Milo Yiannopoulos is an atomic battering ram
Milo Yiannopoulos has developed a Nietzschean propaganda strategy.
At a time when an individual’s purported personal identity carries as much weight in political arguments as what they believe, Mr Yiannopoulos has taken his sexual identity as a gay man and turned it into an atomic battering ram for the US political right.
This is the ‘Yiannopoulos Gambit’ as I understand it:
“I am a gay man who prefers black sexual partners. As such, according to the unspoken rules of identity politics whereby people who have been discriminated against unjustly under law in the past must be shown special consideration in the public sphere, I may say exactly as I please with no come backs.”
What Mr Yiannopoulos wishes to express under this shield are views, points and phrases that if used by heterosexual white man would lead to accusations of bigotry against homosexuals and racism.
And in expressing these views Mr Yiannopoulos allows those people who hold and wish to express such views a vicarious thrill. Mr Yiannopoulos stands before audiences who would be censured for saying the word “faggot” — and then uses the word with verve.
But since he, a gay man, is saying — neigh, revelling in the word — the audience is given moral permission laugh, with less fear that there will be public censure.
After all, so goes the reasoning, if a gay man expresses this sentiment it is morally acceptable.
What I believe Mr Yiannopoulous is seeking to achieve through this strategy is a revaluation of values in US political rhetoric — a Nietzschean counter-revolution.
I say this not only because Mr Yiannopoulos has briefly mentioned Nietzsche as an inspiration.
The connection makes intellectual sense, for the politics Mr Yiannopoulos wishes to destroy was itself built in part through a leftist reading of Nietzsche.
Mr Yiannopoulos has gone Promethean, and stolen the left’s rhetorical fire to burn down their encampments.
How does this fit together? What is a ‘revaluation of values’ ? And why do I think a 19th century German philosopher is having such an impact on 21st century US politics?
To understand Mr Yiannopoulos and the leftist Nietzschean thought he wishes to counter there are two aspects to Nietzsche’s thought one must appreciate:
- Nietzsche’s works contain ideas about the nature of knowledge that suggest a subjective approach to what we can know about the world.
Christianity changed the world, according to Nietzsche, by making the pursuit of truth a moral imperative. Before Christianity the ancients were perfectly prepared to celebrate lying. The Odyssey, for example, praises Odysseus for his chicanery. For Nietzsche the new commitment to the truth led to advance in the natural sciences and historical analysis. Ironically, the moral imperative towards the truth unleashed by Christianity undermined the religion’s foundations. We are most familiar with the way Darwinism has weakened belief in a literal biblical creation story, but applying historical methods to the Bible itself also undermined the Christian religion.
Christianity was devoured by its own children — scientific enquiry, and rational thought.
In Nietzsche’s own time he saw a hollowed out Christianity in Europe, which was followed due to social convention and the conviction that Christian beliefs were beneficial for a smoothly running society. He saw a time to come — the time that is our time — where the carapace of church-going would fall away.
And this is what has happened in the West, and possibly the entire world. Formal religion is in decline, and people mostly worship the institutions that maintain the only Christian ethic that has not been discredited, the command to the tell the truth as embodied in the scientific establishment.
This is why figures such as Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking are treated with religious reverence in the media — far more so than Pope Francis.
The scientists cleave to the truth more closely than Pope Francis — who still accepts discredited mythological ideas about the world — and so the scientists are in this sense more Christian than the pope, for they have stayed firm to the religion’s injunction that the truth is the highest good.
In this sense Christianity marches on, although shorn of its mythological and irrational elements. We are no longer in church, but in fact the church has become the world.
But even the time of the scientists — the last Christians — is passing.
Nietzsche suggests that the command to seek the truth can undermine the truth itself. This is the final undoing of the Christian ethic. We see this in the way evolutionary psychology causes people to question conventions such as truth telling. The evolutionary psychologist may ask, “And how did this strategy of truth telling arise? How did it help deceased generations pass on their genes?”
If the pursuit of truth can itself be questioned as merely a convenient evolutionary strategy it loses its authority as a moral injunction. The final step in Christianity’s unravelling, a Nietzschean may say, is for the the truth itself to fall into question.
