Reading Nietzsche at the RNC

“Beware of those in whom the will to punish is strong.”


I thought this week was as good a time as any to pick up Nietzsche again; the rise of Trump’s “law and order campaign” reminded me of Nietzsche’s warnings about just such a danger, i.e. a messianic cult with an insular ideology of restoring some vague past glory while punishing some out-group(s) for soiling it—especially with “Make America great again” sounding so eerily similar (albeit not identical) to the messaging of the National Socialists in the ’30s.

It’s worth noting that there is apparently a correlation between belief in free will and the desire to punish, which I’ve written about here. Of course Nietzsche was critical of both. But what would he say about the RNC? Well let’s see, there’s already been a show trial, complete with a call-and-response “guilty!” chant reminiscent of the Inquisition, a plagiarized speech (about the virtue of hard work, ironically), and the invocation of Lucifer as one of many—and some even more demonized—political enemies (I guess Ben Carson has not read his Voltaire). I think it’s safe to say that Nietzsche would be fairly appalled, although he may have chuckled at the billboard for the movie “God’s Not Dead 2” (I haven’t seen the first one), if it had been posted as planned.

That the fundamentalist Right needs to insist that God is not dead (no show trial for his murderers either, shucks) is, however, an indication that doubt continues to creep in among the ranks of the Crusaders. Nietzsche, were he able to address them, might remind them that most do not have the courage to face what they really know, deep down. And so the circus continues.

A Downside of the Marketplace of Ideas

From “Why bad ideas refuse to die”:

There is certainly some truth in the thought that competition between ideas is necessary for the advancement of our understanding. But the belief that the best ideas will always succeed is rather like the faith that unregulated financial markets will always produce the best economic outcomes. As the IMF chief Christine Lagarde put this standard wisdom laconically in Davos: “The market sorts things out, eventually.” Maybe so. But while we wait, very bad things might happen.

The article is about how conspiracy theories, like the resurgent flat-Earth theory, continue to thrive in an environment full of—indeed, constantly bombarded by—information that should sink the ideas once and for all. These kids of theories survive for all kinds of reasons (comfort, intrigue, a desire for cohesion in a cold, indifferent universe), but one reason, as I wrote about here, is that many conspiracies really did happen. From the article:

And we should not give in to the temptation to conclude that belief in a conspiracy is prima facie evidence of stupidity. Evidently, conspiracies really happen. Members of al-Qaida really did conspire in secret to fly planes into the World Trade Center. And, as Edward Snowden revealed, the American and British intelligence services really did conspire in secret to intercept the electronic communications of millions of ordinary citizens. Perhaps the most colourful official conspiracy that we now know of happened in China. When the half-millennium-old Tiananmen Gate was found to be falling down in the 1960s, it was secretly replaced, bit by bit, with an exact replica, in a successful conspiracy that involved nearly 3,000 people who managed to keep it a secret for years.

And for all of them that are suggested that didn’t really happen, there are hundreds of other theories that just as well could happen, given the power, corruption, greed, and inhumanity of most modern governments. I can’t remember where I read this line, but it stuck with me: the lizard-people theory is resonant mainly because the people in the corporate-military elite are so different from the rest of us that they might as well be lizards.

The Earth really is round, though.


Okay I’m back to posting after a few-week break; the start of summer (and, more precisely, of summer camps) became a busy time: a time for action and reflection but not for writing. But it’s time to pick things up again, blog-wise. Let’s start, then, with an article about masturbation, shall we?

From “A Handy History“, or “The Body as Amusement Park”:

In more pleasure-conscious modern times, the balance has tipped towards personal gratification. The acceptance of personal autonomy, sexual liberation and sexual consumerism, together with a widespread focus on addiction, and the ubiquity of the internet, now seem to demand their own demon. Fears of unrestrained fantasy and endless indulging of the self remain. Onania’s 18th-century complaints about the lack of restraint of solitary sex are not, in the end, all that far away from today’s fear of boundless, ungovernable, unquenchable pleasure in the self.

There’s so much going on in this paragraph that it’s difficult to unpack with any kind of brevity. The main point, though, is that in our culture of endless and immediate pleasure, we are less and less able to appreciate—and then apply—skills like contemplation, patience, and humility: all virtues (for lack of better word) that will be increasingly important in the face of ongoing global ecological crises. And when the culture itself is an addiction (we can’t live without air conditioning, just as the drug addict cannot live without her substance of choice—which in America is heroin, increasingly), there’s little chance that we will be able to abstain from its excesses in time to stop a complete societal overdose. People would actually rather die for their iphones (while allowing countless human and nonhuman lives to be sacrificed for their production) than even imagine a world without them—let alone live in that world, let alone build such a world.

One glaring omission in the essay, which recounts some mentions of masturbation in popular culture (Seinfeld’s “The Contest” being a personal favorite), is of course David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which Canada, the USA, and Mexico have all been forcibly joined into ONAN, the Organization of North American Nations. That actions, governments, and societies are described as being ONANite, or that celebrations like the ONANtiad are described in detail, should point one to one of the major themes (if not the major theme) of the book: addiction, and the danger of endless pleasure-seeking, and the corrosive affect such addiction has when an entire culture is based on immediate gratification at the expense of connection, honesty, and sentiment.

Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with masturbation, and I should hope that my lack of moral objection to such an activity would come as no surprise. But there is something wrong with a masturbatory culture.

My earlier thoughts on finishing Infinite Jest:

One of the main themes of I.J. is addition: to drugs, to entertainment, to success, to identity, to meta-identity. The possible silliness of critiquing media and entertainment, especially the world-wide web, on my very own little corner of the internet is not lost on me here, when thinking about all these aforementioned things as really ways to complete circuits; drugs are just a way to have an endless conversation with one’s self, after all—and so what is a blog?

But David Foster Wallace shows through I.J. that even seemingly fully-connected loops can be broken, or should be. In this case all the severing work is done by the reader, since by looking at the existing text alone, i.e. sans mental extrapolation, it’s true that not one character ever really changes. Even substance abusers who kick their substances of choice ultimately replace them with other “substances”: drugs for AA, freedom for ideology, perceived happiness for perceived success. Even after major geo-political reconfigurations/cataclysms, people are still just thinking about scholarships and tennis and more drugs. What is broken, then, is the reader’s muddling through this daily existence (see “This Is Water”, the joke of which is also found in I.J.) thinking that media (in our case mostly TV and the internet) is ultimately right about us: that we—especially Americans—are cynical, pleasure-seeking automatons, and that consequently our political-economic arrangements are simply the best we can do.

I don’t think we can do anything about climate change, but the point is we can’t do anything about anything if we don’t ever stop and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing—day in and day out. If we don’t break the loop.