The anti-war, anti-Bush protest march coming to Washington February 4 has nothing to do with politics.
Oh sure, from the outside it might seem like a political event. There will be all the earmarks of classic American protests: placards, speeches, calls for impeachment, Woodstock folks estranged from basic toiletries. Yet it is not about politics. What we are seeing is a massive expression of public therapy. These folks need to picket the way Woody Allen needs to see his shrink. They are suffering from resentment, a complex phenomenon that I will explore shortly.
For now, it helps to explain why the protest is not political. Politics entails reason and arguments about things outside ourselves: the safety of all of our people, how best to educate them, what is acceptable expression in the public square — it is, as Aristotle said, the way of “deciding how to order our lives together.” For many protestors, the public good is of very little consequence, otherwise they would not suck resources from the police department and clog up city streets during a time of war. And reason is certainly not high on their list of virtues. These are people who call terrorists freedom fighters and claim George Bush is worse than Hitler.
So what drives them? The great St. Louis University historian James Hitchcock summed it up nicely in an essay, “The Root of American Violence.” “What has happened,” Hitchcock wrote, “has been the abandonment of politics, or its annihilation, in favor of public and organized forms of therapy. Emphasis is less and less on the general material needs of the citizens, with which the state has some possibility of coping, and more and more on the formerly private, personal, and subjective aspect of lives, which the state is expected, somehow, to respond to in symbolically comforting ways. What the New Left primarily accomplished was to establish a particular style of public discourse which enables emotionally frustrated people to express themselves in cathartic ways.”
Some have said that the narrow, irrational emotionalism of the protestors resembles religious fanaticism. This is evident in the work of Roger Scruton, the British philosopher who wrote a marvelous book, The West and the Rest, about terrorism. Like Hitchcock, Scruton makes the point that the anti-American protests are not politics at all — that they are in fact hostile to politics. Western civilization is composed of communities held together by a political process, he observes. Ironically, it is the existence of this political process that enables us to live without politics:
Having consigned the business of government to defined offices, occupied successively by people who are the servants and not the masters of those who elected them, we can devote ourselves to what really matters — to the private interests, personal loves, and social customs in which we find satisfaction. Politics, in other words, makes is possible to separate society from the state, so removing politics from our private livesâ€¦Where there is no political process, everything that happens is of interest to those in power, since it poses a potential threat to them. In Saddam’s Iraq, as in Soviet Russia, social life is carried on furtively, under the vigilant eyes of a secret police force that can never be certain that it has discovered the real conspiracy that may one day destroy it.
Scruton writes that this anti-political tyranny is what drives many of the protestors and the left. Feminism and Marxism and other similar movements “have the ambitions of a monotheistic faith, offering a feminist [or Marxist] answer to every moral and social question, a feminist [or Marxist] account of the human world, a theory of the universe….It drives the heretics and half-believers from its ranks with a zeal that is the other side of the inclusive warmth with which it welcomes the submissive and the orthodox.”
I’m not so sure about that last part. I don’t think the protestors have a coherent world view that answers all questions; rather, I think they are suffering from debilitating, free-floating resentment that paralyzes them and makes realization of their ideas — or indeed having any ideas — impossible. The best examination of the problem of resentment came in the 1914 book Ressentiment (the French spelling is in the original) by Max Scheler. Scheler, a forgotten genius, was a philosopher whose work influenced the future John Paul II. According to Scheler, resentment is “an incurable, persistent feeling of hating and despising” that happens in certain people due to certain “psychic, mental, social, or physical impotencies, disadvantages, weakness or deficiencies of various kinds.” It’s less about social problems than mental illness.
James Hitchcock, interpreting Scheler, broke it down further: Resentment, he wrote, is about moral values themselves. It was the role of certain people, whether through mental problems or some other disadvantage, to hate the idea of morality itself. This is why resentment is incurable, and different from hatred or jealousy. If you’re jealous of your neighbors sports car, you get over it when you buy your own. If you resent him because he’s a Christian — well, there’s really nowhere to go with that, other than to this year’s protest march. It’s also why resenters can’t forge a coherent philosophy. If your problem is with the natural law and morality itself, you’re not going to be happy in this life. Yes, yes, we all know Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, et al., hate Bush, the war, etc. But what are they for? The world may never know.
This lack of vision distinguishes resenters from terrorists; indeed, it is the Left that likes to talk about the resentment of terrorists — because of the evil USA, they are forced to murder innocent people, and so on. In fact, terrorists have an absolutely clear plan. The want to conquer the world and set up sharia law. They don’t hate morality, they just have a demonic understanding of it. They are evil. Yet if they ever attained their (impossible) goals, they would no longer feel hatred. One gets the sense that unlike them, Maureen Dowd just cannot be made happy. This is why the remarks about her problem not being political but a resentment at her failure to attract a man — remarks I for a long time considered out of bounds — may have some validity. If this attractive woman has not been able to get and keep a mate, perhaps the fault lies not in the stars or the Republicans.
In the 1998 reissue of Ressentiment, professor Manfred Frings examined the difference between smoldering resenters (like Dowd) and the merely outraged — or those he calls “prosaic Resenters.” His example is remarkably prescient:
The constant state of ressentiment is distinguished sharply from furious reactions or outbursts of anger. Whenever a prosaic resentment-feeling finds satisfaction by way of, say, successful revenge and retaliation, there is no resentment proper at hand. It is therefore not the case that there is ressentiment in those who act out various types of terrorism….Types of terrorism, such as murdering people because of hate, of holding hostages, of placing explosives under parked cars…happen as a rule because criminals want to find an inner fulfillment….[W]hile persons committing acts of violence may entertain a prosaic resentment, one must, reading Scheler’s text, come to the conclusion that throughout terrorism resentment is found among those who do not place bombs to kill, but among those who stay behind such acts. Thus, ressentiment-subjects are often to be found among sympathizers of violence rather than among the criminals themselves doing the violence.
Those sympathizers will be out in force in D.C. on February 4th.