What Do We Get to Bring with Us and What Do We Leave Behind?

It seems that the Nashville blogosphere is abuzz with discussions about what you can use and what must be left behind.  It’s very interesting.  I have some thoughts.  Of course.

I think a lot about this with Heidegger and Nietzsche and, frankly, my spiritual beliefs.  For those of you who need a brief refresher, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Nietzsche yakked on about man and superman and the Nazis took a lot of his philosophy and twisted it to their own ends.  Heidegger, another philosopher, influenced by Nietzsche directly benefited from and supported the Nazis.  And the Nazis, as well as other racists, have no problem co-opting beliefs similar to mine in order to justify their fuck-tardedness.

Can you separate Nietzsche from the Nazis?  I believe you can.  His philosophies don’t inevitably lead one to Nazi philosophy and he didn’t have anything personally to do with Nazi-ism.  People who try to taint Nietzsche with Nazi-ism are, at best, somewhat unsophisticated in their thinking about such matters.

My beliefs?  Well, lots of people believe what they believe even though racist hateful idiots also believe those things, so I’m not too worried about it.  But I also don’t go running out to get runes that are closely associated with white power tattooed on me.

Heidegger, though?  I’m troubled by that.  I know the idea is that his ideas are good and useful and regardless of what kind of a son of a bitch he was, we shouldn’t have to give up the benefits of his work.  But the man supported the Third Reich and benefited from the disappearance of his Jewish colleagues.  Can his good ideas remain untainted by his evil ones?

I don’t know.  I’m uneasy with that.

On the one hand, as a rabble-rousing feminist, I refuse to accept that anything should be off limits to me.  There are no ideas, no signs, no symbols, no words that I can’t use if I want to, because I control myself.  On the other hand, I believe that objects, like people, have inherited, accumulated luck.

So, let’s take the swastika.  Yes, it’s true that, for thousands of years, it was a symbol of good luck or good fortune.  Still, I would argue that the magnitude of evil associated with that symbol has thus tainted the symbol with such bad fortune that, regardless of the intent of the person displaying it, the recent history of the symbol prevents it from being a token of good fortune.

That all being said, we turn to Chris Wage’s discussion of the Mammy paraphernalia you can purchase, if you like, down at Charlie Daniels’s shop downtown.  The discussion turns into whether the Mammy merchandise is inherently racist and, oddly, roughly half the comments argue that it’s not–that an object doesn’t have any inherent meaning; the meaning comes from what the viewer brings to it.

I disagree with this philosophically both because I don’t believe that things exist ahistorically and because, sweet Jesus, if you can’t look at a Mammy figure and tell that that’s racist, I just don’t even know what to say to you.  Some of the commenters are arguing that, because some black people collect the figures, they must not be negative.

But the way I see it, it’s like being called a bitch in my family.  The kinds of things that get you labelled a bitch vary widely from standing up for yourself, calling people on it when they hurt you, refusing to put everyone else’s needs ahead of yours, rebuffing the advances of some asshole uncle, to being manipulative or evil or cruel just for fun.  Some of the traits that get you labelled a bitch are really terrible traits to have.

But many of the traits are not.  And so, I feel this impulse to try to reimagine "Bitch" in order to feel good about the qualities that a Bitch has that I also have that are, in a non-fucked up situation, admirable qualities to have.

But I shouldn’t have been called a Bitch in the first place.  And fuck you if you think that because I’m doing some tentative, delicate work to reimagine that word, it makes it okay for you to use it against me and expect me to just take it.

I think the same thing is clearly true for Mammy.  Many of her qualities are not negative–she’s life-giving and life-sustaining, she’s nurturing and loving and takes care of children, even those who aren’t her own.  But the negative qualities she has really suck–she likes being in servitude to whites, she’s a-sexual, she looks inhuman, and so on.

