One doesn't have to agree with everything a given person says to recognize and appreciate their insights: Indeed, in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, taking the entirety of his works as a whole rather than cherry-picking whatever suits us and ignoring or deriding the rest would be anathema to the point of his philosophy. One doesn't cite Nietzsche as an authority, but rather wields his statements as a weapon, depending only on their intrinsic weight to be effective. Such is part of their attraction and, for some on the left more concerned with appearance than substance, part of what inspires revulsion.
Nietzsche has a negative reputation among liberals, and the reasons are understandable though mistaken: Most prominently, certain phrases (e.g., "will to power") are historically associated with Nazism, Fascism, anti-Semitism, and ultra-right-wing politics, despite the man's vocal attacks on their 19th-century precursors as mendacious and perverse:
After I read the name Zarathustra1 in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position of emergency defense against [Bernhard Forster's] Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!
1 As per the title of his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85).
In fact, Nazism was not an illustration of "will to power" so much as an imbalanced and incredibly unlucky special case: Namely, that of bigoted psychotics being filled with energy and will while people with a more noble potential failed to realize it. The German opponents of Nazism lacked any sort of unifying vision, and some were opposed precisely because they feared change of any kind: Some were moderates who were more opposed to the radical nature of Nazism than to its specific claims and intentions; others were Communists who appeared to offer little more than vassalage to Moscow; and any whom we would recognize as liberal democrats were rendered impotent by the lack of any kind of clear public consensus.
"Power," in this sense, has nothing to do with the domination of other people, but is rather a qualitative state of creative potential. Kennedy's assertion that "we choose to go to the Moon" would be an example of this principle in action: He is saying that America is undertaking the most fantastic adventure in human history on the basis of an arbitrary decision and an exercise of will. A more commonplace statement would have been to claim necessity, and insist "we must go to the Moon," but instead JFK claimed it was entirely by choice. The effect of this emphasis on the social impact of the Apollo program cannot be overstated.
Every time you ignore cultural norms to make a statement simply because it's true, create something simply because it's beautiful, or do something because it's your sense that doing it is right, you are asserting a will to power. You are neither seeking approval nor deliberately trying to antagonize anyone: You are making a statement, and it either stands or falls by the nature inherent in it. Conversely, every time you do something purely in service to tradition, expectation, or the demands of others, you are engaging in an abdication of life.
This is what Nietzsche means when he distinguishes between will and weakness, and the distinction forms the basis of his conception of Ubermensch (or superman): Not someone who can dominate weaker people, but whom weak people will instinctively react to either positively or negatively rather than finding their own visions. From this perspective, Gandhi and King have as much claim to the term as people like Caesar and Hitler. Just think of Ubermensch as a bombastic synonym for "leadership" in its most distilled and potent form.
Pacifism doesn't work. Now, that isn't to say it's never a successful tactic to let your enemies attack you, or even to pretend that you are doing so out of a higher moral framework than political expediency, but actually believing as a consistent ideology that it is always better not to defend yourself is clearly a recipe for extinction. First, human beings are animals - a fact with no moral weight one way or another - so if it makes no sense to allow yourself to be eaten by a tiger, it makes no more sense (under most circumstances) to allow yourself to be attacked by another person. Just imagine if your immune system decided to try pacifism: How long would that seem like a good idea?
But, you may ask, what about Jesus, Gandhi, and King? In the case of Christianity, it doesn't appear that the self-sacrifice of Jesus (whether mythological or factual is irrelevant) made the spread of its cult any more potent than the vast array of other popular cults in the late Roman world with similar "miracles" attributed to them. Rather, the signal event that elevated it from the pack was its adoption by Constantine, and occultish use of its symbol (the Chi Rho) as a talisman for victory in battle: A pattern that would be repeated many times in its adoption by other kings and warlords in the Dark Ages (e.g., Clovis). In other words, the actual teachings have never, by themselves, changed anything.
Yes, Christianity inspired much of the Abolitionist movement, but nothing came of it until people started killing each other over the question. The North triumphed because enslaving others makes people lazy and unimaginative, and the South had been set in its ways for so long that it couldn't deal with the dynamism of the North: All it could do was react. The same was true with the question of segregation: The Civil Rights movement served a purpose by focusing attention on the subject, but only the force of federalized National Guard troops and FBI agents actually decided the issue.
