Nietzsche and Liberalism with Teeth

NIETZSCHE: CLOSER TO THE LIBERAL THINKER AND MINISTER HUMBOLDT THAN THE MILITARIST CONSERVATIVE NATIONALIST MONARCHIST BISMARK


Continuing with the theme set up in the last post on issues which came out of last semester’s teaching, as usual I find many students are associating Nietzsche with the ‘Master Morality’ outlined in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I. At the extreme, one student blamed Nietzsche for World War Two in an exam answer. The claim that Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi is a familiar one, but not one with much credibility amongst informed commentators. The more modest assumption that Nietzsche represents a morality aimed only at the elite, in which only the creation of the higher types of human counts, is one shared by many Nietzsche commentators.

These commentators are wrong, though it is not surprising they make the interpretations they do. My students did not have previous knowledge of Nietzsche commentaries, and I presented a rather different emphasis, but the students still largely thought of Nietzsche as an extreme elitist, and even an enthusiast for oppression and cruelty. Those students who got past that image where I believe largely the ones who studied Essay II most carefully. Essay II makes clear Nietzsche’s distaste for the lust for cruelty he sees at the root of the punishment of criminals.

This is rooted in a theory of ressentiment, which refers to the pain of the restraint of instinct in consciousness, a pain that is discharged through cruelty. The act of cruelty relieves the pressure of damned up action, and that pressure increases in situations where we cannot take revenge against those who harm us. The slaves are in that position. It is important to note that ressentiment has origins that precede the master/slave relation. This is clear in the first few sections of Essay II, where a description is built up of how memory and calculative abilities emerge from violent restraint of instinct. It is clear that human consciousness develops through
the pain of restraint on instinct.

It is not only the slaves who have a morality of ressentiment. Those masters who become priests have the same morality, and it is the priest-masters who organises the ressentiment of the masses in religions and churches. It is not only the slaves who are condemned when ‘slave morality’ is condemned.

Nietzsche cannot be taken as finding a model in the master as warrior. The picture of uncultured violence is very far from what Nietzsche advocates. It is the master’s conquest of pacific agricultural communities which founds the state, and the state is something strongly criticised by Nietzsche in ‘The New Idol’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and ‘A Look at the State’ in Human, All Too Human.

Nietzsche clearly indicates that he advocates the position of the ‘Overman’, or ‘Superman’, who is unprecedented in history. The ‘Overman’ is not the same as the ‘Master’. The ‘Overman’ has capacities for creativity, self-legislation and integration of a multiplicity of strong internal forces. This does not correspond at all with the violence, lawlessness and one-sidededness of the master.

Nietzsche does not give his ‘morality’, or code which enhances life, in the Genealogy. The Genealogy is no-saying philosophy, according to Ecce Homo. The yes-saying philosophy is in Zarathustra. After Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote criticism of existing morality in Beyond Good and Evil and in the Genealogy. Zarathustra includes a section on the friend, which suggests another form of relationship apart from master-slave of the community of masters or slaves. The values promoted by Zarathustra include: a single goal for humanity, the generosity of the individual overflowing with strength, liberation from dependence on the neighbour, emancipation from all conformism.

Nietzsche advocates the development of life and the highest possible form of humanity. He points out that in history, cultures and elites have been created on the foundations of cruelty and slavery. That is not the same as advocating these phenomena or saying that they are necessary in future. Does Nietzsche argue for slave society now? No, though he does advocate ‘aristocracy’ and inequality. It’s clear that by aristocracy Nietzsche means inner qualities, not membership of a social class. He does not advocate the aggressive German Nationalism of his time, associated with the policies of Bismark, which were closely tied with the Prussian/German monarchy/Empire and aristocracy. Nietzsche condemned Bismarkian nationalism along with anti-Semitism and socialism. While Nietzsche did not care for politics, parliamentary debates and the associated culture of newspaper reading, he did have views on politics and those were very clearly in favour of the more liberal aspects of German politics. He clearly favoured Emperor Frederick III,who supported liberal policies in a rather short reign.

