in these thinkers than their enthusiasts in the academy have bargained for,” says Beiner, who advocates cautious reading rather than blacklisting. “Now all the red lights are flashing, and that changes things dramatically, both with respect to Nietzsche and Heidegger, but especially Nietzsche. I think we now have a duty as educators to highlight the scary bits.”
Beiner says Bannonism, for example, is “definitely about bringing the whole liberal dispensation crashing down to the ground; that destroying what currently exists, as led by liberal elites, matters more than anything positive you create.”
Nietzsche, likewise, had what Beiner describes as an “insane recklessness… as if nothing he could write, no matter how irresponsible, no matter how inflammatory, could possibly do any harm. All that matters is raising the stakes, and there is no such thing as raising the stakes too high.”
No one is likely to accuse Trump or populists like Ontario Premier Doug Ford of being unduly influenced by their readings of Nietzsche, but it is easy to recognize them in that description.
Nietzsche casts a kind of spell. He bewitches people
That is the thing with Nietzsche. His ideas have long since escaped the library into pop cultural caricature.
“Nietzsche casts a kind of spell. He bewitches people,” Beiner says, and points to the line in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “I love the great despisers because they are the great adorers, they are arrows of longing for the other shore.”
In other words, Nietzsche promises a dream world beyond the limits of this despicable one, but right here on Earth, not in some promised afterlife as in Christianity. Read him, and revolutionary vistas open up.
These ideas are particularly seductive to readers just out of their teens. Nietzsche knew this, and deliberately wrote for the young, using rhetoric “like a fuse,” Beiner says. But he also worried about misreadings of his work, whether naive or malicious. As Beiner quotes him: “The sort of unqualified and utterly unsuitable people who may one day come to invoke my authority is a thought that fills me with dread.”
There have been similar worries about teaching Karl Marx, given the communist legacies of Stalin and Mao. But with Nietzsche the dangers are clearer. They are right there in the texts. He admired caste morality, affirmed slavery, incited genocide, and was trying to re-legitimize hierarchies of human beings.
“So are people on the alt-right. Hence the appeal of Nietzsche to them,” Beiner says. “They’re very clear about why Nietzsche is their hero… They think their Nietzsche is the real Nietzsche. And they may well be right.”
Nietzsche’s newly sinister political relevance has snuck up on the modern academy. A combination of historical illiteracy and misreading has allowed him to be typically cast as an ally of the academic left because he inspired its leading figures, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Postmodernism, the trend of thought that has reshaped the humanities, ultimately came from Nietzsche, and his intellectual successor Heidegger. They took the first damaging kicks at Western metaphysics, the way the modern mind understands itself and its orientation toward the world. After Nietzsche, the grand old binaries started to crack: true/false, beautiful/ugly, sane/insane, rational/irrational, good/bad. After Nietzsche, it became the duty of the philosopher to relieve the oppression of these constraints, to break them down.
So the left saw Nietzsche as a liberator from false authority, especially Christian morality. To accept him as one of their own, however, they had to sanitize, ignore, or conceal his dark side of illiberal, undemocratic, and anti-egalitarian views.
A generation ago, as communism collapsed, this uneasy arrangement made sense. Nietzsche’s criticisms of liberal modernity were useful to the left. He was anti-religious, anti-nationalist and anti-racist. His work on difference and individuality could be marshaled against lingering problems of, for example, homophobia and patriarchy.
Mid-century European fascism was being conveniently forgotten. Today, though, liberal democracy looks a lot more vulnerable. Fascists threaten to reclaim power in Europe, inspired by their ideological cousins in America, directed from behind the scenes by men like Bannon.
“Obviously, not many people taking seminars on the thought of Nietzsche in grad school will turn into neofascists,” Beiner writes. “It doesn’t follow from that fact that there aren’t things in Nietzsche’s work (or in Heidegger’s) capable of turning people into neofascists.”
Philosophy professors recognize this problem of budding extremists in the classroom, even if they rarely worry much about it.
“We all have students who come to philosophers like Ayn Rand and Nietzsche,” says Peter Gratton, who teaches philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland. They can be recognized by their black clothing, their proto-capitalist views, their sense of alienation and self-reliance weirdly coupled with a tribal allegiance to some nation or brotherhood.
“It’s an amateur relationship to these texts,” Gratton says, a “teenage mentality” in which “the problem with the world is my parents.”
“What you see in the alt-right is this adolescence gone mad,” Gratton says. “You see people thrashing about for something that gives them pre-given meaning.”
Famously, that meaning used to come from church, and without it, there is a risk of nihilism. Read with a certain slant, Nietzsche and Heidegger offer something beyond nihilism, an intoxicating vision of human progress that relies on some dodgy, quasi-spiritual beliefs.
In his allegory of the Übermensch, or “superman,” for example, Nietzsche foretold a superior race of aristocrats who were free to create new values in the absence of God. When Heidegger picked up Nietzsche’s torch, it illuminated a world of hyper-nationalist men in uniforms, celebrating their Volkisch rootedness, fearing and despising others. It was Nietzsche with a twist.
“That’s a very dangerous world, and that world is back in front of us,” Beiner says. “That’s why I wrote the book. I’m terrified.”
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