Sometimes the world changes and what was once considered politically left becomes politically right, or vice versa: what was once considered right becomes left. For instance, eugenics and forced sterilizations of the “unfit” were considered thoroughly “progressive” ideas in the early twentieth century (Scott Nearing’s writings on the subject are a creepy case in point). It’s sobering to realize that if you were an urban, well-read, sophisticated vegetarian with a passion for social justice—living in Greenwich Village in, say, 1910—you would, in all likelihood, have championed a number of ideas, such as eugenics, which would, in your lifetime, be put into practice (to horrific effect) by the Nazis.
I use Robert Kaplan’s Warrior Politics in one of my classes (rather cynically, perhaps) as a foil; students are asked to compare and contrast various forms of neo-Kantian idealism with the harsh Augustinian realism proffered by Kaplan and others of his stamp (such as John Gray). The deck is stacked against Kaplan. I do this with a bit of a bad conscience, though I’ve no intention of doing it differently in the near future. We dismiss Kaplanesque arguments far too easily. The certainty of my friends worries me. And my own certainty worries me. If history teaches us anything, it’s this: the cool kids aren’t always right.
It’s important to remember that Scott Nearing, the author of the eugenics classic, The Super Race: An American Problem (1912), wasn’t a reactionary right-winger. Quite to the contrary, he was the consummate cool kid in his day, a progressive’s progressive. Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a single progressive twentieth-century cause that he did not advocate at one time or another. Nearing participated in the labor movement, pacifism, socialism, the woman’s liberation movement, civil rights, communism, and, for the second half of his life, environmentalism, organic farming, and the natural health movement. Oh, and he was also a passionate lifelong advocate of vegetarianism.
Just finished reading The True Believer (1951). Truly outstanding book. Probably one of the best things I’ll read in 2016. Eric Hoffer is one of those world-weary intellectuals who helped to make the 1950s a high-water mark for American non-fiction. Everything this jaded generation wrote was, it seems, written in the shadow of Hitler and Stalin. As their melancholy memoirs make clear, people like Hoffer were traumatized, and profoundly chastened, by the devastation wrought by the mass movements and ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s. Like many of his generation, Hoffer is an intellectual who’s deeply suspicious of intellectuals; an intellectual who is, at one and the same time, deeply suspicious of activists, and anyone who says that they want to “save the world” (regardless of their politics). There’s a cynicism to the non-fiction of the 1950s which leaves a bad taste in the mouth—but also an undeniable wisdom, the wisdom of a jaded generation that stared into the abyss and saw something terrible, something they refused to forget.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)