Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Saturday, October 26, 2002

Wellstone Remembered

There are some good reflections on Wellstone up today. Predictably, The Nation focuses on his political stands and has recycled his writings for the magazine. Also predictably, some of the most gracious portraits come from ideological opponents: Mickey Kaus has a lovely item on Slate and John J. Miller has a generous article on National Review.

The New York Times, however, has an obit that sums Wellstone up in more vivid detail:

"Mr. Boschwitz [Wellstone's incumbent opponent in 1990] spent $7 million on his campaign, seven times Mr. Wellstone's budget. To counteract the Boschwitz attacks, Mr. Wellstone ran witty, even endearing television commercials produced without charge by a group led by a former student. In one ad, the video and audio were speeded up, and Mr. Wellstone said he had to talk fast because "I don't have $6 million to spend."

Who can think of a senator they'd work for free for? Wellstone's political style was, at first especially, amateurish in the best possible way. His style suited his politics, a leftism of a type that owes more to Whitman, Eugene Debs, and the early days of the New Left than it does to the scolding austerity of Naderism or anything reeking of Europe. He was far left, to be sure, but one could no more imagine him burning an American flag than one could imagine Jesse Helms publicly swallowing a goldfish. He was likely to be mistaken, but he was not given to moral preening or McKinney-esque hysteria.

I like to think that these were the reasons he was the liberal's liberal in the Senate. It's very hard to love Ted Kennedy's trust-fund paternalism, and harder yet to love Barbara Boxer's ear-piercing manner, but it was hard not to at least think highly of Wellstone and to see the virtues of a rare liberalism in him above all others.

Friday, October 25, 2002

I just lost perhaps my best-ever post because of a site maintainence problem, which touched on Arts and Letters Daily (it's back, thank heavens), Iraq, Buster Keaton, and Johnny Paycheck. But I would have felt like a heel for posting it anyway once I found out that Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash today.

When Wellstone first ran for the Senate in 1990, I was living in northwestern Wisconsin near the Twin Cities. We got more Minnesota media than Wisconsin media, so my family watched the race pretty closely. I was only 11 at the time, but my political consciousness was forming, and Wellstone's campaign was an inspiration. He was clever, scrappy, and the darkest of dark horses. He swooped out of nowhere (actually, the political science department of Carleton College) to unseat a sitting senator, and we loved him for it.

I met Wellstone once, briefly, many years ago. For me--and some of you can surely appreciate this--it was like meeting a great baseball player. I have no idea what he was like, but he always managed to convey an air of decency, and I've never heard anyone question the honesty of his positions or the purity of his motives. Sadly, this is saying a lot. He'll be very fondly remembered and very, very badly missed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Haha. Those Junkers' lyrics are insanely amusing. Well, I hate to, like, get all serious on everyone, but I'd like to print below one of my favorite American poems, a working-class anthem in a manner of speaking. As an aside, I don't plan to have any sort of respectable job for at least 6-7 years. But this isn't entirely fair though: part of my job, ironically enough, is reading Hegel and Marx, and reading theories of labor alienation all day, I must say, sometimes produces an alienating effect on me. Anyway, here's the poem by Phil Levine:

What Work Is
by Phil Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.
I had to spend today writing an article on The Junkers for Casey and preparing for a mentor training at Loyola University (for my actual real job!) so I have had to leave today's web content largely untouched. That shall be rectified tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out the Junkers, especially their Marxian heartbreak anthem "It's Hard to Win a Woman (When You're Workin' for the Man)":

It's a deadly dialectic
And my love life's apoplectic
A case study of oppression for the books.
And it's sure infuriatin'
How my labor's alienatin'
But on the other hand, it could just be my looks

For you Latin-reading Junkerphiles, I'm told that the working title for this song became the group's motto: Laborando amare non possum. Think abou it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Dan Savage Strokes, Slaps Fans

Is there yet a man (or woman) among us who does not believe that Dan Savage is the shit? He was good as a mere sex guru, but recently he has diversified his portfolio impressively. His broadsides in The Stranger about AIDS and the war are a great antidote to the standard lefty preening, and unlike most public liberals, he has a sense of humor.

