Amor Mundi: Rage Entrepreneurs
Thomas Meaney profiles Peter Sloterdijk, the brash celebrity philosopher who has a love/hate relationship with Germany’s right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland. Sloterdijk is a brilliant and brutal critic of the hypocrisy of liberal democracy. And he has explained and justified the rage so many feel against liberal social norms. He understands that those left out by liberal capitalist democracies are possessed by a “loathing of liberal democracy by nativist, populist, anarchic, and terrorist movements.” This means, for Sloterdijk, that we are living in an age uniquely susceptible to rage entrepreneurs.
“Shortly after the German federal elections in September, I met Sloterdijk for lunch, at a small Italian restaurant in the west of Berlin. “This is a restaurant where Gerhard Schröder used to come,” Sloterdijk told me with satisfaction. The former German Chancellor began inviting Sloterdijk to gatherings of intellectuals in the nineties, when his broadsides against left-leaning public moralists were first winning him a following among conservative and centrist politicians. After our lunch, Sloterdijk was going to see the country’s current President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I asked if he ever saw Angela Merkel, and he laughed, saying, “She’s got to this point where she exudes the persona of a woman who no longer needs anyone’s advice.”
Since I had last seen Sloterdijk, Merkel and her party, the C.D.U., had pulled off a narrow victory in the federal elections, but major gains achieved by previously marginal parties were making it hard for Merkel to assemble a governing coalition. The leftist party Die Linke had made inroads into the youth vote, recalling the successes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The libertarian F.D.P., which Sloterdijk had praised months before, had done well, too, but eventually turned down the opportunity to join Merkel in a coalition government. Overshadowing everything else in the headlines were the advances made by the nationalist AfD.
When I brought up the AfD, Sloterdijk sank his head in his hands, and his expansive manner gave way to something more cautious. For years, the German media have been making connections between Sloterdijk’s thought and new right-wing groups, and he’s become used to rebutting the charge of harboring far-right sympathies. In my conversations with him, his political preoccupations seemed closer to libertarianism than to anything more blood and soil, but he has a habit of saying things that, depending on your view, seem either like dog whistles to the far right or like the bomb-throwing reflexes of a born controversialist. When Sloterdijk said, of Merkel’s refugee policy, that “no society has the moral obligation to self-destruct,” his words called to mind Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of the Bundesbank, who, in 2010, published an anti-Muslim tract with the title “Germany Abolishes Itself,” which became a huge best-seller and made racial purity a respectable concern of national discussion.
I asked Sloterdijk about Marc Jongen, a former doctoral student of his who became the AfD’s “party philosopher” and recently took up a seat in the Bundestag. “In a perfect world, you are not responsible for your students,” he said. “But we live in a half-perfect world, and so now people try to pin Jongen to me.” I asked if there was any common ground between him and Jongen, and he replied with an emphatic no, calling Jongen “a complete impostor.” He went on, “He came to the university to study Sanskrit classics like the Upanishads, but then he gave it all up. A political career is the way out for him.” The response was unequivocal, but couched less in terms of moral abhorrence than of professional disdain.
Sloterdijk deplored the rise of the right, but he couldn’t resist seeing something salutary in the spectacle. “It’s been coming for a long time,” he said. “It’s also a sign that Germans are more like the rest of humanity than they like to believe.” He started talking about “rage banks,” his term for the way that disparate grievances can be organized into larger reserves of political capital.
He described this concept in his 2006 book “Rage and Time,” an examination of the loathing of liberal democracy by nativist, populist, anarchic, and terrorist movements. The book follows his usual detour-giddy historical method, comparing political uses of anger, and of related emotions such as pride and resentment, from Homer to the present. In premodern societies, he argues, vengeance and blood feuds provided ample outlet for these impulses. Later, loyalty to the nation-state performed a similar function, and international Communism managed to direct class rage into utopian projects. But modern capitalism presents a particular problem. “Ever more irritated and isolated individuals find themselves surrounded by impossible offers,” he writes, and, out of this frustrated desire, “an impulse to hate everything emerges.” It was this kind of rage, Sloterdijk believes, that was on display in the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2005.
