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Political Correctness as Ressentiment

Most of the so-called “social issues” in current events are expressed in a hypocritical language that conceals hatred behind supposed pity for the weak. This hatred sometimes reveals itself when journalists and other purveyors of mass culture bandy about the term “bigot” and other epithets to characterize anyone who fails to share their view of things, which is usually a selective egalitarianism. They have painted themselves into a corner, having constructed a naive morality where “love” is good and “hate” is evil, so they cannot admit themselves to having any real hatred toward any group, except with the odd justification that it is acceptable to hate hatred.

The key to understanding this so-called “political correctness” (though it is really more social than political) is Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment (to be discussed at length in a future essay). The French term simply means “resentment,” a word that was not available in German, but Nietzsche gave it a more specific meaning. Ressentiment is the hatred of the weak toward the strong for being strong. This may be disguised by saying, “It is all right to be strong, but do not exercise force,” yet strength is nothing without its exercise. The weak demand that the strong should lay down their weapons and renounce all privileges, yet they hypocritically exert coercive force on would-be elites through the law, the state, etc.

In the present context, ressentiment especially manifests itself in discussions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. Few would have the candor to say, “I hate rich white males,” but the reality of this belief is shown by repeatedly using such a type as an example of evil or bigotry, without fear of repercussion. The same who do not hesitate to complain that an organization “has too many men” or “is too white” would be denounced as “sexist” or “racist” if they complained of “too many women” or “too many blacks.”  Some whites and males have noted this double standard, and denounced it as “reverse discrimination,” while liberals laughingly deride these complaints, claiming it is absurd for them to pose as victims.

Both sides of the dispute miss the point, for they both presuppose the absurd logic of ressentiment, which actually makes being a victim a privileged position. Both sides are competing for the same worthless prize of being able to say, “I am weak, therefore I should have my way.”

We see this in other contexts as well. In discussions of history, it is pretended that the Europeans were evil for conquering the Americas and other parts of the world. Yet when has any of these supposedly victimized peoples failed to conquer when it was in their power to do so? The Native Americans repeatedly warred against each other, and the sub-Saharan Africans enslaved each other, to say nothing of Asian atrocities. They could claim no moral superiority, yet their descendants now do so on no other basis than having been the conquered rather than the conquerors. This is to say that their pretended moral superiority consists solely in their weakness.

I distinguish the pre-modern conquered peoples from their descendants, because the primary sources show no hint of ressentiment among the conquered. The conquered Aztecs gratefully embraced Christianity and integration under Spanish rule, as is attested by the literate among them. They resisted conquest manfully, but once defeated, they accepted their fate. While they still lamented some of the crimes committed by the conquistadores, they did not long for a return to independence. The North American Indians thought it unjust that they should be forced off the lands of their ancestors, but they saw nothing inherently wrong with war and conquest.

The lack of ressentiment among pre-modern people is confirmed by the candor with which they admit the technical, and sometimes even the spiritual, superiority of European civilization. Even those who prefer their old ways candidly acknowledge their differences, without any sense that any one owes them anything.  They were likewise plainspoken about skin color, as the Indians chose the term “red skins” to describe indigenous Americans when speaking in English or French. Their descendants, exposed to white liberal culture, have adopted modern squeamishness about calling attention to racial differences.

The term “bigot” originally meant someone who is sanctimonious, and ironically the term is now used with insufferable sanctimony. “Sexism” and “male chauvinism” were invented by feminists in 1968 to pathologize anyone who disagreed with their doctrines, and the other epithets likewise serve the purpose of excusing liberals from making actual arguments. They all presuppose the “slave morality” that is consequent to ressentiment, which is to make the strong ashamed for being strong, while others are entitled to privileges for the accident of having been born weak. Max Stirner ridiculed such liberal pretenses over a century ago, noting that to claim you deserve free schooling because poor parents begot you is just another birthright.

The way out of this morass is to boldly embrace the charges thrown at the strong, without apology or shame. Point out the hypocrisy of liberalism, which derides the assertion of individualized force or privilege, while embracing the far more formidable coercive power of the state. For all their supposed love of the weak, in the end they only believe might makes right. Thus they will constantly call for new votes on a “progressive” social issue until the vote goes their way, after which we are never to revisit the issue. They will reinterpret the law or even strike down the law if it opposes their favorite principles, after which we are supposed to blindly respect the “rule of law.” All of this, of course, is backed by physical and financial coercion against those who oppose. I do not complain of this, but neither should they complain when a stronger group does likewise to them.

Friends with Domestic Benefits

As the propaganda machine – a union of state and infotainment media – presses forward with its campaign to compel acceptance of the equality of homosexuality with marriage, it may be worthwhile to point out how modern confusion about the nature of marriage has made this campaign possible. In my previous remarks on this issue, I noted that there is no historical or anthropological basis for the recent invention of equating same-sex unions with marriage. This is why all anthropological texts and dictionaries, until very recently, recognized that marriage was essentially a union between a man and a woman. Yet the anthropological purpose of this union has been gradually obscured over the last century and a half.