Another hero mentioned by Nietzsche in both Human, All Too Human(section 453 in ‘A Look at the State) and in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I (section 10), is Mirabeau the Elder, Physicocrat (liberal economist) and father of a prominent moderate figure in the French Revolution who aimed to reconcile the monarchy and the constituent assembly, according to the principles of limited government, on representative constitutional foundations. Another enthusiast for Mirabeau was the great German liberal philosopher, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, as can be seen by checking The Limits of State Action (download e-book).

The cruelty and mastery that Nietzsche advocates is only that of self-mastery, of the inner struggle of integration of conflicting forces. For Nietzsche the wish to be cruel to others is contemptible and is the sign of a lack of inner mastery. This is explained at some length in Essay II of Genealogy of Morals.

Lester Hunt, a Libertarian political philosopher described Nietzsche as supporting a ‘liberalism with teeth’ in Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue, he was right to do so.


Self-Love as the Foundation of Kierkegaard’s Ethics

I’ve just got through grading last semester’s courses and submitting grades at the two universities in Istanbul I was giving courses last semester, one full time and one part time. The process of grading overlapped with getting next courses ready, and it’s been an intense time. It’s left with me with a few ideas which I hope to keep developing. Some of this comes from what I feel I did not convince students of last semester. I usually get that when I’m teaching Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and I spent 8 weeks on them in an Ethics course last semester, after working through Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Hegel. The other figure I might have that problem with is Machiavelli. I’m teaching him in a Politics course next semester, but I’m teaching the overtly Republican Discourses (pdf download) instead of the merely covertly Republican Prince (pdf download), in the hope that cuts out all the Machiavelli was a life style coach for power junkies kind of stuff. Machiavelli may well feature in future blogs.

My immediate concern is the tendency to see Kierkegaard as a Christian Moralist. This is a misleading way of looking at Kierkegaard, with respect to both words. That is an absurd thing to say in some sense, as Kierkegaard devoted himself to Christianity and to Christ as the supreme moralist. There are strong reasons for rejecting this label for Kierkegaard though. In his philosophical arguments (as opposed to his declarations of faith, and even those are still conditioned by the philosophy), the problem is what it is to be a self.

I chose to illustrate this in my Ethics class with a thorough look at Part I of Works of Love. That seems like a high risk place to start a non-theological and non- Fideist reading of Kierkegaard. The non-Theological reading emphasises Kierkegaard’s Enlightenment attitude to the metaphysical reality of Christianity, which is that there is no objective reality established for Christianity. The non-Fideist reading emphasises that Kierkegaard does not put pure unmotivated faith at the beginning of his thought. The Fideist interpretation of Kierkegaard partly relies on the widespread myth that Kierkegaard advocated a ‘a leap of faith’, a phrase he never used. In general it ignores the structure of argument in which a relation within the self in Kierkegaard is a relation between the empirical self and the absolute self. In genral it ignores Kierkegaard’s use of dialectic. It is ‘dialectic of the absurd’ but it is still a dialectic. Kierkegaard advocated a passion for paradox, which is sill a rational philosophical exercise in finding paradoxes of reason. Philip Quinn’s argument for a Divine Command Ethics does not rest on an irrationalist form of Fideism in its reading of Kierkegaard, but its emphasis on the acceptance of divine command as absolute is still failing to engage with the question of subjectivity in Kierkegaard.

The Christian readings of Kierkegaard cannot deal with Kierkegaard because they cannot deal with his approach to subjectivity, which is at work in all his texts, including both the ‘aesthetic’ texts of literary philosophy and the ‘Christian’ texts of Biblically based faith. We will see how this works in the highly Christian looking Works of Love. This is centrally concerned with a philosophical problem of moral motivation taken from Kant, as interpreted by Hegel. Kierkegaard deals with the question of why we should obey law if it exists in the univeral rational form suggested by Kant. What motivates the individual to follow law? It is Hegel who suggested that an absolute gap opens between subjective inclination in Kant and the abstract universality of law. Kierkegaard has a solution in love.

