"You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche."
That's how white nationalist leader Richard Spencer described his intellectual awakening to the Atlantic's Graeme Wood in June. "Red-pilled" is a common alt-right term for that "eureka moment" one experiences upon confrontation with some dark and previously buried truth.
For Spencer and other alt-right enthusiasts of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that dark truth goes something like this: All the modern pieties about race, peace, equality, justice, civility, universal suffrage — that's all bullshit. These are constructs cooked up by human beings and later enshrined as eternal truths.
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Nietzsche says the world is in constant flux, that there is no capital-T truth. He hated moral and social conventions because he thought they stifled the individual. In one of his most famous essays, The Genealogy of Morality, which Spencer credits with inspiring his awakening, Nietzsche tears down the intellectual justifications for Christian morality. He calls it a "slave morality" developed by peasants to subdue the strong. The experience of reading this was "shattering," Spencer told Wood. It upended his "moral universe."
There is, of course, much more to Nietzsche than this. As someone silly enough to have written a dissertation on Nietzsche, I've encountered many Spencer-like reactions to his thought. And I'm not surprised that the old German philosopher has become a lodestar for the burgeoning alt-right movement. There is something punk rock about his philosophy. You read it for the first time and you think, "Holy shit, how was I so blind for so long?!"
But if you read Nietzsche like a college freshman cramming for a midterm, you're bound to misinterpret him — or at least to project your own prejudices into his work. When that happens, we get "bad Nietzsche," as the Week's Scott Galupo recently put it.
And it would appear that "bad Nietzsche" is back, and he looks a lot like he did in the early 20th century when his ideas were unjustly appropriated by the (original) Nazis. So now's a good time to re-engage with Nietzsche's ideas and explain what the alt-right gets right and wrong about their favorite philosopher.