So I made sure to get to Border's over an hour before his reading last night. A half hour before he came on, the reading area was overflowing, and I could almost hear dozens of hipsters saying to themselves, "this is the last time I'll be early for anything." But the man didn't disappoint, reading excerpts from his new book Skipping Towards Gomorrah and digressively answering a truly catholic array of questions.

Throughout he was clearly unafraid of pissing off his audience. He took the Left to task for misunderstanding Islamic terrorism, saying, "If Osama bin Laden has me and John Ashcroft in a room, bin Laden would kill me before he'd kill Ashcroft. I hate John Ashcroft, but the damage he does can be repaired. John Ashcroft is like Barbara Walters: he can be endured. Islamic fascism cannot be endured, it can only be fought."

He seldom stayed on the original topic, often pausing to ask what the question was and once adding, "that's what smoking pot does for ya." My favorite moment came during his lengthy takedown of gay pride parades (he would drop the pride element and just have a big gay Mardi Gras). Rightly pointing out that pride ideology prevents people from being ashamed of shameful things, he said:

"Everyone, gay and straight, does things they should be ashamed of. I'm a Catholic, I know this. If you're a grown man, a 40-year-old man running around in a lime green thong, you should be ashamed of yourself."

Everyone laughs uproariously.

"If you've got AIDS and you fuck a man in the ass just because he let you, you should be ashamed of yourself."

Dead silence. That audience would not have let Bill Bennet or Pat Buchanan say such a thing, and I think rightly so. After all, for Bennet or Buchanan, there is no such thing as ethical gay sex, so their accusations are irrelevant. But they did just sit there and take a short, brutal lecture from Dan, coming as it did just seconds after one of his biggest laugh lines of the night.

When someone pushed him to talk about Iraq, it was a credit to him that he refused to get into a pointless and probably ill-informed debate, so he just said, "I want to direct all of you to an article in The New Republic by Johnathan Chait, called 'The Liberal Case for War.' I won't say anything else about it." My friend Casey helpfully held up his copy of the issue and Dan pointed it out for everyone to see.

The first chapter of the book is online, and the chapter on lust is excerpted in The Chicago Reader. When I'm done with the book I will inform you all of its failings, but for the moment it comes highly recommended. O'Reilly, Hannity, and the rest of them need some better company on the best seller list.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Completely right about Nietzsche - a sloppy oversight on my part. But I've said more than my fill on this topic - actually, all along, I've been wanting to address an earlier blog regarding Grant's Tomb, which, coincidentally enough, I live literally next door to. Unfortunately, I will not be able to verify if indeed Grant is buried in Grant's Tomb, but I would like to report the following, which continues to perplex: first, 18 hours a day, an unmarked van and a NYPD police car is parked next to the tomb, with a dummy resting in the police car's driver side, and some sort of attenae running out from the van. Very peculair. Second, for the other 6 hours of the day, local punks skateboard through the tomb's outer edifice, pulling ollies and jumps from the various rail and stair configurations. This sounds vaguely strange I know, but no stranger than the New York City Tour bus, a two-tier red monstrosity, that always, without fail, appears on the corner of my street whenever my girlfriend and I walk outside, no doubt, treating out-of-towners to a glimpse of an intensely interracial couple. Only in New York.
Not to be a jerk about it, but an important distinction I would draw between Nietzsche and DeMan or Heidegger is that the former was long dead by the time Mein Kampf was written. The heavily and horribly redacted versions of his writings that informed Nazi ideology account for his vague association with the Third Reich. In the cases of De Man and Heidegger, it's rather the reverse: the individuals were known to be directly associated with Nazism (institutionally), which clouds our understanding of their work. Any inference of anti-Semitism on Nietzsche's part would have to come from his work, because no one suggests that he was personally a Jew-hater based on biographical information; he's personally suspect because of his work. If we approach the work of De Man or Heidegger with a priori suspicion, it would have to be because we know in advance that they were Nazis.

