If you’ve tried to read Heidegger …

… and experienced, shall we say, the anxiety of incomprehension — then here is some possible consolation.

Simone_BeauvoirIn their 20s, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the very top philosophy students of their generation in France. Yet when they tried to read Heidegger in 1931, Beauvoir reported, “since we could not understand a word of it we failed to see its interest.”

Heidegger himself explicitly practiced semi-intelligibility: “Those in the crossing must in the end know what is mistaken by all urging for intelligibility: that every thinking of being, all philosophy, can never be confirmed by ‘facts,’ i.e., by beings. Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.”young-heidegger (Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), notes of 1936–1938).

Yet at times Heidegger could be very clear, as in these 1929-1930 lectures calling for a leader “capable of instilling terror,” or in endorsing the Führer principle early in Hitler’s regime, or in this 1934 speech calling for, longingly, what will be another great war.

But those are political pronouncements, and in his basic philosophy a guided tour is perhaps helpful. My summary of the early Heidegger’s distinctiveness and his contribution to postmodernism is here, excerpted from my Explaining Postmodernism.

My article published in The Wall Street Journal

wsj logoMy article “What Entrepreneurs Can Teach Us All About Life” has been published by The Wall Street Journal. Here is a snippet:

“We often think of entrepreneurs as larger-than-life characters. They take big risks. They make their own rules. They innovate and experiment, questioning things everybody else takes for granted.

“It can almost seem like entrepreneurs are a breed apart. But they’re not. All of us are born with the ability to take risks, think creatively and challenge the everyday way of doing things. And as hokey as this can sound, we would all do well to tap into those traits in both our lives and our careers, whether we work for ourselves or not …”

Read the article at the WSJ site here.

Nietzsche and Heidegger on clarity

“Being profound and seeming profound. —Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water” (The Gay Science, 173).

“Those in the crossing must in the end knowHeidegger-Enowning what is mistaken by all urging for intelligibility: that every thinking of being, all philosophy, can never be confirmed by ‘facts,’ i.e., by beings. Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy” (Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) [Beitrage Zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)], notes of 1936–1938).

Campus sex and the anti-sexiness of the new authoritarians [The Good Life series]

[Originally published at EveryJoe.com.]

Rape is among the most horrific of crimes. Sex should be a fun and beautiful thing — but rape takes that most personal of experiences and turns it into a degradation.

There is moderately good news about the number of rapes in the USA. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rape rate has declined by over 60% in the last two decades.

That’s welcome news, of course. But no matter what the rate is, it is too high. The vast majority of human beings are already perfectly capable of living their lives without ever raping anyone, so eliminating rape entirely should be the standard we aspire to.

Country comparisons are useful in setting expectations. Sweden, for example, has a shockingly high rape rate of 53.2 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the United States has a low rate at 28.6. But before we issue congratulations, let’s also consider Canada, the USA’s near neighbor both geographically and culturally, where the rate is 1.5. Significant progress is still possible.

Controversy has been running high recently over how best to lower the rape rate on campuses. Progress should especially be possible in colleges and universities, which are populated by young people with higher-education aspirations, and statistics do show that fewer rapes and other violent crimes are committed on campuses.

But in California, recent legislation attempts to lessen the problem by mandating explicit verbal communication prior to sexual activity. The initiative’s slogan is “Yes means Yes.” The idea is that the absence of resistance is not enough to make initiating sex acceptable. “No” does mean “No”, but the lack of a “No” does not mean “Yes.” So an explicit positive acceptance of sexual initiative will henceforth be necessary before any student can make a sexual move. Those who fail to demonstrate that explicit positive consent was given will accordingly be more easily found guilty of rape.

The initiative has generated a firestorm of debate — with two fascinating features.

