Posts Tagged ‘Anti-Semitism’

“It’s all American music.”

–Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

I had a long talk this pm with my pal George, an old-pro and great drummer I still sometimes play with, an Italian guy from New Jersey, who was Frank Sinatra Jr.’s drummer for years; we talked about music, musicians, and racism. (George loved Frank Jr., says he was a great guy.)

He told me a story about one of the first things that happened after he moved here (Tucson) from New Jersey. George has the gift of gab, and he got a job working for one of the local Ford dealerships. On his first day, he all but sold a Lincoln to one of the ranchers from up Route 77 north of town, and the jerk came in the next day, spoke to the manager, and said he wanted the car but didn’t want to buy it from an Italian. The manager saw George, said “stay out of the way, I’ll sell the car, you’ll get the commission, and from now on your last name is Joseph.”

George was shocked by the anti-Italian prejudice, something he’d never run into on the East Coast.

But race prejudice and anti-semitism was something he well understood, from anti-black, anti-white, and anti-semitic prejudice in daily life and the band scene in NJ. (There were white-racist and also all-black clubs where they didn’t want mixed-race bands, which is what George always played in.)

It’s so fucking stupid as to be mind boggling.

But it’s there.

And it breeds in isolation. In isolation from people of different races and ethnicities.

That’s one of the great things about most types of American music, especially blues and jazz: you end up playing, often for long periods, with musicians of other races and ethnicities. And you become friends, you come to understand the brotherhood of man (at least the brotherhood of musicians).

In my case, I’ve for years played with black folks, white folks, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Jewish folks. That’s pretty much par for the course for a blues musician. After a while playing with someone, you simply stop thinking about race or ethnicity. You just take them for who they are: Cliff, my black pal the drummer, becomes simply Cliff, my pal the drummer.

About the only places where you’ll still find race prejudice in the American music scene is in (yes — shocking, I know) country and certain types of hard-core rock and roll.

Other than that, we all tend to get along. We have to. It just works that way.

It works out the same in neighborhoods. I live in the most densely populated, most integrated neighborhood in Tucson, which is the most integrated major city in the country. My neighborhood (Keeling — neighborhood motto, “It’s better than it looks”) is about 65% Mexican, 25% white, and 10% black (almost no Native Americans or Asians). And we mostly get along fine. We’re on top of each other, interact every day. And it’s fine, very relaxed.

As a middle-aged ex-gang banger neighbor from Cleveland (a self-described “retired Crip”), put it, “it’s paradise.” In other words, almost no racial tension and almost no overt race prejudice. I couldn’t agree more. This neighborhood is dirt poor, “hard scrabble” as the local paper put it a decade or two ago, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

If you want to get rid of race prejudice, get rid of race isolation. That’s the way it works in bands, and that’s the way it works in neighborhoods. Isolation breeds fear and hate.




We hit 100,000 views last week, and we’re using that as an excuse to list the best posts we’ve published, divided by category. Part 1 covered Addictions, Anarchism, Atheism, Baseball, and Capitalism; Part 2 covered Civil Liberties, Economics, Gardening, Interviews, and Journalism; and Part 3 covered jokes. Since there are well over 500 posts in the Humor category (out of 1,500 total), we’ll be doing at least one or two more best-of Humor lists. Here are the best 70 or so posts mocking religion:

Religious Humor/Mockery

Chris Hedges just put up a fantastic, fearless post on Truthout about the libeling of those of us who oppose Israeli brutalization and murder of Palestinians as “anti-semitic” (e.g., 200+ murders and thousands of deliberate maimings by Israeli snipers of protesters on the other side of the fence in Gaza during the ongoing “right of return” protests — and just ask yourself, how desperate must people be to deliberately expose themselves to murder and maiming, while the corporate press dishonestly excuses that slaughter — sniper shootings at hundreds of yards — as “clashes”? ). I just wish I could repost Chris’s piece here.

Hence an inadequate but claratory definition from The American Heretic’s Dictionary about what “anti-semitism” means currently in the U.S.:

Anti-Semitism, n. 1) A blind, unreasoning hatred of Jewish people by those who fear, with good reason, that they are inferior to Jews. (This is not to say that Jews are inherently superior to anyone else, even anti-Semites; rather, that Jewish culture encourages self-responsibility, social responsibility, learning, dedication to goals, and individual achievement—things sorely lacking in the mainstream of American culture. Hence Jews tend to be perceived as threatening “overachievers” in comparison with average, “fetch me another beer, Bubba” Americans.); 2) As defined in the United States for well over half a century, the unspeakable act of criticizing the oppression and murder of one Semitic people by another (Palestinians by Israelis). Needless to say, this leads to gross confusion of those who seek social justice with actual anti-Semites—which is precisely the intention of those who use the term in this manner. (Curiously, the ethnicity of all of these individuals is apparently Irish, as they invariably respond to the name “McCarthy.”)

* * *

—from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded)







(We ran two earlier, considerably shorter versions of this post in years past under the title “Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.” As you might have noticed, things have changed a bit lately, hence this update.)

* * *

REFERENCES TO FASCISM abound in American political discourse. Unfortunately, most of those using the term wouldn’t recognize fascism if it bit ’em on the butt, and use it as a catch-all pejorative for anything or anyone they dislike. But the term does have a specific meaning.

