Monday, February 21, 2011

Jay-Z and Nietzsche on Gettin' that Dirt Off Your Shoulder

I'm sure many of you remember this great clip from the 2008 presidential race. In response to Hilary Clinton's negative campaign ads, then-Senator Obama brushes off his shoulders, alluding to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder."

[Please, listen as you read.]

To brush the dirt off of one's shoulder is to treat another's negative comment or act of disrespect as unimportant, as not worthy of one's attention, as, well, mere dirt on one's shoulder.

For Jay-Z, if you take yourself to be great, if you're "feelin' like a pimp," you should react this way to most, if not all, negative comments or acts of disrespect.

Jay: "I'm a hustler homey, you're a customer crony/ Got some dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off for me?"

Great people, for Jay, should have no time for small, petty detractors.

Nietzsche agrees.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes:

"No longer raise up your arm against them [the "flies of the marketplace," the haters]. Numberless are they, and it is not your lot to shoo flies. Numberless are the small and miserable creatures; and many a proud building has perished of raindrops and weeds."

While Nietzsche thinks that great people shouldn't hesitate to brush the dirt off their shoulders in reaction to the comments and actions of haters, he surprisingly encourages great people (or those who would dare to be great) to flee from those who offer praise and adoration as well.

Nietzsche takes it that small people are unable to appreciate true greatness and flock to what is flashy, what is of the moment. He writes: "Little do the people comprehend what is great--that is, the creating."

When small people encounter a great person, they demand that she say something profound (now!), that she give them answers, that she give them a new song to sing.

For Nietzsche, paying attention to this type of adoration and attention is just as harmful to the great person as her taking negative comments too seriously.

For Nietzsche, the world revolves ("invisibly"), around the subtle ideas of great persons. For Nietzsche, "It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves' feet guide the world."

To listen to the crowd, to put on a show, is, for Nietzsche, to miss one's call to greatness. To be truly great, for Nietzsche, is to think ideas that will change the world, without concern for the ever-changing tastes of the crowd.

Nietzsche takes it that one should brush off the haters and the worshipers.

Is he correct?

Is our president aiming at greatness by Nietzsche's standards?


  1. Brandon this is an amazing analysis. You're given me tons to think about. And I would argue that according to Nietzsche's standards President Obama is aiming at greatness. But one of the consequences of such greatness is that the ability to maintain a position that is selected by the people is hard to maintain without public approval. For Nietzsche, it seems that this is a consequence that great persons must learn to cope with. A tough pill to swallow.

  2. Hey B,

    Really like this, but I wonder where in Nietzsche you get his view of greatness as thinking ideas that will change the world?

  3. Thanks Shaeeda.
    I would think that Nietzsche would say that one can't both be great and be a public official (and I recall Socrates expressing this sentiment as well).
    Nietzsche encourages solitude. But,perhaps,President Obama is the counterexample.

    I get this view of greatness from Thus Spoke... and The Gay Science.

  4. Very interesting interpretation. It is as in Crito: "Not everyones opinion matters for not everyone has a right opinion, only the wise have a valid opnion for they know about the matter they speak about"~more or less. I do not believe that one can develop and grow to ones full potential when holding a public office though. Ironically the president is the weakest person in the country when viewed in the manner that his true power is derived not from the constitution but from his constituents. I admire the man for having courage as he does but pity him at the same time for having to be constantly swayed by the whims of THE people.

  5. You -- are brilliant 'n' brave.

    Here's my rant, with a lil' bit of Kanye:


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  7. This is what I meant to say: If greatness according to Nietsche involves brushing off both the haters and the worshippers, Obama does not seem to fit. He has done nothing to discourage the cult of his personality. Rather he seems to be lapping it up, and seems at ease only in circumstances where adulation comes his way.