William Spanos on high school debate, Nazism, and other atrocities

In high school debate, I tried to run the “Spanos kritik” a few times. Basically, the argument is that the affirmative team should lose because they present a plan as a solution to a problem, for reasons involving Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. This is obviously stupid, because the affirmative could never win, and debate would make no sense as an activity. On the other hand, if the affirmative can’t explain why it’s unfair, they should also lose. Using the writings of William Spanos in debate goes against the spirit of everything Spanos is writing about, and he’s said so. He also makes it clear that he talks like a pompous douchebag even when he has a point.

CS: Many of the most charged criticisms of your comments on debate stem from the charge that you have had very little experience with debate and are not qualified to comment on it. We’ve taken the position often that our insular activity could use some outside criticism, but others remain skeptical of the view that disinterested, ‘switch-side,’ debate, where debaters can take any position on an issue, will actually produce more neoconservatives like Cheney and Rumsfeld. They cite policy debaters who practiced this and went on to champion rights for Guantanamo Bay detainees after debate and law school. Surely you don’t believe that all debaters will become neocons simply from following this model. But what should we be most on guard against in order to avoid the worst of the imminent global disaster that the neocons are undoubtedly leading us to?

WVS: The danger of being a total insider is that the eye of such a person becomes blind to alternative possibilities. The extreme manifestation of this being at one with the system, of remaining inside the frame, as it were, is, as Hannah Arendt, decisively demonstrated long ago, Adolph Eichmann. That’s why she and Said, among many poststructuralists, believed that to be an authentic intellectual –to see what disinterested inquiry can’t see– one has to be an exile (or a pariah) from a homeland– one who is both apart of and apart from the dominant culture. Unlike Socrates, for example, Hippias, Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue “Hippias Major” (he is, for Arendt, the model for Eichmann), is at one with himself. When he goes home at night “he remains one.” He is, in other words, incapable of thinking. When Socrates, the exilic consciousness, goes home, on the other hand, he is not alone; he is “by himself.” He is two-in-one. He has to face this other self. He has to think. Insofar as its logic is faithfully pursued, the framework of the debate system, to use your quite appropriate initial language, does, indeed, produce horrifically thoughtless Eichmanns, which is to say, a political class whose thinking, whether it’s called Republican or Democratic, is thoughtless in that it is totally separated from and indifferent to the existential realities of the world it is representing. It’s no accident, in my mind, that those who govern us in America –our alleged representatives, whether Republican, Neo-Con, or Democrat– constitute such a “political class.” This governing class has, in large part, their origins, in a preparatory relay consisting of the high school and college debate circuit, political science departments, and the law profession. The moral of this story is that the debate world needs more outsiders — or, rather, inside outsiders — if its ultimate purpose is to prepare young people to change the world rather than to reproduce it.

Spanos was originally writing about efforts to discredit Martin Heidegger for being a Nazi. Heidegger was a Nazi, of course. Spanos took issue with the way this quote of Heidegger’s was being used:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

Comparing mechanical harvesters and genocide you collaborated in could be considered offensive. Spanos isn’t trying to justify Heidegger as an individual. He’s just defensive because his academic career is based on Heidegger and his philosophical descendants. Spanos wants to show that Heidegger is correct on this point about mechanization, and that his entire philosophical legacy isn’t tainted with Nazism. In fact, the people acting offended about Heidegger are acting on behalf of the same “metaphysics” as Nazism, and they have a hidden agenda to maintain control of university departments.

