What shapes contemporary life?
Rob Riemen is the Founder, President, and CEO of the Nexus Institute, a leading international center for intellectual reflection to inspire the Western cultural and philosophical debate. Mr. Riemen is also the editor of the essay journal "Nexus."
He is the author of Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal (2008), which has been translated into eighteen languages, and the new international bestseller To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism (2018)
Question: What shapes contemporary life?
Rob Riemen: I don’t want to be a name dropper, but it’s . . . no. But it’s . . . It’s the world I come from and the language I know. But we have had the phenomenon in Europe of Friedrich Nietzsche. Now Nietzsche is well known for the death of God, nihilism and so on and so forth. And that next to Nietzsche we had Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and so forth. Those two quite different figures had something in common. And this . . . And that is that they realized . . . They realized all too well that if we lose the idea or the awareness that the most important things in life have an intrinsic value, then you will get . . . then you will get nihilism. That is to say if we really think that, that if we don’t understand what freedom is, and we think that freedom is equal to “everything is permissible” – but for everything to become permissible, you get __________. When things no longer have an intrinsic . . . intrinsic value, then you don’t value your child because it is your child; but you value it because you think he will become a movie star, or a football player, or will do a lot of work for me. You can no longer value the great love in your life because you think, you know, it would be . . . You see, I mean that’s . . . that’s . . . It is the gigantic stupidity of a society with this bombardment by . . . by mass media which is constantly lying to us. It’s constantly lying to us. They want to give us the idea that Mr. Trump, for example . . . Mr. Trump is the incarnation of Mr. Kitsch because he truly thinks that money is the most important thing in life. And if you become a Kitsch-like figure like he is, yes you can make a lot of money. But look every __________ can tell you that there is nothing in money. And this is what nihilism is – that it’s absolutely nothing. So this is what I called the kitsch society. We aim at the pleasant. We ignore the best. We do not understand that the most important things must have an intrinsic value, and that was a . . . that some things have to . . . have to be sacred. And on the level of politics, I mean look. Mr. Karl Rove when he was still there, “mission accomplished”. It was the perfect example of what . . . When politics is no longer the real debate about the good society; when politics is reduced to, you know, serving part interest, or serving self-interest, and to do it well we have to create a certain image like “mission accomplished”; I mean it worked for at least half a year that the majority of the American people thought “mission accomplished”. Now in the meantime they know the truth – it’s not there. So when the kitsch society is there, we are constantly _________ with the fact . . . Again, education. Education should be pretty useless; should focus on the useless things; should try to make us, you know, aware of what the masterpieces have to tell us how to gain a certain wisdom in life; and then of course yes, you have to develop your talents and you should follow your passion. But for so long we’ve been living in a society where wisdom has been replaced by know-how; in which history according to Mr. Forbes is bunk. And all you have to . . . The religious sects who are telling you there is only one truth and authority, and you have to obey and so on and so forth – I mean are we surprised about what’s happening in our society? Are we surprised about the senselessness, the killing? And the interesting thing is that look, we are still living in democracy. It’s not China. It’s not Russia. It’s not Darfur or those horrible places. We are still living in a democracy. I mean, for God sakes, you are America. This is a country that starts with “we the people”. Now “we the people” means one very simple thing. That is we are responsible. We are responsible, not those bull shitters. So if we stop watching television, it will be immediately gone. If you don’t buy the product, the product will be gone. If you start buying books, book shops will return. Let’s get rid of the lies. That is . . . I mean that’s also what I hope you can contribute with this series. But we have to get rid of the lies. Now are we very powerful? No we are not very powerful. Will there be a drastic change? Well what would change in a society if people still can do what they want to do? Because this is a free society and so on and so forth. But they can no longer keep up the kitsch. They can no longer keep up the idea that yes, what I do is very important for your interest or whatever. We know you’re lying. You still can do it, but you’re lying. That would make the difference. And so we need a different mindset. We have to try to get back something, you know, of our . . . our . . . our cultural setting; and starting to realize again what the true questions are.
Question: What are today’s essential issues?
Rob Riemen: Democracy, freedom, love, health – all the good things . . . all the good things, all the important things are, by definition, vulnerable and fragile. Nothing can ever be taken for . . . Probably again, this is also a European lesson. Again my mother was one of the camps. It was impossible for her to throw away one single piece of bread because she knew what hunger was. That generation knows very, very well still what freedom is, and what happens to society when there is no longer freedom. They know what they are talking about. And they also know it’s never a given. We don’t have guarantees – not in life, not for our society. So we know, and we can even see it on television. And if you also see by what kind of forces we are surrounded, yes there is terrorism. Yes there are people with a complete different mindset who believe in a kind of holy law and so on and so forth; who want to fight, to reduce the world to believers and non-believers. And everybody, in their minds, who is an non-believer should be annihilated, and killed, and so on and so forth. Yes it is there. Yes there are people with certain economic power; and so crazy by their economic commercial power that they really want to reduce everybody to consumers. And if, you know, turn our society into a kind of infantile society that we all behave like stupid childs who want this or that and can find a certain satisfaction never for one moment. We know the forces are there. We know that the best thing can perish very, very easily. So being that the case, and . . . and realizing that what all those forces in their all varieties whatsoever. And some are more immediately threatening to our society, and others are more threatening in the long term. But what they have in common is that they take away the quality of our life, which could be on the level of the environment; which could be on the level of our civil society; which could be on . . . on whatever level. But they take away the quality of our life. The very first thing to be done immediately – you know breaking news, let’s do it right now – is we have to rethink what is . . . what’s the meaning of a good society? And as I once said to friends, not that long ago I finally had the opportunity to go to Ellis Island for the very first time – the Statute of Liberty, then to Ellis Island. I’m a European, right? I’m not an American. I’m fascinated by your history. I’m fascinated by the people who came. So I came to Ellis Island, saw this documentary with Gene Hackman. And you understand knowing the history of Europe, that for so many people America by definition is . . . if it’s not the good society, it’s the better society. Because the horror they had to face in Europe . . . One guy who was in this documentary said . . . He was an old man. He said (using the voice of an older person), “The strange thing about America is that the police is here to help you.” That was not the case in Russia. That was not the case in Poland. That was not the case in France. So I understand the kind of mindset in which Americans think well maybe it’s not . . . The good society or the best society is by far the better society. Time is over. Everybody now has to rethink what is a good society; what are the quintessential values; what is it that Europe and America have in common; and how to defend those values in such a way that you can become . . . that you are not a threat to the rest of the world. But I mean the American dream worked because everybody could realize, “Hey, there is something in it for me.” Now the west created a situation with its globalization; with globalization in a sense that a lot of people have . . . have the idea that their own identities are destructed. Because . . . I don’t want to sound like an anti-American, but that there is only Coca Cola, and only McDonald’s and so on. I mean that’s the caricature, but that’s how a lot of people experience it. That’s not the way. And that’s also the essence of the American dream. So the good society; what are our quintessential values; and then from there, what are we doing with our education? How do we use our media? I mean our media are no longer to give information. I mean far from it. It’s just one big commercial thing, as education has become a commercial thing. Look at . . . Look at the politics. It’s on the both sides – both on the liberal side and on the conservative. It’s an enormous reductionism to very simplistic concepts which has nothing to do with a serious discussion. So there is a lot of work to be done. But you know we can do it, and also we should do it because we don’t have a choice.
Recorded on: 10/3/07
Riemen frames contemporary life and the values that construct our society.
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