In short, the world is about to take a step back to the pre-Christian days when lying was celebrated — for all knowledge has become relative, our every thought a product of economic or biological forces. And so the individual, who finds themselves splintered apart through genetics, evolutionary history, and economic analysis has only recourse to what they feel to be right.
The truth that Christianity claimed was ‘out there’ to be found was a great intellectual mirage. A mirage that allowed humans to make great scientific and technological advances to be sure, but a mirage nonetheless.
There nothing but power masquerading and manipulating what is thought by many to be the objective truth. Therefore, we can only know and trust our own experiences.
And the world where lying was celebrated, a Nietzschean may say, was a world that also celebrated raw strength, guile and power. Since such a world is without an objective truth all that mattered was the exceptional individuals who could bend reality to their will.
Donald Trump represents a Nietzschean figure par excellence, for he bends reality to his will. He simply feels that something should be the case and he makes it so.
Nietzsche’s post-truth world is our age — although Christian vestiges remain.
2. What is considered moral is created through the exercise of power, and statements about morality are merely power operating with a friendly face.
For Nietzsche morality is the equivalent to a flatmate who leaves passive aggressive notes on the fridge when you drink his milk by accident.
“We all really appreciate being able to have milk in our coffee before we go to work a long day. It’s one of the little things that makes a shitty commute a little better! I hope the people who drink other people’s milk had a super day!
He really wants to biff you on the nose, or call you an arsehole to your face.
But because he is too cowardly, or too physically weak he chooses to take his revenge by making you feel shame through writing a note in passive aggressive language.
What is at stake is not really whether it is objectively right or wrong to drink someone else’s milk — merely who prevails in the struggle between the frustrated milk owner, and the oblivious or malevolent flatmate who appropriated the milk.
Nietzsche sees Christianity as the ultimate in passive aggressive morality, for he believes Christianity emerged as a religion among the slave class in Ancient Rome.
Slaves don’t have much power, except the power to make the people in charge feel guilty or shameful about holding power. And Christianity, which celebrates meekness as a virtue, is the perfect religion to do this.
Before Christianity celebrated weakness and the truth the world celebrated power and guile as moral, according to Nietzsche. But Christianity — the religion of the slave majority, the herd — turned this order on its head.
Christianity undertook a revaluation of values, and turned morality topsey-turvey.
“So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen,” says Matthew 20:16.
And so, according to Nietzsche, the natural ruling class — the strong, guileful and powerful — were shamed into relinquishing or curbing their power, which was classed as not only immoral but also in conflict with the truth.
For Nietzsche, Christianity’s egalitarian morality has not died but merely — as with the truth in relation to science — transferred from the Church to ideologies such as liberlism and socialism, which preach without Christian trappings Christian morality: The last will be first. All people are brothers. And so on.
The two aspects to Nietzsche’s thought I have outline above would incline us to think about Nietzsche as an inspiration for those who celebrate hierarchy, power, wealth — values that are usually associated with the Western political right.
And indeed Nietzsche’s thought was inspirational — if in a garbled, bowdlerized way — to the Nazis, and to figures such as H.L. Mencken.
Nietzsche is useful to anyone who dislikes liberalism, socialism and democracy but cannot swallow Christianity as a counterforce to these ideologies — he is essential for conservatives who want go backwards by going forwards, rather than returning to the purer past.
But Nietzsche always had partisans on what is usually called the Western left, a prominent example being the author Jack London. And his influence grew as the Western proletariat — as it had been constituted in its workplaces, social standing and life-world — began to vanish after the Second World War.
For those who still held to egalitarian politics this was a problem. There was still inequality in the world, but economic inequality — at least in absolute terms — had diminished substantially in Western nations. And the social force that was meant to make a better, socialist world — the proletariat — apparently no longer had a material interest in doing so.
There were many different responses to this problem, responses that came to be broadly known as the New Left in the late 1960s.
One approach was to use Nietzsche and his analysis of power and the subjectivity of all knowledge to shift the ground for egalitarian struggle from one based on social class to one based upon a fight against oppression in general.