Christ commands us to love. Kierkegaard looks at that injunction itself, before looking at hiw it applies to ‘God’, ‘the neighbour’ and so on. In the Bible (pdf download), Christ says you shall love, or you ought to love as Kierkegaard says in an echo of Kant’s formulation of moral law as a universal ought. The command to love, however, is not a command to follow abstract duty, it is a command to be what you already are, to become what you are, since love is part of human inclinations and needs.

The command to love your neighbour comes out of the command to love (again echoing Kant on respect for humanity) through self-love. I can only love my neighbour if I can already love myself. The command to love the neighbour is the command to love yourself and then love what you see of yourself in the neighbour. The command to love God continues on this basis since it is the command to love the absolute in myself.

Kierkegaard is not a ‘moralist’ since he puts our capacity for ethical judgement on the grounds of out subjectivity, not of the duty to obey external commands. The subjectivity itself is not Christian in the sense of giving ethical commands from God which are external to us.

Therefore, we do not read Kierkegaard in all his philosophical riches if we assume that his philosophy leads us to an extra-rational faith, or willingness to follow external commands. Truth is already in us and becomes apparent in the subjectivity of life, without reference to the historical truth of the Bible or the external existence of God.

Foucault and the Body; or Why Foucault is not a Post-Modern Social Constructionist

I’m following up the last post on Derrida and Nietzsche with a briefer post on Foucault. As I emphasised in the last post, neither Foucault nor Derrida can be reduced to a cliché of ‘Post-Modern’ social constructionism which excludes the body as natural object.

Like Derrida, Foucault never sailed under the flag of ‘Post-Modernism’, or post-ism of any kind. They are rather different cases, and though Derrida was Foucault’s student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, they appear to have had a long term falling out. This seems to have been more on Foucault’s side than Derrida’s. Despite Foucault’s expemplary qualities as thinker and libertarian social activist (future posts will return to the topic of Foucault and Libertarianism), he does seem to have been more prickly than Derrida. The prickliness seems to go all the way back to Derrida’s 1963 paper, ‘Cogito and Madness’ (collected in Writing and Difference), which is a critical but appreciative discussion of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

The stereotypical view of Foucault circulated by his ‘Analytical’ philosophical critics and his ‘Post-Modern’ fans (more typically to be found in humanities and social science departments other than philosophy) is that he was a relativist who denied the existence of truth or objective, knowledge, and that he had a related assumption according to which reality only exists as a discursive social construction serving power interests of some kind. Something similar to that ‘Post-Modern’ interpretation of Foucault is also widespread in interpretation of Thomas Kuhn, a leaidng figure in Philosophy of Science in the Analytic tradition. Again very different cases, but there is no more reason to think of Foucault as a Post-Modernist than there is to think of Kuhn in that way.

There are many issues to be explored in future, but just one for today. Just a remark that one of Foucault’s most widely read books, Discipline and Punish, does refer to the discourses of power/knowledge, but it also refers to discourse as what affects the body. There is something pre-discursive in Foucault, the body. There is no ‘body’ or ‘nature’ we can identify from outside discourse for Foucault, but physicality and natural forces are there. His view of power/knowledge is just as much an attempt to think of social relations in terms of natural forces, as a discourse centred theory. The body is experienced in social and discursive contexts, but is not eliminated as a body. It is the body where there is resistance to power.

What Derrida takes from Nietzsche in Ethics

Readings of Derrida on Nietzsche
There is a myth about Derrida’s philosophy. The myth of a philosophy which is only concerned with style and not with content. This comes up frequently in discussions of Nietzsche’s ethics. The issue of style and ethics comes up in discussions of Nietzsche because there is a substantial and growing body of work by Analytic philosophers on Nietzsche, particularly with regard to Ethics. While these people do not appear to have made any deep study of Derrida, they have felt it necessary to express brief opinions about Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche. In the tradition of John Searle’s attack on Derrida, they have not found it necessary to acquaint themselves deeply with Derrida’s texts before making dismissive comments. These comments do have some applicaiton, but to Derrida’s more parodic followers rather than to Derrida himself.

