In recent weeks, the press has treated anti-war protestors as belonging to one of two types: they're either mainstream people angry about the bellicosity of the United States and the cowboy George W. Bush, or they're something akin to the second coming of the Communists. Once again, media oversimplification rules the day. The protestors are latter-day anarcho-syndicalists and they are soccer moms. But they're that and more. Above all, they are resenters.
Resentment as motivation for human thought and action is as old as humanity. But its modern understanding as a social force provides some insight into the marchers that has been missing in the media. It is also in its own way more dangerous than a grand political vision like communism, because it is an attack on the idea of morality itself.
The first modern philosopher to consider resentment as a broad cultural force was Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Genealogy of Morals and The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claimed that ressentiment was the source of Christian morality. Christianity was in fact a "slave morality" that turned the natural order of things upside downthe losers in life were actually the winners, poverty was better than wealth, etc. But Nietzsche's assessment was off the mark. The German philosopher Max Scheler, whose philosophy of phemonenology would be a major influence on the thinking of Pope John Paul II, agreed that resentment could be a social force, but he insisted that Christian love was different from resentmentthat it was pure and transforming. Scheler, however, did believe that powerful resentment could arise societies with strong class divisions; hence the fascination with the tragedies of various royal families.
University of St. Louis historian James Hitchcock in an essay, "Guilt and the Moral Revolution," elaborated upon Scheler's ideasand even turned them on their head. Hitchcock argues that resentment emerged as a social force in the United States not because of our weakness, but because of our success. Resentment is a side effect of material wealth. Bored people who needn't worry about mere survival often indulge in utopian speculation, which invariably leads to disappointment and resentment when their dreams inevitably fail to come true. What's more, America's success in largely breaking down social and class barriers has fired resentment. Scheler thought that resentment would be greatest in societies with sharp class distinctions such as Great Britain, and peter out in societies without such distinctions. But the opposite is actually the case. As Hitchcock observes, "those societies which have gone far in the abolition of social distinctions merely invite more microscopic scrutiny of their structures." As an example, Hitchcock cites the New Left of the 1960s, which attacked liberals more ferociously than conservatives. Resentment is a modern disease caused by the cure.
What lies at the heart of resentment is not political or class difference, but rather, Hitchcock argues, morality. "It is the claim of some, whether implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious, to represent an authoritative truth which inspires the bitterest hostility. It might even be argued that all social and political claims imply moral claims and that is why they are ultimately hated, with political or economic grievances put forth primarily as rationalizations for much deeper resentments."
So one could argue that the protestors (and the Left generally) aren't simply opposed to American foreign policy. They hate the idea of morality. They hate the fact that certain moral codes are tightly logical and immutable, written on the human heart. And no matter how much they fool with the language or try to talk around it, something will always tell them what is right and what is wrong. (Hitchcock cites abortion as an example, noting that pro-lifers should be glad when their arguments are met with vitriol from the other sidebecause the abortionists know what they are doing is wrong. The day pro-abortionists simply shrug off the procedure will sound the death knell of their consciences.)
Morality means, among other things, impersonal standards that can be applied individually, "to all people at all times." The existence of standards means the possibility of falling shortand falling short means giving up on utopian dreams, which is the engine that drives the Left. The resentment of the human condition is fed by America's enormous wealth, which has given the protestors way too much time on their hands to think about how miserable they are, and the modern culture of therapy, which puts a premium on expression. This repeal of reticence makes matters worse because it only serves to remind protestors of the immutability of the moral codes they are denouncing. The more the demonstrators compare Bush to Hitler, the more they realize that it's a ridiculous and vile thing to say. Somewhere deep down they feel guilt, which fuels more anger. They are not as much for socialism as against morality. Resentment is self-perpetuating.
With this in mind, the hysteria of the protestors comes into sharp relief. Their problem is not with the immorality of Saddam Husseinwhich explains the absence of anti-Saddam signsbut the morality of the Bush Administration, or, for that matter, any morality at all. The very freedom that these demonstrators enjoy, coupled with a culture that tells them that reticence is unhealthy, makes their hostility that much greater. Paradoxically, the heat of the rhetoric and resentment rises as America becomes more and more open and toleranthence the oft-repeated, puzzling claim that dissent is being suppressed in America today. In fact, the more moralists back down, the more they would be despised. Says Hitchcock: "Like all revolutions, [resentment] feeds on the weakness of the establishment, not its tyrannies. It is because the guardians of moral authority, especially the clergy but also parents, policemen, judges, and others, are visibly uncertain about their own beliefs, obviously willing to evade the responsibilities given to them, that resentment now appears so boldly."
This interplay of resentment and the therapeutic is seen virtually every time one wades into American culture, and accounts, I think, for the success of conservative radio and television. The Left is really nothing more than a collection of the aggrieved, whose resentment seems to grow with each progressive accomplishment. For Jesse Jackson it will always be Selma, circa1965or worse. Jackson and his ilk are not as much for something as against something. As the Weekly Standard's J. Bottum put it recently, there is an "against-ness" in their very essence.
This is what makes for those surreal moments when one of the resenters is caught in the trap of his philosophy. Is Saddam evil? The response is always a perfunctory nod to Saddam's tyranny and a rush to get to the real problemthe perfidy of George W. Bush. The mainstream press simply won't ask the questions that conservatives willthe kind of moral questions that most Americans outside of New York and Hollywood would ask. The radical nature of the resenters' ideas should not be played down. Hitchcock sums it up nicely:
America in the 1970s produced a generation of materially comfortable, bored, self-obsessed individuals whose only conviction was to be "open" to all experiences. The inevitable effects of such a culture were asserted, over and over again, to be a spirit of peace, self-fulfillment, tolerance, and love. Instead the very possibility of love was destroyed, if love is thought to require unselfish devotion to another. Rather the most common product of the "me decade" (not by any means only among the young) has been the aimless sensualist filled with resentment. The rhetoric of hate has risen to new heights of respectability, as in [the columnist] who expressed his chagrin that the attempt on President Reagan's life did not succeed.
This is a perverse humanitarianism, based not on love of the weak, but hatred of the strong. It claims its own moral superiority while trying to demolish all fixed moral principles. Resentment is now its own dogma, the anti-faith of the most blessed and indulged people in the history of the world.