I don't have any good ideas about how to approach questions of intentionality and biography with philosophers. I do think, however, that it bears mentioning, just to check our own reactions. Students of Heidegger ought to consider why he thought of himself as the Nazi ideologist, right? Or is it totally irrelevant?
Thanks to Ben Dueholm for bringing the Heidegger discussion back to its main point, which looking back, I think I somehow erased or buried in my ranting first blog: Heidegger, the man, was deeply evil and deserves our disgust. Also, I deserved the gentle upbraiding for not reading the article firsthand, my own share of shoddy reading and research. Apologies for any unfounded attacks I make on Berel Lang, however gleaned from the Observer excerpt.

But, I do think that the question of how we deal with great writers with former involvements with Nazism - this includes Paul De Man (as I noted) and Nietzsche, among a few others - is a tricky matter that somehow concerns navigating their scholarly texts. I agree that all historical accounts of Heidegger prove his cowardice and moral evil. No doubt there. But we do also search for insights in their writings, and often the personal and academic become conflated - and again, gleaning from the Observer excerpt, I do think Rosenbaum and Lang both do this. My blog was only a small call for careful reading if we are to conflate person and writing, which seems inevitable given the interstices between certain mid 20th century German philosophy and the "Nazi way of thinking."

I agree we should not lose sight of deliberate evil right in front of our faces: Heidegger exemplified this, and the argument is a powerful one. But, as Ben rightfully points out, none of this should negate the intellectual work Heidegger has produced. My only concern is that inevitably many - like myself - will conflate person and work, and the two become tied up in the interpretation of the work. For instance, when it was found out that De Man had former ties to the Nazi party, this cast a large shadow not only on his work, but all of deconstruction. Likewise with Nietzsche.

I'm not sure how is the best way to nagivate these tricky questions. I'm not sure that isolating one from the other in examining a text - personal from writing - is necessarily the best thing to do. Sometimes, as literary academics have found, this can be very illuminating while at other times, it can be a huge impediment - the accursed "biographical criticism." I think though that with writers such as Heidegger, De Man, and Nietzsche, with the ties to Nazism, inevitably readers will link writing to personal history. I don't automatically think this is a bad thing, but I do believe that careful reading may complicate prior assumptions, and even help engender resistance to the evil that Heidegger formerly embodied in his human form. I guess the question we are left with now - because, as Ben notes, the question of whether Heidegger was evil has been well proven, and I support this - is how to interpret his texts. I suppose I wrote first not to defend Heidegger or attack Heidegger bashing, but to complicate Heidegger's relationship to his work to maybe complicate how we read him now, to see if we can get any sort of meaningful readings of totalitarian resistance in his works.

That's all I guess. Wow, I should really go to class. Ironically, I'm about to go see Derrida speak - one of those "postmodernists" for sure. Thanks finally to anyone who kindly has followed these very long blogs.
In Defense of Heidegger-Bashing

I think I might have mistranscribed some quotations marks when I excerpted Ron Rosenbaum's article for the Observer. It was Rosenbaum, not Lang, who editorialized that Heidegger is "beloved to distraction by postmodernists (and Hannah Arendt)." That's a cheap shot, but it's Rosenbaum's, not Lang's.

As I saw Lang's point, it wasn't a critique of Heidegger's philosophy. I got no implication that it is or was essentially Nazi in any way, although he himself certainly claimed it was. Rather, the point seemed to be that Heidegger himself, as a person, represented a hitherto unique form of evil.