Examples of this genre include Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter (see also Leiter’s Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy, the inclusion of politics in Leiter’s entry is perverse since he dismisses in typically pugnmacious style the idea that Nietzsche has anything to contribute to political philosophy) and Nietzsche’s Conscience: Six Characters from the Genealogy byAaron Ridley.

Leiter on Nietzsche
Leiter has a head on attack on ‘Post-Modern’ readings of Nietzsche in Foucault and Derrida, though neither ever adopted the label ‘Post-Modern’. There are a number of Analytic Philosophers around who take Foucault seriously (Ian Hacking, John Searle, Bernard Williams) as Leiter acknowledges but never to the extent of questioning his own use of the label ‘Post-Modern’ in opposition to Analytic or Naturalistic. Derrida, and those who value Derrida’s work, have been consistently damned by Leiter, as bad philosophers hardly worthy of the name (so I must be a complete moron), without any acknowledgement of Analytic Philosophers who take Derrida seriously (A.W. Moore, Tom Baldwin, Stanley Cavell). I’ve discussed Derrida’s relevance to Analytic Philosophy at length myself in Derrida on Deconstruction. This is in the same series as Nietzsche on Ethics, Leiter must be furious. Leiter’s argument is that ‘Post Modern’ discussion of Nietzsche is only concerned with play of style and ignores the extent to which Nietzsche has a theory of human nature, because ‘Post-Modernists’ think of human nature as socially constructed. The latter issue is really more in Foucault’s field. I consider it a misrepresentation of Foucault, but I hope to return to that topic in another blog).

Ridley on Nietzsche
Ridley is less concerned with attacking ‘Post-Modernism’ but shares the assumption that Derrida’s interest in Nietzsche is too undermine all claims to objective truth and depth of knowledge, with reference to the multiplicity of ways of writing in Nietzsche. This isopposed to his own examination of 6 figures of ethical significance in the Genealogy of Morals
Derrida on Language, Context and Hermeneutic Ambiguity
What both Leiter and Ridley must be thinking of is Derrida’s book Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Derrida’s concern there is to argue for a version of the ‘context principle’ in questions of meaning. That is the principle that the meaning of a word is fixed by the sentence to which it belongs, that the meaning of a sentence is fixed by the circumstances of use, and so on. That claim is not in itself foreign to Analytic Philosophy.

In this book, Derrida takes the principle to the length or arguing that fragmentary phrases jotted down in Derrida’s notebooks may have a significant meaning. They may have such a meaning because the hermeneutic ambiguity (uncertainty about meaning) which follows from the context principle (what Derrida discusses as the inseparability of word from context) means that the meaning of the sentence could be a contribution to a major philosophical idea in Nietzsche. ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ could have Freudian meanings about castration, or it could be comment on constant possibility of forgetting meaning, which would lead us into the really radical kind of contextualism which questions the basis of a claim to constancy in the meaning of words.

Derrida for Empiricism and Against Scepticism
However, there is no attempt in Derrida to assert a sceptical claim, he is trying to resist transcendental philosophical claims about meaning from an empiricist point of view. The point of the emphasis on style on Nietzsche is not to promote an aestheticised kind of scepticism. The point is that the context principle/hermeneutic ambiguity appear in the necessarily plural possibilities of style. Derrida also tackles the question of supposed misogyny in Nietzsche, by emphasising how the references to women in Nietzsche are figures of ambiguity, which demonstrate the ambiguities of context and hermeneutics, including the necessary ambiguity of differentiating depth in meaning from surface meaning. ‘Woman’ tends to be distant and transparent, shallow and ungraspable in Nietzsche.

