Steven Pinker Should Read Some Nietzsche For Himself

Steven Pinker does not like Nietzsche. The following exchange–in an interview with the Times Literary Supplement makes this clear:

Question: Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Pinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”

The answers that Pinker seeks–in response to his plaintive query–are staring him right in the face. To wit, ‘we’ study Nietzsche with great interest because:

1. If indeed it is true that Nietzsche’s ‘ravings…inspired so many repugnant movements’–and these ‘movements’ have not been without considerable import, then surely we owe it to ourselves to read him and find out why they did so. Pinker thinks it ‘It’s easy to see why’ but surely he would not begrudge students reading Nietzsche for themselves to find out why? Moreover, Nietzsche served as the inspiration for a great deal of twentieth-century literature too–Thomas Mann is but one of the many authors to be so influenced. These connections are worth exploring as well.

2. As Pinker notes with some understatement, Nietzsche was a ‘punchy stylist.’ (I mean, that is like saying Mohammad Ali was a decent boxer, but let’s let that pass for a second.) Well, folks in the humanities–in departments like philosophy, comparative literature, and others–often study things like style, rhetoric, and argumentation; they might be interested in seeing how these are employed to produce the ‘sociopathic ravings’ that have had such impact on our times. Moreover, Nietzsche’s writings employ many different literary styles; the study of those is also of interest.

3. Again, as Pinker notes, Nietzsche ‘extolled the individual superman rather than a master race,’ which then prompts the question of why the Nazis were able to co-opt him in some measure. This is a question of historical, philosophical, and cultural interest; the kinds of things folks in humanities departments like to study. And if Nietzsche did develop some theory of the “individual superman,” what was it? The humanities are surely interested in this topic too.

4. Lastly, for Pinker’s credibility, he should find a more serious history of philosophy than Bertrand Russell‘s A History of Western Philosophy, which is good as a light read–it was written very quickly as a popular work for purely commercial purposes and widely reviled in its time for its sloppy history. There is some good entertainment in there; but a serious introduction to the philosophers noted in there can only begin with their own texts. If Pinker wants to concentrate on secondary texts, he can read Frederick Copleston‘s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture; this work, written by a man largely unsympathetic to Nietzsche’s views and who indeed finds him morally repugnant, still finds them worthy of serious consideration and analysis. So much so that Copleston thought it worthwhile to write a book about them. Maybe Pinker should confront some primary texts himself. He might understand the twentieth century better.

Dear ‘Fellow’ Indians, Please Spell My Fucking Name Correctly

It’s ‘Samir’, not ‘Sameer.’ That, really, should be enough. Here is the correct spelling of someone’s name; please abide by it. But Indians will simply not comply. I’m a middle-aged man, about to hit fifty-one in a few weeks time, and my entire life,  Indians have been systematically misspelling and butchering my name with this horrendous lexicography. All are equally guilty: strangers, family, and friends. I can excuse those who have only heard my name and written to me–for after all, the pronunciation of ‘Samir’ is ‘Sameer’ and for those used to spelling phonetically, this might suggest itself as a plausible spelling. But what excuse do those have who have seen my name in print, who indeed are corresponding with me by email and have seen my name in the message header? Or even worse, what excuse do members of my family and my many friends of many years have, who continue to misspell my name? Some of these folks have known me for over thirty years, some for over twenty years. The prize must go to those who begin an email correspondence with me using the correct spelling and then a few messages later, decide they have had enough, and decide to start using ‘Sameer’ instead. On the many occasions I’ve tried to issue corrections, my pleas have been greeted with some bemusement, and never have I been granted the courtesy of a simple mea culpa.

‘Samir’ is, of course, a common name in the Arab world (especially, I believe, in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine.) There, it means: “jovial, loyal or charming companion.” (I’ve rarely had this description used for me.) The Arabic spelling is (سمير); the English spelling is as indicated (and preferred by me.) In India, where it means ” gust of wind or gentle breeze”–though my friends prefer to think of me as “hot air”–the Hindi spelling is (समीर) while both Samir’ and ‘Sameer’ are used as English spellings. That is, in India, the spelling ‘Samir’ is not unknown, though perhaps just a little less common than ‘Sameer.’ To reiterate, Indians simply have no excuse for their misspelling of my name.