Very briefly, as exemplified in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, fascism is an extreme right-wing, phony-populist ideology and political-economic system (which Mussolini dubbed “the corporate state”), the key features of which are strident nationalism, militarism and military worship, a one-party state, a dictatorial leader with a personality cult, a capitalist economic system integrated with state institutions (to the mutual benefit of capitalists and fascist politicians), suppression of independent unions, government use of media as a propaganda instrument, suppression of civil liberties and all forms of political opposition, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

The racism, racial scapegoating, and racial persecution that permeated German fascism are not part of fascism per se, unless one wants to classify extreme nationalism as racism. There’s a case to be made for that, but for now let’s consider them as separate maladies. But since the topic of this post is the comparison of Nazi Germany to the U.S.A., we will consider racism as well as fascism in the following comparisons.

Getting to the headline topic, just how similar is the present-day U.S. to Nazi Germany? Let’s look at specifics:



  • Nazi Germany: See Deutschland Uber Alles, Triumph of the WillLebensraum, etc., etc.
  • US.: “American exceptionalism,” “God Bless America,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Make America Great Again,” etc., etc. From ideological justification for invasions, territorial annexations, and military interventions to everyday trivialities (Nazi armbands in Deutschland, flag worship in “the land of the free”), America gives Nazi Germany a run for its money as regards nationalism.

Corporate Capitalist Domination

  • Nazi Germany: The German industrialists (notably the Krup armaments company) were key Hitler backers, and benefited handsomely from his rule.
  • U.S.: Trump has filled his cabinet with people from the fossil fuels industry (e.g., Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil) and big banks, notably Goldman Sachs (Steven Mnuchin, et al.); Obama’s primary 2008 backers were Wall Street firms and the pharmaceutical companies; Bush/Cheney’s were the energy companies.

Of late, Trump’s slavishness to the interests of the big corporations has become blindingly obvious with his dismantling of clean air and water regulations (which safeguard public health while impeding corporate profits), his attempts to open millions of acres of federal lands (including national monuments) to desecration by mining and fossil fuels corporations, his (and other Republicans’) attempts to restrict access to Medicaid, to allow the insurance industry to discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, and his refusal to do anything about the obscene price of prescription drugs and the obscene profits of the drug companies. (Trump’s “plan” to reduce drug costs was complete bullshit designed only to string along the gullible while providing cover for the continued gouging of the public by big pharma. The fact that pharma stocks spiked immediately after Trump released the details of his “plan” tells you all you need to know about it.)


  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis constructed the world’s most powerful military in six years (1933-1939).
  • U.S.: Last year, U.S. military spending accounted for approximately 43% of the world’s military spending, and the U.S. has hundreds of military bases overseas. With the aid of his accomplices in Congress, Trump just boosted the “defense” budget to approximately $700 billion, not including the tens of billions in the “black budget.” The figures aren’t final yet, but it’s a good bet that current U.S. military spending not only considerably outstrips any other nation’s (China’s is hard to judge because of secrecy, but may be as high as $250 billion), but could quite possibly now account for a full half of the world’s military spending.

Military Worship

  • Nazi Germany: Do I really need to cite examples?
  • U.S.: “Support our troops!” “Our heroes!” “Thank you for your service!”

Military worship is almost a state religion in the United States. Tune in to almost any baseball broadcast for abundant examples; this worship even extends to those on what passes for the left in the United States: Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow.

Military Aggression

  • Nazi Germany: “Lebensraum” — you know the rest.
  • U.S.: To cite only examples from the last half-century where there were significant numbers of “boots on the ground,” Vietnam (1959-1973), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Grenada (1983), Panama (1988-1990), Kuwait/Iraq (1991), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-2011). And this doesn’t even include bombing campaigns and drone warfare. Then there’s the matter of proxy aggression enabled via logistical and intelligence support by the U.S. The most horrific current example is the brutal Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

Misuse and Misrepresentation of Science

  • The Nazis suppressed “Jewish science,” financially supported and sponsored fringe pseudoscience (into the supposed superiority of Aryans, among other things), and based government policy (including the Holocaust)  on that fringe pseudoscience. They mutilated science to force it to fit into the procrustean bed of their ideology, and millions died as a result.
  • U.S.: Here, the misleading “science” is supplied by the major corporations and their bought-and-paid-for “scientists,” who denigrate real science while promoting corporate-sponsored studies that promote corporate interests. Prominent examples include the efforts of the tobacco, pesticide, and sugar industries to present their deadly products as safe while vilifying scientists whose research demonstrated the actual effects of their products. Tens of millions have almost certainly died as a result.

Currently, the most serious such assault on science is corporate-funded climate change denial. It’s been obvious for decades that climate change is real and a deadly threat, and over 95% of climate scientists agree — and have agreed for decades — that it is. Yet the fossil fuels corporations have funded and promoted the work of a very few contrarians (whose work doesn’t, upon examination, hold up) to cast doubt on climate change science so that they can wring every last dollar from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Now, official U.S. policy is based on climate change denial pseudoscience. Trump has filled his administration with science deniers, especially climate change deniers, notably Scott Pruitt at the EPA, who are busy undoing clean air and water regulations, are doing their best to promote use of dirty fossil fuels, and are discouraging the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Trump has even proposed public subsidies for money-losing coal-fired power plants that utilities are planning to close.