Ditto for the Indian independence movement: The heroic sacrifices of the Indian people were effective only because Britain had a free press and the British people had an elected government that responded to their sentiments. In isolation - i.e., if India had been occupied by a totalitarian country, or if the British people were lazy bigots like antebellum US Southerners rather than people who prided themselves on a sense of fair play - their sacrifices would have led nowhere, and the imperial governors would have been content to kill everyone who so much as looked at them cross-eyed.
Against such governments, or against a tyrant internal to India, Gandhi's tactics would likely have been futile. But instead they were effective because of centuries of brutal struggle within England whereby political power, due to whatever arbitrary set of factors, slowly dissipated from absolute monarchy to a parliamentary system overseen by an increasingly ceremonial throne. Gandhi, therefore, can be seen as a kind of anti-Hitler: He provided a vision, and the only antagonistic visions that would have been strong enough to crush him (e.g., total extermination of him and his followers) were so contrary to British culture that it had no comparative resonance.
But how many nameless Gandhis have perished from the world for living and dying in cultures that had no compunction about filling shallow graves with large numbers of innocent people? How many nameless Christs have walked to their crosses only to be instantly forgotten along with everything they ever stood for? So pacifism in itself is not powerful or compelling: But people who can see the right time and the right place for it while providing a vision behind it can be something special.
Nietzsche didn't personally like the idea, but it can easily be reconciled with his philosophy if seen as what, in fact, it is: A feint. An artful and justified hypocrisy, if you will. While serenely marching into the batons of the imperial police, Gandhi implicitly held out the specter of the violent revolutionaries whom his successes held in check. While facing the dogs, the firehoses, and the bricks of the Southern police, and being perceived as David facing Goliath, the Civil Rights marchers brought down the US Army on their side.
The terms in which Nietzsche makes this distinction are fraught with danger for an American political discussion: He calls morality that originates with the inherent creativity of the person acting on it "master morality," and that which merely rationalizes existing conditions "slave morality." This does not in any way attempt to justify slavery or imply that people who hold certain beliefs are entitled to rule others, but is rather intended as an analogy: That "master morality" is the product of people who own themselves, and "slave morality" the product of people who can only parrot or attack others rather than discovering their own way.
Contrary to the iconography of Nazism, Nietzsche's antithesis of the Ubermensch is not "Untermensch" - he conceives of no such thing, because ultimately everyone who isn't active in creating their world is just a product of their environment, and can no more be blamed for the particulars of their lives than they would deserve credit for randomly following someone else's good ideas. Rather, he conceives of the "Last Man" - the final byproduct of an exhausted civilization that is no longer animated by creativity, whose sole concerns are comfort, security, and entertainment devoid of passion or yearning.
The Last Man is the final outcome of Slave Morality, because it only applies itself to neutralizing fear, pain, and discomfort without stoking the imagination. For a while, a civilization on this path is focused on the past, because the past is safer and less challenging than the future: It becomes preoccupied with preserving "heritage" while neglecting new ideas, and with singing paeans to its own past glories while becoming increasingly timid or dismissive when confronted by new opportunities.
People who don't fit that mold - even when their projects are unimpeachably humanitarian - are initially ignored, but increasingly come to be seen as offensive, obnoxious, and dangerous, when in earlier eras they would have been celebrated. For instance, a wealthy philanthropist who decides to set up a job training center and a factory with well-paying, high-benefit jobs in a poor area would be resented by his peers as some kind of demagogue for making them look bad in comparison, while even the community he is helping to rebuild would see him as "arrogant" or "culturally insensitive." These attitudes would be the same (if not worse) if the initiative came from a government program.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with a nice, pleasant, safe society that has neither great problems or great dreams. The catastrophe comes from the fact that nature abhors a vacuum, and where civilization fails to advance, it will tend to retreat: If the highly educated, humane, and competent people have all become pallid creatures of habit who can't wake up enough to respond creatively to their world, their society is doomed. No matter how effectively they've mitigated the banal problems, sooner or later they will be smacked in the face by something (or someone) out of the ordinary, and weak, brittle people will just shatter in the face of such anima.
This, I think, is what happened to both Germany and France in WW2: Both the conquered and the conqueror were degenerate. Sure, there had been good ideas floating around both societies before the Nazis took over the former and the latter surrendered to them, but no one was doing anything with those ideas - they were the stuff of cafe conversation rather than the work of practical people. And both countries knew it.
Both of their responses were classic examples of a zombie civilization: Germany, rather than doing anything to solve its problems, decided it would be more fun to blame someone else and devote all their national resources to murdering them. France, confronted with its neighbor-turned-demonic-idiot, decided it would be more comfortable to give in than lose their artistic treasures and have to suffer the deprivations of resistance. The few who initially did resist fought a lonely struggle for much of the war before their countrymen decided the Germans had overstayed their welcome.