More importantly, Spanos vividly described the Nazi-like things that come from thinking like the affirmative team, i.e., being inconsistent with Heidegger’s philosophy (!):

Mystified and utterly frustrated by the enemy’s decentered “invisibility,” the agencies conducting the war eventually reacted to the uncanny impasse in the same, if deviously rational, way that Lieutenant Calley did: they unleashed overtly and massively the latent (racist) violence inhering in the liberal democratic (“can do”) representation of American intervention in Vietnam. It was, to be specific, the subversion of their inscribed assumption of presence and desire for and expectation of closure–the resolution of the narrative that promised decisive victory–that, after, 1965, provoked the fully fury of American technology against all the Vietnamese: the saturation B-52 bombings that decimated the Vietnamese landscape and contributed to making the agrarian people of Vietnam a population of refugees; the indiscriminate use of herbicides like Agent Orange that defoliated and contaminated vast areas of the earth of Vietnam; the mechanized “search and destroy” (later re-coded as “search and clear”) missions and the bracketing of “free-fire zones” that resulted in the undifferentiated destruction of entire villages and untold numbers of villagers; the systematic, concealed brutalization and torture of prisoners of war, and of those villagers suspected of being “Viet Cong,” that spread terror throughout the Vietnamese populace; and the various “pacification” projects: the relocation of the peasantry in what were euphemistically called “New Life Hamlets,” but which…were more like concentration camps. One catches a glimpse of the awful violence of the American command’s policy of “attrition”–the concentrated American impulse to force a rational/technological solution on the recalcitrantly de-centered context generated by the anticlimactic strategy of the NLF and NVA

The military response to the differential nomadic counterstrategy of the NLF and NVA took the form of an advanced technological bludgeoning (Nievellierung, “leveling,” to appropriate the term Heidegger uses to characterize the representational and dedifferentiating discursive practices of the modern “age of the world picture”) that resulted in the apparently gratuitous but in fact systematic…mass killing and maiming of an untold number of Vietnamese peasants. Simultaneously–and equally significant in the context of the outpouring of moral outrage precipitated by the reinvocation of Heidegger’s “identification” of the mechanization of agriculture and the “manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and the death camps”–it involved the systematic technological laying waste (leveling) of vast amounts of the Vietnamese earth (I stress this word, despite the problems it poses, to alienate the predictably derisive representation by contemporary liberal humanists of Heidegger’s invocation of die Erde and/or die Volk as an unqualified and dangerous form of nostalgic idolatry)…

It must not be overlooked, as it callously was by those who directed the American intervention in Vietnam (and even those liberal humanists who protested against the intervention as immoral), that for the Vietnamese peasantry the earth they cultivated was not, as it has become in the “developed” Occident, simply a technologically exploitable space.

I was quite surprised to find that, in the mean time, he’s written an emotionally compelling account of his experience surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a POW. He includes an experience of disidentifying with America that will make you cry. I don’t see what all the Heidegger mumbo jumbo adds to the ideas:

On seeing the inert body of this beautiful young girl, whom death had not allowed the time to mature into a woman, I was filled with profound sorrow. How many more like this innocent child had suffered the same inexplicable and ruthlessly violent death? But then I realized that there was something that didn’t ring true about this emotion. It made a personified Death the always immune murderer of the countless innocent children like this one who had suffered terrible deaths during the firebombing of the city, whereas in reality the murders was committed [sic] by the British and American bombers who had been sent on and guided through this mission by the Allied military commanders hovering over their map of Europe in an operations room a thousand and more kilometers away, pushing model aircraft–the target of their deadly game, Dresden–with long cue sticks toward their doomed destination. My sorrow became contaminated with anger over the utter senselessness–and the incredible insensitivity–of these callous perpetrators of this very real apocalypse.

Suddenly, without premeditation, I picked the dead girl up in my arms in a wild protective gesture and then, awakened by the utter futility of my impulsive act, felt at a loss about what to do with my lifeless burden. I looked around at my comrades, at our guards, at the smoldering waste of the city in a state of turbulent confusion. Then I looked at the girl’s face. Its features–fair, delicate, oval shaped, high cheekbones, catlike eyes, and petite–bore an uncanny resemblance to Kathryn. For an instance all the borders that separated and distinguished “us” from “them” were down. It seemed like the end of something, the reduction of Everything to nothing, the All to a “zero zone,” but also, in a way–it was so faint an impulse–that I could not fathom then, a beginning. And without warning I began to sob uncontrollably as I rocked the dead girl cradled in my arms in the midst of those ruins.

