Reading Nietzsche in Starbucks

When the human waste of politics gets to piling up so deep you want to run screaming into the night, a good remedy is to fall back to the powerful historical minds and immerse yourself in some great writing. I ran into this dilemma last Sunday, after a morning of reading The New York Times about the continuing blackmail antics of Rep. John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell and their merry band of Teabag Republican cutthroats.

As backdrop to the Boehner/McConnell farce, there were stories in The Times of floods, a religious bombing in Pakistan, persistent corruption in the Shiite-ruled government of US occupied Iraq, and lunatic Islamists in Afghanistan wanting to stone to death a teenage couple out of Romeo and Juliet whose romance crossed ethnic lines and offended arranged marriage customs. Finally, maybe the most sobering story of all, an equally lunatic Hasidic Jew from New York had connived with well-connected, post-9/11 security operatives to disseminate draft legislation for state and local governments across the United States to outlaw anything smacking of Islamic Shariah Law; this man’s legislation is apparently taking root in many localities and will no doubt sweep away a host of civil liberties in its flood waters, as it exacerbates a growing state of religious war in America.

The only bright spot in the Sunday Times was the story from Turkey about how a moderate Muslim government has effectively, slowly castrated an entrenched and corrupt military institution. Now there’s a positive story to keep an eye on. Turkey seems to be on a course of becoming a model for what a moderate Muslim government looks like. Egyptians are, no doubt, taking notes.

The military-civilian relationship in the United States is going the other way and is more like Guatemala or Egypt; like them, we’re a nation with a fig leaf of civilian democratic elections. In the US, the incredible military monster is sacrosanct — a huge sacred cow munching away contentedly on tax resources and driving the debt ever higher and higher as politicians of both parties cravenly kowtow and throw money at it, all the time decrying the debt. President Barack Obama has shown himself to be a number one shining example of this cravenness, a man who has become quite comfortable solidifying his power by resorting to international homicide with flying robots and special operations assassin teams. Meanwhile, he and his VP Joe Biden have pretty much given away the economic store to a rapacious right wing.

Starbucks, Joe Biden, John Boehner and Friedrich NietzscheStarbucks, Joe Biden, John Boehner and Friedrich Nietzsche

All the above left me in state of the darkest gloom. With all this demoralization splashing around in my mind, I set off on some mundane Sunday missions. First, I stopped off at Target to pick up a sewing kit to repair a belt loop on a pair of jeans. As I walked into the giant box store mobbed with shoppers, I was suddenly plagued with a mysterious, shooting pain in my groin that came and went and made my walking at times quite painful and slow. At 64, this is par for the course, but I dreaded the thought of a doctor’s visit and whatever that might lead to, since all these expenses would fall under the $5,000 deductible in the policy I pay unbelievable gobs of money for to some criminal syndicate. I sometimes almost hope to get hit by the proverbial bus so I might actually get a real health benefit from all the money I hose out to this extortion racket. But, then, I’m sure if I were hit by a bus I’d be made aware of some loophole. Then, like Joseph K at the end of The Trial, maybe they’d just take me out and shoot me.

Next, it was on to the grocery store to pick up some supplies to sustain life. I planned to buy a nice piece of fish and a nice bottle of wine to share with my wife that evening. On the way to the grocery store, since it was such a blazing hot day, I decide to step into Starbucks for an iced coffee.

In my back pocket I had stuck a copy of On Truth and Untruth, a little book of newly translated essays by Friedrich Nietzsche. Sipping my tasty coffee, I chose an 1871 essay called “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” a beautiful piece of writing done when the German philosopher was 29-years-old. The essay is said by some to be “a keystone in his thought.” Nietzsche was noted for a life-long focus on “primordial creativity, joy in existence and ultimate truth.” As Nietzsche’s works often do, the essay starts out in the realm of parable:

“In some remote corner of the sprawling universe, twinkling among the countless solar systems, there was a star on which some clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant, most mendacious minute in ‘world history,’ but it was only a minute. After nature caught its breath a little, the star froze, and the clever animals had to die.”

His point, and the thrust of the essay, is that we human beings, especially people like John Boehner, really don’t know squat. We think we do, but most of what we deal with in our lives, to borrow the term made popular by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is “bullshit.”

Here’s Nietzsche again:

“The intellect, as a means of preserving the individual, develops its principal strengths in dissimulation, for this is the means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, it being denied to them to wage the battle of existence with the horns or sharp fangs of a beast of prey.” The notion of “the meek shall inherit the Earth” is another version of the same observation.

Because of this state of affairs, Nietzsche says, “man needs a peace treaty,” an understanding of things to get beyond Thomas Hobbes’ world of “war of all against all.” What we call truths, Nietzsche says, “are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.”

