The “Narratives” of Higgins’s “Warfare”

The word ‘narrative’ appears 41 times in the infamous Higgins memo, “POTUS and Political Warfare.” Guys, it’s time for some narrative critique. The narrative Higgins is most concerned about is something he calls “cultural Marxism,” which he defines in a paragraph at the top of page four of the memo:

As used in this discussion, cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory. The result is induced nihilism, a belief in everything that is actually the belief in nothing.

What does this mean? I think what Higgins was trying to say is that the Frankfurt School’s critical theory seeks to tear down Western Civilization societies by undermining Judeo-Christian culture.The Western Civilization and Judeo-Christian stipulations appear elsewhere in his manifesto memo. As an example of how this undermining is to take place, Higgins offered a series of quotes from Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” in which, Higgins claimed, “Marcuse defined tolerance as intolerance.”
In all fairness to Higgins, his interpretation of the Marcuse essay is probably not his. It is likely he never read the essay. The legendary characterization of Marcuse’s essay is a set piece that has been passed down from conservative magazine article to conservative pamphlet to conservative blog post to conservative twitter screed for decades. Leaving aside the accuracy of the interpretation, the question Higgins left unanswered — because presumably unasked — is how did this obscure text become as diabolically pervasive and influential as Higgins claims it is?

For the answer to that question, we need to go to Higgins’s sources, even though he hasn’t explicitly named them and quite possibly doesn’t know what they are. The political correctness, cultural Marxism, multiculturalism, repressive tolerance “narrative” is out there in the miasma.

I have previously documented the plagiarism link between cultural conservative William S. Lind’s propaganda pamphlets and mass murderer Anders Breivik’s manifesto. Now I would like to dig a little deeper and identify a grandfather meme: Eliseo’s Vivas’s “Herbert Marcuse: ‘Philosopher’ en titre of the New Nihilists.” Vivas also wrote a polemical book, Contra Marcuse, but having read the article, I think I get the drift of his diatribe method of critique.

In “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle'” Kenneth Burke warned against “vandalistic” commentary on a text, even one as exasperating and nauseating as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Inflicting a “few symbolic wounds” on the text is more gratifying than it is enlightening. With “the testament of a man who swung a great people into his wake” it would be prudent to “discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against…”

If we were to take the word of Rich Higgins, Herbert Marcuse was someone “who swung a great people into his wake” and “Repressive Tolerance” was his testament. So how did Vivas handle Marcuse’s testament? Vandalistically. In three pages of preliminary discussion Vivas denounced Marcuse’s character, his prose, and the crudeness of his thought. Then at the top of page four, it was “time to turn to Marcuse’s thought.” But not before expending another page decrying the difficulty of presenting that thought “because of the celebrated impenetrability of his prose.” So finally at the bottom of page four, Vivas relented with a brief citation, “the Great Refusal,” the meaning of which he had “never been able to find out exactly…” Then resumed vituperation sans explanatory quotation or paraphrase, ad nauseum

For the answer we were seeking to the mystery about Marcuse’s influence, we have to wait until the very last page — the penultimate paragraph. Why, it’s those ignorant, arrogant kids! Marcuse “makes everything black and white for them, and that is how they like it: friends all on one side, enemies all on the other.”:

Facing the prospect of having to come to grips with an alien world, secure in the knowledge that they, with their one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half decades of experience and thought behind them, could have done much better than their elders and the generations that preceded them did, Marcuse’s authoritarian condemnation of the world gives the kids comfort. Whether they have the fortitude to unravel the thought of the master is doubtful. But they do get the general trend and numerous slogans. The trend they agree with, the slogans they use.

Half a century later, in Trump’s America where 1965’s ‘kids’ are in their dotage, it is exactly the opposite! Now the enemies are all on one side and the friends are all on the other.  It should be easy to know who’s a friend and who’s an enemy because, as Higgins concluded in his memo, “the defense of President Trump is the defense of America.” And, he forgot to add there’s no better defense than a good offense.