Derrida and Naturalism
Lieter presumes that Derrida’s approach is opposed to his own emphasis on Moraş Naturalism, that is the view that ethics comes from human nature, described in scientific terms. But,there is nothing in Derrida that opposes Naturalism. Derrida emphasises repeatedly that it he is not an idealist. In Analytic terms, he is not a constructionist or a conceptualist. For Derrida, language is derived from the relations between material phenomena, written or spoken. Consciousness, largely discussed in terms of language, is view as emerging from relations between neurons.
Derrida and Ethics
Derrida does not make any Naturalist claims about ethics, but he certainly always denies that a break can ever be established between the natural and the social. According to Derrida, physical forces are inseparable from consciousness and physicality is inseparable from communication. When writing about ethics though he concentrates on questions on ethical law, particular ethical responsibilities and the constitutive contradictions of law and individual responsibility, as I have emphasised.

These concerns are brought into Nietzsche’s ethics, particularly in The Politics of Friendship. Derrida does not concern himself with any Naturalistic elements in Nietzsche’s ethics. He does however focus on friendship in Nietzsche, on why Nietzsche quotes a statement attributed to Aristotle, ‘O my friends, there is no friend’. He looks at how the friend in Nietzsche is both the self and the enemy, of how Nietzsche suggests a goal of absolute friendship. He looks at how Nietzsche looks at friendship as opposed to despotism. Derrida takes from these thoughts a view of friendship as a contradictory ideal which should be followed, and is inseparable from the political ideal of democracy. The goal is to have perfect communication with someone outside the self, but there could only be perfect communication between the self and itself. However, there cannot be perfect communication, even there because the self conducts an inner dialogue, which turns a part of it into its own external friend. There is no Naturalism in these ethical thoughts, but no abolition of ethics through a mere play of style.

Political Notebook. Saturday 20th January 2007. Leading Adocate of Privatisation Backs Moves towards EU Energy Policy


Dieter Helm, veteran of the Privatisation of the British Energy Industry and Major Academic in the Field Argues for EU Energy Policy

A major expert on privatisation at Oxford University, Dieter Helm (described to me by a business friend as a privatisation guru), has recently posted a website article favouring EU moves towards an energy policy. Much confirmation that British Eurosceptic national-conservatives posing as Classical Liberals or Libertarians are contradicting themselves. It is the EU which provides the political and legal framework for continent wide competition, and opening up world markets.

The Preventable Death of Hrant Dink: Ultra-Nationalist Hysterics and the Political Leaders who Have Appeased Them


HRANT DINK
MAN OF PEACE MURDERED BY ULTRA-NATIONALIST FANATICS
REST IN PEACE
REMEMBER HIM BY PRESERVING LIBERTY, DEMOCRACY AND LAW FROM THEIR ENEMIES
MAKE HIS DEATH COUNT
End the Appeasement of Ultra-Nationalism
Repeal Article 301 and all laws which Criminalise Political and Historical Discussion
Push the Ultra-Nationalists into the Political Wilderness
State and Political Leaders must totally Separate themselves from Ultra-Nationalism


The fourth post I wrote for this blog was on the ‘The Nationalist Upsurge in Turkey’
where I emphasised the harassment of Hrant Dink, through the courts and outside court buildings through the despicable campaign of hatred mounted by hysterical ultra-nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz. I certainly do not accuse Kerincsiz, or other leaders and manipulators of ultra-nationalist hysteria, of connection with the murder. I do accuse them of creating an atmosphere of hysteria through their harassment in a country where political violence has been all too frequent. In the context in which which extreme political divisions have led to violence, including murder, the possible consequences of Kerincsiz’ hysteria campaign is all too obvious. He is guilty of knowingly, deliberately and calculatingly, creating an atmosphere in which the chances of Dink’s murder was increased.

I emphasised in my earlier post that Kerancsiz’ hysteria campaign was being tolerated by the state and by the mainstream political parties. Kerancsiz is a member of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party; though the party has cleaned up its act in the last 10 years, under the leadership of Devlet Bahceli, after a long period of involvement in political violence, they did nothing to restrain Kerincsiz. Though they did not directly endorse his hysteria campaign, they have clearly benefited from the atmosphere of hatred and tension raising that Kerancsiz has created.