For if knowledge and truth are merely subjective, wielded and created to benefit those who hold power, perhaps, so certain leftists — such as Michel Foucault — thought, everything in Western societies could be challenged as concealing power, which was intrinsically oppressive.
Politics, art, customs, marriage, economics, relations between the sexes, literature, film, infrastructure — everything humans create in fact, including how we imagine nature as outside human affairs, is merely a product of power in this viewpoint.
This includes natural science, which, leftist Nietzscheans would say, claims objectivity only due to its Christian heritage and role as the final repository for the Christian moral injunction to seek the truth.
By using this interpretation it is possible to argue that although economic conditions may have improved relative to the 19th century in Western countries, most people have the vote, and laws that discriminated against women and minority racial groups have been struck down people are in fact as oppressed as ever, possibly even more so — for their subjective view of reality is denied by power at every turn.
The oppressed are forced to swallow another group’s subjective truth.
They are oppressed by natural science, which is really only created — in this reading — to reflect the subjective understanding of the world by those who undertook to codify the world in this way, people usually characterised as straight, white men. The critique is more commonly applied to art — for example, a feminism inspired by this reading of Nietzsche may claim that classical art only represents what a white male understanding of reality, and — regardless of what the artist believed his intention was — the work is oppressive because it was created by a man.
As there was a Nietzschean inflexion to the Nazi declaration that there was an “Aryan physics” and a “Jewish physics”, so there is a Nietzschean inspiration in the claims by contemporary identity politics that there is “black history” or that certain art is “white”.
This adaptation of Nietzsche justified a continued egalitarian political struggle. The proletariat could be replaced by a broad coalition of women, racial, sexual, and national minorities who are oppressed not through law or unjust distribution of economic goods but by the very nature of the societies in which they live.
Whereas socialists and liberals dreamed of universal brotherhood, with all raised to the highest point of human development “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.” as Leon Trotsky put it, the Nietzschean left sees only an eternal struggle for power, sometimes overt and sometimes conducted through moral manipulation.
It just so happens that the Nietzschean left favour groups that were historically disadvantaged whereas right-wing Nietzscheans backed those who historically held power.
A further difference between these two Nietzschean currents is that the leftists hope to one day overcome power itself so that the subjective categories invented through power relations “whiteness”, “blackness”, “maleness”, “femaleness”, “heterosexuality”, “homosexuality” will either dissolve or become complimentary.
How power itself is to be eliminated when it is central to the subjectivist nature of knowledge that the theory advances is not explained — but until power is dissolved, the Nietzschean leftist believes that they must support the interpretations of reality that are supposedly not dominant.
Now, I’m going to leave aside a critique of this Nietzschean approach to knowledge and politics because my point in this essay is to described the phenomenon, and not counter it. But I will say that one objection is that Nietzsche’s scepticism with regards to the truth suffers from the common objection to all scepticism — it cuts off its own legs, for the sceptic must doubt their own doubt.
Further, for Nietzschean leftists who accept that all is subjective, there is no particular reason why they should be supportive towards people who were historically or are currently oppressed — all they have to go on is their feeling that this is the right thing to do, and they can hardly complain if other people feel differently.
So where does this leave us?
Well, I believe the Nietzschean leftist approach to political rhetoric was very effective, for it could play on feelings about historic racial or imperial injustices masquerading as having taking an objective moral stand against injustice while being only concerned with power.
The collapse of the USSR strengthened the Nietzschean leftists. They couldn’t be swept into the ash sweep of history, for the USSR was itself repudiated as an invention of the oppressive white male power structure. Meanwhile, their socialist and Marxist rivals on the left were totally discredited.
And the Nietzschean left also had a huge rhetorical advantage in US politics where “racism” and “sexism” had become to be firmly established as deeply immoral ideas across all but the most marginalised political groups. For a Victorian to be perceived as sexually louche resulted in social ostracism and obloquy, and the same goes in most contemporary Western societies for those considered “sexist” or “racist”.
Classical liberals, socialists, scientists, conservatives, Marxists, and Christians are often bewildered at the way the Nietzschean left uses the terms ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’.
