There’s Christmas shopping for the big items – something someone really wants, or if you can’t afford that, or just can’t find that one special thing in time, something they’ll really appreciate, or that they’ll eventually appreciate once they get over their quite graciously concealed disappointment in your total inadequacy as a human being – or, as things work out in the end, something you think they should appreciate, damn it. No wonder tensions run high at Christmas and some folks dread the holiday. It’s the thought that counts – yeah, right. If they only knew what you were thinking as you drive around the parking lot at the mall, hoping for a parking spot to open, the anxiety building and nothing on the radio but those dogs barking out Jingle Bells again.
But then there are the stocking-stuffers, the small items that fill in the corners, so to speak. Shopping for those gifts is kind of fun. You can cut loose and say that’s cool – what the heck. And you buy an odd book, or calendar, or mug, or collection of Disney figures playing strip poker. There’s no pressure.
And who knows what sort of small things you’ll get? Of course sooner or later you’ll get one of those word-a-day calendars. That’s because you seem to like language, as such – new words fascinate you and you’re always using them, because now you can say what you really mean, precisely, or you’re an arrogant asshole who likes to make everyone else in the family feel inadequate. But it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows that it pays to increase your word power – you don’t want to sound like a rube. And books to help you with that were the original self-help books, long before the age of psychobabble about self-realization and creative selfishness.
So what’s the word for the day? The word is ressentiment:
Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.
Okay, it’s French. But many of our best words are – chic, suave, and, when we talk about dinner, that beast out in the field is a cow, an Angle-Saxon word, but when it gets to the table it seems to be beef, a word derived from the French, from Old French boef (ox) and modern French bœuf. It’s okay. Blame the Norman Conquest. Everyone wanted to talk like the winners. And they ate well.
But this word, ressentiment, is one of those words that may be quite useful these days, when you want to say what you mean, precisely. And at True Slant, Julian Sanchez offers this item on “the politics of ressentiment” – and it really is a pretty good analysis of where things stand here in America at the moment. After all, it would be nice to have a good way to explain what happened over the last eight or none months with the explosion of the Tea Bag Movement and the ascendency of Glenn Beck and the ongoing Saga of Sarah. That Palin woman, an obscure poorly-educated woman with little seeming ability to think clearly and keep her facts straight, who lost when she ran for vice president, an office made for obscurity, and then resigned as governor of far-off and not terribly important Alaska, has not faded from the scene. Each day she seems to become more and more important to a certain segment of Americans, and because the news folks have to report that, she is in the public eye hourly. Something is going on here. And maybe it is ressentiment.
At least that is what Julian Sanchez thinks. He’s been reading Matt Continetti’s increasingly baroque attempt “to paint substantive criticism of Sarah Palin’s published arguments as some kind of mob persecution.” And he’s been reading one of those thoughtful, intellectual conservatives, Conor Friedersdorf, who pokes holes in Continetti’s arguments about the mob – most everyone in America – out to get her.
Sanchez agrees with Friedersdorf. There is no mob. But he sees something else:
He’s got a fine case on the specifics, but I think misses the mark when he dubs the modern right’s obsession with its own supposed victimization an instance of the “politics of schadenfreude.” If you’re going to import hoity-toity foreign terms into your political analysis, you may as well play fully to type and pick a French one, which happens to be more accurate in the instance anyway. Schadenfreude is as ubiquitous in politics as in any other competitive game; you can bet Democrats in the ’20s were laughing their asses off over Teapot Dome.
So he prefers ressentiment:
Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag. Sure, there’s an element of “schadenfreude” in the sense of “we like what annoys our enemies.” But the pathology of the current conservative movement is more specific and convoluted. Palin irritates the left, but so would lots of vocal conservatives if they were equally prominent – and some of them are probably even competent to hold office. Palin gets to play sand in the clam precisely because she so obviously isn’t. She doesn’t just irritate liberals in some generic way: she evokes their contempt. Forget “Christian conservative” – she’s a Christ conservative, strung up on the media cross on behalf of all God’s right-wing children.
And he reminds us of the 2004 Republican convention:
After witnessing three days of inchoate, spittle-flecked rage from the people who had the run of all three branches of government, some wag (probably Jon Stewart) puzzled over the “anger of the enfranchised.” And it would be puzzling if the driving force here were a public policy agenda, rather than a set of cultural grievances. Jay Gatsby learned too late that wealth alone wouldn’t confer the status he had truly craved all along. What we saw in ’04 was fury at the realization that ascendancy to political power had not (post-9/11 Lee Greenwood renaissance notwithstanding) brought parallel cultural power. The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy – hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.