And so I can see why some black folks, who view her as a wholly negative figure, might feel like it’s time to figure out how to pay homage to the good things she represents.  Again, this is tentative, delicate work to reimagine a figure that has been and continues to be used as a grievous insult about the proper place of African Americans in our culture.

And here’s the deal.  I think a lot of people think that this figure can be non-racist because there’s no deliberate intent to harm.  And it’s true that the worst kind of racism is when you deliberately attempt to harm someone because of their race.  But it’s also racist to do something–like produce or sell these figures–without any consideration of how that affects the people being portrayed. 

Everyone is free to do what he or she wants, but you can’t expect to do what you want and not be judged for it.

I think.

Because, then, I turn to the Music City Oracle who is taking the Amply-Gifted Kleinheider to task and I think, what the hell?

This continues a disturbing trend by Kleinheider of making use of sources from the lunatic fringe, either without comment or with favorable comment. In addition to anarchists, Kleinheider has made use of anti-Semites and Nazi war criminals.

The charitable view is that Kleinheider’s pathological hatred of all things Bush impairs his judgment in choosing allies. The less charitable view is somewhat darker. Because he appears to be a reasonably nice guy, we will choose to take the charitable view unless further evidence requires otherwise. Nonetheless, it can be wished that he would be more careful.

"In addition to anarchists"?  Good lord, Sacco and Vanzetti are dead.  Are we still afraid of Red Emma?  I thought I was all for clinging to the past, but trying to claim that being an anarchist is as bad as being an anti-Semite or a Nazi war criminal strikes me as a gross inability to get over 1917.

Next, let’s turn to the other two accusations–Kleinheider makes use of anti-Semites and Nazi war criminals–for if one wants to hold Kleinheider responsible for every possible implication of the choices he makes, one opens himself up to similar scrutiny. 

1.  A "Semite" is a person of any one of a number of Middle Eastern ethnicities that share a common linguistic heritage.  Palestinians, for example, are a Semitic people.  Is the Music City Oracle accusing Kleinheider of hating Middle Easterners or is he trying to insinuate that, if one quotes an anti-Zionist, one is tainted by that to the point where one can be accused of hating all Jewish people? If so, come out and call Kleinheider a Jew-hater.  Don’t obfuscate.   

2.  So, Kleinheider quotes Goering.  Goering was something of an expert on getting people to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise act.  So, when Music City Oracle says, "Moore is right in stating that the lack of further comment on these excerpts implies tacit approval," all I can think is, Dear God, don’t these people have reading comprehension?  He’s not quoting Goering because he approves of what Goering stood for.  He’s quoting Goering because Goering is, at that moment, speaking honestly about how people in power manipulate the masses AND (the fact that I have to spell this out for folks flabbergasts me) implicit in choosing this quote is a comparison between how we’ve been manipulated into a war we otherwise wouldn’t want and how the German people were manipulated into a war they otherwise wouldn’t have wanted.

He’s not implying that such is the right thing to do.  He’s implying it’s an effective strategy and that, by using it or, in the case of some of our more enthusiastic right-wing neighbors here in the blogberhood, you are using Nazi-endorsed tactics. 

I’m embarrassed that war-supporters didn’t have the sense to be offended by the suggestion.  And to come back and try to say, "Calling me a Nazi makes you a Nazi" is utterly lame.

God, so where are we? 

I’m writing a fucking book here and I need to come to some kind of conclusion. 

Okay, my point is that I honestly don’t know when a word or object or whatever ends up being freed from its own history.  I don’t know why it’s okay to let a bad past taint some things to the point where it’s best that most of us just leave it alone and why other things with bad pasts get picked up, cleaned off, and put back into circulation.

But there you go.  Sometimes that’s just how it works.

Eh, that ending kind of bit, but I doubt most folks have made it this far anyway.  Boogers!  Fuck me!  Dog poop!  See.  No one even noticed that I’m just randomly cussing now.  Oh well, they can’t all be winners.  Shit, and I wanted to work some Ginsberg in here somehow–

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

7 thoughts on “What Do We Get to Bring with Us and What Do We Leave Behind?