One feature is that the debate shows our shifting political fault lines, which increasingly are not conservatives versus liberals, but rather both conservatives and liberals against the new authoritarians. Here for example is liberal columnist Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, on how the initiative undermines one foundation of liberalism — the presumption of innocence. He is joined by conservative columnist Charles Cooke, writing in National Review, who similarly lambasts the initiative’s willingness to jettison due process of law. And both are opposed to new authoritarian Ezra Klein, who wrote in Vox defending the new law despite its “overreach” and the fact that it will be cause “a haze of fear and confusion” on campuses and “create a world where men are afraid.”

The second fascinating feature is the largely-positive response to the initiative within higher education circles. The authoritarian impulse is always a natural response to a problem, and very often professors and administrators find it easier to use their power to impose their wills and micromanage their students’ thoughts, feelings, and activities. That impulse is the opposite of the ideal of liberal education.

So in the spirit of that ideal, let me suggest that a better solution to the problem of rape lies in the opposite direction: What students need is to be treated less like semi-responsible, semi-competent children who need oversight, direction, and control; and what they need is more self-responsibility and power. Especially in institutions of higher education, where every moment is a teaching moment, the lesson we should be teaching about sex is that free and responsible men and women can take charge of their sex lives and make them meaningful — and prevent most problems from arising in the first place.

So some advice about how to solve the rape problem to everyone involved — young women and men, professors and administrators, and intellectuals and policy-makers.

To young women: When choosing a college, do research on universities’ rates of sexual violence. Don’t apply to those that have unacceptably high rates. Also do your homework about fraternities’ reputations, so you can choose carefully which parties you go to. Go to parties with a friend or three and keep an eye out for each other. If there drunk guys are around, leave.

All of that is common sense — though we know that common sense and the sex drive are often not on speaking terms. But that is part of education: developing those habits of ahead-of-time thinking and action that will serve us well. The same principles apply whether you’re in college or going hiking in the woods or driving through a big city at night — there are wild animals there, so beware.

To young men: We do have in our midst, even in higher education, a surprising number of sub-human males. But every young man who arrives in college or university knows that rape is wrong. And the vast majority will never rape. So the problem is the minority of males who have not yet decided to become real men. What kind of man can only get a woman into bed if she’s drunk? What sort of loser can only get sex by brute force? The message that should be inspired in all young men is the opposite: You want to become a real man, a manly man in the serious sense — one whom women genuinely find attractive and respond to romantically.

To campus administrators and policy-makers: Campus life is a microcosm of life in general — but with a specialized focus: helping young men and women further develop the knowledge, skills, and character they need to pursue their life goals. Every policy we adopt should foster that mission, and none should undercut it. Becoming authoritarian ourselves is always a mistake, however tempting.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing administrators can do to help solve the problem of rape. One standout aspect is the influence of alcohol: In 71% of all American cases of rape, either the perpetrator or the victim or both had been drinking. Yes, 71 percent.

So why not work to change our alcohol policies? The current legal drinking age in the USA is 21, while it is 18 in most other countries in the world. Some of those countries have lower rape rates and some have higher.

But consider what the drinking age means to the average American college student, most of whom are under 21. Drinking becomes a symbol of independence and getting drunk a rite of passage. Alcohol becomes a deliciously forbidden fruit, since administrators frown upon it and try to police it, which drives student drinking into semi-secret parties in frat houses and dorms. So the effect of our current policy is to couple drinking with rebelliousness and independence — and the sex drive — and drive it underground.

I contrast this, anecdotally, to my experience as an undergraduate student in Canada, where we could drink legally and pubs on campus were among the most popular social spots. The drinking was mostly social, in public, and not demonized. Social scientists will tell a more detailed causal story, but it’s worth noting that alcohol consumption in Canada is moderately lower than in the USA and the campus rape rate is much lower.

So if we really want less sexual violence on campus, why don’t we try more self-responsibility and freedom? We currently have one authoritarian rule (We need to control your drinking) contributing to another authoritarian policy (We need to control your sex life).

Instead of a vicious cycle of imposing more controls on students and demanding their compliance, let’s create a virtuous cycle based on encouraging student self-control and personal responsibility.

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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at www.StephenHicks.org.