One thinks of Richard Nixon. It was about resentment, and not much else:
The pretext for converting this status-grievance into a political one is the line that the real issue is the myopic policy bred by all this condescension and arrogance – but the policy problems often feel distinctly secondary.
And he points to the Republican National Committee’s new ad on healthcare reform – no mention of policy, just taking up the Tea Party slogan “Listen to Me!” And that is about it:
There’s almost nothing on the substantive objections to the bill; it’s fundamentally about people’s sense of powerlessness in a debate that seems driven by wonks. To the extent that Obama enjoyed some initial cross-partisan appeal, I think it owed a lot to his recognition that most people care less about actual policy outcomes than they do about feeling that they’re being heard and respected.
Sanchez goes on to discuss why people buy SUV’s – there have been studies, and most of them come down to people buying them because they symbolize an inversion of the “anti-American” values of critics. Those Harvard policy wonks think they’re bad? Screw them! As Sanchez says – “It betrays an incredible sensitivity, not to excessive taxes or regulations on the vehicles, but to the feeling of being judged.”
And maybe that is what every tea-bag party with all the shouting is about. Who do you think you are? Don’t judge me! You may know things and have all your facts and logic and all that, but… something. Do they want power, or just to express how it’s just not fair, whatever it is?
Sanchez takes them at face value, that they want power, the power to decide things, but sees a problem:
Ultimately, this is a doomed project: Even if conservatives retook power, they wouldn’t be able to provide a political solution to a psychological problem, assuming they’re not willing to go the Pol Pot route. At the same time, it signals a resignation to impotence on the cultural front where the real conflict lies. It effectively says: We cede to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.
You can see how that goes – So, you think we’re racist peckernecks who refuse to calm down and think and work things out and offer ideas? Yeah, well maybe we are. And maybe, just to piss you off, we’re proud of it. And thus we’re your worst nightmare, so deal with it.
And Sanchez says this of Palin – “If the animating force is ressentiment, the leader has to be a loser to really deserve the role. Which is to say, expect the craziness to get worse before it gets better.”
And Conor Friedersdorf comments on all this. After reviewing all the thoughtful, intellectual conservatives (there are some, although his list a bit more inclusive than reality dictates), he gives in:
Unfortunately, the conservative base and the media at large are more interested in rallying behind or lavishing attention on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, all of whom fit Mr. Sanchez’s description. One piece of evidence confirming his diagnosis is the kind of insults the talk radio right and its lackeys in the blogosphere use when they’re trying to discredit political or ideological opponents via insults. Mark Levin, a man intelligent enough that he needn’t have an inferiority complex, for some reason adopts the rhetorical style of the classic insecure bully – juvenile name calling, constant self-aggrandizement, vituperative outbursts. It hardly matters whether he actually feels these things (you wouldn’t think so when you read him in print) or just feigns it because it’s what attracts an audience. Mr. Sanchez’s point is made either way.
And as for an absurd example of an inferiority-complex driven insult he offers this:
When Obama and Vice President Biden made a surprise lunch stop at a burger joint in Virginia this week, the President reportedly asked for a burger with “spicy” or “Dijon mustard.”
Right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham weighed in: “What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?”
Fox News’ Sean Hannity invoked the Grey Poupon commercial. “I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President,” Hannity said.
So when Sanchez writes, “The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy,” Friedersdorf can only agree with him.
But it gets strange:
With regard to status hierarchy, consider the term “the mainstream media” as used on the right – it is telling that hosts on Fox News, whose books make the New York Times bestseller list and whose ratings are higher than anyone on CNN, un-ironically denigrate that network as part of “The MSM,” as if they’re somehow outside of mainstream infotainment. There is also the “Fair and Balanced” slogan. Taken literally – without the baggage journalism produced by Roger Ails and company has given it – those words express values that the average Columbia Journalism Review staffer would champion. Despite the pose, however, what Fox News has done isn’t to improve upon the biased journalism so often denigrated by the conservative base – it has instead self-consciously created its own version of that bias. Imitation, flattery, yada yada yada.
That is one perverse tragedy of the present political moment. The left has its flaws, as all political coalitions do, and the right has offered valid critiques of these blind spots and excesses over the years, but rather than creating an improvement on CNN, or identity politics, or Medicare scare-mongering, or Bush Derangement Syndrome, the present leaders of Conservative Inc. regard these as tactics that worked for the left, and are thus worth emulating.