In “Rage and Time,” Sloterdijk writes that the discontents of capitalism leave societies susceptible to “rage entrepreneurs”—a phrase that uncannily foreshadows the advent of Donald Trump.”
Quantifying Human Reason
Peter Harrison argues that Steven Pinker’s defense of the enlightenment gets the enlightenment all wrong.
“The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”
In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.
This brings us to Pinker’s other methodological novelty – quantification. He declares that Enlightenment ideals can be defended “in a distinctively 21st-century way: with data.” This is consistent with his previous advice to practitioners of the humanities: more counting (and, presumably, less reading). Advocacy of the data-driven approach also comports with his earlier work in The Better Angels of our Nature, in which a number of long-standing questions about human nature are answered with a series of graphs. Certainly, he cannot be accused of not following his own advice in the present book, which is similarly adorned with graphical “data.””
The First European Cosmopolitan Intellectual
Michael Massing finds contemporary overtones in the 16th century controversy between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Erasmus was a cosmopolitan universalist who wrote in Greek and Latin. Luther was a German nationalist who preached in the vernacular. Erasmus is the source of the idea of a “united Europe in which people of differing beliefs share a common citizenship.” But Erasmus’ cosmopolitanism eventually fell prey to Luther’s populism in the Reformation.
“The term “Erasmian” came into use to describe those who shared his vision. But those Erasmians represented only a small sliver of society. Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin, for the highly educated, Latin-speaking elite. Dazzled by his readings in ancient Greek, Erasmus began promoting knowledge of that language as no less essential than Latin. “Almost everything worth learning is set forth in these two languages,” he wrote in one of his many educational texts. In these, Erasmus proposed a new curriculum for Europe, with instruction in Latin and Greek at its core.
Knowledge of geography, history, astronomy, and nature was all to be imparted through readings in the classical authors specified by Erasmus. His educational program was, in short, highly elitist, seeking not to prepare ordinary citizens for a productive life but to train an aristocracy of culture and taste that could guide the rest of society. This curriculum became the basis for upper-class schooling in Europe until well into the nineteenth century; through it, knowledge of the classical canon would become a ruthlessly clear indicator of class….
“It is important for scholars to confine themselves to those languages that have almost exclusively been used in learned writing,” he declared. “The reason is that they do not depend for their guarantee on ordinary people. The people are poor custodians of quality.” In short, Erasmus—that champion of a common humanity—was a world-class snob.”
You, Dear Reader, Are the Problem
Bret Stephens gave a speech in which he discussed the challenges to good journalism today. The top problem, he argues, is poor readers who say they want quality journalism, but actually are interested only in headlines and articles that confirm their biases.
“But there is also a fifth siege, and this is the one I want to focus on today: This is the siege of the perpetually enraged part of our audience.
This is no small thing when it comes to the health, reputation and future prospects of our profession. Journalism, by its nature, must necessarily be responsive to its audience, attuned to its interests, sensible to its tastes, alert to its evolution. Fail to do this, and you might not survive as a news organization, never mind as an editor, reporter or columnist.
At the same time, journalism can only be as good as its audience. Intelligent coverage requires intelligent readers, viewers and listeners.
We cannot invest in long-form, in-depth journalism for readers interested only in headlines, first paragraphs, or list-icles. We cannot purchase the services of talented wordsmiths and expert editors if people are indifferent to the quality of prose. We cannot maintain expensive foreign bureaus if audiences are uninterested in the world beyond our shores. We cannot expect columnists to be provocative if readers cancel their subscriptions the moment they feel “triggered” by an opinion they dislike.”
Where Do They Get Their Ideas
Alice Dreger—who resigned from Northwestern in protest over the University’s censorship of a peer-reviewed journal she edited—spoke at Wellesley College last week and encountered protests based, at least in part, on claims she said things that were produced by fake Facebook and Twitter accounts. She stayed and engaged the protesters.
“Apparently, they had been led to believe I am a sworn enemy of transgender rights. So, it must have been confusing when I explained that I am against the state determining what our legal gender identities are, that I support all mature individuals determining their social and legal gender identities, and that I believe medical insurance (including public insurance) should pay for transgender interventions if an informed, consenting person believes she or he will be helped by them.
