Both sides of a growing US culture war draw inspiration from the German philosopherby Sid Simpson / October 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
Like it or not, Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ won’t be going anywhere soon.
In the almost 120 years since his death, the philosopher’s legacy has been taken up by a range of causes—both good and bad. His insight that Christianity is self-denying and that new, healthier values are needed was coopted in Nazi Germany to drum up the fervor of their foot soldiers (famously, a rugged edition of his Thus Spake Zarathustra was issued to young Germans for inspiration in the trenches). Yet at roughly the same time, Nietzsche’s notorious theory of the Übermensch, or the individual who could tear themselves away from ‘herd morality’ and create values anew, inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create the beloved Nazi-punching comic book superhero Superman.
Nietzsche’s ambivalent American legacy continued through the 80’s and into the new millennium. The Official Preppy Handbook playfully called the social-climbing Yuppie movement the “generation of the Ubermensch and Ubermenschette,” while Allan Bloom’s work, The Closing of the American Mind, blamed a toxic mixture of Nietzschean nihilism and Marxist economics for infiltrating higher education and making America’s youth more relativistic. In the pop culture of the last 30 years, Nietzsche has been used to depict teenage angst (“Even if God is dead, you’re still gonna kiss his ass,” Tony tells Anthony Jr. in The Sopranos) as well as manly strength (Nietzsche’s famous aphorism “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is the epigraph to Conan the Barbarian). One would think, however, that after more than a century the specter of the Übermensch and the youthful rebellion that clung to Nietzsche would have receded into darkness. But has it?
Actually, Nietzsche’s philosophy continues to permeate the Western cultural landscape in much the same ways. His work can be found on both sides of the raging US culture war. Nietzsche’s polemics against objective truths inspired a generation of post-modern intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler to deconstruct our modern beliefs and expose their inherent racism and sexism. At the same time, however, his more provocative writings about struggle and increasing one’s power have been invoked by ethno-nationalists to substantiate their own political agenda, who perhaps take Nietzsche’s metaphor of “philosophizing with a hammer” much too literally.
Even in the business world, Nietzsche’s influence lives on: the Yuppie “Ubermensch and Ubermenschette” mentality still persists amongst young, aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s no surprise that the Los Angeles Times casually called billionaire Andy Bechtolsheim the “Silicon Valley Ubermensch.” In the same vein, Business Insider published “Nietzsche Presents: 16 Tips About Becoming Powerful,” a slideshow of Nietzschean quotes dutifully ripped from their contexts. Nietzsche’s claim that “morality is the herd instinct in the individual” apparently also provides a useful roadmap for entering the marketplace. (“Machiavelli: 16 Lessons from the Master Manipulator” and “The Art of War – Sun-Tzu” are visible in the Related Links section.)
In American pop culture, Nietzsche’s ideas seem to be making somewhat of a thematic comeback given the US’s focus on individualism, a growing secular population, and the modern anxiety around ensuring a meaningful life. Dan Harmon, co-creator of the wildly popular Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty, explains that one of the central concerns of the show is grappling with the meaninglessness of our lives and the insurmountable indifference of the universe. For Nietzsche, such an observation overwhelmingly spawns two responses: either a slavish inability to confront this existential condition and instead latch on to meaningless material comforts and religious stories (Christianity in a nutshell, for Nietzsche) or the realization that without God, we are the masters of our own lives and have to create meaning for ourselves.
In the show, Morty learns through inter-dimensional adventures across the multiverse with his mad scientist grandfather Rick that he is only one of essentially infinite Mortys, and that he lives in one of an infinite number of dimensions and timelines. Rather than crushing Morty, realizing that nothing about him matters to the universe allows him to see that everything in his own life, including his relationship with his own family, matters all the more.
This central theme has recently made its way around the internet in even more condensed forms. Kurzgesagt, a YouTube channel underwritten by such formidable entities as UNIDO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Australian Academy of Science, released a video last month called “Optimistic Nihilism.” It has already racked up millions of views, and was trending at #2 across the website shortly after its release. Its message? That though we are infinitesimally small and unimportant in the face of a cold, meaningless universe, we should realize that “if our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters.” And even more to the point, “if the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially Nietzsche’s prescient insight, repackaged again and again, that humanity inhabits a planet “in some remote corner of the universe” and that it’s on us to give ourselves meaning.
So, too has Nietzsche’s legacy been appropriated by the American “alt-right.” In a rash of stories about Richard Spencer, Nietzsche’s name appears to be a recurring theme. Graeme Wood’s Atlantic piece on his time at the University of Chicago with Spencer lays the relationship bare; Spencer cites Nietzsche specifically as the author who “red-pilled” him, or in other words, woke him up to the falseness of his prior beliefs—just as Morpheus revealed to Neo in The Matrix that he was living in a simulation.
Nietzsche’s radical critique of Christianity and of the mediocrity inherent in modern culture stuck with Spencer, framing the way he looked at contemporary America and laying the path for the nationalist identity politics he would later preach. In the same way that Nietzsche’s other cultural appropriations appear to reemerge in cycles, the Nietzsche-as-fascist-fodder trope is rearing its head again as well.
Whether in textbooks or movies, or on political propaganda or college bathroom stalls, Nietzsche’s words have been immortalized in Western culture. With over a century of hindsight, however, we can begin to differentiate between the genuine effects his philosophy has had on popular culture, and when his work is taken out of context, or worse, weaponized to substantiate racist or destructive ideologies. Even if humanity is still grappling with the task of creating its own meaning, one thing is clear: Nietzsche’s thought is still with us.