Our German guards and my comrades were taken aback momentarily by my erratic, not to say unmanly, behavior and in that state of surprise said nothing until my crying had run its course. We were, I can imagine, a grotesque still life–I, holding the dead girl in my arms staring out vacantly beyond our immediate desolate location; the motley German Volksturm guards, uncertain about what to do; the Kommando of American prisoners, embarrassed at my emotional breakdown (retrospectively, I was grateful that Tex was not one of them); the venerable city below a sickly grayish yellow pall of smoke lying in ashes all around us as far as our eyes could see…

No sooner than we heard these commands, I found myself, the dead girl’s limp body still in my arms, face to face with a middle-aged woman who, unseen by the policemen until it was too late, had slipped through the roped-off area and come to where we were standing..Her black eyes, ringed by the shadows of fatigue, were blazing. She looked piercingly into mine. Without saying a single word, she spit, full force, into my face. She then grabbed the dead girl out of my arms.

By this time two of the policemen had arrived at the scene. One rescued the dead body of the child; the other took hold of the flailing woman and led her away. With that acute sting of her fiery spit, the last vestige of my identity as an American–the image by which I had hitherto lived my life–curdled up and withered into ash…

Despite my effort to rationalize the carnage perpetrated by our side–this was a just war that had been initiated by an evil regime–I couldn’t, as before, make my argument take hold. I had experienced a vaguely defined evil for which there simply was no justification. I couldn’t formulate the feeling of anger and frustration I felt then, but it was persistent, a haunting specter, to the end of the war and many years thereafter. And it had precisely to do with bearing witness to, remembering, indeed re-membering, those thousands upon thousands of innocent lives that our incendiary bombs had wiped out–dismembered–and deprived of their stories in less than twenty-four hours.

Interestingly, the fact that Spanos has Greek ethnic roots probably explains his interest in Heidegger. For Heidegger, everything went wrong when Greek culture was replaced by Roman culture. Other sections of the book mention Spanos bonding with another Greek soldier. In the past, not all white people were equally white, and “Tex” mentioned above harasses him for being Greek. Spanos is Greek-American, and Viola Cordova was Apache/Hispanic, but they have in common the view that the “minority” culture they identify with has traditions that correct for the dominant culture’s tendency to dominate.

Is it more threatening for “pure” white Americans to contemplate the horrors caused by America, or the West in general? They have fewer “fallback identities” to choose from? It would put them in a cultural no-man’s land.

This is also a great illustration of what’s frustrating to me about “postmodern” academic things. The point of SO much bad prose is how awful it is to juxtapose the generals and their maps with what they’re really causing. The arbitrariness and dehumanization built into their way of thinking. Heidegger is concerned with the shift to a “correspondence” theory of truth, in which the main thing is whether the map is a good predictor of the world or not. He contrasts “truth as correspondence” with “truth as revealing” or something like that. The attitude Heidegger advocated toward technology was “releasement from things” and “openness to the mystery [of Being]”. He was alarmed by the view of nature as a “standing-reserve,” or, the way we’d put it, “natural resources.” “From this arises a completely new relation of man to the world and his place in it. The world now appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thought, attacks that nothing is believed able any longer to resist.” Heidegger distinguishes “meditative thinking” from “calculative thinking,” where too much calculative thinking has harmful consequences like mechanized agriculture…and gas chambers.

Heidegger says that man today is “in flight from thinking,” and if he thought it was bad in 1959…I include this passage because it has “homeland” talk. I read the passage as a call for mindfulness a lot more than I read it as an expression of unrepentant German nationalism.

And those who have stayed on in their homeland? Often they are still more homeless than those who have been driven from their homeland. Hourly and daily they are chained to the radio and television. Week after week the movies carry them off into uncommon, but often merely common, realms of the imagination, and give the illusion of a world that is no world. Picture magazines are everywhere available. All that with which modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man–all that is already much closer to man today than his fields around his farmstead, closer than the sky over the earth, closer than the change from night to day, closer than the conventions and customs of his village, than the tradition of his native world…the rootedness…of man is today threatened at its core!

In this light, Spanos asks why people would REALLY be so eager to make a taboo against Heidegger.