When the AKP (a conservative party rooted in Islamism which now defines itself as Conservative Democrat, on a Christian democratic model) came to power, the new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted by many liberal-left intelligentsia in Turkey, and by many foreign observers, as a great reformer and enemy of the hard core statist-nationalist old guard in Turkey. Where has Erdogan been in opposing Kerancsiz? What was done to stop Kerancsiz from turning the court room and the court steps into a theatre hatred and hysteria? What did Erdogan, Prime Minister and leader of Turkey’s largest party, do against this? Nothing. Does Erdogan wish to repeal article 301 of the Penal Code, criminalising ‘insults against Turkey, which was used against Dink and many others? No. Article 301 gives legal and state sanction to idea that the individual can be punished for criticising the nation. It is fundamental to the hysteria campaign of Kerincsiz who frequently uses it to bring prosecutions. It’s time for Erdogan to behave like a modernist conservative democrat, and not just try to talk like one.

The largest opposition party in Turkey is the Republican People’s Party, a social democratic party which is a member of the Socialist Internationalist. Has it demanded the repeal of 301? No. Have they opposed ultra-nationalist ideology? While many members of the party are consistently opposed to ultra-nationalist hysteria, leading members have endorsed intolerant attitudes, for example on the question of a free discussion about the 1915 deportation and massacre of Armenians. It was Dink’s insistence on claiming that this should labelled ‘genocide’ that started his troubles. I’ve always argued against such an interpretation, but it is a question to be settled by free discussion. The laws, like 301, which criminalise free discussion, have contributed to the atmosphere in which Dink was defined as an enemy of Turkey who deserved to be murdered. When I meet RPP members, they like claim the party is a modernist party based on human rights and political freedom. The time has come to act, not just talk. Has the RPP leader, Deniz Baykal opposed the Nationalist Action Party? No, he is seeking to bring them into a coalition government. Has he condemned Kerincsiz? No. Has he demanded the repeal of 301? No.


ECONOMIC AND STATE CONTEXT
Those who committed the murder are very likely rather pathetic individuals, people who know very little about Turkish politics, and even less about the world outside Turkey, except the ‘knowledge’ that Turkey has enemies who ought to die. Probably people from low income and low education backgrounds dependent on god fathers and distributors of patronage who fill them with ultra-nationalist fanaticism. They have probably seen all kinds of injustice in their life, and are conditioned to blame it on national enemies, traitors, and liberal appeasement, no doubt aware that many liberals and liberal democrats, on the centre right and the centre left, in Turkey are part of a system of patronage and corruption. However pathetic, they must pay for what they have done. However, if all that happens is that they get life in prison, nothing will have been achieved to improve Turkey. The pseudo-nationalists will have won, they will have preserved and entrenched a system of patronage, clientalism, favouritism, corruption, mafia criminality, and protectionism which keeps Turkish people poor but enables the people at the head of these activities to be rich. I’ve met some radical left and democratic people in Turkey who deny the problems of corruption in Turkey. These are people who benefit from party patronage, or from well intentioned international subsidies for NGOs, the problem is not just with the stereotypical ultra-nationalist apes, it is also with apparently civilised, intellectual and democratic people. All the people who benefit from these distortions find that distributing patronage will create loyal and pathetic clients, very likely the status of those who murdered Dink. The real planners will have kept themselves distant of creating tension within Turkey, and between Turkey and the international community. The international Armenian lobby has already jumped onto the murder of Dink, though Dink strongly criticised Armenians who put anti-Turkish lobbying above positive action to improve Armenian conditions, in Armenia itself and for Armenians everywhere. While we must sympathise with the sincere horror that Armenians throughout the world will feel at this murder, we must note the risk that this will turn into a campaign of ant-Turkish hysteria creating further nationalist hysteria in Turkey. The godfathers will have succeed in their gaols unless…..