Confusion abounds because all parties agree that ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ are immoral or wrong. But a liberal, for example, thinks that racism is passing laws that discriminate or allow discrimination on the basis of race. She does not believe that racism is everything ever written or thought by someone who is white, as a Nietzschean leftist may assert.
This is because her theory of knowledge is not Nietzschean — she still believes that there is an objective truth to be sought, if not attained.
The upshot is that Nietzschean leftism, often known as identity politics — I do not know if this term is meant to be disparaging, and so have tried to avoid it — has considerable influence in US politics, which never had a strong socialist current in the first place.
It is popular partly because it panders to the most primordial feelings that can be generated through politics — namely racial identity, the war between the sexes and differences in sexual attraction.
In practical terms, once the Nietzschean left perspective is removed from the nuanced intellectuals who developed the idea and used in certain sections of the media it sounds no different to a reversed racism that states: “All white people are evil.” or a reversed sexism that states: “Men cause all the world’s problems”.
Only if one is aware that the intention is different, and that the theory holds that “whiteness”, “blackness”, “male”, and “female” are merely concepts invented by power that will eventually be dissolved would one be able to tell that the media’s intentions are not malevolent — though the way their words are interpreted are likely to be less so.
The US right has — up until 2016 — found the Nietzschean left difficult to counter, for it still holds itself up as a Christian, conservative and right-liberal movement — as such it is wedded to the idea that the truth exists (even if it does not always speak the truth). It also, though it may not live up to these aspirations, repudiates discrimination as understood in liberal terms.
Their strategy had been to criticise the Nietzschean left for being yahoos, people who despised high culture and celebrated everything perverse. They castigated moral relativism on the left. They ridiculed the bolder Nietzschen leftists who attacked natural science, which is still held by the public — due to its role in technology and the economy — to be unimpeachable.
This was all to no avail.
Enter Mr Yiannopoulos.
Enter President-elect Trump.
Mr Yiannopoulos understands the Nietzschean left, and has concocted a rhetorical strategy not based on the Nietzschean right’s approach, which was to celebrate strength, domination and power — but on stealing the role of the oppressed.
This has blindsided the Nietzschean left, which for so long held certain categories of people to be virtuous or to have a particular insight because they were from a particular race or had a particular sexual orientation. They also used the protection afforded to these groups as a means to prevent people who they disagreed with speaking on particular topics, or discrediting them if they did so.
There have been gay and black right-wingers in US politics for many, many years but what Mr Yiannopoulos has realised is that he can use this identity, his status to make points that were previously considered in bad taste, outside public discourse or simply inflammatory emotional appeals.
Mr Trump understands this instinctively as well. But I suspect Mr Yiannopoulos reasoned his way to his rhetorical style.
Thus he can make highly inflammatory claims about Muslims on the grounds that as a gay man he faces oppression from this group. In doing so he achieves a major goal for any political movement — divide the opposition.
The Nietzschean left sees itself as a coalition of the oppressed. This coalition is made up of anyone who is outside the power structure — anyone who is not male and white, or defends existing institutions considered “white”.
Under this reasoning recent Muslim immigrants to the US with conservative views on homosexuality are natural allies for transgender activists seeking equal access to goods, services, employment and so on.
But there are obvious tensions in interests, and morals within the coalition of the oppressed. And not everyone involved in such a coalition will share its motivating ideas — a conservative Muslim is closer to the Christian, the liberal and the socialist in her belief in an objective truth as manifested in the Koran than she is to a Nietzschean leftist who believes that only power creates truth.
And if one oppressed group believes another group within the coalition needs to be oppressed what then?
Mr Yiannopoulos has been effective in exploiting just these divisions. He has also flipped the perception that the political right have all the power. Mr Yiannopoulos presents the US political right as the victims, the oppressed — unable to speak where they choose, and mercilessly policed in their choice of video games and films.
A darker aspect to this strategy is apparent in the writings of Jonathan Bowden, a former senior member of the neo-fascist British National Party and — judging from his writings, although he does not explicitly state this is the case — a neo-Nazi.
