The world is looking around to find an adequate explanation for what it, all of us included, is going through right now. It is as if we are in the middle of a very bad dream and can’t wake ourselves up. Obama was far from perfect, but good lord! What did we do, collectively, to bring this current madness on us?
Can it be undone? Is this a mere aberration, a bad moment, that a certain amount of “mea culpas” and other obligatory absolutions will reverse? We’ve already tried splashing our faces with cold water. Is nothing working?
There are all kinds of new books coming out addressing this Trump thing, trying to understand it, trying to show how it can be overcome. Some are better than others. Dear Madeleine Albright! Her new book, entitled, “Fascism: A Warning,” with its stern bold type font and its cover in stark red and black, is sounding the right alarm.
But the substance of her book doesn’t go that far beyond the title. She doesn’t even mention Hannah Arendt’s epochal post-World War II work, “On Totalitarianism,” maybe because it is too long for today’s attention spans and the norm today is for everything we want the general public to absorb has to be pre-cut in little pieces and pre-chewed.
For stuff that is more scholarly, there’s what gets billing as Bill Gates’ new favorite book by Harvard professor Steven Pinker entitled, “Enlightenment Now,” one of a number of substantial tomes he’s published. In that work, Pinker tries to make the case that modern mainstream democratic institutions have made far more progress on behalf of humanity in dealing with the wide spectrum of important issues from war and death rates to health, nutrition and education and even civil liberties, than they’re given credit for.
He’s right, and his book is a very useful exercise of reassurance and optimism about the future. His only problem is that he doesn’t pay much attention to the forces of our culture and planet that are prevailing against that progress and even doing it from the White House for now.
He does identify this problem as rooted in a most interesting place – the ideas of 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which became an inspiration for fascist movements in the 20th century, including Mussolini and Hitler, and all the hell they brought to pass. And interestingly, and I can only brush on this subject in this tiny space, he traces its influence to the present day by way of the “reactionary ideology” of 1960s radicals “who redirected their revolutionary fervor from the hard left to the hard right,” giving rise to the Reagan revolution and smashing the post-World War II notion of universal human rights from which the civil rights and other socially-progressive movements arose.
Pinker’s advice to his readers: “Drop the Nietzsche,” adding, “His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool, but what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” That’s it? Pinker talks about “the spiral of recursive improvement” gathering momentum. But Western Civilization, and yes, the Enlightenment that gave birth to America, was shaped by the thinking of Dante, among many others, who identified two countervailing spirals in the cosmos, one ascending to Paradise and the other, alas, descending to the Inferno.
The late French philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015) is much more in touch with the evil that Nietzsche’s thinking represents for our culture, seeing it as set against the very cornerstone of a Judeo-Christian ethos of “concern for victims, the absolute value of the modern Western world.” Nietzsche’s modern legions fill the ranks of the recent decades’ angry postmodernists with their passionate rejection of reason and universal values in favor of the virtues of power and pleasure.
Thus, the self-centeredness and radical hedonism that overtook our culture in the 1970s was the precursor to what Trump represents today. They did not happen by accident or natural causes.
They bore the stamp of a cultural counterrevolution engineered from the craven black hearts of a ruling elite that deployed covert intelligence deceptions that have brought us this present world of astounding economic imbalance and ugly political tyranny.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].