MAKE A DECISION FOR REFORM AND AGAINST BACKWARDNESS

The political and state leadership in Turkey has announced its intention of bringing Turkey up to international standards with regard to political freedoms and human rights. They have failed to do so. They have failed to challenge ultra-nationalism. Leaders must must accept responsibility for the atmosphere in which Dink was murdered. They must atone. Public opinion and leaders of all kind must see this as the moment to make a definitive break with ultra-nationalism and to to make the rule of law, freedom of speech and tolerant democracy supreme.

We shall attempt to raise our national culture above the level of contemporary civilization. Therefore, we think and shall continue to think not according to the lethargic mentality of past centuries, but according to the concepts of speed and action of our century. We shall work harder than in the past.
Kemal Ataturk, Speech on the 10th Anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey

South Park. The Latest Episode: ‘Smug Alert’, South Park Libertarianism and Childishly Subjective Conservatives

One of the best current TV shows is the animation South Park created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who based the central characters Stan and Kyle on themselves. The show features elementary school kids who deal with many dilemmas in bizarre story lines which often push to the limits of the offensive, but always make good morally reasoned points about families, small town life, religion, politics, friendship and many other things.

The most recent episode (the most recent one broadcast in Turkey) is ‘Smug Alert’. Kyle’s father starts diving a ‘hybrid’ car that switches between petrol and electric propulsion, and is more environmentally friendly than a car which just runs on petrol. Kyle’s father embarrasses Kyle and annoys everyone in the town with his smug attitude which leads him to ‘ticket’ less environmental cars than his own. Seeking people as pure as himself, Kyle’s father takes the family to San Francisco, portrayed as a nightmare place of self-satisfied hippies, lacking in real life. Back in South Park, Kyle’s best friend Stan tries to get Kyle back by converting everyone to driving hybrid cars in a 60s protest style song. However, disaster strikes when it turns out that like San Francisco, South Park is producing a cloud of ‘smug’. What’s worse George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech has produced a virulent cloud of smug which keeps repeating phrases like ‘Hollywood is ahead of the curve on social issues’. If the Clooney ‘smug’ cloud hits the other ones destruction will rain down. Meanwhile Stan and Kyle’s ambiguous friend Cartman, who is anti-Semitic, selfish, and sadistic, misses ripping on Kyle’s Jewishness. His solution is to enter San Francisco in what looks like a very old fashioned deep sea diving suit he wears to avoid hippy contamination, and pulls Kyle’s family out before San Francisco is destroyed. The pay off is that Kyle tells the town’s people that hybrids might save the world, but that smugness is bad.

The Politics of South Park
Like many episodes of South Park, ‘Smug Alert’ attacks left-wing self-satisfied political correctness. The episode title really sums up that theme of the series as a whole. However, it also emphasises that environmental concerns are well founded and that individuals should take responsibility for protecting the environment. The emphasis on individual responsibility might be considered to oppose left-liberal big government, but it could also be opposed to conservative social disciplinarianism.

Let’s look at what the makers say about politics in a recent interview in Reason Magazine.

Reason: A few years ago, Matt, you said, “I hate conservatives, but I really f…..g hate liberals.” Who do you hate more these days?

Stone: That’s a tough question. Obviously, South Park has a lot of politics in it, but ultimately we want to make a funny show and a good show. We try not to be, “All right, here’s the point we want to make.” But things like California’s smoking ban and Rob Reiner animate both of us. When we did that Rob Reiner episode [2003’s “Butt Out”], to us it was just common sense. Rob Reiner was just a great target.

That’s when a lot of people started calling us conservative: “How could you possibly rip on Rob Reiner? You must be conservative.”

Parker: A big key to us is that we both grew up in Colorado in the ’80s, and we wanted to be punk rockers. When you were a teenager in Colorado, the way to be a punk rocker was to rip on Reagan and Bush and what they were doing and talk about how everyone in Colorado’s a redneck with a gun and all this stuff. Then we went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and everyone there agreed with us. And we were like, “Well, that’s not cool, everyone agrees with us.” And then you get to Los Angeles. The only way you can be a punk in Los Angeles is go to a big party and go, “You can say what you want about George Bush, but you’ve got to admit, he’s pretty smart.” People are like, “What the fuck did he just say? Get him out of here!”
….