As in Nazi Germany, government policy is based on willful ignorance of science. Millions upon millions will almost certainly die as a result, unless the government drastically reverses its course and implements evidence-based policies based on the work of climate scientists.

(For more on all this, see Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science [revised & expanded], by John Grant. Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published Corrupted Science.)

Incarceration and Slave Labor

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis built concentration camps holding (and exterminating) millions, and employing slave labor.
  • U.S.: In comparison, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, far outstripping China, with only Russia’s incarceration rate being anywhere near that of the U.S. Slave labor is routine in America’s prisons.

Justice System

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis had a three-tiered “justice” system: one for the rich and powerful (who could get away with virtually anything); a second for the average citizen; a third for despised minorities and political foes.
  • U.S.: There’s also three-tiered “justice” system here: one for the rich and powerful (who can get away with virtually anything); a second for middle-class white people; and a third for almost everyone else.

Obama’s “Justice” Department never even investigated the largest financial fraud in world history that led to the 2008 crash, let alone charged those responsible. Prosecutors routinely pile on charges against average citizens to blackmail them into plea bargaining and pleading guilty to charges of which they’re not guilty; it’s no accident that America’s prisons are filled with poor people, especially blacks and hispanics who can’t afford bail and good legal representation; at the same time cops routinely get away with murder of blacks, hispanics, and poor whites.

Suppression of Unions

  • Nazi Germany: In Nazi Germany, the government tightly controlled the unions, and used them as arms of the state.
  • U.S.: In the U.S., the government merely suppresses strikes when “in the national interest” and allows corporations to crush union organizing drives through intimidation and by firing anyone who dares to attempt to organize.  Of late, the Supremes have further crippled the unions by outlawing the collection of fees from nonmembers who the unions represent in collective bargaining. (Admittedly, the sell-out, hierarchical, visionless AFL-CIO unions bear considerable responsibility for this sad state of affairs.)

Free Speech

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression of free speech; direct government control of the media.
  • U.S.: There’s near total corporate control of the media, and suppression of free speech when it shows the faintest sign of threatening, or even embarrassing, the government or the corporations that control the government. The Obama and Trump administrations have viciously gone after whistleblowers and reporters who have exposed their wrongdoing — Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, James Risen, Reality Winner, et al.

Trump routinely attacks journalists who report anything even slightly embarrassing to him, or who point out any of his almost innumerable lies. Of late, he’s upped the ante by attacking the press as the “enemy of the American people” in a transparent attempt to intimidate the press and provoke the anger of his worshippers.

As well, Trump routinely lies about damn near everything, great and small — Politifact clasifies 69% of his statements as being “mostly false” or worse — counting on the fact that the press (e.g., New York Times) is reluctant to label his lies as lies, allowing Trump to muddy the waters and mislead the public.

Fortunately, Trump doesn’t have complete control of the media. But he does have the sycophantic tools at Fox “News,” Breitbart, InfoWars, and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber. Almost worse, 67% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media sites such as Facebook, with an unknown percentage getting all of their news from these platforms (predominantly Facebook). What makes this dangerous is that Facebook feeds them news reports that, based on their previous “likes” and other use, reinforces their existing beliefs and prejudices.

Add that to Trump’s denigration of the free press and you end up with a significant part of the population that’s woefully misinformed.

Other Civil Liberties

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression.
  • U.S.: Suppression when individuals exercising those liberties show the faintest sign of threatening the government or the corporations that control the government. The coordinated suppression (by the FBI, local governments, and corporate security agencies) of the Occupy Wall Street Movement nationwide in 2011/2012 is the latest large-scale example.

Spying Upon Citizens

  • Nazi Germany: The government had a massive eavesdropping operation. No citizen was safe from government scrutiny.
  • U.S.: The FBI, DHS, and NSA — and let’s not forget Facebook — make the Nazis look like amateurs.

Free Elections

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression
  • U.S.: U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote for the millionaire and billionaire representatives (over half of Congress at last count, plus the president) of the two wings of the property party: one wing being authoritarian, corporate-servant, science-denying theofascists, the other wing being merely authoritarian corporate servants who routinely betray those who elect them. As well, the Republicans are doing their best to destroy what passes for American electoral democracy through egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression on an industrial scale.


  • Nazi Germany: Do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.: (We’ll restrict ourselves here to the present.) The “justice” system imprisons blacks at a rate over five times that of whites, and hispanics at a rate about 30% higher than whites. Cops routinely get away with murdering poor people, a disproportionate number of them blacks and hispanics. Median household wealth for whites is 13 times that of blacks. And median household income for whites is 60% higher than that of blacks and hispanics.

As well, the Republican Party’s longtime “southern strategy” — and its largely successful attempts to disenfranchise black voters — was and still is designed to appeal to racists.

Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and racial scapegoating of Mexicans and other hispanics is merely the cherry atop this merde sundae.


  • Nazi Germany: Hitler and the Nazis whined constantly about the German people being victims of the Jews (under 1% of the population at the time) and the supposedly vast Jewish conspiracy permeating all facets of social and economic life, even depicting Jewish people in propaganda films as vermin: rats. In short, Hitler stirred up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.
  • U.S.: Trump whines constantly about an “invasion” of Latin American immigrants — fleeing horrific violence and political and social repression — who he portrays as rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and gang members endangering the nation through a supposed crime wave. (In reality, per capita criminal activity by Latin American immigrants is lower than that of Americans as a whole.)  In short, Trump stirs up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.