Americans cannot pronounce my name correctly; I’ve slowly grown used to this frustrating state of affairs where I’m referred to as ‘Shamir,’ ‘Smear,’ ‘Sameyer’ and so on. (Pride of place though, must go to the Irish lad who called me ‘Izmir.’ No, no, call me Ishmael. Please. It shares more vowels with my name.) I suppose it’s the price that an immigrant must pay: lose your ‘homeland,’ lose your name, and so on. I’ll deal with it. (Though it will remain a mystery to me that people capable of mastering the pronunciation of ‘Arkansas’ and ‘Massachusetts’ cannot flex their linguistic muscles for a much simpler word; perhaps my ‘foreignness’ trips up their tongues.) With one rare, recent exception, Americans don’t misspell my name; once they see my name in print, they spell it correctly. Indians pronounce my name correctly; how could they not? But they can’t spell it. I wonder if those Indian kids who win the spelling bees year after year in the US could pull it off. Or perhaps their parents’ sins have been visited on them, and they too, would mangle my name.

I will make sure, in my will, to include the provision that no Indian should be allowed anywhere near the writing of my epitaph; I have no faith they will get the spelling right.

#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

Childhood Crushes – II: Jennifer O’Neill In ‘Summer Of 42’

I wasn’t alone in wishing I was Hermie. Many teenage boys–American or otherwise-had the same thoughts on seeing Summer of 42, the cinematic adaptation of Herman Raucher‘s memoirish coming-of-age novel, a movie that made me laugh very, very hard during its screening and then left me silent and devastated as I walked back to my boarding school dormitory after a night out in town. (Summer of 42 was released with an ‘A’ (Adult) rating in India, which meant that schoolboys regarded it with more than the usual teen-aged salacious interest. I was able to sneak in to see it because it was showing in a small hill town where security was lax. My first reaction on watching the movie was fury at the Indian censors for their prudish heavy-handedness. Many years on, it’s clear why it got an ‘A’: the teen-aged discussions of sex and a widow having sex with a teenager would have been anathema in India.)

Like other teenage boys, I had enjoyed this story of boys trying, clumsily and hilariously, and succeeding in mixed fashion, to lose their virginity; there were cliches aplenty, but they were bawdy and crude and surprisingly tender too. Looming over it all, over this scene of wartime homefront innocence, where life struggled to carry on as usual in the face of impending catastrophe, there was the beautiful, gentle, affectionate, friendly yet inaccessible Dorothy–played by Jennifer O’Neill–waiting for her soldier husband to come home from the Second World War. Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, from a distance, one seemingly destined to remain as remote worship, but by the end of the movie, thanks to tragedy, they have drawn together, and consummated their relationship in an encounter never to be repeated. The final scene, when Hermie emerges from Dorothy’s bedroom to find her quietly smoking on the porch, where she bids him good night and farewell, established her as a forlorn figure, destined to be lonely and lost in a world suddenly made infinitely crueler. When Hermie informs us he never heard from her again, their ‘romance’ such as it was, further immortalized O’Neill for me.

For weeks afterward, I found myself morose and downcast, wondering what happened to Dorothy. I told myself again and again, she was only a character, but I could not bring myself to believe it. This sorrow, this melancholy, this painful longing I felt; this told me she was real. Surely, such real emotions could not have imaginary, fictional subjects? Somehow, I had become Hermie–without the satisfaction of ever having been kissed on the forehead or lips by Dorothy, having danced with her, or ever being lucky enough to offer some kind of comfort to her when she needed it. I was a teenaged boy–all of fourteen–so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that ‘Summer of 42’ affected me the way it did. But for all that, there was something fragile and tender about Dorothy, something about tragedy meeting longing, that cut through everything and went to the depths of my immature heart.

O’Neill, unlike the first subject of this series on childhood crushes, has devoted herself to an activist cause I cannot get behind; she is now a pro-life crusader. My nostalgia for the past finds no support in the present, a small blessing not to be discounted. In any case, in this story, the character dominates the actual person; I missed Dorothy, but I did not ‘transfer’ my crush to the actress. (Something that happened with Nafisa Ali, and accounted for the greater longevity of that crush.)

‘Jokes’ About Country Music Fans’ Taste In Music Is All I Got For Now

Because–in the wake of Sandy Hook and Las Vegas–talking about gun control, gun regulation, background checks, mental health, institutional capture by the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party’s gun lobby, gun culture, toxic masculinity, American cultures of violence, racist understandings of ‘terrorism,’ white privilege, political hypocrisy, the rural-urban divide, and all of the rest seems to have run its course. It says something about the nature of mass shootings in America–of real, live, people who then proceed to fall down dead, their vital organs perforated by bullets–that reactions to their occurrence descends so quickly into the hunt for the perfect one-liner that will capture the stupidity and futility of ‘debate’ on ways and means to prevent them. Ideologies forestall debate; they present a state of affairs as necessary and not contingent; they deny the agency of man and the historicity of our present seemingly fixed realities. By these standards ‘gun ideology’ is wildly successful; it has constructed a vision of reality that appears immutable, impervious to intervention by political and moral actors. And thus prompted the title of this post.