The show is saying that there is a middle ground, that most of us actually live in this middle ground, and that all you extremists are the ones who have the microphones because you’re the most interesting to listen to, but actually this group isn’t evil, that group isn’t evil, and there’s something to be worked out here.

The interview, which is with a Libertarian magazine emphasises two things politically: Centrism and Libertarianism as opposed to Conservativism and (Left) Liberalism. This seem clear enough and is born out by the general tone of the series which tends to be for small government in the economy, and freedom in the social sphere. Conservative Republicanism is targeted with regard to stem cell research, religion and anti-gay attitudes. An episode about immigrants from the future mocks anti-immigrant attitudes which come from a left wing wish to keep up wages and a right wing dislike of people who come from the future. Mel Gibson is mocked as a ‘complete douche’ and his film The Passion is represented as anti-semitic. An episode, which refers to a fictionalised version of Walmart, mocks the Walmart equivalent as tuırning customers into shopping obsessives and mocks the town people who keep trying to destroy it but then flock back to it, or a new version of it. Though Stone and Trey seem generally sympathetic to the free enterprise spirit, in this instance they clearly parody consumerism and suggest that companies work by subordinating individuals who work for a remorseless inhuman process.

Despite the above, Conservatives and ‘Libertarian’ Conservatives try to claim the show as their own. Rather oddly, despite clear criticisms of Conservatism in conversation and in the series, there is a book called South Park Conservatives which assumes what the title says, the series belongs to Conservatives. The absurdity of this is made clear in an Amazon.Com review (‘All Humor is Conservative’) posted by the editor of a magazine which had published essays by the author Brian C. Anderson. The review is based on the truly pathetic position that SP is Conservative because there is a lot of humor direct at left-liberals. Humour directed at Conservatives is ignored. Significantly, the post argues that the private media companies in the US are largely left wing and that SP is part of a counter movement which all encompasses The Passion. That would be Gibson’s The Passion which is condemned in one episode of SP as ant-semitic, and as the rantings of a violent maniac.

This is a good example of the kind of contradiction, and outright nonsense right wingers get into when they appropriate Libertarianism. A more subtle but still distotring version can be found on Lew.Rockwell.com which is closely associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The Institute claims to be Libertarian, but it stretches this to included self styled ‘PaleoConservatives who are nostalgics for the Slave owning Confederacy which fought Lincoln in the Civil War. Quite apart from all that, two articles posted on Lee.Rockwell.com make tendentious claims. The Politics of South Park by Michael Cust only refers to right wing targets on the show, and overlooks the strong advocacy of gay rights, embedded in all the mocking of political correctness and guilt grievance politics. The Invisible Gnomes by Paul Cantor is more balanced, but still tries to define the show as more conservative than liberal, and assumes that the show only has good things to say about big corporations. Cust gets his history of Libertarianism completely muddled. He argues that it starts with Adam Smith and is carried on by Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Mises and Murray Rothbard. Smith was taken by Hayek as the starting point, though this kind of reading of Smith has been widely contested, in the blog Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, along with books by Jerry Evensky, Samuel Fleischacker, and others. What is even more serious is the failure to recognised that Hayek placed Smith on pedestal (possibly ignoring him most of the time), Mises gave him credit but wrote little about him, and Rothbard condemns Smith as the precursor of Marxism, looking for roots to Libertarianism in 16th Century Jesuit Natural Law thinkers. Despite his role as Mises heir, Rothbard differed strongly from Mises in following natural law ethics, and in his condemnation of Smith. Silly Cust. Or as the South Park kids might say, Cust sucks *ss.

Sadly Cantor and Cust in their conservative version of Libertarianism, don’t get SP, because they think it must be Libertarianism of the anti-left kind, and just think that all Libertarianism is like that. Like the characters in the show, they are childish but with less reason.