Personality Cult

  • Nazi Germany: Again, do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.A.: Trump worship is rampant on the evangelical right, who see this steaming pile of viciousness, hypocrisy, and narcissism as the means to their theofascist ends. And Trump encourages such sycophancy. The cringe-inducing filmed cabinet meeting last year in which cabinet secretaries heaped fulsome (in both senses of the word) praise and thanks on the dear leader is but one example. Another example: Last July presidential aide and Trump toady Steven Miller said on Fox “News” that Trump — who would likely flunk a fourth-grade English test — was the “best orator to hold that office [president] in generations.” All hail the Glorious Leader.


Yes, there still are significant differences between Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.  But they grow smaller with every passing day.

Putin’s Puppet, Donald Trump, the bully and sexual predator, the entitled slumlord’s son, wants to provoke terrorism on the part of Palestinian extremists.

Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem will do exactly that.

He’s aligned himself with the Israeli extreme right in a move designed to provoke Palestinian hard liners, indeed damn near all Palestinians and damn near all Muslims.

If he actually does this, it will be as provocative as publishing a cartoon of Mohammed having sex with a dog.

Trump is aligning himself with the deeply corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, which prohibits occupying powers from moving settlers onto occupied lands.

This is a recipe for permanent conflict. And it’s a mark of how deeply the U.S. corporate media and political parties are in the pocket of far-right Zionists; ask yourself this: which is more likely, that the U.S. and Israel alone are right, victims of anti-Semitism, or that the other 191 nations in the UN are all anti-Semitic? — in itself a non sequitur, because the Palestinians are Semitic.  (As an otherwise progressive Zionist put it to me a few years ago, ¨They’re our cousins.¨)

Trump apparently wants terrorism.

He’s an irresponsible, but calculating, moron, and he could actually want further conflict in the Mideast, no matter the cost in human lives.

Trump very obviously has no respect for freedom of speech, no respect for the U.S. Constitution, no respect for the Bill of Rights. He apparently wants to provoke terrorist incidents.

Why? They could provide a convenient pretext for imposing martial law.

I’m not exaggerating. This utterly authoritarian American Mussolini is a traitor to everything America is supposed to stand for.


A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from a pal  about his being slimed as an “anti-semite” because he protested the Israeli army’s mass murder of children in Gaza.

Here are two simple questions: The Israelis are semites. The Palestinians are semites. How can the murder of one by the other consist of anti-semitism? And how can pointing this out be anti-semitism?

The extreme-right, Israel-uber-alles apologists who control the U.S. media ignore these questions. We need to ask them.

English: Israel Zangwill עברית: ישראל זנגוויל

English: Israel Zangwill עברית: ישראל זנגוויל (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

JEWS, n. A people uncontaminated by the New Testament, but who, unfortunately, have not escaped the attentions of those who are. As Israel Zangwill stated over a century ago, “The Jews are a nervous people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have broken down their nerves.”

–From The Devil’s Dictionaries.

Definition, but for the Zangwill quote, by Chaz Bufe.

Front cover of The Devil's Dictionaries

Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, by H.L. Mencken, front cover

(This is the introduction to H.L. Mencken‘s The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.)

by Chaz Bufe, editor See Sharp Press

The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was the first book ever to appear in English on the German philosopher, and H.L. Mencken’s second real book. It seems entirely appropriate that the topic of one of the earliest books by the foremost iconoclastic journalist of the first half of the twentieth century was the foremost iconoclastic philosopher of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, this seems a natural match given the many similarities between the two.

Mencken, however, was originally reluctant to write this book, and did so only at the urging of his then-publisher, John W. Luce. But once he had begun writing, Mencken dove into the project with characteristic energy. He read Nietzsche’s entire works, mostly in the original German, and wrote this book in under a year, all the while working full time for The Baltimore Sun.

One can only imagine Mencken’s growing excitement as he plowed through Nietzsche, while becoming increasingly aware of the similarity of many of Nietzsche’s beliefs to his own, and his recognition of Nietzsche as a kindred spirit. Indeed the parallels between Mencken and Nietzsche are striking; and many were not yet fully apparent when Mencken wrote this book at age 27.

Similarities Between Nietzsche and Mencken

Both Mencken and Nietzsche came from German professional-class families. One of Mencken’s earliest-known ancestors was a Lutheran clergyman, and the bulk of his ancestors were lawyers, academics, and, later, businessmen. Nietzsche’s ancestry was less varied; it consisted of an unbroken string of Lutheran clergymen for two centuries on his mother’s side, and three generations of Lutheran clergymen on his father’s side. An additional family similarity is that the fathers of both Mencken and Nietzsche died while they were young—Mencken’s when he was a very young adult, and Nietzsche’s when he was a small child. The mothers of both then became the focus of their respective families, and both Mencken and Nietzsche lived with their mothers for extended periods as adults. (In Nietzsche’s case, this was after his mental breakdown.) In both Mencken and Nietzsche, this professional-class family background manifested itself as incomprehension of, and a near-total lack of respect for, the lower economic classes.

