Straitjacket of bad readings

People who are proud of their roots and yet not great fans of the Islamic Republic are prone to such thoughts

Farrukh Khan Pitafi June 15, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at


Where globalisation of thought on the internet has made the evolution of ideas easier, the nature of reality has also repeatedly come under trial. One sad development in recent years is the appropriation of big names and works by the far right. Take alt-right’s Richard Spencer’s love for Nietzsche, for example.

To understand this appropriation, read a Vox article by Sean Illing titled “The alt-right is drunk on bad readings of Nietzsche. The Nazis were too”. While explaining countless paradoxes, ironies and contradictions of the alt-right (for example, they disapprove of the Christian morality based on egalitarianism but love Christendom’s role in binding Europe and, consequently, white identity together), the writer also points out the disservice done to Nietzsche by his Nazi sympathiser sister who rearranged his final work, Will to Power, to please and support Hitler.

Spencer, an inextricable by-product of the Trump era, seems to have faded away from the scene. But in his heyday, he was the bogeyman everyone liked to dwell upon to bring out the darkness of the Trump rule. I mention him for two reasons. One, to show how often we obsess about people as if they are larger than life, but when the moment passes, they simply disappear.

That is the beauty of our mortal limitations. Mortality is a great equaliser. Two, we blow up the works of some mortals (Nietzsche, for instance) beyond proportion as if they represent the gospel truth. Spencer incidentally is an atheist, but his faith in the white identity is nothing short of dogmatic.

I must admit that in my early youth, Nietzsche was the first philosopher who enthralled me. When you are young, ideas like Ubermensch and the power of will speak to you. But above everything else, what really gripped me was the idea of “eternal return”. You are trapped in an eternal loop that plays out repeatedly without any change. What a frightening but fascinating idea. At least, our oriental concepts like reincarnation offer you some agency to change your destiny. But not in this case.

Perhaps it will intrigue you to note that, recently, pop culture has tried to mainstream the concept of eternal recurrence. Take this line from Da Vinci’s Demons: “You have heard the phrase “time is a river”? What most fail to grasp is that the river is circular.” Likewise, Westworld tries to approach this concept in its peculiar way.

Even the final episodes of the Battlestar Galactica reboot bring the protagonists face to face with their own remains. Don’t overthink this, though. The creative types are entitled to their peculiarities.

Speaking of peculiarities, I once spotted a line from Savitri Devi’s works about creation and destruction in an otherwise innocent-looking sitcom. I am not going to name the show. However, the protagonist uses this line without attribution to impress others. This got me interested. Upon scrutiny, I learned that this episode was written by a guest writer — a third-generation Iranian expatriate. From here, things were easy to comprehend.

People who are proud of their roots and yet not great fans of the Islamic Republic are prone to such thoughts.

Remember, Reza Shah Pahlavi renamed Persia to Iran (literally the land of Aryans) in 1935, one year after Hitler’s rise to power. Savitri Devi was a European Nazi who travelled to India in search of a world where Christian values like egalitarianism did not apply and eventually declared Hitler an avatar of Vishnu.

From there, her works travelled back to the West and were welcomed by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Her book, The Lightning and the Sun, is still available on the website of William Pierce, the writer of the notorious Turner Diaries. So, is it that far-fetched to think that someone from a nation named after Aryans battling with the current religious identity of the country of their origin would fall prey to such extreme concepts and ideologues?

I do not find the ideological politics around identity too hard to understand. The desire to belong goes to the core of our being. And when there are enough people around subjecting you to discrimination based on your identity, you are bound to double down and embrace it. What, however, bothers me is the superficial roots of discrimination.

Just because someone does not look or sound like me or has different preferences in life, should I treat them as my inferior or, in particular cases, not even human? The fact that we are having these conversations at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century is simply tragic.

However, the greatest tragedy is our desire to adhere to certain thinkers and ideologues of the past unquestioningly. They were ordinary mortals just like us. And the thinkers that the racist far-right often deploys to further its cause (Nietzsche, Darwin, Spengler et al) did not even belong to our millennium.

None of them could foresee today’s technology or scientific methods. Why pretend then that they stumbled upon some wellspring of eternal knowledge? With religions, you at least have the claim about the divine origin of knowledge. These intellectuals of renown even lack that. And for remarkable reason, we want to be permanently tethered to these minds made insignificant by technology.

Growing up, whenever I needed to research something, I’d consult an encyclopaedia. When personal computers became affordable virtual encyclopaedias like Encarta became our go-to place. With Wikipedia, the internet made that job even easier. Now, whenever I need to know something, all I need to do is to fire up my smartphone and get in touch with one of the AI chatbots like Gemini, Claude, ChatGPT, Grok or Meta AI to get all the answers I need. And if someone suggests that I learn modern warfare from Chanakya, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli, am I not within my rights to ask what they had to say on the use of automated unmanned aerial vehicles in wars? They must be very smart for their times, but if we legitimise our views by invoking their names, are we really bright? What is the value of giving so much power to dead intellectuals?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting you abandon all works of all great thinkers, far from it. These works have literary value. If you have time, by all means, read them. But do not allow them to control your actions.

Also, instead of projecting, read them in their proper context. If you want to start somewhere, start with Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Bad readings are ruining our world and vigilance pays.


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