  1. I went to a Vietnamese wedding reception last night, and boy, do those people know how to party. Nietzsche, my ass. J

  2. You know, I collect all sorts of crazy 50’s pin-up girls and Parisian can-can photos… not to legitimize them but to reclaim them. I guess I’m saying "these are the women I came from" — these are the choices on which my choices stand. I certainly wouldn’t want to end up on anyone’s mud flap… but it is helpful and inspiring to me to remember that for generations before me, that *might* have been an aspiration because their options were so limited.A dear friend of mine explained the Mammy thing to me in a similar light — it’s important to remember the days when it was good to be "in the house" — safe from the travails of the field and the danger of life in slave quarters. You were protected in the house because the house was the pervue of the Mizzus and she was almost always more tolerant than the Man. And, becoming asexual was certainly a means to survival — currey favor with the Mizzus and hope to GOD you become invisible to the Man. Good to remember, and honor the women who had to live that way AND thank the GODDESS that you don’t have to make the same limited choices. So, for me to collect pin-up girls as an homage to the limited choices of my foremothers is one thing. For a black person to collect Mammys or yard jockeys is one thing. For them to be sold by good ole boys to a clientele of good ole boys is really a different thing that conveys and entirely different message. What’s the interest? GOD, I miss the goood ole days when we could deprive women of their sexuality out of fear… GOD, I miss the days when we could whip a black man til he died? GOD, I missed the days when rape was a Friday night on the town? GOD, I miss the days when I could walk all over blacks and women and feel proud about it.All of that actually reminds us of how far we’ve come — and how easy it is to spot the creepy men of yesterday. They are the white guys with the yard jockeys and Mammies and mud flaps. STAY AWAY from them.

  3. One thing, I think you have to separate the question over ideas (Heidegger / Nietzsche) from the question over symbols or individual words. While it is often important to understand the context in which a thinker presents an idea, ultimately ideas must stand apart from the thinker and be true or false on their own merits. 2 + 2 = 4 whether we’re talking about four angels or four demons.I think that when faced with a seeming contradiction between the negative associations with a given thinker and the valid constructs we find in that thinker’s thoughts, we usually find that the person was right up to a particular point where they make a wrong turn which led to their downfall. We have to learn to sift through and keep the parts from before that point and discard the parts from after that point.Camus touched on some of this in "The Rebel" which I would highly recommend if you haven’t read it; he looks at rebellion as a force in philosophy through history, and pays some particular attention to exactly what you mention, the point where Nietsche’s strain of existentialism became food for authoritarianism. The gist of the conclusion I think was roughly what I’ve described, that there were kinks in Nietsche’s thought that made a Nazi interpretation inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we should discard the valid work he did up until he made those wrong turns. I can’t remember if he discussed Heidegger.Long ago I wrote an essay on the Unabomber’s manefesto and reached a similar conclusion. I’ll have to post it sometime if I find it.

  4. Wow, I’ve got to bone up on my continental philosophers. And all this mammy talk is making me hungry for pancakes — with lots of syrup.

  5. Hello, Aunt B. Riveting post, as usual. I just wanted to offer a suggestion regarding black people collecting racist imagery.At the DuSable Museum here in Chicago, there is a comprehensive collection of such imagery. It exists, according to the museum, in order to make sure that there is a lasting, concrete record of the normality and ubiquity of virulent racism in the U.S. in times not so long past.I believe that many individual collectors (of any ethnicity, but especially black) gather this imagery for a similar reason. I’ve done so myself, in a sense.http://cotbn.blogspot.com/2003/06/local-history-mystery-few-weeks-ago.html

  6. Lee, if you’re serious about boning continental philosophers, I should point out that Nietzsche was not a mule, regardless of what J. says. Just to spare you any awkwardness on your quest.

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