Reading Dangerously

It was with some disappointment that I closed my copy of Dangerous Minds, a very short, largely correct, almost useless book by an excellent scholar of political philosophy, the University of Toronto’s Ronald Beiner. The book, to be as fair as I can, seems to have been rushed to press to participate in the vast media circus revolving around white nationalist Richard Spencer and his thousand or so fascism-LARPing Internet acolytes. While a longer, better book might have been more helpful, this one’s glaring failures are illuminating—and can shed light on our contemporary national unease.

The unease is palpable in places like mine. A few of my politically aware Boston friends—a small minority—have maintained a basic equanimity as the great Trumpian disruption crackles across our shining screens, day after #ThisIsNotNormal day, but a larger number pronounce themselves unable to sleep, mired in depression, crippled by rage, or sick with worry for the future of our country. The less perturbed often are those who have been blessed to live some part of their lives as ideological insurgents. I count myself among them. In my case, I was born to hard-living hippies who, when I was 2 years old, became teetotaling evangelicals, and before long became the pastors of a small, impoverished Pentecostal church. Through my childhood and adolescence we supported Republicans, laid hands on the sick, eschewed secular music, and mistrusted science. All of this would be unremarkable but for the fact we lived this wild religious melodrama in the Boston area, the bleeding heart of blue America.

In the public schools I attended, my teachers spoke nonchalantly of evolution, abortion, gay rights, and the enslavement of housewifery, with perfect confidence that they and their pupils had been given the sight to see the simple right on every issue of consequence. There was no felt need for doubt or discussion, and for most of my schooling I was too shy to broach any. I’d sit with hot skin, incapable of forming a clear sentence, while the Good, True, and Beautiful were maligned with breezy self-satisfaction by some cross-country coach with a Boston accent. A big part of me believed—knew, in fact—that my teachers and classmates were blithely pounding nails in their own spiritual coffins with every word, descending further into a doctrinal darkness I could barely fathom, but I was too cowardly and inarticulate to save them—and the few times I tried they turned on me with wild, angry, uncomprehending eyes. As if I were insane. A small but persistent part of me wondered if they were right. The feeling of alienation was terrible and palpable; it hung around my gangly teenage neck like a chain.

Looking back now at the role that inhibiting chain has played in my life, I would wish it most fervently on anyone who wants to opine in public or to consider himself a citizen of the world. Provided that is, that he finds himself unable to write off his neighbors as monsters, as I was unable to do. Out of raw animal loneliness I gradually became adept at explaining and eliciting explanation. As I learned how to unpack the deep motivations for my unthinkable opinion X or Y, I never once failed to find a sympathetic ear. Disagreement was common and sometimes ineradicable, but enmity was reliably dispatched if you looked people in the eye and spoke sincerely and candidly. Or so I found. It made me think that while some of us are undoubtedly wrong on question X or Y, most people are pretty decent, uncertain, and, deep down, doing their damnedest. This is the sort of understanding I was hoping would emerge from a book purporting to explain the philosophical roots of contemporary far-right thinking.

Dangerous Minds has a simple foundational premise: The great philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger are in possession of some decidedly illiberal ideas. Herren Doktoren Nietzsche and Heidegger would be quick to cop to Beiner’s charge. Both unabashedly declare liberal societies sad, enervated, and soul-sucking; both pine for something nobler and more intense.

The main figure in the book is Nietzsche, who emerges as stern, strenuous, and manly. Beiner’s interpretation—anchored in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Twilight of the Idols (1889), as well as some earlier essays—gives us a Nietzsche drawn to harsh rules and harsh realities. He lionizes rebels and rulers who laugh in the face of restraints, conventions, and opponents. Nietzsche, as Beiner conveys his views, is fundamentally concerned with how we will thrive in a post-theistic universe, one that emphatically does not care for us, was not made for us, offers icy silence in response to our pleas for solace and succor. Instead of imagining that reality will answer one’s hopes, Nietzsche thinks that one must rise to reality’s level, becoming not just its equal but its master in strength and even cruelty. As Beiner puts it, for Nietzsche, “Nobility = life affirmation = grappling with the tragic character of existence and not being defeated by it but, on the contrary, affirming it in all its harshness.” Nietzsche’s is a bold, invigorating call for unashamed, unrelenting hunger and demand, in defiance of any putative refusal.

Beiner sums up Nietzsche’s take on what ails modernity: “Life, to be life, needs to affirm itself and push itself to transcend itself, and none of that is possible without a culture with definite boundaries that understands with perfect clarity what its purpose is.” In this view, the wide, airy, choose-your-own meaning horizon of a godless liberal society gives the common man nothing to strive toward or push against. Beiner is at least somewhat sympathetic to this diagnosis. Nietzsche, for his part, thinks that this is a crisis of epic proportions because the weak, uncreative majority desperately needs rules and goals if its members are to achieve anything like strength or feel anything like purpose.

