A few years ago, while working out at my gym in Brooklyn, I was paired with a young man named Richard Spencer for a ‘partner workout’ (I learned his first name during our pre-class introductions; the rest followed once we began our workout.) We took turns performing the assigned exercises at intervals, encouraging the other one as we rested in between our turns. After we worked out, Spencer asked me what I did for a living; he was intrigued to find out I was a professor of philosophy. Spencer said he was interested in philosophy, and had taken some classes while he was a student at the University of Chicago a few years previously. (Indeed, his MA might have been in philosophy; I cannot now remember.) Spencer asked me who my ‘favorite’ philosopher was; I said I did not have one but found much of interest in a motley crew I had grown fond of over the years. Spencer said he was interested in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche; I said I was too, and hoped to teach a class on his provocative doctrines someday. I do not know if our conversation flourished over this point; I’ve often found conversations about Nietzsche frustrating because, all too often, I find my interlocutors honing in on doctrinal points–like the Übermensch, for instance–that are far less interesting to me than many other more interesting aspects of Nietzsche’s work. In any case, Spencer said he was interested in Heidegger too; I said I found Heidegger quite inscrutable at the best of times. Our conversation floundered at this stage; Spencer wanted to talk a bit more about Heidegger but I could sense his understanding of Heidegger was minimal, and given my own lack of interest, did not feel I could meaningfully engage him in a conversation about Heidegger. (I’ve had similar conversations with many folks who want to talk to me about Heidegger; they are intrigued by Heidegger–or at least, they feel they should be; they ‘read’ a bit of Heidegger; they imagine they have figured out enough of the language to start using it to indicate they have read Heidegger. )
I met and worked out with Spencer a couple of more times. On each occasion, he was unfailingly courteous and friendly, and always keen to strike up conversation with me. He clearly considered himself an intellectually inclined person, and conversations with a professor of philosophy seemed to fit into his conception of what a good workout at the gym should include. A month or so later, he shook my hand after a workout and said he was going to say goodbye; he was leaving New York City. He bade farewell to the coaches at the gym and was gone.
This past election night, while watching the results come in with a pair of friends–who coach at the gym I work out at–I learned that the young man I used to work out with was a Richard Spencer who has acquired some recent notoriety as a prominent figure on the American ‘alt-right’, as “an American white nationalist known [who] is president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank, and Washington Summit Publishers, an independent publishing firm [and] describes himself as an identitarian.”
In an article on Spencer (written back in 2010, the year after I met Spencer), Alex Knepper wrote:
The ‘Alternative Right’ most diverges with American conservatism in the way that it takes a sledgehammer to classical liberalism. A crude ‘might is right’ philosophy is applied to human action, with the understanding that group loyalty and self-preservation within the collective is the only way to prosper. Richard Spencer seems to have picked at least part of it up after a hideously poor reading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche — he is a self-proclaimed Nietzsche fanatic (although, like most wannabe-ubermensches, Spencer is little more than a scribbler).
I did not talk for long or deeply enough with Spencer to figure out whether his reading of Nietzsche was a “hideously poor” one or not; (Spencer clearly imagines himself a romantic Nietzschean figure of sorts; this hokey article, titled “Facing the Future as a Minority” features Caspar Friedrich‘s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog–of course.) I do find it interesting, in retrospect, that the two philosophers Spencer wanted to talk about are both associated with Nazism: unfairly in Nietzsche’s case, and appropriately so in Heidegger’s. Now I wish I had inquired further, but back then, our conversations simply did not go far enough. There wasn’t enough there to engage with.
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