As far as I know, there is no dispute over whether Heidegger purged the German universities of Jews and hostile thinkers (including his erstwhile friend Husserl). There is no doubt, as far as I know, that he was himself a card-carrying Nazi. No defense of his philosophy should ever be confused with commentary on his loathsome character (or, to be fair, vice-versa). After all, Rousseau was the scum of the earth; Marx despised the handful of working people he allowed himself to encounter; Sartre was a coward in the face of Vichy and the Soviet Union. None of these facts make a bit of difference vis-a-vis the validity of Romanticism, Marxism, or Sartre's version of existentialism, but they ought not to be ignored simply because they could be misconstrued that way.

So to get back to the matter at hand, I think it's fair to say that Rosenbaum was making a cheap insinuation (postmodernists like an unabashed Nazi, thus they are tainted with Nazism), but Lang was not. Rather, he was making an entirely fair argument that Heidegger himself was a particularly evil man, which he was.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Thoughts on Rosenbaum's Article on Heidegger in the NY Observer

I have a few thoughts on Berel Lang's comments on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, as relayed to Ron Rosenbaum at the NY Observer (thanks to Ben Dueholm to bringing this to my attention), but have been skittish to articulate them, much less post a blog about it. Far, far more erudite and smart people have debated the topic for a long time, and I am pretty sure that whatever I have to offer will sound and be rather reductive. My grasp of Heidegger's primary works is weak; my background in Continental philosophy is even weaker. But having read Ben's excerpt from the Observer - and Lang's seemingly intentionally reductive viewpoint - again, I thought to finally put a few words out there to perhaps spark more dialogue. As promised though, I hope all will admonish my incredibly lack of sophistication and knowledge in this argument, and readers will not accordingly jump down my throat.

Anyway: first, Heidegger's deep sympathy and support for the Nazi cause has long been acknowledged, and well-debated in academic circles. Any new information is not likely to worsen the case or be elucidating: Heidegger has long been toted as a "Nazi lover" by his detractors for a long time. What has not been settled, and what will probably never be settled, is whether his philosophical writing is imbued and complicit with his political leanings, if it is "tainted" with a Nazi streak. It is really a matter of how you choose to read Heidegger, as his formal topics primarily dealt with "Being" and questions of religion/God, issues that can or cannot be politicized. I am not sure if Lang seeks to discredit or put a shadow of doubt over Heidegger's work. If it is the former, this debate has been running for over 30 years and no new personal information about Heidegger will resolve the matter.

Mr Lang also fails to note that aggressively anti-Nazi intellectuals have long approved of Heidegger's work, including Jean Paul Sartre and Mikhail Bakhtin, writers who devoted their lives to challenging totalitarianism. He dismisses them as "postmodernists" thus implying the cliched attack that all postmodernists are amoral and depolitical, but I would hardly consider Sartre as either. Mr Lang chooses to read Heidegger a certain way; other philosophers have done it in a different way. Certain writers have clearly found redeeming qualities in Heidegger's work as not necessarily espousing, however latently, pro-Nazi leanings. There is clearly a political indeterminancy in Heidegger's work (how could a work called "Only a God Can Save Us Now" not be?), but whether this aporia should encourage some sort of meaningful dialogue, Mr Lang instead chooses to interpret it as such in only one way. I might consider this anti-intellectual and shot through with some sort of questionable ideological bias.

I also found it - I must admit - a little sickening, that Mr Lang takes a cheap shot at the German academic Hannah Arendt. Not many people are familiar with her or her work, and a casual reader of the NY Observer might assume, from Lang's comments, that Ms Arendt is somehow sympathetic to Nazism and indifferent to the Holocaust. Nothing could be further from the truth. Arendt is a Jewish woman, who fled Germany during WW2 to save her life. She later became an academic in the US, typically writing on matters of the Holocaust (deeply condemnatory of Nazism). Also, she became a leading Jewish, Holocaust-remembrance activist, serving as research director for the Conference on Jewish Relations, and acting as secretary of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She studied with and took her doctorate under Heidegger. I will not speculatively argue that somehow Arendt's background and loyalty contradict Lang's claims; however, her first hand interactions with Heidegger, and her deep understanding of his work, must somehow challenge Lang's simple-minded attacks.