Great men are another matter. These, according to Nietzsche, need to grapple with the meaningless, indifferent nature of the cosmos, the wide, empty horizon: Their world is “a world of fate,” Beiner writes, “of tragedy and tragic responsibility; of courage and manliness; of resoluteness and resolute masculinity; of strength, heroism, existential pathos, rock-hard fidelity to one’s own chosen values.” The great beauty possible in Nietzsche’s godless cosmos is raw, unapologetic, unwavering self-assertion, willfully building a good and affirmative life on the coldest, cruelest plane imaginable, a life of perpetual war and victory, open only to a brazen few.

The rest of us will need the safe confines of a traditional civilization, Nietzsche argues, in which our betters tell us what we must be and do, as betters have in most times and places. This is an unapologetically inegalitarian vision. It presumes that strength varies widely between individuals, that heroic strength is vanishingly rare, and that not everyone is willing or able to confront the full picture of a meaningless reality. Some will be better off with orders to follow. In summary, Beiner writes: “Nietzsche wanted creativity and open horizons for the heroic philosopher and wanted brutally closed and confined horizons for everyone else.” More succinctly: “This guy is not a liberal!”

No, he certainly is not. But perhaps Nietzsche shares his illiberalism with reality itself. This is not a possibility Beiner is willing to countenance; the larger picture of the post-theistic human predicament scarcely comes up; Darwin doesn’t figure in his account at all. Although he acknowledges Nietzsche’s acumen as a diagnostician, Beiner rejects the philosopher’s prescriptions. “Nietzsche’s positive philosophy is all nonsense or lunacy: Übermenschen, will to power, eternal recurrence of the same, a return to ancien régime-type European aristocracy. It’s impossible to take any of that seriously.” Beiner doesn’t feel the need to explain why he cannot take these prescriptions seriously, other than briefly noting that “one can’t conjure up the notion of Übermenschen without simultaneously conjuring up the notion of Untermenschen.” Perhaps the closest he comes to offering a substantive rebuttal to Nietzsche’s vision of illiberal greatness is this modest assertion from Alexis de Tocqueville: “Equality is perhaps less elevated; but it is more just, and its justice makes for its greatness and its beauty.” This, it seems, will be antidote enough. “The Tocquevillean acknowledgement of egalitarian justice is a quote that every reader of Nietzsche should cleave tightly to his or her bosom,” Beiner writes. “We need it to ward off what’s most perilous in Nietzsche’s thought.” Heavens, then; a very good thing that we came across it.

* * *

Beiner turns next to Heidegger, the German philosopher whose undeniable dalliance with Nazism is, as more evidence accrues, coming to seem something closer to a full-blown love affair. Beiner treats Heidegger’s thought as a variation on Nietzschean themes, transposing and expounding upon the Nietzschean notion that, in Beiner’s words, “we are bound by an existential obligation to live lives that are untranquilized.” In Heidegger’s case, the raw fact is that existence—both ours and the existence of this planet, tree, rock, or atom—is a wild mystery before which we can do little more than stand in awe. It is also fragile and intrinsically limited, perched always on the edge of annihilation. We tranquilize ourselves by ignoring the wondrousness of our reality, disregarding the most fundamental question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? Into and around this question Heidegger insinuates a sort of primal, mystical, death-focused vitalism that fit neatly enough with Hitler’s philosophy to get Heidegger an official position in the Third Reich.

It would be difficult to find anyone who would deny Beiner’s central claim that Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was not a liberal. But Beiner’s textual analysis—which, in the case of Heidegger, draws largely on Being and Time (1927)—leaves basically untouched the matter of why these ideas are, per his title, dangerous. That is, why are illiberal ideas bad and why would anyone find them appealing?

In an admirable concluding chapter, Beiner advises “us”—the good liberals reading his book, who find ourselves facing Trump, Bannon, Miller, et al. across the great chasm—not to fall back on a kind of secular supersessionism in which liberalism has finally won its permanent victory as all the fallacious detritus of premodern politics has been swept away by Progress. As Beiner writes, “For Rawls, Rorty, and Habermas, Nietzsche has been refuted by history and sociology. He hasn’t! He can only be refuted by a more compelling account of the human good.” Bravo. Yes. Let’s please hear it.

En route to such an argument, Beiner suggests that we must continually engage Nietzsche as a live opponent, who might just have his hand on something that is both wicked and enduringly attractive. “Reading these thinkers,” Beiner assures us,

doesn’t automatically turn us from liberals into something else (or hopefully it doesn’t!); but hopefully what it does do is draw us into a fully ambitious questioning of what human life expects of us.

This is a generally welcome exhortation, basic to the practice of philosophy, but if Beiner ever concludes his ambitious questioning (and is still a liberal!) I hope he will write another book in which we can learn what it means for “human life” to “expect” anything at all of “us” in a God-shorn universe. Nietzsche thinks it expects nothing at all, and we need to demand that it meet our expectations. One is tempted to see this as another example of Beiner’s quietly placing all of the most momentous philosophical action offstage, as if there is some agent out there called “human life” that will save us from the heavy task of judging and deciding in the absence of a Great Judge.

