Nietzsche has been trending on social media, among the MAGA/Incel/Anti-Woke crowd. My unscientific understanding is that this cohort consists mostly of aggrieved white men, who are either downwardly mobile, or perceive themselves as downwardly mobile. Whatever the case may be, I am sure that these men are not especially *literate* (they're usually outright hostile to all things literary) and Nietzsche is not especially easy to read, even for pretentious academics. His writing is cryptic and often dense. Why ever would Nietzsche be trending among the disguntled men of Twitter or Reddit??

Some of the things Nietzsche wrote could, at least superficially, be spun into an Anti-Woke campaign. One of my favorite books is Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, which was his major work on the subject of morality. Earlier works like Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra are more popular because of their poetic, even tweet-like, prose; but Genealogy is canonical. Nietzsche's central observation in that book is that cruelty is kind of funny, and has always been funny, in human civilizations old and new. I can see why this observation might be attractive to the aggrieved masculinity folks, who insist that they're "just joking" when they say hurtful things about marginalized people.

Nietzsche's straw-man in Genealogy is the Christian "ascetic priest" who considers every form of enjoyment, and every display of strength, to be sinful. In Nietzsche's view, the ascetic thinks he is holy and divine, but instead blasphemes the human spirit, which is nothing if not joy and strength, in the best possible world. On first reading, it may sound like Nietzsche accuses Christian values of being hypocritical and weak. It may sound like he is making the quintessential fascist argument, of the tyranny of the weak over the strong. Hitler made the same argument: The natural winners, the dominant race, is being strangulated by institutions of the state, which in turn have been co-opted by weak losers.

Of course, Nietzsche was right, and cruelty is funny.  But he was right in a rich and complicated way. First of all, funny to whom? Surely cruelty is not funny to the subject of the cruelty, but it is funny to onlookers, for whom cruelty is nothing but spectacular entertainment. That is because there are multiple morality frameworks at play simultaneously. Nietzsche calls this the Master/Slave dichotomy. Under slave morality, virtue consists of traditional Christian virtues, like kindness, meekness, chastity, and obedience. Master morality, on the other hand, is all about displays of strength, excellence, efficiency, and dominance. Any one of us might identify as one or the other, or both, depending upon any given social dynamic.

All of the rules of a legalistic society, one with perhaps too many for-profit lawyers, can seem like they are designed to make the world safe for the weak at the expense of the strong. In a society that truly values freedom, rules should be designed with a healthy dose of acceptable risk. Sure, some people might get unlucky and get hurt, but at least your best people will not be living their lives in padded rooms. Ours is an overly legalistic society, I reckon. There are a lot of lawyers who should have been doctors, engineers, plumbers, or HVAC technicians, but their boomer parents told them to pursue their dreams, which only meant years of rudderless soul-searching ending in a reluctant application to a second rate law school.

Wokeness does have a lot of parallels to the Christian asceticism, which was hegemonic during Nietzsche's life. It is hegemonic, as evidenced by all of the multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations that tweet their rainbows in June and their black squares on Juneteenth. Unless you are a VIP, you surely will be fired for making cruel jokes in a public forum. "Woke" ideology, whatever that means, does not come with the sexual anxiety of nineteenth century Christianity, but it does come with a strict prohibition against any form of cruelty. Hence why the Anti-Woke would find Nietzsche's writing on the topic of cruelty to be so alluring. Here, look, a famous academic who says its good to be cruel!

The strong, in Genealogy, are like birds of prey or like sharks. They naturally repel each other. The weak, on the other hand, have solidarity. They huddle together for warmth. They keep each other warm, but only out of resentment. Does that mean that he thinks solidarity is a sham? No, and that's where things get complex. Having a rich inner life, Nietzsche says, comes from being a slave, not a master. This was maybe an original idea at the time, but is even more important now, as James Baldwin pointed out that the slave knows the master better than the master knows himself. It is an idea that has finally made it to the mainstream, as "implicit bias" trainings proliferate across the nation and the world.

Similarly, the master morality is best exemplified by The Meritocracy Trap, a recent book by Yale professor Daniel Markovits. Excellence, as a virtue, is pure and free from the kind of hypocritical resentment that can be so flagrant in Wokeism. The human spirit may be joy and strength on its best day, but it is also shallow and alienating. Upper class people know this better than anyone. They know that their friends are mostly fair weather friends who love to hear about successes, victories, and even "learning experiences," but would never think to let even their oldest and best friend crash on the couch during times of hard luck. Whereas crashing on the couch is a common practice among the less fortunate.

In other words, there is scant justice in the system, thus the norms that a broken system yields can only themselves be malformed and broken. But that doesn't mean that they have no value. Nietzsche says that there could be an ├╝bermensch, a moral actor who is not dragged down by master or slave morality, but rather overcomes these or transcends them. But he is clear that this ├╝bermensch would need to grow up in a radically different world. In the meantime, the best we can do to be moral actors, is to recognize which system others may be using as a benchmark, at what times. This may help even the greatest victims of cruelty to be able to "laugh at themselves."

Woke ideals can and are often used as bludgeons to extort social control. We have all been unfairly maligned at times, and I think it is something worth talking about, without becoming hysterical about "cancel culture." The common thread between the ascetic priests of the Gilded Age, in which Nietzsche lived, and the woke people of the spectacularly inequitable age in which we live, is the pretense of purity. Pure souls are not supposed to think that cruelty is funny. Except, all of us think that cruelty is funny, which is worth pondering. Sometimes "Wokeism" is the holiness fetish of people who have not had enough fulfilling life tests. They do not have an arena to be truly virtuous, so they settle for virtue signalling. Sometimes it is genuine.

No matter what, I simply can't wait for the Nietzsche renaissance... he is going to be very popular again, and for good reason.