I hope this curious situation at least complicates Lang's bit, makes it better than just a cheap, easy, "anti Nazi" bashing of a German philosopher. Indeed, Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, and this disgusts me - I want to make this entirely clear. But we should not be so quick to dismiss Heidegger in a few paragraphs: he was, and still is, of course, one of the greatest Continental philosphers of the 20th century by most accounts, after all. This situation demands - and I apologize for the gross polemicizing here - our careful inquiry and our better than anti-intellectual accusations. Serious things are at stake: what ideologically controlling, perhaps blindly driving, motives guide Mr Lang? This sort of refusal to grasp with complicated, nuanced questions is roughly the same sort of "passion" that engendered the so-called "intellectualism" that instigated the Nazi fervor.

As for Lang's last claim, that Heidegger refused to grapple with the Holocaust in his post-war writings, that he considered it an issue unworthy of his attention - this, I am under the impression, is an outright inaccuracy. Generally, Heidegger refused to talk about Nazi Germany (I will get to this in a minute), but he did however allow an interview precisely on this topic in the 1960s called "Only A God Can Save Us Now." I will leave readers to read this document for themselves, but I will argue here that any careful reading of this subject will indicate that Heidegger did wrestle and care about the question of the the Holocaust and Nazism (condemning both) in this interview. Most serious academics in the US - both favorable and unfavorable to Heidegger - have read this document as a complicated piece of information that explicitly deals with Heidegger's past involvement with the Nazis. If Lang chooses to read all of Heidegger's post war work as indifferent to the Holocaust, I might accuse him of shoddy, misleading scholarship. Heidegger wrote a number of documents further regarding this matter on the grounds that they be published after his death - cowardly for sure, but deeply indicative of some internal conflict that is more complex that that of a Holocaust denier or someone unconcerned with Holocaust history.

Finally, a last bit about Heidegger's lack of incorporating an interest in the Holocaust into his writing. I believe this to be a question of reading and analysis: there is really no simple, explicit way to interpret convoluted philosophical, ontological texts, to singularly politically interpet them. To do so would be deeply anti-intellectual. For instance, recent critics have begun to reread the literary critic Paul De Man (another controversial academic who supported Nazism back in the day, but later disavowed all of his earlier allegiances) as being politically ambivalent to his former alliances. For a long time, literary critics have read his essay "Blindness and Insight," written well after the war, as politically disinterested: more recent work, however, has shown his theories to actually be politically charged, as railing against the idea of totalitarianism in any sort of thinking - an implicit attack of Nazism. De Man too refused to discuss his earlier involvement with the Nazis. I will not speculate here why he did so, but perhaps, there are sympathetic reasons he did so. I will say though that a careful reading of his writing now reveal a deep criticism of Nazism.

The point of all this though is NOT to vindicate Heidegger in any way. The smashing of Heidegger as a Nazi supporter stands. Rather, I seek to attack Lang's reductive view of philosophy and intellectual history -- his refusal to wrestle with a set of issues far more complicated than he makes them out to be. It seems that Lang refuses to read Heidegger in a meaningful, careful way, instead set on his own ideological biases: this is a problem. He is interested in propogating a simplistic, very politically easy viewpoint ("He's a Nazi! He's the anti-Christ!"), rather than developing a nuanced understanding of complex series of writing: this is also a probelm. A more sophisticated reading of Heidegger, as many have been trying to do, may in the end reveal points of resistance in the very source that originally was labeled as supporting the evil that is Nazism. Current work on De Man is doing this right now. Isn't this a far more meaningful, powerful attack on Nazi-thought than a few rabid, unthinking, simplistic, ranting paragraphs from some obscure philosophy academic (obscure compared to Sartre or Arendt)?

Isn't this our responsibility?