These are both illustrations of Last Man societies: Blind, wanton destructiveness in lieu of any substantive program, and blind, dismissive surrender to one's environment in lieu of the passion to shape it. Germany could have immediately devoted itself to revolutionizing transportation through the Volkswagen and autobahn; it could have immediately set to work on cutting-edge aviation and rocketry for economic, scientific, and other aspirational purposes; it could have plumbed the depths of the sea and the heights of the sky, and dreamed big dreams that made the world gasp in admiration. But it didn't. France could have built on the dreams of Jules Verne and done likewise; it could have built things that made the Eiffel tower look petty; but it didn't.
Now, perhaps you are seeing signs of this kind of exhaustion in American civilization, and that's perfectly justified: Without a frontier and virgin continent to feed boundless optimism, we find our society struggling for a meaningful principle of inspiration (see my earlier diary, Space Is America's Purpose). But throughout history, there have been periods of malaise followed by explosively creative change, so it doesn't necessarily follow that ours is terminal.
Nietzsche, to his credit, does not articulate the Last Man as the endpoint of civilization, but the endpoint of decline - the Last Man is he who precedes Ubermensch. In other words, the social and psychological forces that animate a culture slowly return to a state of placid equilibrium - to a calm, featureless surface - and then something that is from outside that surface, or that is independent of it, acts upon it and disturbs the surface again.
So, if we can extend his individualistic philosophy to entire societies - something he himself would have strenuously objected to (but then who cares what a dead man thinks) - we can perhaps say that the United States of America was (and perhaps may some day be again) Europe's Ubermensch. Hitler, on the larger scale, can therefore be seen as a Last Man because he destroyed European civilization as part of an impotent, flailing reaction to the weakness of Germany, and America as the Ubermensch whose vision resurrected it.
Nietzsche didn't think very highly of democracy: In fact, he utterly despised it, and that element of his writings may instantly discredit his worldview in the opinion of some liberals. But I think his feelings on this account may have largely been due to the limited German / Continental conception of democracy prevalent in the 19th century. German society was already highly ordered and ideological, so democracy just tended to unleash base impulses that had been brought under control through different means in earlier eras (e.g., anti-Semitism). Had he been personally aware of societies that had naturally evolved democracy, and been enlivened by it, his view may have been different.
To put it another way, his experience would largely have been with the Platonic/statist versions of any given type of government, including French and English democracy, and not with Lockian (or proto-Lockian) versions that would depend on the strength and creativity of their citizenry to function.
American liberalism, unlike much of European social democracy, is much more concerned with ensuring that hard work and creativity are fairly rewarded rather than pursuing an egalitarian ideal: We consider it more important to guarantee access and opportunity against unchecked accumulation of resources than to keep everyone living in similar circumstances for the sake of cultural solidarity. This, I think, is quite in line with the Nietzschean ideal, and the American liberal conception of democracy is very nurturing to individual genius.
It is not, as it may appear, in order to maintain weak people that we believe in the kinds of support that we do: Rather, we recognize the complex ways in which market economics can stifle and undermine the potential contributions of some people, and strive to correct for the externalized costs that ultimately sabotage everyone if left unaddressed.
Even if we set aside the above arguments, Nietzscheanism is regarded with far more suspicion among liberals than philosophies that are much more damaging to humanist ideals and democratic society. Plato and Confucius were both proponents of a mythological, and apparently unobtainable "virtuous tyranny" whereby the meritorious magically rise to absolute power, and everyone does as they are told by these exemplary authorities. Yet think of their relative reputations: Plato and Confucius are considered innocuous or even progressive, while Nietzsche is ironically identified with fascism despite having one of the most fertile philosophies for liberalism.
Now, there are undoubtedly some strains of the egalitarian in American liberalism, and also some strains of authoritarianism on the left, but unlike in Europe they are not primary influences: The freedom (in both the positive and negative senses) of a person to fully realize their potential is primary. It is a lonelier sensibility, but also a more productive one so long as the people are energetic and imaginative.
Take the Teutonic bombast out of Nietzsche, and you've basically got Buddha with a mischievous sense of humor. If we were more aware of such a philosophy, there might be less impotent hand-wringing, less infantile blame-mongering, and more active implementation of ideas in our community.
FYI - the closest pronunciation of Nietzsche that uses sounds familiar to the native English speaker would be "Nee-chuh," not "Nee-chee." This is not important, but the latter pronunciation is annoying.