One rather odd parallel between both Mencken and Nietzsche is that both were obsessed with health, and could fairly be called hypochondriacs. Mencken was so obsessed with his health that he even kept a detailed, long-running journal outlining his aches and pains. But both men, paradoxically, abused their health, Nietzsche through consistent overwork (though he did spend considerable time at health spas), and Mencken through drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, and a heavy German-American diet.

Still another similarity between Mencken and Nietzsche is that both were work-obsessed, prolific writers. In addition to writing several million words for newspapers and magazines, Mencken was the author of over two dozen books. Nietzsche, in his much shorter writing career, wrote over a dozen books, and his collected writings in various editions run to between 18 and 20 volumes.

It seems natural enough, given their obsession with work, that both men were relatively solitary. Nietzsche never married, and Mencken was only married for five of his 75 years, and then to a woman with severe health problems, whose early demise was foreseeable. The difference here is that Nietzsche (who was not well off, was obscure, and was sick much of his life) never married because of lack of opportunity, while Mencken (who was rich, famous, and had a large number of attractive potential partners, including movie stars) married only briefly out of choice. One outgrowth of this lack of intimate female companionship was that friendships with other men were uncommonly important to both Mencken and Nietzsche, with both spending a great deal of their social time with male friends.

Yet another similarity between the two men is that both were philologists, Nietzsche by profession, and Mencken as an “amateur.” Ironically, Nietzsche’s only philological book, The Birth of Tragedy, met with a very hostile response, especially among his academic colleagues, while Mencken’s sole philological work, his massive The American Language (counting the two lengthy supplements as continuations of the original work), met with near-universal praise in newspapers and periodicals, and even among academics, who had been, as a class, regular targets of his scorn.

In terms of attitudes and beliefs, Mencken and Nietzsche shared many. Both were confirmed rationalists and materialists. Both were strong advocates of individualism. Both were deeply opposed to Christianity. Both held somewhat misogynistic views. And both were firm believers in a “natural” caste system.

This last was perhaps the result of their relatively privileged backgrounds, and the resultant desire to justify their privilege. (While Nietzsche was not well off as an adult, he had a middle-class background and had an ample [for a single person] pension from the university where he had taught.) In Nietzsche’s case, his belief in a caste system was based on the concept that some individuals are naturally superior to others, and should therefore be in the upper caste. Mencken’s idealized caste system was cruder; it was simple Social Darwinism—as exemplified, for example, in his praise of Theodore Roosevelt in Chapter 16 of this book. Of course, both Mencken and Nietzsche believed themselves superior and therefore members of the upper caste.

Differences Between Nietzsche and Mencken

There are, however, major differences between Nietzsche and Mencken. Nietzsche was probably less confused about the difference between natural superiority and socioeconomic class than Mencken. Nietzsche believed that members of the lower classes who demonstrated their superiority should be admitted to the upper caste, and conversely that members of the upper caste who failed to demonstrate their superiority should descend to the lower classes, though he sometimes confused the naturally superior with the existing ruling class. As mentioned above, Mencken, whose father was the owner of both a factory and a professional baseball team, was a believer in Social Darwinism—the doctrine that the rich are rich precisely because they are smarter and/or harder working than the poor.

A more marked difference between the two men was that Mencken was a germanophile, while Nietzsche was a germanophobe, even to the point of denying his German background and claiming that he was a Pole.

Another difference—and one that will surprise many—was that Mencken was, arguably, anti-semitic, while Nietzsche despised anti-semites. Consider the following statement from Mencken’s introduction to his translation of Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ:

On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutoctacy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy—i.e., a caste of gentlemen—but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect.

This strange statement, despite its comment about the “general superiority” of Jews in contrast to Christians, is, overall, indisputably anti-semitic.

It would be a mistake, however, to tag Mencken as a simple anti-semite. Many of his closest friends and business associates were Jews (including his long-time publisher, Alfred A. Knopf); he attacked anti-semitic discrimination publicly; and he provided physical assistance to Jews fleeing Hitler.

Nietzsche’s attitude toward Jews and anti-semites was more straightforward. While he attacked Jews for their “slave-morality,” he also attacked Christians for precisely the same reason. And he hated anti-semites. One close-to-home example of this is that he refused to attend the wedding of his sister to the notorious anti-semite, Bernhard Förster. As well, one of the reasons for his split with Richard Wagner was Wagner’s anti-semitism. One might also mention that, following his breakdown, he wrote that all anti-semites should be shot.

Misuse of Nietzsche

Given his disgust with anti-semites, it’s very ironic that Nietzsche has been so misused by them, by men and women whom he would have despised. A large part of the blame for this lies with his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was Nietzsche’s literary executor and biographer, and who shared her husband’s anti-semitism. Not only did she misrepresent Nietzsche, but late in life she gladly lent Nietzsche’s name to the Nazi cause. Thus it’s not terribly surprising that a great many of those who, for instance, have seen the photo of Hitler posing by a bust of Nietzsche at the Nietzsche Museum have come to the conclusion that Nietzsche shared Hitler’s anti-semitism and political views. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s highly probable that Nietzsche would have outright hated Hitler. An additional reason for thinking that this is so is that Nietzsche despised the German Reich, which was being consolidated by Bismarck during Nietzsche’s adult years.