This perfectly explains the outrageous “bullshit” that people like John Boehner and his ilk amazingly get away with in the current and on-going struggle for power in post-9/11, post-debt-bubble America. The Will To Power, of course, became the mature Nietzsche’s major focus. Power and the future are what’s at stake in the current struggle. Who has power and who will wield it in the years to come? Who has the legacy of wealth and power to make the rules as to who will prevail in the future?

The struggle has nothing to with justice and questions of who deserves what and who has what to lose and who caused the economic disaster in the first place. The young Nietzsche says “truth” is “the obligation to use the customary metaphors” and “the obligation to lie in accordance with a fixed custom.” In other words, truth is the story a people agree to go with and to stick with. Truth can be the consensus of a lynch mob.

In America, this means reaching way, way back in history to the days of exploration and “discovery,” to the conquest of peoples and societies, and once those peoples were subdued and pacified, the development of the conquered lands and the introduction of new technologies like the railroads and — fast forward — computers and the internet. Capitalism and profit-making have become an instrumental part of this mythic story, which is told with great righteousness, received with great enthusiasm and manifested in action with great energy and momentum. And when there is a setback – like the current, on-going economic depression – the lies and delusions that make up the story become the empowering fuel to get beyond the setback.

The fact that, in this case and others, the process of recovery circumvents actually addressing the problem and, instead, means normalizing and reinvigorating the same dysfunctional circumstances that caused the problem in the first place only makes Nietzsche’s view of truth seem quite contemporary. He really understood slippery, power-hungry men like John Boehner and Joe Biden, to name two of the most sleazy now negotiating a dismal future for a society of TV-addled human beings, a “deal” that will be delivered just under the Tuesday wire. The cynicism would not shock Friedrich Nietzsche.

“[O]nly to a limited extent does man want truth,” Nietzsche writes. “He desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth; to pure knowledge without consequences he is indifferent, to potentially harmful and destructive truths he is even hostile. …Only through forgetfulness can man ever come to imagine that he possesses truth.”

As I loudly slurped the dregs of my Starbucks iced coffee, it dawned on me none of this really mattered, since like everyone else I would too soon be food for the worms. I didn’t know the “truth” any more than anybody else. All I knew was that I and all my allies who believe in, and advocate for, the bottom-up empowerment of ordinary Americans as a means of saving this nation from further disaster – and, yes, at the expense of the rich – all I knew was that we were really screwed and the deck was being re-stacked.

To fall back on sixties’ terms, the fat-cats and the war-mongers are winning. They are marshalling the power that reaches deep into American history to design a future that will increasingly screw those at the bottom of the heap – all in the name of protecting their investments and reinforcing their security in their gated communities. American capitalism, with all its deceptions and excesses, is only temporarily on the ropes. Recent history has made it tragically clear in the halls of government there is more concern about the security and comfort of those at the top than there is for those at the bottom.

The Slovenian Marxist writer Slavoj Zizek addresses the pitfalls of current American capitalism with a scalpel and humor in his book First as Tragedy, Then As Farce. In his mind, the famous Marx quote about history repeating itself applies to our times: 9/11 was the “tragedy” and the debt bubble crash of 2008 and the bailout was “farce.” He writes of a growing culture of people whose ambition is to live above the troublesome chaos of life lived by ordinary humanity:

“[O]ne feature basic to the attitude of these gated superrich is fear; fear of external social life itself. The highest priorities of the ‘ultrahigh-net worth individuals’ are thus how to minimize security risks – diseases, exposure to threats of violent crime, and so forth.”

Zizek sees this phenomenon growing and manifested in a nightmare vision of the future he has in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a Third World culture fast becoming a major First World economy — as we in the United States go through a reverse process of Third Worldization. “To insulate themselves from the dangers of mingling with ordinary people, the rich of Sao Paulo prefer to use helicopters,” he writes, “with ordinary people swarming through the dangerous streets down below.” It reminds him of the cold-blooded dystopia in the movie Blade Runner.

I tossed my empty iced coffee cup into the trash and headed for the grocery store, for those vital supplies to sustain life. As I walked from Starbucks to the Giant food store, a fancy new police cruiser slid by me. It was the kind with several laptop computers on racks all aimed at the person in the driver’s seat. A young neighborhood cop I know told me his SUV cruiser even had thermal sensing equipment; he was so new on the force he didn’t know what it was for.

I imagined the well-armed officer in the cruiser passing me as the bedrock, socially-designated arbiter of the vast socially-constructed, bullshit-driven system that I more and more felt myself incarcerated in. It was a world at the end of the evolutionary arc that had begun with that society of animals in Nietzsche’s parable that had in “the most arrogant, most mendacious minute in ‘world history,’ ” invented knowledge and, then, had been destroyed for it.

When I got through buying groceries, I moved on to the liquor store, where I bought a nice bottle of white wine to go with the catfish fillets I had bought. I also bought a bottle of tequila to brace me for the future.