Conservatives against Free-market Capitalism [The Good Life]

[Originally published at EveryJoe.com.]

After beating up on some “left” icons (here, here, and here, for example), it’s time to give some grief to the “right.”

American political vocabulary tends to sort people into liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. All are big-tent labels, and we argue continuously about how to place libertarians, progressives, socialists, theocrats, and others.

But one regular claim in the arguments is that conservatives favor free-market capitalism. Progressives and socialists are hostile to capitalism, and they are on the left, so the capitalists must be on the right with the conservatives.

It’s a claim with a grain of journalistic truth. Yet it has a big problem: for a century the deep thinkers on the conservative side have, almost without exception, argued that conservatives cannot be capitalists. And the deep thinkers on the free-market capitalist side have, again almost without exception, gone out of their way to explain why they are not conservatives. And both sides are correct.

Let’s start with the big-name conservatives. In the American context, there are several sub-species — religious conservatives, neo-conservatives, traditional conservatives, and middle-of-the-road conservatives. So let’s sample what representatives of each sub-species have said about free-market capitalism.

Here is Robert Bork, representing a religious conservatism. Bork was the legal scholar whom the U.S. Senate rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court. This is from his best-selling book Slouching Towards Gomorrah:

“Because both libertarians and modern liberals are oblivious to social reality, both demand radical personal autonomy in expression. That is one reason libertarians are not to be confused, as they often are, with conservatives.” Bork goes on to argue that “free market economists are particularly vulnerable to the libertarian virus” and cites errors about ethics and human nature as the root problem — too often the free market economist “ignores the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy” and fails to recognize that “unconstrained human nature will seek degeneracy often enough to create a disorderly, hedonistic, and dangerous society.”

Note the strong language: the free market unleashes degeneracy and is like a virus.

Next consider Irving Kristol, “godfather” of the neo-conservatives, from his contribution to Capitalism Today: “The inner spiritual chaos of the times, so powerfully created by the dynamics of capitalism itself, is such as to make nihilism an easy temptation. A ‘free society’ in [Friedrich] Hayek’s sense gives birth in massive numbers to ‘free spirits’ – emptied of moral substance.”

Strong language again: capitalism leads to chaos, nihilism, and moral emptiness.

Now let’s turn to a traditional conservatism, taking Russell Kirk as representative. As one sympathetic commentator at the conservative Heritage Foundation site puts it: “To Russell Kirk, ‘true conservatism’ — [Edmund] Burke’s conservatism — was utterly antithetical to unre­strained capitalism and the egoistic ideology of indi­vidualism.” Kirk himself, in criticizing Ayn Rand’s free-market advocacy, wrote that “we flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.” Under ruthless capitalism, Kirk argued, a man becomes “a social atom, starved for most emotions except envy and ennui, severed from true family-life and reduced to mere household-life, his old landmarks buried, his old faiths dissipated.”

So a conservative must be opposed to capitalism’s individualism, atomism, and selfishness.

At the heart all of these conservatisms is a recognition that capitalism threatens traditional morality. As the conservative columnist George Will nicely put it, we have to make a hard choice between two alternatives: “One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former.”

From the capitalist side, the most prominent advocates of free markets have returned the favor and vigorously critiqued conservatism.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist and powerful advocate of free markets, favored both legalizing drugs and gay marriage, thus earning enmity from many conservatives. Friedman was also fiercely opposed to the military draft, a cause often close to conservative hearts. (Recently, middle-of-the-road conservative David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, argued for reinstating a mandatory civilian draft.)

Friedrich Hayek, another leading free-market economist and Nobel-Prize winner, wrote an essay on “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, in which he describes himself as a principled liberal. The problem with conservatives, Hayek argued, is that as their label suggests they been concerned with maintaining the status quo and avoiding the extremes of both freedom and authoritarianism. As a result, Hayek pointed out, “it has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism.”

