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…