But the mistaken impression that Nietzsche was a Nazi precursor lingers, and probably will for decades to come. It’s a useful myth for both left-wing and right-wing totalitarians who wish to confuse Nietzsche’s strident individualism with anti-semitism and Nazism.

At the same time, it must be admitted that many portions of Nietzsche’s writings lend themselves to misinterpretation. This is particularly true of his writings on the Superman. The very word seems to conjure up images of blond-haired, blue-eyed Hitler Youth and goose-stepping stormtroopers. But what Nietzsche had in mind was very different: a being who has abandoned crippling Christian “slave-morality,” who has full mastery over himself and always acts in his own interests, who looks at the world as it is, free of illusions and irrational beliefs, and who says a triumphant “yes!” to life. In short, Nietzsche’s Superman is very much his own man, and is the antithesis of the slavish, blind follower of Hitler.

But again, it must be emphasized that part of the responsibility for the misinterpretation of his works lies with Nietzsche himself. Unfortunately, he repeatedly ignored the maxim, “Good writers have two things in common: they prefer being understood to being admired, and they do not write for the critical and overly shrewd reader.” Nietzsche was a fine stylist, and seemingly couldn’t resist a good turn of phrase or play on words—sometimes to the detriment of clarity of meaning. He was also prone to hyperbole and often wrote for effect, especially to shock. (Large portions of The Anti-Christ, notably the concluding section, are good illustrations of this.) All this lends itself to misinterpretation.

So, Nietzsche is not entirely blameless for the misuse of his works. If George Orwell’s dictum is correct—that political (and by extension philosophical) writing should be as clear as a pane of glass—then Nietzsche’s writing fails the test in many places. If his writing were clearer, there would be no need for the numerous exegetic Nietzsche texts, no need for books such as What Nietzsche Really Said. (In contrast, there’s no need for exegetic texts for philosophers such as Bertrand Russell; if one wants to know what Russell meant, all one needs to do is read his works—Russell’s meaning is almost always plain. Because of this, one cannot imagine Russell’s writings being misused by, for instance, anti-semitic cretins; and one cannot imagine a book titled What Bertrand Russell Really Said.)

Still, this has not stopped many of Nietzsche’s defenders from trying to exculpate him entirely. Some even attempt to present his failings as virtues. A good example of this can be found in the generally quite useful What Nietzsche Really Said, in the section in which the authors attempt to dismiss the contradictions in Nietzsche’s writings: “What sounds like a contradiction is actually a sign of our ongoing engagement with reality.” By this, they apparently mean that because Nietzsche’s meaning is sometimes unclear, the reader will be forced to think through the contradictory ideas Nietzsche at times presents—thus lack of clarity and self-contradiction become, in their view, a virtue.

Another example of apologetics is provided by noted Nietzsche translator and biographer Walter Kaufmann in his otherwise admirable The Portable Nietzsche:

Doubtless Nietzsche has attracted crackpots and villains, but perhaps the percentage is no higher than in the case of Jesus. As [Jacques] Maritain has said: “If books were judged by the bad uses man can put them to, what book has been more misused than the Bible?”

This defense of Nietzsche is at least as suspect as the sophistic claim that contradictions are “sign[s] of our ongoing engagement with reality.” In the first place, has the Bible really been misused? While it is a mishmash of myth, history, absurdities, contradictions, and mind-numbingly dull recitations of genealogy, it’s also extremely difficult to read numerous passages, including Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and Leviticus 20:15 (“And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast”), as anything other than direct incitements to murder. (One might add that the sentence imposed in the latter verse seems manifestly unfair to the poor, sexually abused beast.)

And even granting the dubious proposition that the Bible has been “misused,” is this a point in its favor? If a book can be easily misinterpreted so as to justify mass murder and mayhem, is this a point for or against it?

The same applies to Nietzsche. Again, one can only wish that Nietzsche had consistently followed the useful maxim concerning ” being understood [rather than] being admired” and not writing “for the critical and overly shrewd reader.”

In contrast to the above apologetics, Mencken is on occasion refreshingly critical of Nietzsche. On pages 85 and 86 of this volume, he attacks as an “imbecile flight of speculation” Nietzsche’s comments (most notably in The Anti-Christ) that the Jews “revenged” themselves by imposing their “slave-morality” upon their masters; and on page 95 he attacks Nietzsche’s “atheistic determinism,” pointing out that if Nietzsche really believed in determinism he would never have bothered to attempt to convince anyone of anything, let alone spent his precious energy writing polemical books.

Problems in Mencken’s Interpretation of Nietzsche

Unfortunately, Mencken almost certainly has contributed to the misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s position on a number of issues, including race and class. While Nietzsche believed that naturally superior individuals could arise from any race and any economic class, Mencken’s remarks on race in this volume, and his Social Darwinism, could easily lead readers to conclude the opposite; given that Mencken’s comments are made in the context of a book explaining Nietzsche, readers could easily conclude that Nietzsche’s views coincide with Mencken’s, when in fact they do not. To cite the worst example of Mencken’s racist remarks, on page 99, he states:

The history of the hopelessly futile and fatuous effort to improve the negroes of the Southern United States by education affords one such proof [of it being “necessary” that there be “a class content to obey without fear or question”]. It is apparent, on brief reflection, that the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation.

