Friday, September 21, 2018

Nietzsche teaches: Don’t let Trump’s vileness make us vile too

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," by Goya (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     “Beyond Good and Evil,” a cornerstone of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, contains one section that is a list of numbered maxims.
     They veer from true to false, profound to ridiculous, current to outdated. No. 144, for instance, begins, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexuality,” which I guess passed for insight in 1886, when the book was published, but has not aged well, beyond offering a gli
mpse into how certain guys thought then and no doubt still do.
     Others are sharp and useful, such as No. 68, worth bearing in mind as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does o
r does not remember what he might or might not have done at a party in high school:
     “I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — the memory yields.”
     Does it ever. People whitewash their pasts trying to fit their own pristine estimations of themselves. Which is stupid, given the universality of sin, and the freeing effect of simply admitting the wrongs you’ve done. Honesty can be hard, which is why people lie and distort. But it rewards us in the long run.
     No. 146 is my favorite, useful in all sorts of situations — really, it’s like a cordless electric drill — and came fluttering to mind earlier this week, as Twitter lit up with anatomical details from the new memoir by Stormy Daniels, the porn star who had sex with Donald Trump, who botched the payoff meant to silence her.

      If you've been in a cave and missed it, sorry, I'm not going into detail. Google "Trump" and "mushroom," but not while eating.
      Done? Good. Back to Nietzsche. Since quotes get twisted, let's begin with the original German: "Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird."
      The non-German speaker trying to make sense of that might recognize the word "kämpft"—struggle, or fight—from Hitler's memoir, "Mein Kampf." But the key word is "Ungeheuer,"—pronounced "un-gahoya," with that kind of strangled Teutonic swallow between the N and the G—or "monster."
     Or in English:
     "Anyone who fights with monsters, should be careful that he does not become a monster."
     Amen. At every point in American history, we see this tendency. To fight Hitler, putting his people in concentration camps, we put our own people—of Japanese descent—into concentration camps. We didn't kill them, hearty pat on the back. But we put them there.
     In the early 1950s, when we faced a grim and repressive Soviet Union, we became grim and repressive ourselves, with loyalty oaths and purges.
     Ever since Donald Trump thrust himself into our national political life, there has been a tendency of those opposed to him to nevertheless mimic the man. To distract themselves from his key failings by dabbling in his brand of pettiness, venality and obsession with looks.
    I understand why. You can only focus so long on his contempt for truth, his scorn for minorities, his disrespect for women, his disdain for American traditions, his clonic lying, bullying, love of tyrants—the list goes on, but you get the idea.
     The temptation is to take a breather, to delve into side issues, into lighter, more amusing matters: his horrendous hairdo, orange skin, pear shape, loathsome sons Eric and Donald Jr., robotic wife, lurid affairs.
      The above paragraph notwithstanding, I try to avoid all those off-point critiques of the president. Reading Stormy Daniels microscopic—a tool apparently necessary for the task at hand—assessment of the presidential assets can make you almost feel sorry for the man.
     He might deserve impeachment, but he doesn't deserve that.
     Or maybe he does. After I thought of Nietzsche's wise words, I remembered this bit of advice a sage editor once told me over a few beers: "Be careful where you put it." How much privacy can a man expect from a porn star?
     Still, we need to keep our focus. There are so many important, legitimate reasons to condemn Trump. Why get down into his cesspool and, in splashing him, spatter ourselves in the bargain? It's such a simple task to be a better person than he is — such a low bar, it would be a shame to stumble over it. Just because the man's a pig doesn't mean we should all become pigs while opposing him.


  1. I started my day, as I always do, with EGD. You cracked the code with Nietzsche. To make a point by leveraging his genius, you must acknowledge up front some of his creepily misguided insights.

    After reading your column I veered over to for my supplemental dose of thoughtfulness and ran across the following essay which I thought would interest you. It's thought provoking but take note of the author's implication that any performance institution that isn't in New York is a regional institution. Tiresome.

  2. Trump is impervious to any reasonable criticism. You could destroy his positions logically all day and he wouldn't understand or care. He's a racist and doesn't care that we know. Doesn't care about women, law, fascism, treason, etc.

    There is hope, though, that he does care what people think of his penis. He has indicated that in the past. So that might be the only way to get through to him, it might be his only soft spot.

  3. I will second that Neil, after the war on terror lots of people I once considered normal now dip into totalitarian tendencies without a second thought. In particular, after Kappernick, I find myself having to remind teachers regularly that it is in fact illegal to force students to stand for the pledge.

    1. And the Supreme Court upheld those student's right to not stand in 1943, in the middle of WWII!

  4. Nietzsche's observation about the sexuality of scholarly women probably reflected what certain guys felt. Elizabeth Montague, a lady of advanced views for her time and an early feminist, wrote in 1750 "I am sorry to say that the generality of women who have excelled in wit have failed in chastity."

    In the news this a.m., our Dear Leader, with his own record of gentlemanly behavior toward the opposite sex, has come out strongly supporting the Judge and attacking his accuser. Talk about cognitive dissonance!


    1. One thing that's consistent with our "Dear Leader" is that, no matter how inconsistent his thoughts, he'll eventually get it wrong.

  5. Cory Booker seems to have gotten it right by admitting he was wrong. Too late for Kavanaugh of course.

    As to my own conduct, my pride hasn't quite vanquished my memory, but memory is flat on the canvas and the referee has counted up to 8 or 9. Not look'n good.


  6. There are people who want to make men's lives more difficult for no other reason than the chance it provides them afterwards to offer their prescription for alleviating life; their Christianity, for instance. Friedrich Nietzsche


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