I do not wish to suggest in what I write that Mr Yiannopoulos has been inspired by Mr Bowden directly — I have no evidence this is the case, and it is entirely possible for two people to arrive at the same conclusion independently.
Nonetheless, there are striking similarities in their thought processes.
Mr Bowden — who spoke regularly on Nietzsche at neo-fascist events — argued that far-right politic’s greatest unexploited asset was that it is considered the most subversive and unacceptable political thought system in Western countries. The Nazi regime is a universal shorthand for evil, and — so Mr Bowden argued — what is evil is also attractive, especially for young people who wish to rebel against their parents and who are at an age when attacking existing mores is considered healthy.
That the far-right — and fringe political groups generally — have targeted vulnerable young people for recruitment is not new. But what was new in Mr Bowden’s observations was the idea that far-right ideas could become the dissident form for youthful political rebellion — a stage in life usually dominated by the left.
“He who is not a leftist at eighteen has no heart. He who is not a conservative by thirty has no brain,” as the old saying goes.
But it is this old saying that Mr Bowden sought to reverse.
In short, Mr Bowden argued that neo-fascism and neo-Nazism had to position itself as edgy, cool and dissident in order to revivify.
Furthermore, he predicted that the upshot of identity politics would be that the majority ethnic groups in Western countries would come to present themselves as victims in need of quotas and affirmative action. This disgusted him — he was after all still wedded to an older conception of neo-Nazism that required Aryan supremacism — but this discarded idea is current in Mr Trump and Mr Yiannopoulos’ thought.
It is worth noting that Mr Bowden was interviewed by Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader who notoriously led a post-election rally that featured the Roman salute. The alt-right is beyond this essay’s scope, but the link between the two men is suggestive — disturbingly so — as to what the movement’s intellectuals have in mind.
And so we have it — Mr Yiannopoulos as youth trend setter, as right Nietzschean turning victims into oppressors and oppressors into victims.
If the Yiannopoulos/Trump approach to politics becomes the new normal then political debate in the US can only move towards one based on feeling and identity first.
In doing so the Nietzschean left supports the Nietzschean right — for in encouraging a coalition of the oppressed against “white men” the Nietzschean leftists encourage overt political organisation on the basis of “whiteness”, and so risk creating the overt oppressive majoritarian racial movement they wish to oppose.
For the Nietzschean left cannot admit common ground for the political enemy, for they cannot conceive of common humanity — if this approach to politics rules then those it opposes will likewise show no quarter.
Love, justice, friendship, tolerance, common values, piety, family ties, the sacred, honesty, pity, compassion, openness, humour, and compromise are all alien to Nietzschean politics, left or right — for all these must all be dismissed as mere pretences that disguise power relations.
And so if Nietzschean politics is to dominate US political rhetoric then US politics, and US citizens will lose their common ground — the ground that says, “Yes, I disagree with you — but you are my fellow citizen, my neighbour, my friend, my brother and these bonds are beyond disagreement.”
For how can one agree to disagree when the other person’s existence represents oppression? The only remedy, not compromise but — extermination.
Whether Nietzsche would assent to the above is another matter. I’m not going to ventriloquize him, although I did once own a Nietzsche finger puppet.
What I hope to have documented here is how a certain reading of Nietzsche (along with other philosophers I didn’t have space for) has contributed to US political rhetoric.
If you, dear reader, go to Nietzsche now (and I encourage you to do so, for he is heady medicine) you will find another Nietzsche, and it is up to you to decide if the man with the mighty moustache was correct — and whether his disciples have defamed or vindicated him.
Whether or not Nietzsche was correct in his analysis that we are in a post-truth age, I believe that by believing Nietzsche people can make it so.
And the Nietzschean approach is tempting for it can give license to work by feelings alone, which is always more gratifying than reasoning around a topic.
Mr Yiannopoulos has taken Nietzsche’s magic wand from the hand of the left. And perhaps it is not the Nietzschean right and Mr Trump the world should fear — but the Nietzschean moment in general, a moment that has the potential to dissolve all restraint on the worst human instinct and ideas.
[Caution, readers! I wrote this back in December 2016, and I don’t know what has happened to Yiannopoulos since then — probably something wild.]