Professor Beiner is a deeply learned man and his instincts, especially as manifested in his concluding chapter, are wise and humane. Would that more confirmed liberals realized that history is not over and that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in A Theory of Justice. Would that more liberals at least considered shimmying across the great chasm to figure out why the political vision of Donald Trump (such as it is) might seem beautiful to a critical mass of intelligent, kind, responsible, fallible, fearful human beings. I can confidently suggest that most Trump voters fit this description because, per my research, almost everyone does if you shimmy up close enough. I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t spent so much of my life as a person whom Hillary Clinton would call deplorable, while living among wonderful people whom the deplorables would call godless, pajama-boy cucks.

Beiner’s good instincts are part of what makes his book so frustrating; he mysteriously fails to follow his own excellent counsel, as he refuses to explore or acknowledge the very real—and yes, potentially dangerous—beauty of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. But maybe he’s just exercising prudence. If these prescriptions are potentially dangerous, why bother to discern the goodness or beauty in them? These ideas are not liberal! Keep them under wraps!

There are at least two reasons not only for deeply reading these illiberal philosophers but for considering how their prescriptions might be found attractive. First, there is no such thing as a dangerless, fail-safe philosophy. Liberalism was for a time thought to be such a thing but that confidence has been shown to be too optimistic by a mile. Life is hard and confusing—we can’t afford to be ruling out interpretations willy-nilly. Second, to put it bluntly, the elite, educated failure to understand the reappearance of populist nationalism is a very bad thing, speaking on a purely practical level—on the level, in fact, of safety and danger.

* * *

I currently split my professional life between academia and the Boston art world, the most liberal corners of the most liberal state of the union. I can’t speak strongly enough about the beauty and kindness of the black, Jewish, Hispanic, gay, transgender, feminist, socialist people whom I count as colleagues and friends here. They are deep, sensitive, searching souls. As a straight, white, able-bodied male, though—one who has even occasionally voted for Republicans—I am, on paper, a perfect storm of privilege and prejudice.

Perhaps shockingly, my colleagues and I have managed to treat each other with respect and at times even deep friendship and care. That’s good—it’s wonderful, actually—but I also have the misfortune to be a regular reader of opinion journalism and social media posts. The people I speak to in my art gallery and classroom are likely, on any given day, to publish scorching social media screeds directed at people like myself. They post pictures in which they gleefully sip from mugs marked “White Male Tears” and they make sweeping, ecstatically “liked” and commented-upon pronouncements about the insidious, ubiquitous racism of people with my skin tone and about the domination, oppression, and evil that #YesAllMen daily impose upon them.

Now there are many, many injustices that plague our common life. Some are indexed to race, sex, and other identity categories; some have long, horrific histories; in some cases, the lingering fallout is in its own way horrific. Because of the way I look and dress and speak, I surely get preferential treatment from some store clerks, bank-loan officers, job interviewers, police officers.

It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

Living as I do among activists who talk the talk of “toxic masculinity” and “mansplaining” and so on, I know to take it all with a grain of salt. We’re not truly at war with one another; for the most part, we’re just playing games, enjoying the sensation of wielding high-caliber verbal weapons. But imagine being a differently situated white male—say a high-school-educated pipe-fitter from Idaho. Mightn’t you feel despised, attacked, unfairly blamed? Mightn’t you want to reply that life is very hard and that while you may have messed up in some ways you’re really doing your level best? Would you have any way of knowing that these online activists are actually decent people who would, if they sat and drank a glass of whiskey with you, realize that you too are a decent, trying-as-hard-as-you-can human being?

The rise of populist nationalism in the United States certainly has to do with economic and social issues—demographic changes, the transformation of the workforce, the effects of globalization, etc. And maybe it also has to do, as Ronald Beiner argues, with the influence of illiberal philosophers’ ideas. Maybe it is overdetermined. But whatever its causes, surely our modes of social intercourse are making things worse. A modest proposal: We should all shut the hell up for a little while, go outdoors, and try to understand the people we run into. It is hard to understand one’s neighbors in the best of circumstances, and even harder when the people you run into are unlike you in important ways. That is, however, the task we sign up for by coming to or staying in America.

The Prussia of Nietzsche’s day also included many smart and sophisticated people who obsessed over politics and believed that it was the primary forum for determining human salvation and damnation. He writes, beautifully and perhaps dangerously, that

every philosophy that believes the problem of existence to be shelved, or even solved, by a political event, is a sham philosophy. There have been innumerable states founded since the beginning of the world; that is an old story. How should a political innovation manage once and for all to make a contented race of the dwellers on this earth? If anyone believes in his heart that this is possible, he should report himself to our authorities: he really deserves to be Professor of Philosophy.

Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.

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