But we know that ‘anti-gun’ groups do real, substantive work; they are able to bring about legislative change and regulation of firearms; there is nothing magical prima facie about firearms as an object worthy of regulation and control–sure, they are big business, and a powerful lobby works hard to keep this country awash in guns, but these are not insuperable barriers; so why the pessimism? One problem, of course, is that gun-related violence is an intersectional issue of sorts; the regulation of firearms in a country like the US, while it might bring reductions in gun-violence-related deaths at roughly the same levels that strict gun-control legislation in Australia produced following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, is also likely to suffer from all-too-American problems of its own.

For one, gun-control will almost certainly be implemented selectively with many rough edges; crackdowns on already heavily policed populations will be a distinctive feature of the new regulatory regime. White suburban owners, the demographic that produced Stephen Paddock–the Las Vegas shooter–and his ilk, will get off lightly; they will ‘surrender’ their guns last in line. This supplementation of an already brutal system of mass incarceration seems ill-advised. Given that the country’s prisons also function as a replacement mental health system, this move appears even more like a very bad idea. Moreover, in this US, an increasingly militaristic nation whose police forces resemble armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organizations, whose political institutions have been captured by a nihilistic political party, and whose economic inequality indicators continue to decline, there is a reasonable case to be made by the political radical that speaking up for the ‘disarmament’ of historically oppressed civilian populations is an act with troublesome ramifications; such moves are likely to be acts of unilateral surrendering of future political options.

These objections make it sound like gun-control is a hard task in a racist, militaristic society with rampant economic inequality running a racist mass incarceration system; which would be an accurate assessment of affairs.

The Boycotter’s Guide To The NFL

Should you or should you not boycott the NFL? Let’s review the cases for and against.

For: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting the civil rights protest conducted by Colin Kaepernick–one underway since last year when he began taking a knee during the playing of the American national anthem before NFL games; this protest has resulted in him not finding a single NFL team willing to hire him this season–while simultaneously hiring players with inferior records. (None of those players, obviously, were as ‘uppity’ as Kaepernick was.) You will thus be condemning an organization that has systematically covered up the dangerous work environment that it provides to its employees–google ‘concussion NFL cover up’; which has refused to treat the domestic violence perpetrated by its players as a problem worthy of a serious response–google ‘NFL domestic violence’; and several of whose owners donated a million dollars each to help elect an incompetent white supremacist President of the United States.

Against: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting a boycott call sent out by the aforementioned ‘incompetent white supremacist President of the United States’–who would like NFL teams to fire any players who dare to speak up in any shape or form against the systemic racism that so often afflicts their fellow Americans,failing which fans should stay away from the league.

The case for boycotting the NFL is strong regardless of the Trump Intervention. Trump’s boycott call is not directed at those who would find themselves in agreement with the actions of Colin Kaepernick–and all those who have joined him in protesting at NFL games. It is directed, instead, at those who call the players who protest thus ‘spoiled rich ungrateful millionaires.’ (Apparently, earning the wages that are due to you in the particular political economy that regulates your profession means you lose your right to protest; moreover, if rich folks don’t have a right to protest, then how come they have the right to be elected President?) That is, if you are boycotting the NFL, continue to do so. You aren’t the one Trump was talking to in the first place.

The effect of Trump’s decidedly amateurish intervention in this ‘debate’ has been singular: today’s games have been marked by widespread protests, ranging from multiple players taking the knee during the national anthem to entire teams refusing to take the field for the playing of the national anthem to singers of the anthem themselves taking a knee. It has also forced NFL owners to to cease and desist from puckering up and kissing the ample Trump backside to actually speaking up against him. (The odious owner of the much maligned New England Patriots has led the way.) There is much to enjoy in this squabbling spectacle: the protest Trump sought to condemn has only grown as a result, and the NFL’s owners have found themselves backed into a corner where precisely no friends can be found.

Meanwhile, keep your hands off the remote on Sundays, and skip the football pages in the sports section.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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