Stephen Miller Is Punchable, Yes, But He Is Worthy Of Emulation Too

Martin Shkreli has good cause to be aggrieved. He spent considerable time, energy and financial resources aiming to attain the title of America’s Most Punchable Person, and succeeded spectacularly. Unfortunately, the incoming Trump administration has upended many American verities, and Shkreli has found himself similarly displaced from the hearts and minds of the American people. The first pretender to the throne was Richard Spencer, the sunglasses-wearing neo-Nazi who, demonstrating once again that half-baked racial political theories will have a long life in the warm glow of the Bannon rays emanating from the White House, earned himself a punch in the face on the day from one of the half a dozen or so spectators attending the Trump inauguration. Now, another contender is here, and I’m afraid that Shkreli’s pretensions must be put to bed: there is no way that even the smirking, obnoxious, ‘Pharma Bro’ can contend with Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s national policy adviser. (Duke University has a lot to answer for; both Spencer and Miller are Duke graduates. While Spencer does not seem to have distinguished himself with any overt racism during his college days, Miller set the groundwork early for his work in the Trump administration by earning a reputation as an unrepentant racist. An academic friend of mine–who teaches at Duke–noted that while he never had the (dis)pleasure of teaching Miller, Miller had already established himself as a “shithead” on campus.)

Miller’s appearance on the Sunday morning talk show circuit–to lay the groundwork for the voter suppression strategy that is destined to be the centerpiece of many state legislative initiatives this year and the next, as a prelude to the 2018 mid-term elections–will be memorable for many reasons. Foremost among them, of course, is that Americans now have confirmation–if they needed any after the excruciating 2015-2016 election season–that Goebbelsian propaganda techniques i.e., the endless repetition of lies over and over again to turn them into the unvarnished truth are the new normal in national politics. (The Republican Party and conservative talk show luminaries like Rush Limbaugh, Alan Jones, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk have paved the road, and the Bannon-Miller cavalcade can now merrily zip along on its many lanes.) Voter fraud in the 2016 election is the new ‘Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate’ and unlike that oddity, this one is going to cost many Americans their vote. Moreover, thanks to the effrontery of some Federal courts and their judges in deciding to hold the legal line against the reckless exercise of executive power, the rhetorical barrage to relentlessly undermine the judicial system has continued; as Miller infamously put it, the President’s ‘authority will not be questioned.’

Miller read his lines from a teleprompter; he was prepared to implement the next piece of the Bannon communication strategy and he was efficient, even if affectless, while doing so. Offering refutations of his many lies is going to be exhausting, and Bannon and Miller know it. The only possible counter strategy is to put out an opposing message–one that actually speaks to alternative policies and visions–and to relentlessly repeat it on every possible occasion. It is no shame to learn from one’s enemies; indeed, one must.

Sporting Ability Does Not Correlate With Virtue: The Superbowl Confirmation

It was pretty easy cheering against the New England Patriots yesterday. I’m a New York Giants fan, and the Giants specialize in breaking Patriot hearts, in shattering Patriot dreams–think Superbowl XLII and Superbowl XLVI; the Patriots are a New England team, and New Yorkers dislike all New England teams; the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick are notorious benders and tweakers of the rules of the game–think ‘Deflategate‘; the Atlanta Falcons were the underdogs, aiming to bring sporting success to a city that could use some good news–Boston is blase about all its sports championships. And so on. (Bear with me while I make note of these marketing clichés.) And then, this year, there was the political subtext–which wasn’t so sub, after all. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are Trump fans; the former has been used as campaign fodder by Trump himself.

Say no more.

Apparently, we had an unambiguous moral universe set up for us. Good vs. Evil. And Evil triumphed. Moreover, Evil did so thanks to an amazing, unprecedented comeback that ensured its quarterback, coach, and team have good claims–statistical and otherwise–on being anointed one of the greatest of all time. (The Patriots’ win also allowed the obnoxious Richard Spencer‘s crowing on Twitter about how he was cheering for one of the ‘whitest’ teams in the NFL to be fruitfully rewarded.) The arc of this moral universe is long and its local curvature doesn’t seem to indicate that it is bending in the right direction.

Sporting ability does not seem to correlate with virtue–of any sort. This sad fact has often been noted and commented on by sports fans; moral reprobates win championships and prize money galore all the time; good guys often finish last.  Indeed, the playing of sport itself does not seem to make the world a better place. Football, the particular sport under scrutiny here, has done a great deal to suggest that it does not deserve spectatorial attention, indulgence, or tolerance so long as it continues to be an inherently unsafe activity organized and managed in an unsafe fashion. There are, after all, good reasons to believe NFL owners have systematically misrepresented the long-term dangers of the sport and will not allow an open, unbiased investigation into its longstanding concussion and traumatic brain injury problems. (The systematic misrepresentation of masculinity, the glorification of violence, the tolerance of domestic violence by the NFL’s commissioners, its serving as a propaganda arm of the military, are but some of the many other sins that are laid at the NFL’s door. The loud, sexist, drunk, NFL fan is a well-known American archetype–a frat boy in a team cap.)

This is all pretty disappointing stuff but it is also enlightening. We should not expect too much when we look at a sports field; least of all should we expect to find moral or political arguments justified there. The right of a people to nationhood will not, despite many wins for their sports teams, receive confirmation on a sports field; the success of a national ideology will not be confirmed by a win in a World Cup. The good news for the sports fan and the sports marketer is that this warning is not an easy one to take on board; sports fields are symbolic battlegrounds, and they’ll remain that way. At least till we find another domain of human endeavor that lends itself so easily to such easy exploitation by story tellers and myth makers.

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.