And the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, in her warrior-like way, characterized conservatism as intellectually brain-dead and attacked its core positions in “Conservatism: An Obituary.” Rand described herself as a radical for capitalism and argued that we need a modern, rational morality to replace the musty old moralities of obedience and faith that many conservatives long for. It’s striking that as harsh as the criticisms of Rand’s views have been from the political left, the harshest criticisms have come from the conservative right.

So we have a pattern: leading conservatives oppose capitalism and leading capitalists oppose conservatism. And we have a puzzle: in popular language, conservatism and capitalism are often confused.

The popular-language issue is easier to explain. There’s a pigeon-holing tendency that leads some to look for simple ideological dualities — liberal versus conservative, left versus right. In the USA, that tendency is reinforced by a two-party system that makes politics seem like only two options are possible. And within the two-party system, the ongoing big-tent efforts can lead factions to overlook or ignore significant differences.

The more challenging problem is philosophical, as the conservatives-versus-capitalists debate reveals two conceptions of morality in collision — one more optimistic and modern, and one more pessimistic and traditional.

Individuals are weak, the conservatives argue, and they will destroy themselves and others if they are left free. Legalizing drugs and alcohol means widespread intoxication, sexual freedom means promiscuity, and lifestyle choice means that individuals won’t belong to meaningful social units unless they are subtly or overtly coerced into them. Human beings need structure — a structure that they do not choose but rather is imposed upon them by family conditioning, the weight of tradition, and backed up by law.

Individuals are competent, the capitalists tend to argue in response. They can handle freedom and use it productively. Yes, some individuals abuse it and fall into addiction and isolation, but most seek meaningful romantic and family relationships and learn to use intoxicants responsibly. Through free experiment and exploration, all individuals can rationally improve their lives. But to enjoy the dynamism of modern liberal societies we need to be willing to modify or even reject the old ways.

Politics depends upon philosophy is another way to put it. The great debates in contemporary politics are, at root, debates about human nature and morality.

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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at www.StephenHicks.org.

Nietzsche, according to Nazi ideologist Ernst Krieck

Krieck-Ernst-LebenThe Nazi ideologue Ernst Krieck had little patience for the claim that Nietzsche’s philosophy was a forerunner of National Socialist politics.

Nietzsche came up often and positively in Nazi speeches and writings. But Krieck scoffed:

“All in all, Nietzsche was an opponent of socialism, an opponent of nationalism, and an opponent of racial thinking. Apart from these bents of mind, he might have made an outstanding Nazi.”[1]

Well said, Ernst! Très amusant!

nn-cover-colorBut there is the puzzle still of why so many smart Nazi theoreticians and political activists saw themselves as followers of Nietzsche.

My view is a split decision: In Nietzsche and the Nazis I argue that in many important respects the Nazis and the Nietzsche are opposed — but in several equally important respects the Nazis were Nietzschean.

[1] Quoted in Max Whyte, “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism.’” Journal of Contemporary History 43(2) (2008), p. 188. Thanks to R. Kevin Hill for the pointer.

Our Che Guevara Problem [The Good Life]

[Originally published at EveryJoe.com.]

Chances are good that someone you know owns a Che t-shirt. Romanticized versions of Ernesto Guevara Lynch’s bearded face are popular on campuses and elsewhere — so popular that the American chain store Urban Outfitters planned to release a whole line of Che-inspired fashion items, and dozens of other websites offer a wide range of Che paraphernalia.

Guevara was a Marxist who was born in Argentina, earned a position in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s economic minister, and died in a skirmish with soldiers in Bolivia.

But here is the puzzle. In real life, Guevara was an equal-opportunity jailer, torturer, and killer. Whether it was advocates of free speech, homosexuals, those in favor of freedom of religion or who liked rock and roll music, business owners, or ideological enemies — and whether men, women, or children — he favored imprisoning, tormenting, and murdering them.

“To execute a man,” Che once said, “we don’t need proof of his guilt.” In the early days of the Cuban revolution, Che wrote home to his father about shooting a peasant guerrilla: “I’d like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing.” Much of the story is very ugly.

So how did a killer become a fashion icon?

