The Republicans Will Ride Out This Latest ‘He Can’t Survive This’ Moment

As usual, anxious liberals and American citizens all over the nation are waiting, with bated breath and a dollop of some old-fashioned American optimism, for the Great Abandonment: that crystalline moment when the Republican Party will decide that enough is enough, issue a condemnation–with teeth–of Donald Trump, begin scurrying away from his sinking ship, and for good measure, initiate impeachment proceedings. There’s been many moments like this: grab-their-pussy and the various bits of La Affaire Russia have served to provide the best examples of these in the recent past. Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and their usual brand of toxic racism and violence have now provided the latest instance of a possible ‘he can’t survive this’ moment–‘this is when the Republicans grow a vertebra, denounce Nazism–oh, how difficult!–and its sympathizers and enablers, and bring this particular Trump Tower crashing down.

Unfortunately this Godot-ish vigil will have to persist a little longer. Perhaps till the end of the Trump presidency. Condemnation of the President has been issued by some: Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio for instance. But there is no party-level move to censure; there is no sign that there is widespread movement among the Republicans to either distance themselves from Trump or do anything more than issue the easiest political statement of all regarding disapproval for Nazis.

The electoral calculus, the bottom-line politically, is that Republican voters care little about Trump’s being in bed with white supremacists, the KKK, and sundry other deplorables; they elected him to assuage their racial anxieties, and he continues to do that by standing up even for cross-burning, swastika tattooed, hooded folk. A Republican Congressman or Senator who denounces Trump risks electoral suicide; the Trump ‘base’ will turn on him or her with indecent haste. Under the circumstances, far better to issue generic denouncements and move on, hoping and knowing this storm will blow over. When private business corporations dump offensive employees–perhaps for racist, abusive speech or other kinds of socially offensive behavior–they do so on the basis of a calculus that determines the nature and extent of the economic loss they will have to bear if they persist in supporting their offending employee; when it is apparent that customers will not tolerate that behavior, the decision is made for the employer. That same calculus in the case of Republican voters suggests there is no loss forthcoming–the strategy suggested is precisely the one on display: a little bluster, a little obfuscation, some hemming and hawing, a few offensive suggestions that the offensive behavior was in response to other behavior ‘asking for it’ and so on. Still riding on S. S. Donald Trump, sailing right on over the edge to the depths below–even as the merry band of carpetbaggers on board keep their hands in the national till.

I’ve made this point before on this blog (here; here; here; here); I repeat myself. Repetition is neurotic; I should cease and desist. But it is not easy when neurotic repetition is visible elsewhere–in this case, in the American polity.

Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

Conversations (Brief Ones) With Richard Spencer, Neo-Nazi

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.

Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.