Nietzsche: prophet of the sociopaths

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In the past three decades I have read some – not all – of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, finding him often obscure, dense, opaque, and less meaningful than I had expected from so famous a name. Scottish academic Lee Spinks has managed to change my mind with his undergraduate primer on the controversial 19th century German thinker.

Spinks’s Friedrich Nietzsche (Routledge, 2003) is part of the ‘Routledge Critical Thinkers’ series, designed to make complex ideas accessible without assuming the reader has absorbed the entire body of work produced by the subject of the primer. That’s an admirable service to interested readers.

One of the most powerful impressions on me after reading Spinks was just how pervasive Nietzsche’s ideas have become, woven into the most unlikely commonplaces, like television drama, art critique, literature, political debate, and even advertising, but mostly without explicitly acknowledging that parentage. This pervasiveness makes it easy to respond to direct contact with his unadulterated ideas with an indifferent shoulder shrug. Until it is recalled he originated these now normalised concepts when they might have been seen as revolutionary, and that his ideas have become enormously influential despite a common, naïve condemnation of his work as ideological justification for fascist excesses. Or was it because of that association? He was, in fact, rather contemptuous of any ideological justification for terror, and would have been disgusted by the Nazis as examples of weak, slavish, ressentiment-driven malefactors.

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Luminous realm of values

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Christopher Hitchens used to tell a story. A good natured but stupid ‘nature’ class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day ventured to explain that grass and leaves were green as god’s gift to mankind. He paraphrased her: ‘This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of god, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful colour for our eyes!’ Nine-year-old Hitchens concluded: ‘That’s bullshit!’ Bang. Done. The Eureka moment from which he extrapolated all the other idiocies that flow from humans presuming to speak for god.

For me the matter was less certain and more complex, but no less fundamental. And it applies much more widely than just to matters of religious authority proper. The purview is all human reasoning.

Let’s take a detour via Jean Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture, ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, which some have argued should have been translated as ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. The distinction is not as inconsequential as it may seem. The translation of this lecture from the French by Philip Mairet contains the sentence: ‘Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.’ A sentence that, when considered carefully, is not just profound, but one of the most elegant literary renditions of any idea in the modern era. In fact, it was such a perfect phrasing that I wondered whether there had been a mistranslation of ‘numinous’ for ‘luminous’. I had to check various sources, but in those I can lay my hands on it is at least a universal mistake, if it is a mistake at all.

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In god we trust …

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On the face of it Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article ‘The Dark Ages’[1] is just an overdue forensic account of when and how the rule of law was openly abandoned in the US, but in its unusual, almost tortuously sterile language is actually contained an account of how the US has led a Western abandonment of liberal democracy, of all pretense at public morality, and of all legitimate claim to represent a higher, more refined form of liberty or justice than anyone else.

It is inevitable that others will argue that some of the trends described here were already evident in different times and circumstances, and that may be sustainably argued, but it seems no single chain of events so definitively separated what was before the events known as 9/11, and how things are afterwards.

Perhaps the most bitter irony of Lepore’s account is that it was jurists, the supposed centurions of the rule of law, and the justice it should represent, who drafted, endorsed, supported and did not oppose George Bush’s measures arrogating to the executive government of the USA the ‘right’ to kidnap, detain, torture, and indefinitely incarcerate almost anyone anywhere on the planet without any legal process at all.

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Internet freedom is a chimera that dances only to an American tune

The following polemic arose from some heated discussion on Google Plus about what Sergey Brin appeared to say in a Guardian article on 15 April, and then sought to clarify on Google Plus itself . It is also more directly a reply to Dieter Mueller’s commentary (since deleted from Google Plus) on both those points of discussion.

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