The Worse, the Better?

“The Fallen Jockey”
Edgar Degas, c. 1881

The Worse, the Better?

In the 1930’s a political strategy known as “worsism” was in fashion.   Worsists believed that

the worse, the better!

This meant, the more desperate people became, the closer we got to the revolution that would bring … whatever it was supposed to bring: a new heaven and new earth, I suppose.

I dunno about that.  When I need to chill out in the evenings, I’ll sometimes watch an old-time western movie.  What I like about them is the way everything works out in the end: the bad guys finish dead on the barroom floor, the good guy rides into the sunset in his well-creased Stetson hat, alongside the prettiest girl in the West.  They’ll start a new life in happy-ever-after country.  It NEVER fails.

So you can imagine my dismay the other night when, at the end of a well-acted, well-scripted, technicolor western film, the Arapahoe kill every last defender, burn the fort, put a lance all the way through the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, put an arrow in the bosom of his true love, and that’s … The End?  The credits come on.  I couldn’t believe my eyeballs!

My inference?  If you think, “the worse it gets, the better it will get,” you might be wrong.

Here’s another example that comes to my mind.  Among the most influential thinkers of the last hundred years is the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.  One awkward fact about Heidegger is that, in the 1930’s, he joined the Nazi party.  When the dust settled after the War, nobody quite knew what to think about that.  However, one of his former students was a respected political philosopher named Hannah Arendt and she vouched for him; it had been a brief episode, she wrote.  He’d been out of his depth, but hadn’t meant anybody any harm.  We all make mistakes.

Recently, Heidegger’s private journals are beginning to see publication.  The first set, dating from the 1930’s, has been published as (appropriately enough) The Black Notebooks.  The newly available material makes clear that Heidegger was – in the run-up to the War and post-War to the end of his days – a deeply committed Nazi.  So Arendt was certainly wrong when she wrote that his Nazism had been a mere “escapade” before he returned to his native residence, the “residence of thinking.”  Apparently, at the hearthside of his residence of thinking, the flame of Nazism was kept lit and burning.

Since he is considered a very profound metaphysician, Heidegger’s was (his defenders claim) a metaphysical Nazism, not just the crude empirical kind.  And his enmity toward Jews wasn’t mere biological racism.  Oh no.  What he repudiated was the metaphysical Jew.  Not surprisingly, the metaphysical Jew had virtually all the traits that anti-Judaism ascribes to the actual Jew.

Bad enough?  There’s worse.  After a brief pause while the shock of this news sank in, articles currently posted on academia.edu give us an array of philosophers writing about the “Jew” of Heidegger – as if it were now intellectually respectable to discuss this imaginary entity!  What’s being admitted into polite philosophic discourse are the oldest calumnies, familiar to anyone who knows how the oldest-hatred-in-recorded-history sounds!

What do I think about all this?  First, I notice how rapidly – almost instantly! – the unthinkable becomes thinkable (and of course, the thinkable becomes doable).

Second, I notice what happens to me as I take in this kind of information.  The “mystic chords of memory” are plucked and, in this case, the memories are extremely frightening.  They actually include a weird (if you like) “memory” of a past life in Germany in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.  I remember exactly how I died and what I was thinking as the sealed truck filled up with carbon monoxide.  Could it be a false memory?  How would I know?  I only know I have it.

And of course, the Holocaust was not just a great big massacre.  It was the end result (predictable retrospectively) of roughly 2000 years of theologically-originated demonization.

Now let’s just rise vertically above that sad scene for a few moments and see how the current epidemic of anti-Israelism fits into the bigger story.   Functionally, it evens the moral score.  If Jewish suffering – the Holocaust — makes a person feel some kind of guilt or compunction, well, not to worry!  The Israelis are just as bad!  They’re worse!  They’re the very worst thing on earth!  Blah, blah and blah.

Anti-Israelism has little to do with Palestinian suffering.  As ex-terrorist Kasim Hafeez put it, if people really cared about Palestinians, they’d be incensed by the leadership’s embezzlement of funds raised internationally to support the Palestinian population, for one example.  The pro-Palestinian placards have as their aim delegitimizing the Jewish state – and, increasingly, the Jews who walk that gauntlet to get to class.

And that’s about curing the discomforts of inherited guilt?  By incurring fresh guilt?  Get out of a hole by digging in deeper.  What could be more logical?

From my lessons in natural riding, I’ve learned the power of intention.  You can get a horse to move if you focus your intention on how he is to move.  Without any physical aids!

In the 1930’s, the liberal answer to worsism was meliorism: step-by-step, incremental social improvement.  Would that cure the latest wave of anti-Jewish feeling?

While I have nothing against meliorism, in my experience, that’s not the way the cure for this syndrome works.  Anti-semitism can take over a person, a political party, a social climate, overnight.  And from what I’ve seen, the recovery from anti-semitism is equally sudden.  Somehow one sees that one has been boxing a shadow — one’s own delusion.  It looks silly.  One just stops.

But how to bring that about?  The Jewish tragic sense – “It’s back!” –  only incites the defamer.  How can one respond to these energies so as not to whip them up?

The anti-semite, working himself into a lather of phony indignation to camouflage inherited guilt – could surely be induced to see the comedy of himself.  If I could only get way high above the battle,

I’m sure I could find a joke funny enough.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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