They’re not serious about policy, or if they ever get back on top, serious about governing. The animating force is ressentiment – hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. Yes, the ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability, or responsibility. So they don’t need ideas, or what follows from ideas, policy, and, should they win power again, they scorn governance. None of that was ever the point. So there’s no point in asking what they’d do instead of what is being proposed. But you know the response. You’ve seen it – You think we’re dumb? We’ll show you dumb, and you’ll be damned sorry.
It’s an odd cycle. They’re not exactly the Party of No. It’s a bit more complicated than that. And it seems the French have a word for it.
But there’s another way to look at this. George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? He misses the days when there was such a thing as public intellectuals. And he was probably the right guy to review the new John Kampfner book, Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty.
What he says of the book:
In this fiercely brilliant essay on the global political landscape at the beginning of the new millennium, John Kampfner – a longtime foreign correspondent, the former editor of the New Statesman, and now the head of Index on Censorship – chronicles what he calls “corrupted democracy”, “authoritarian democracy” or “controlled democracy”.
Many, perhaps most, advanced societies today, Kampfner argues, operate on the basis of a “pact,” an implicit bargain between government and society. In exchange for consumer goods and private freedoms – to travel; to marry whomever, live wherever, and read whatever they wish; to do business without interference from government regulations or labor unions; and to pay few or no taxes – the rich and the middle class have agreed to abdicate politics. The government keeps opposition parties, the mass media, and academic or journalistic muckrakers on a very short leash. Surveillance waxes; civil liberties wane. Transparency, accountability, and citizen initiative are sacrificed to order, security and prosperity.
The argument seems to be that while there may be mutual fear and loathing between the elite policy wonks and those who professionally resent them, no one cares:
The key to this development is the emergence of a cautious, disenchanted middle class. Political theorists in the West have generally assumed that democratic freedoms grow in tandem with a middle class strong enough to hold the state to account and diverse enough to require political competition, which in turn requires freedom of speech. But democracy has been getting a bad name among its purported bearers, taking the rap for political chaos and economic stagnation. In China, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in convincing the country’s middle class that the freedoms demanded by students and dissident intellectuals at Tiananmen Square would have led to a welter of factional conflict, scaring away foreign investment and spiking economic growth. In Russia, democracy is associated with the Wild West atmosphere of the Yeltsin years, when market reforms created a cohort of billionaires as well as mass unemployment and a collapse of social services. India’s middle class, revolted by the corruption and demagoguery of mass politics (though apparently not by the horrifying deprivations of the masses), has largely forsworn political engagement (apart from bribing politicians), hoping for a strongman who will maintain public order through a combination of patronage and Hindu nationalism – bread and circuses.
The West too is undergoing what Kampfner calls a “democratic recession”. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s persistent popularity is due partly to his ownership of much of the country’s mass media and his influence over the rest. But it’s also partly an expression of public disillusionment with politics and a desire to be left alone by the state – above all by the tax collector. Britain under Thatcher and Blair has seen an exponential increase in technological surveillance and a steady decline in Parliamentary and judicial control of the executive branch, especially the police and intelligence agencies. Here the pretext was not growth but security: terrorist threats, first from the IRA and then from al Qaeda. But London’s centrality to international finance and its hospitality to rich foreigners with shady pasts have also helped to erode Britain’s already weak traditions of free speech, journalistic muckraking, and official whistle-blowing. …
As for the United States, the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties and the signal failure of Congress, the media or the judiciary to resist it are already well-known.
So there seems to be an unwritten pact between the middle and upper classes of most countries and their governments – “the freedom to make, keep and spend money is granted in exchange for renouncing the freedom to question authority.”
That complicates matters. There are the well-educated elite policy wonks, and the lefty populists, and economists and scientists and other big thinkers, considering what the government should do, and what it can do, and all the alternatives to everything. And there are those who have decided they feel no one properly respects them and have no clue what the government should do, and what it can do, and are bored with alternatives – they assign blame and have their rallies and love Glenn and Sarah, and now there’s that fancy new French word for all of that.
And then there’s everyone else, which is most everyone, who have tacitly agreed to shut up and to ignore it all, on the condition they can just go and get their Christmas shopping done now. And that’s a pretty good idea. Sometimes it’s best just to walk away.