We Are The Last Men
Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.
The entire Obama era has been shaped by this conflict, and not for the good. On issue after issue, debate after debate, there is a near-unified establishment view of what the government should do, and then a furious right-wing reaction to this consensus that offers no real policy alternative at all.
There’s nothing there, on either side.
More darkly, a reader sends in a Truthdig column by Chris Hedges, who excoriates organized religion, but says that there’s nothing better out there. Excerpts:
But I cannot rejoice in the collapse of these institutions. We are not going to be saved by faith in reason, science and technology, which the dead zone of oil forming in the Gulf of Mexico and our production of costly and redundant weapons systems illustrate. Frederick Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or “Superman”—our secular religion—is as fantasy-driven as religious magical thinking.
We are rapidly losing the capacity for the moral life. We reject the anxiety of individual responsibility that laid the foundations for the open society. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience was the starting point of the great ethical systems of all civilizations. Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus, fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism. They initiated the separation of individual responsibility from the demands of the state. They taught that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to often oppose and challenge those in authority, even at great personal cost. Immanuel Kant built his ethics upon this radical individualism. And Kant’s injunction to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means” runs in a direct line from the Socratic ideal and the Christian Gospels.
As we devolve into a commodity culture, in which celebrity, power and money reign, the older, dimming values of another era are being replaced. We are becoming objects, consumer products and marketable commodities. We have no intrinsic value. We are obsessed with self-presentation. We must remain youthful. We must achieve notoriety and money or the illusion of it. And it does not matter what we do to get there. Success, as Goldman Sachs illustrates, is its own morality. Other people’s humiliation, pain and weakness become the fodder for popular entertainment. Education, building community, honesty, transparency and sharing see contestants disappeared from any reality television show or laughed out of any Wall Street firm.
We live in the age of the Übermensch who rejects the sentimental tenets of traditional religion. The Übermensch creates his own morality based on human instincts, drive and will. We worship the “will to power” and think we have gone “beyond good and evil.” We spurn virtue. We think we have the moral fortitude and wisdom to create our own moral code. The high priests of our new religion run Wall Street, the Pentagon and the corporate state. They flood our airwaves with the tawdry and the salacious. They, too, promise a utopia. They redefine truth, beauty, morality, desire and goodness. And we imbibe their poison as blind followers once imbibed the poison of the medieval church.
Nietzsche’s concept of the “Last Man” — well, that’s us. Hedges again:
The Last Man, Nietzsche feared, would engage in the worst kinds of provincialism, believing he had nothing to learn from history. The Last Man would wallow and revel in his ignorance and quest for personal fulfillment. He would be satisfied with everything that he had done and become, and would seek to become nothing more. He would be intellectually and morally stagnant, incapable of growth, and become part of an easily manipulated herd. The Last Man would mistake cynicism for knowledge.
“The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars,” Nietzsche wrote about the Last Man in the prologue of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” “Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.”
“They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery.” The Last Men indulge in “their little pleasure for the day, and their little pleasure for the night.”
Read the whole thing. The times, they are a-changin’. A young priest friend told me the other day that he and his friends in the priesthood talk about how they expect to live and to serve through convulsive, profoundly consequential times.
And you know, I think about this sort of thing a lot, but tonight I can imagine what my late sister Ruthie would have to say about it. She had no use for philosophy or intellectualism. She would say something like, “Get over yourself. The world might be going to hell, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Do something, for goodness sake!”