But there is a htich: “political correctness is a weapon against reason and critical thinking.” There was one paragraph in Eliseo Vivas’s essay that stood out as compelling and heartfelt. It was a polemic against the seductive illusions of… reason:

Reason works any corner where she can pick up customers, and that she gives each man what he wants, so long as he provides her with what she needs: a couple of premises with one term in common, distributed at least once. Some philosophers have been properly suspicious of her generosity, and for that have been called all kinds of bad names. Pascal saw clearly her limits, Nietzche refused to be trapped by her, and since Dostoevsky’s name has found its way to contemporary anthologies of philosophy it is permissible to remind the reader that the greatest of Russian writers saw clearly, in dramatic terms, through her duplicities, Freud showed up her hypocrisies, and weakness, and even Hume, in the very century of her most successful despotism, put her in her place. What must be borne in mind when discussing Marcuse’s Reason is that he is thinking of the eighteenth century bitch the mob put on the altar. But above all, today, we must bear in mind that there is not only one Reason hut as many reasons as serious philosophers propose under the delusion that they have got a hold of the real McCoy. 

Aside from the misogyny, Vivas had a point there, as long as one also overlooks his inexplicable certainty that his skepticism about reason granted him a “higher level” of reason. One can play this game ad infinitum. The conservative utopia is no less a utopia for all its pious resignation about the sinfulness of mankind.

I was reading Kenneth Burke’s essay on Hitler’s Mein Kampf when the news about Charlottesville came through. Yes, this nearly 80-year old essay is timely, very timely. My advice is: read it. I will mention a few highlights here but first I want to repeat something I mentioned earlier about Burke’s method.  Unlike Vivas, Burke examined Hitler’s testament carefully, “that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America.”

So, “What are we to learn from Hitler’s book? For one thing, I believe that he has shown, to a very disturbing degree, the power of endless repetition.” This is not to say that repetition per se is necessarily bad, only that it is effective and necessary. Effective and necessary. A second lesson exposes the strategic function of the “provocative remark.” This tactic might sound familiar:

Hitler also tells of his technique in speaking, once the Nazi party had become effectively organized, and had its army of guards, or bouncers, to maltreat hecklers and throw them from the hall. He would, he recounts, fill his speech with provocative remarks, whereat his bouncers would promptly swoop down in flying formation, with swinging fists, upon anyone whom these provocative remarks provoked to answer. The efficiency of Hitlerism is the efficiency of the one voice, implemented throughout a total organization. The trinity of government which he finally offers is: popularity of the leader, force to back the popularity, and popularity and force maintained together long enough to become backed by a tradition. Is such thinking spontaneous or deliberate—or is it not rather both?

There is a passage where Burke questioned whether Hitler’s use of antisemitism as a “unifying devil-function” was a “purely calculating act.” He came to the conclusion it was not and illustrated that with a lengthy passage that demonstrates the futility of “winning” an argument:

One passage in particular gives you reason, reading between the lines, to believe that the dialecticians of the class struggle, in their skill at blasting his muddled speculations, put him into a state of uncertainty that was finally “solved” by rage…

Hitler’s account of his struggle between “reason” and his “heart” prompted Burke to observe, ” that those who attack Hitlerism as a cult of the irrational should emend their statements to this extent: irrational it is, but it is carried on under the slogan of ‘Reason.'” There’s that word ‘reason’ again.

Burke concluded his essay with a summary of the “basic Nazi trick: the ‘curative’ unification by a fictitious devil-function, gradually made convincing by the sloganizing repetitiousness of standard advertising technique.” Political correctness, anyone? Burke suggested that this trick may have a root in a basic human need, “It may well be that people, in their human frailty, require an enemy as well as a goal.” There was both a religious and an economic dimension to Burke’s conclusions:

Hitler appeals by relying upon a bastardization of fundamentally religious patterns of thought. In this, if properly presented, there is no slight to religion. There is nothing in religion proper that requires a fascist state. There is much in religion, when misused, that does lead to a fascist state. … And it is the corruptors of religion who are a major menace to the world today, in giving the profound patterns of religious thought a crude and sinister distortion.

Referring to the economic dislocations that arose out of the First World War:

Hence, here too there are the resentments that go with frustration of men’s ability to work and earn. At that point a certain kind of industrial or financial monopolist may, annoyed by the contrary voices of our parliament, wish for the momentary peace of one voice, amplified by social organizations, with all the others not merely quieted, but given the quietus. So he might, under Nazi promptings, be tempted to back a group of gangsters who, on becoming the political rulers of the state, would protect him against the necessary demands of the workers. His gangsters, then, would be his insurance against his workers. But who would be his insurance against his gangsters?