Mr. T’s Narrative: What remains after the wave?

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

–Albert Einstein


When I was 13 years old, during the Summer just before I entered high school, Red Dawn was released. Its intoxicating message of pure American patriotism inspired my friends and I to cleanse the neighborhood of anyone from a “commie” family. We identified as “commie” any of our classmates or neighbors with Russian-sounding names that ended in “ski” or “sky.” As proud Americans of Irish, African or Italian descent (and this was one of the few times the black and Irish kids cooperated with the Italians…), we patrolled all the local hangouts and the route home from school every day terrorizing the large population of Polish kids in our working class neighborhood. Matters rarely went beyond the type of verbal abuse and ridicule teens are so adept at, but there was the occasional fistfight and small group confrontation. We may not have been a gang of murderers, but we were certainly a gang of bullies.

Our persecution of our neighbors and peers lasted until September and the start of school, after which our sights returned their normal targets: anyone weaker than us, anyone other than us. The viciousness of adolescents is often less about an actual hatred and more a form of displacement–any scapegoat will serve as long as it keeps the bullies of your back.

I know, because when the Red Dawn fervor subsided, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had succeeded in getting through the pogrom without anyone learning that although my family name was Tolley, my mother’s maiden name was Wilzewski–making me a clear target for the commie hunting gangs that defined the Summer of ’84. By joining the gang, I had avoided becoming a victim. But to what cost?

During our exploration of Authoritarianism, and its fruits in the form of war and cruelty in the 20th Century, we will become familiar with terms like, “bystander,” “willing executioner,” and “eliminationist” and we will need to put my teenage actions into these contexts. We will also need to reflect on all of our daily actions: Did my behaviors and attitudes make me a bystander to injustice? As a 13 year old, was I a willing executioner? Was I ripe for developing an eliminationist view of targeted groups of humans or nations? Did all it take to drive me toward hate was a film and a reference to a flag? There is a reason that Einstein chose measles as his metaphor for nationalism, he wanted to ensure it was understood as a something to which the young, the impressionable and the weak were susceptible to, something that rational, moral and willed adults–real men and women, perhaps–could resist.

What about today? Are moral infants still prone to coming down with the measles of mankind? Has a vaccine been developed? Do we live in post-racial, post-national societies? Are we gangs waiting in the wings?

Where do you stand?


“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.

“Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost. But do I bid you become ghosts or plants?

“Behold, I teach you the overman! The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzche


In the video above, Ricky Gervais mocks how Friedrich Nietzsche reacts to learning how Hitler and the Nazis misinterpreted his concept of the “übermensch” or “superman.” Taken in context, Nietzsche’s writings substantiate the point that Gervais makes through satire: he was not anti-Semitic, he did not believe in a superior race of beings and he did not endorse blind nationalism of the type inspired by Hitler or Red Dawn. He wrote largely through metaphor, and the world has been abusing his message since his works were published. In truth, very few people have been able to decipher exactly what Nietzsche’s message was (Nietzsche was slowly being driven insane by syphilis-stemmed while writing most of his works, so we may never know) but it seems unlikely that someone who would praise a blind authoritarian system would also warn that,

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”

 

“The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, give us an evolutionary advantage.

And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.”

This may be why his words have served not only as the inspiration for ideologues like Hitler but (arguably) creative enterprises like DC Comic’s Superman. In fact, Nietzsche’s message seems to send a message that is far more in line with the myth of the modern superhero: it is only by standing apart from the masses and by rising above evolution that one becomes fully realized.