Earlier, in the Q&A after my talk, one of the protesters who had bothered to come in to it asked me whether it was true I believed in “gender conversion” therapy. I asked what this was supposed to mean. The questioner said it meant trying to convince a child that her gender is really that which matches her natal sex, not what she has declared.
My reply was that if a female child came to a “gender clinic” and said she was a boy, I think it is quite reasonable—indeed, clinically responsible—to ask her why she feels that way. If she says she thinks she is a boy because she wants to grow up to enter a traditional-male field—say construction work—and wants to marry a woman, it makes sense to explain to her that girls can grow up to be women construction workers who marry women. Was that conversion therapy? It seemed to me otherwise. (Good ole-fashioned feminism. And good clinical care.)
Where were these people getting their ideas, I wondered, about gender identity development, about the supposed gender binaries of the world, and about me?
Earlier in the day, in a class co-taught by the Freedom Project’s Director, Tom Cushman, a student had read aloud to me something I supposedly have said about transgender people. It was so comically bigoted, it was hard to take seriously. But apparently someone somewhere said I said this, and this “quote” from me was being transmitted in an email around campus, the one calling for the protest of me. I explained in that class and later in my talk that there are fake social media accounts in my name, including fake blogs, with my photo and my name. A student asked why I “let that happen.” I answered that I can’t spend my life chasing them down and trying to stop them.
(I tried that once, with Facebook. Did you know if someone sets up a fake Facebook account in your name, you have to prove you are you by sending a photo of your passport ID page to Facebook? The person stealing your identity doesn’t have to prove she’s you. To this day, Twitter won’t shut down a fake account using my name and photo, no matter how many times I and my followers ask.)
All in all, I think the engagement at the Wellesley protest went well, even if it was an ironic lesson in the social construction of identity. A number of students came up to me to say they had really had their minds opened by realizing what they’re told about someone might not at all be true. A few told me they were planning to push back against the problem of what amounts to falsehood-based activism.
So, I felt like I did a pretty good job for the students and faculty there. But it was impossible not to leave with a renewed sense of just how fucked up campuses are right now.”
Drugs, Guns, and Lonely White Men
Loneliness, Hannah Arendt wrote, was a central feature of modern society where it has moved from margins of human life in old-age to be a central feature of our alienated existence. We’ve written about loneliness here. Now Sam Quinones argues that there is a common foundation to the twin crises of opioid addiction and gun violence plaguing the United States: loneliness.
I wrote a book about our opioid-addiction epidemic. I first thought the book was about drug marketing — both from pharmaceutical companies and from Mexican heroin traffickers. But it was bigger than that; it was about who we were as Americans. The root of the scourge, I believe, is in isolation and a conviction that we are entitled to a life free of pain — all of which forms heroin’s natural habitat.
We exalted the private, the individual, at the expense of community. We once played kick the can in the streets until late on summer evenings. Now those streets are empty as we huddle at home. More than 12 percent of the population served in the military during World War II, and nearly every American sacrificed to beat the Nazis. Today, less than 1 percent join the armed services. Kids are dosed with weeks’ worth of narcotics to keep them from the three days of pain that accompany a wisdom-tooth extraction. We’ve seen parents prosecuted for letting their kids go to the park alone. College students wilt when exposed to ideas they disagree with, and 24-hour cable news shrieks at us, forcing us into ideological bubbles.
All of this has provided fertile soil for a two-decade dosing with opioids — promoted by drug companies, prescribed by doctors, demanded by many of us — that led a national explosion of addiction and death.
I was a newspaper reporter for almost 30 years before writing that book. I covered seven mass murders — six involving guns. I was in Tucson after Jared Loughner shot 19 people, six of whom died, including a federal judge; among the wounded was Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the House of Representatives at the time. Over the phone, I covered the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Long before all that, I covered perhaps the first school shooting of our era of gun massacres — in Stockton, Calif., in 1989. I was the crime reporter for The Stockton Record when a loner with an AK-47 opened fire on a playground full of children at recess at Cleveland Elementary School. Five of them died; some 30 others were wounded.
My job was to find out as much about each assailant as possible. As years passed, I realized I was telling the same story over and over — a lost, isolated, unbalanced (usually white) young man with legal access to firearms.
Posted on 25 February 2018 | 8:00 am
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