No attempt to sugar coat this statement can hide the fact that it is outright racist (as are Mencken’s statements on pages 120 and 165). One could search Nietzsche’s entire works and find nothing even vaguely similar to these loathsome comments. The only remotely comparable remarks he makes are in regard to Germans, and there Nietzsche’s disgust is clearly cultural, not racial, in nature.

At the same time, one should recognize that Mencken’s remarks were not made in a vacuum—that he lived in an openly racist time, one in which even some of the most progressive writers wrote shockingly racist passages. Examples here include Max Nordau, a co-founder of the World Zionist Organization and author of the in-many-ways revolutionary Conventional Lies of Our Civilization. In another major work, The Interpretation of History, Nordau made blatantly racist remarks about Asians. And in his famous muckraking novel, The Jungle (published in book form two years prior to The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche), Upton Sinclair wrote extended racist passages concerning strike-breaking “big buck negroes with daggers in their boots.” It’s an indication of the temper of the times that prior to the publication of his book, Sinclair’s racist descriptions of blacks were published in the socialist quarterly One-Hoss Philosophy, when it serialized the unexpurgated version of The Jungle in 1905, with apparently nary a word of protest from staff or readers. It’s also worthy of note that Sinclair’s most pointed political commentary was censored out, but the racist passages remained, when The Jungle was published in truncated book form in 1906 by Doubleday, Page, a major commercial publishing house.

It’s also well to point out that Mencken apparently outgrew his early racism, at least in part, and later championed black writers in his influential magazine, American Mercury. And he attacked racists in his later writings. But he also continued to make racist comments throughout his life, “demonstrating that bizarre combination of tolerance and racial insensitivity he was always to display.”

Mencken contributed to misunderstanding of Nietzsche in other ways as well. On page 58, he describes him as an “anarchist,” a label which Nietzsche certainly would have violently disavowed. In fact, Nietzsche loathed anarchists, as is obvious from his remarks in sections 57 and 58 of The Anti-Christ, in which, incredibly, he equates them with Christians.

Mencken does, however, provide some slight justification for his labeling of Nietzsche as an anarchist, though his comments are more revealing of his own beliefs than of Nietzsche’s:

Ideal anarchy, in brief, would insure the success of those men who were wisest mentally and strongest physically, and the race would make rapid progress. . . . [So,] Nietzsche was an anarchist—in the true meaning of that much-bespattered word . . . (p. 58)

Mencken is almost certainly correct that “ideal anarchy” would provide the best possible society in which Nietzsche’s Superman could arise, but one would search Nietzsche’s works in vain for anything approaching a similar assessment.

In fact, Nietzsche, has remarkably little to say about the political, economic, and social conditions under which his Superman could arise. He apparently hoped that his ideas would gradually gain acceptance, and that members of the lower classes who failed to excel would voluntarily accept their roles supporting his highest (Superman) class, or perhaps that the highest class would become aware of its superiority and impose his caste system on the lower classes.

To put it kindly, this reveals a remarkable political naïvete. In the long, sordid history of states and governments, no ruling class has ever given up its power to those it considers more enlightened. All hypocritical, self-serving rhetoric about “serving the nation” aside, the purpose of statecraft has always been to grab power by any means at hand, to use it to strengthen oneself and one’s backers at the expense of everyone else, and to hang onto power by any means necessary. As long as governments and ruling classes exist, it seems highly unlikely that this will change—ever.

As well, as should be obvious, the creation and maintenance of a ruling class based (as all ruling elites are) on brute force, coercion, indoctrination, and deceit—and, of course, a very unequal distribution of wealth and income—creates an atmosphere in which it is very difficult for even the most gifted members of the lower economic classes to rise. At the same time, those few “naturally superior” individuals in the ruling class often spend so much of their time grubbing for money (they never seem to think they have enough) and maneuvering to retain power, that their true talents never emerge. In fact, under the present hierarchical system, a parasitocracy has arisen in which the mediocre, sub-mediocre, and even the grotesquely unfit flourish (at least economically) at the expense of the more able.

To put this another way, Nietzsche’s political position is markedly romantic (ironically so, given that he considered himself a hard-headed realist) in that he feels that people should move freely between his intellectual classes, and that the ablest should rise to the top, but he provides no mechanism for this; and he ignores the fact that those in positions of privilege and power always try to retain those positions (or at least pass them on to hand-picked successors, who are often their relatives).

As long as authoritarian political, social, and economic relations continue, Nietzsche’s caste system, with the ablest on top, will remain a pipe dream. The only system in which the “naturally superior” will inevitably rise is one with equal opportunity from birth. This means a system in which all have equal or near-equal access to resources; and it also means a system in which there is no government wielding coercive power (that is, there is no privileged, power-wielding class). To put this succinctly, this means an anarchist society.

So, Mencken was nearly right. Nietzsche should have been an anarchist, but he wasn’t. If he really wanted to see his Superman ideal become reality, and if he’d had any real understanding of political power relationships, he probably would have been an anarchist—if he could have rid himself of his class prejudices.

