Most folks don’t proofread remarks tossed up on Facebook. But this was Nietzsche, and I didn’t want to get Nietzsche wrong, lest the forces of darkness he dabbled in come flapping out of a fissure in the earth and get me.
I had posted my Saturday column about Donald Trump coming down with COVID-19. It skewed toward kindness. Sorry, I had to work quick and find decency a handy default position, particularly now. You rarely regret kindness. Rarely slap yourself on the forehead the next morning and wonder, “How could I have been so decent?!?”
Yes, it bothers some. “We’re showing him more empathy than he’s shown us,” complained an assistant professor at Loyola. “He has never called for any kind of remembrance of coronavirus victims or personally sought to console survivors.“
True enough. But since when did Donald Trump become our moral pole star?
“That’s how it should be,” I replied. “‘When battling monsters,’ Nietzsche tells us, ‘make sure that you do not become a monster.’”
Quotes have a way of being distorted. So I checked the source, “Beyond Good and Evil.” Easy enough to find, aphorism No. 146: ”Whoever fights with monsters should make sure to not become a monster in the process.”
OK, I condensed a little. Close enough for Facebook. And simply true.
You only have to look at the history of the United States to see we’ve never fought any foe, no matter how vile, without tacking in their direction a little, whether building concentration camps for citizens of Japanese ancestry as we fight imperial Japan, or instilling loyalty oaths in the 1950s to show we can be as repressive as the Soviets. Mullahs holding our people hostage? We’ll pluck theirs out of Afghanistan and keep them at Guantanamo Bay forever.
It’s a losing game. Especially with Trump. You can’t get below him. He’s too low. I’ve never approved of mocking his hair, his girth, his hands. That’s like making fun of Hitler for being a vegetarian.
And no, I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler. He’s his own brand of monster. David Brooks in the New York Times Friday echoed the issue. Awfulness isn’t a sideshow with Trump; it’s the main event. Not a flaw but a feature.
“He is first and foremost an immoralist,” Brooks writes, “whose very being was defined by dishonesty, cruelty, betrayal and cheating long before he put on political garb.”
Sure, we could take our marching orders from that. All it requires is the same all-rules-are-off mindset that turns protesters into looters. But if we defeat Trump by becoming like him, then what have we accomplished? Swapped one monster for another we find more acceptable, because it’s us. I don’t like that at all.
We have to win while maintaining our standards, even criticizing ourselves. For instance: Quoting Nietzsche shows the ridiculousness of cancel culture. Yes, he was a bad guy. No. 146 comes right before No. 147: “From old Florentine novels, moreover — from life: Good women and bad women need the stick.“
Current orthodoxy would pitch all of Nietzsche for that: a dead white male who advocates violence against women and oh by the way, also thought slavery was a good idea, a “prerequisite for spiritual discipline and cultivation.”
But the “battling monsters” trope is very useful and doesn’t become less useful because a syphilitic sexist said it and not Martin Luther King. Speaking of becoming those you oppose, cancel culture is a parody of the bloodline obsession of haters.
It focuses, not on what something is, but where it comes from. The Nazis cared if your great-grandmother was Jewish, and some woke folk want to pitch Abraham Lincoln because of a line he tossed out pandering to a rural Illinois audience in 1858.
Feel lousy? We are living through one of the worst moments in American history, our country on the ropes, in the clutches of an incompetent liar and clumsy traitor, pandemic raging, economy cratering, with alarming new developments coming so fast that it’s hard to keep track.
Our situation saps us just to look at it. Or to quote Nietzsche: “And if you gaze at length into the abyss, the abyss also will gaze into you.” Americans are staring into the pit we’re dangling over and, darn it, the pit is looking back. That’s it.