A Late February Grab Bag
A NYT op-ed, a couple of incisive essays, and the Substack is a-changin’....
My posts are usually polished, focused essays. But today’s will be a little different—more like a grab-bag of topics, with the third and final item revealing some significant changes soon to come on this Substack.
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Item #1: Me in the New York Times
For the first time since last summer, I have a “Guest Essay” (also known as an op-ed) in the NYT today. It’s an attempt to urge my fellow liberals to stop insisting that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis winning the presidency would be just as bad as, or even worse than, former president Donald Trump returning to the White House. A DeSantis administration would be bad in all kinds of ways related to policy, but Trump remains a one-of-a-kind threat.
[Mr. Trump is] flagrantly corrupt. He lies constantly. He’s impulsive and capricious. And he displays a lust for power combined with complete indifference to democratic laws and norms that constrain presidential power.
The way to summarize these various personal defects is to say that Mr. Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. That was obvious to many of us before his surprise victory in 2016. It was confirmed on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis throughout his presidency. And it became indisputable when he refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and helped spur efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
That makes Mr. Trump categorically more dangerous than anyone else running or likely to run for president in 2024 — including Mr. DeSantis.
My worry is that liberals will undermine their very powerful case against DeSantis by exaggerating it unpersuasively and needlessly. As I put it in the final line of the essay, “Calling Mr. DeSantis bad should be good enough.” My argument is so cogent that I’m sure no one will even consider objecting to it.
That’s called irony, my friends. I fully expect to be embroiled in a shitstorm through much of this week because of this piece. Wish me luck. Or if you hate the op-ed, skip the good tidings and enjoy watching the abuse unfold from the sidelines. Either way, I’ll be back amidst the anticipated maelstrom with a new post on Wednesday.
Item #2: Philosophy and the Far Right—4
The first three posts with this title ran toward the end of last September, looking at several students of political philosophy in the Straussian tradition who have gone on to embrace the politics of the antiliberal far right. My post last week about Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Bronze Age Pervert could well have used this same title and become the fourth entry in the series. But I went in another direction for the headline. I’m using it now, though, to point to two other essays I’ve read in recent days on related themes.
The first is a review essay by Thomas Meaney in Harper’s titled “History’s Fool.” The “fool” is author Ernst Jünger, and the occasion for the essay is a new translation of his 1939 novella On the Marble Cliffs, about an idyllic feudal-agricultural society in decline and facing imminent decimation at the hands of a tormentor who could represent Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin and the communists, industrial capitalism and liberal modernity, or any number of other forces arrayed against humble defenders of more traditional ways of life.
But the bulk of Meaney’s essay goes far beyond that one book to summarize Jünger’s life and career in an illuminating way that can’t help but resonate ominously with those of us deeply troubled by the contemporary resurrection of the antiliberal far right.
Jünger first rose to literary prominence in the wake World War I, in which he served valiantly, with the memoir Storm of Steel (1920), which recounted his experience of the battlefield in a style that was at once highly aestheticized and emotionally remote. For its readers in the interwar period, the book’s intense but stylistically restrained romanticism transformed the horrific slaughterhouse of trench warfare into a gateway to an alternate reality in which men were severely tested, both physically and spiritually, granting them a taste of salvation from the stultifying mediocrity and decadence of the modern age. As the Weimar Republic limped on toward its collapse with the National Socialist seizure of dictatorial powers in 1933, Jünger’s writing helped to prepare the way for tyranny by inspiring a longing for a new form of politics that valorized military courage above every other virtue.
Meaney notes that Jünger maintained his distance from the Nazis, despite Hitler’s personal love of his writing. Yet his distaste for National Socialism had nothing to do with moral revulsion. On the contrary, Jünger was convinced that the Nazis were insufficiently radical. They remained too deeply within the orbit of ordinary modern, mass politics, when what Germany needed more than anything was something more extreme—a form of politics that would overturn or surpass modernity in its entirety from the standpoint of some alternative whose precise contours remained vague and undefined.
At the moment, you’ll have to sign up for a subscription to Harper’s to read Meaney’s review. I don’t know if the magazine will lift the paywall over the coming days and weeks. But regardless of how you go about it, I highly recommend you get your hands on the essay. It’s a powerful study of an important reactionary author whose phantasmagoric radicalism to some extent resembles (in old-world, aristocratic form) the vulgar aestheticized extremism of certain right-wing intellectuals in our own time and place.
The second piece I’ve read and found myself pondering over the past few days is Jeffrey Herf’s lengthy review, in Quillette, of Richard Wolin’s new study Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology. Most of Wolin’s career as an intellectual historian has been focused on the Heidegger case. (Here’s a very long essay I wrote 21 years ago for First Things on the occasion of the publication of an earlier Wolin book on the subject.)
This is an especially fraught subject for me. I fell pretty far down the Heideggerian rabbit hole during my graduate studies in the mid-1990s. I’ve probably spent more time reading, studying, and learning from Heidegger’s Being and Time than any other work of philosophy. I consider it one of the greatest books ever written. When I first began to read it, I was well aware of the author’s Nazi sympathies, and I’ve never attempted to whitewash them. Yet I didn’t see them creating an insurmountable obstacle to a close encounter with Heidegger’s thought.
I feel somewhat different today. That’s in large part because the political context of the present feels so different, and so much more dangerous, than the one that prevailed during the Clinton administration. But it’s also because of subsequent revelations about the true extent of Heidegger’s Nazi enthusiasm and his longstanding, vociferous hatred of Jews. As Herf explains in his essay, Heidegger’s collected works in German (which I spent a lot of time reading three decades ago) were deceptively edited to remove some of the most incriminating passages in his writings. These include Heidegger’s enduring expressions of enthusiasm for the Nazis, his persistent anti-Semitism, and, for a period of a few years surrounding the start of the Second World War, an apocalyptic longing for a civilizational cataclysm to prepare the way for “another beginning,” for which Heidegger had astonishingly high hopes.
Vladimir Putin’s court philosopher Aleksandr Dugin draws deeply on Heidegger’s thought and also likes to talk about preparing for new beginnings beyond the horizon of liberal modernity, as do his English-language translators and promoters. Anyone tempted by Heidegger’s powerful philosophic mind—or attracted to the ideas of his most accomplished acolytes—owes it to himself to read Wolin’s latest book. Or at least Herf’s careful and disturbing summation of its arguments and evidence.
Item #3: Changes on the Way
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be making some pretty significant changes around here. “Eyes on the Right” will remain active and likely continue to be the place where I publish the bulk of my writing, but I’m going to be launching two additional newsletters: one that offers analysis and criticism of trends on the cultural left, and another focused on non-political topics, including music, books, film, and personal essays. All three of these newsletters will appear under a new overarching name I will reveal very soon.
If you currently subscribe (paying or non-paying) to “Eyes on the Right,” you will automatically be signed up for all three newsletters. Going forward, if you subscribe to any of the newsletters, you will receive all three. My hope is that this will expand my audience beyond those who want to read me exclusively about the right. I continue to be more concerned about the antiliberal far right than I am about the “woke” left. But I’m a long-time critic of the latter as well, and I’d like a place where I can weigh in on that topic. I also loved writing about non-political topics from time to time while doing my column at The Week. I look forward to having the freedom to do something similar here as well.
I don’t yet have a precise date for the relaunch. It could come as soon as a week from today, or perhaps a week or so after that. (I have a lot of things to do on the back end to prepare.) Either way, it will be soon. Thanks for being here, and for sticking around as I negotiate this change. I’m confident most will judge it an improvement.
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