Almost amusingly — and perhaps inspired by American fashion capitalism — a Cuban state company recently announced plans to release a line of “Ernesto” and “Hugo” perfumes in honor of Che Guevara and Venezuela’s now-deceased socialist dictator Hugo Chavez. That plan was shot down by higher-ups in the government and appropriate punishments are apparently forthcoming for those who suggested something so sacrilegious.

Less amusingly, in 2008 a heroic 12-foot bronze statue of Guevara was unveiled in his birth city of Rosario, Argentina.

Back in the USA, the culture war continues with anti-Che merchandise such as a shirt with a picture of Adolf Hitler and the caption “My Che shirt is in the laundry.” Or shirts with Che’s image and a subtle caption reading “My other shirt is a Hitler.” The point of course is that no one would think of using a Nazi thug to make a fashion statement. Or maybe not in these strange times of ours — as Hitler iconography is also making a comeback in some circles. To their credit, Urban Outfitters did decide to abandon their Che line in response to protests from the Cuban-American community and this an open letter published in The Huffington Post by Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation.

(I rather like the edgy irony to the perfume and shirt-in-the-laundry ideas, though, as Che rarely bathed, according to his complaining companions.)

The problem is not so much Guevara himself — he’s been dead now for half a century. The problem is the Che legend and its symbolism, which has had a hold on the minds and hearts of a subculture of young people for two generations now. The facts about Che’s brutality are not unknown. But the power of legend and myth often outstrips the power of facts. And in our market-friendly culture of free speech, there will always be a market for those who want anti-market and anti-freedom stuff. The size of that market is a cultural indicator worth watching.

For some, Che is a symbol of socialist revolution. For others, he stands more vaguely for revolution of some sort. Or for merely being against the status quo. For yet others, Che means being a relatively-youthful martyr for a cause. For sophisticated commentators, Che merchandise is kitsch — the banal statement of pampered American college kids who want to join the scene and, as a bonus, to shock Mom and Dad and the other squares.

But for all variants, Che symbolism is a statement of how one counter-culture sees itself.

Patrick Symmes’s travel book Chasing Che is to my mind the best representative. Symmes is a thoughtful man of the eclectic left, and he was inspired to recreate part of Che’s journey through several South American countries. Che started his journey on a motorcycle, but much like the Cuban economy he was later in charge of, the motorcycle broke down and Che didn’t know much about how such things worked. Che and his travel partner, Alberto Granado, then bummed and mooched their way for the rest of the trip. Symmes, by contrast, was organized and knew how to maintain his BMW motorcycle — and he brought his well-trained journalistic eye to telling a good story of the peoples and landscapes he encountered in his journey along Che’s path from Argentina to Chile and Peru.

But you’d barely know from Symmes, and then only in the book’s later pages, that Guevara tortured and killed indiscriminately. We instead get a sensitive portrait of a young man on a quest of self-discovery and social reform. There is genuine sympathy for the powerless and appropriate outrage for the injustices done by powerful governments and their crony business partners, along with an understated sense that Che’s brutality was perhaps an excusable response. And we get a strong impression that the only alternative to Latin American semi-feudalism is some sort of egalitarian socialism.

All of that suggests that our Che problem is really a philosophical one. It’s not just that Guevara was an activist who was widely read in the deep thinkers — Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and of course Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It’s that all of us since Che are battling over the abstract significance of his legacy. What’s true and what’s myth? What ideals and evils are at stake? And, as the fashion battle demonstrates — what’s cool and hip? That is to say, to use philosophers’ labels, that the Che battle is about epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Another way to put it is this: The problem is not Che Guevara: it is Che Guevara-ism.

If we are ever to get past the disasters of socialism in the twentieth century and to prevent their recurrence in the twenty-first, then greater awareness of the real Che is important to counter the whitewashing and myth-making. But more important to counter are the philosophical ideas that led so energetic a young man as Ernesto Guevara Lynch onto such a violent and destructive path.

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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at www.StephenHicks.org.