And those he had in plenty, as did Mencken. Both had a distaste for the lower economic classes and held them responsible for their degraded condition, conceding not a whit that their degradation had anything to do with economic privation, poor education, poor medical care, racism, and lack of opportunity. For Nietzsche, the lower economic classes were simply the “chandala,” beasts of burden who were draft animals precisely because of their unfitness. Further, Nietzsche actually imagined that working class people would happily accept their lot if not for the agitation of socialists and other riffraff urging them to seek “revenge.” It’s a mark of how much his privileged background and immersion in academia as a young adult (and subsequent pensioner status) isolated Nietzsche from the realities of working-class life that he could actually speak, in all seriousness, of “the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence.” (The Anti-Christ, section 57)

This is very unfortunate in that Nietzsche’s class prejudice crops up quite frequently in his writings and has so contaminated his concept of the Superman that the real meaning of the term (see above) has been largely obscured. He (and Mencken) shift back and forth, confusing the “naturally superior” with those at the top of the present socioeconomic heap, whose “superiority” normally consists only of inherited wealth and the power and privileges that go with it.

For his part, Mencken is even more explicitly class prejudiced that Nietzsche. In the concluding chapter of this book, his contempt could hardly be more obvious:

For one thing, there is the business of keeping the lower castes in health. They themselves are too ignorant and lazy to manage it, and therefore it must be managed by their betters. When we appropriate money from the public funds to pay for vaccinating a horde of negroes, we do not do it because we have any sympathy for them or because we crave their blessings, but simply because we don’t want them to be falling ill of smallpox in our kitchens and stables, to the peril of our own health and the neglect of our necessary drudgery. (p. 165)

Needless to say, this prejudice does nothing to aid Mencken in accurately describing the characteristics of Nietzsche’s Superman—characteristics already muddled by Nietzsche’s own class prejudice and his confusion of the present ruling class with the “naturally superior.”

There are still other places where Mencken is off the mark in his description of Nietzsche and his ideas. One of the most obvious—though one for which Mencken is entirely blameless—is in his discussion of Nietzsche’s insanity. Virtually all Nietzsche scholars today attribute Nietzsche’s insanity to a case of syphilis contracted during his student days. Mencken could not possibly have known of this.

Another, more important, place in which Mencken’s description of Nietzsche is incorrect is in his equation of Schopenhauer’s “will” (to live) with Nietzsche’s “will to power”:

Now, this will to continue living [Schopenhauer’s “will”], if we are to accept words at their usual meaning, is plainly identical, in every respect, with Nietzsche’s will to power. Therefore, Nietzsche’s amendment was nothing more than the coinage of a new phrase to express an old idea. (p. 37)

Mencken is dead wrong here. Nietzsche expressed his “will to power” concept as follows: “[W]here there is struggle, it is struggle for power.” And there is a difference between “power” and mere survival. In fact, the difference between the two is crucial, and Nietzsche formulated his “will to power” concept in large part because he considered the “will” (to live) concept inadequate to explain human behavior. To put this briefly, Schopenhauer asserted that the foundation of human behavior is the drive for simple survival, while Nietzsche posited that human behavior is rooted in the drive to exert control over oneself and one’s environment—the “will to power.” This explains certain actions—such as heroic actions in battle that lead, foreseeably, to the hero’s death—which would be inexplicable under Schopenhauer’s simpler “will” (to live) doctrine.

Like the Superman concept, “will to power” has been woefully misunderstood, and not by Mencken alone. All too often, it’s been misinterpreted as meaning power over others (a mistake Mencken also makes—see page 61), whereas Nietzsche intended it to mean power over the environment and power over oneself. Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins explain this matter well in What Nietzsche Really Said:

[T]he word Nietzsche uses is Macht, not Reich, and thus might better be understood as personal strength rather than political power. It does not mean “power” in the nasty, jackbooted sense . . . The term means something like effective self-realization and expression.

The Strengths of Mencken’s Interpretation of Nietzsche

That Mencken made mistakes in his interpretation of Nietzsche is hardly surprising. He wrote this book in 1907, and it was the first book on Nietzsche ever to appear in English. (Translations of a few of Nietzsche’s works had been published before Mencken wrote The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but no book on Nietzsche had yet appeared.) So, Mencken had to rely nearly entirely on his own reading of Nietzsche when he wrote this interpretive work.

Thus, it’s surprising that this book is so good, that it’s so accurate in many respects. To cite two of the most important (among the many) matters he explains correctly, Mencken gives a good account of Nietzsche’s theory of drama, and the tension between the “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” approaches underlying it, that Nietzsche posited in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy—a tension that he refers to again and again in his later works. And Mencken’s account of Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence” is also quite perceptive and accurate.

But it is in his lengthy treatment of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity that Mencken is at his best. (One suspects that this is in part due to Mencken’s being in full agreement with Nietzsche’s attacks on that “slave” religion.) He treats at length and explains well many points of Nietzsche’s critique, including Nietzsche’s assertions that Christian “chandala” slave-morality has led to acquiescence to evil and to lack of individual striving, and that Christianity discourages the development and use of the logical faculties, with dire social consequences.

In terms of writing style, Mencken had not yet hit full stride when he wrote The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, though flashes of his later brilliance sparkle within these pages. Given his youth when he wrote this book, and that he had essentially no preceding texts to rely on, save Nietzsche’s own works, this book remains an impressive accomplishment nearly a century after Mencken wrote it. It is a pioneering work in two ways: 1) as the first interpretive work on Nietzsche ever to appear in English, it has historical significance in its own right; and 2) as one of the first books by Mencken, it helped to provide the foundation for the writing career of the most important American journalist of the first half of the twentieth century.