In every culture ever known, there has been some form of marital union entailing that the progeny of a given woman pertain to the man who marries her. Marriage, in its essence, is intrinsically “sexist” or sex-based, and ordered to at least the potential, if not the actuality, of having children. Since the producing and rearing of children is of interest to society, marriage has always been socially regulated. It is not a purely private act between two individuals. The interests of families, clans, and even nations could be at stake, so these played a prominent role in marital arrangements. In fact, arranged marriage was the dominant norm throughout the world until the nineteenth century.

With liberal democratic emphasis on individual freedom, there came an undermining of patriarchal family authority, and spouses came to be chosen more or less autonomously. With the disintegration of extended family authority into what were later called “nuclear” families, there was little basis for choosing a spouse other than romantic affection. Thus arose the idea that romantic love is the primary motivation for marriage.

Once we accept the idea that marriage is primarily about two people who love each other, marriage begins to lose some of its special character. There is already a term for two people who love each other: friendship. While it may not be obvious in English that friends are lovers, this is explicit in Latin (amicus) and modern Romance languages (ami, amigo, amico).

Still, modern marriage retained a unique character as long as the love between spouses was a special kind, oriented to raising children in a family. Yet the rise of contraception, sterilization, and in vitro fertilization have enabled us to separate procreation from marriage. If this is no longer essential to what we call marriage, all we are left with is friendship by another name.

If it is said that modern marriage is still distinct from friendship by virtue of carnal intimacy, I would respond that such intimacy is no basis for making marriage more exalted than friendship, much less something requiring special state sanction. In fact, the Greeks and Romans regarded friendship as a greater love than that between spouses, since it was based more on admiration of character than love of physical beauty.  Plato and Aristotle thought it shameful debauchery for friends to indulge in such intimacy, since it cheapened a noble love.

Once we fully accept the error that marriage is just “love between two people,” there is no basis for making a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual unions. To any thoughtful liberal, it will seem cruel and arbitrary to deny equal status to both kinds. The sincerity of homosexual love will persuade him that there is a real parity with marriage.

Yet the liberal who reasons thus has lost sight of an important implication: if marriage is nothing more than love, then there is no reason for the state to be involved in sanctioning such a union. The state takes the role of some gossipy busybody, who keeps track of who’s in love with whom. For what reason?

We cannot claim the state regulates marriage in the interest of limiting sexually-transmitted disease, since we freely allow extra-marital liaisons, and impose no penalty for adultery. The ease of divorce makes marriage scarcely distinguishable from more casual romantic attachments.

Perhaps the state still regulates marriage in the interests of child rearing. Yet the liberal state goes to great lengths to facilitate single-parent families, and the propaganda machine is more concerned with validating its a priori conviction in “marriage equality” than with following hard sociological data suggesting that same-sex unions have poorer outcomes for adopted children. Thus the liberal state’s interest in marriage is emphatically oriented not toward the child, but toward the desires of the spouses.

In marriage as in other matters, liberalism succeeds only to the extent that it fails. That is, marriage remains a successful institution only insofar as the liberal conception of marriage has not fully overtaken society. Most couples do care about having children, and most feel duty-bound to remain married, notwithstanding the ease of legal divorce. Most people recognize that it is highly important for children to have both male and female authority figures. We even recognize that fathers and mothers have intrinsically different roles in the family.

If the liberal conception of marriage were to be taken seriously, we should acknowledge that it is arbitrary and senseless to give special sanction to this form of love, while denying similar benefits to good friends or long-term roommates. It is not at all surprising, but eminently logical, that the dynamic of social liberalism should lead to the complete deregulation of the family. The family, being the font of patriarchal authority, communitarianism, and social inequality, represents all that is abhorred by our libertine tendencies. Yet the family is far more formidable than the liberals have reckoned. Even if it is legislated out of existence, it will persist, and will continue to be a dominating social force. This is because its structure is inscribed in human nature, making it a more venerable and lasting institution than that god of clay, the state.

Mushroom Clouds and Moral Mediocrity

Leave it to a comedian to state plainly that Truman’s use of atomic weapons was a war crime, only to backpedal out of political expediency faster than you can say Arlen Specter. This short-lived moment of lucidity has occasioned a lively discussion on the topic, by no means confined to the political left. Although many paleoconservatives in Truman’s day and beyond expressed horror at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conservative opinion today generally favors nationalism over morality, and we are invited to examine the supposed moral complexity of the issue. In today’s political right, only a few social conservatives and libertarians are willing to state the obvious moral truth that mass incineration of civilians is not justified by military expediency.

It would be easy to argue that the callousness of mainstream conservatives toward the rights of foreign prisoners and noncombatants is a major cause of its recent decline in popularity. It would also be wrong. Sadly, most Americans are willing to hedge basic moral principles for the sake of security. To the chagrin of the liberal news media, a majority of Americans polled in favor of the recent NSA phone surveillance program, even well after details of the program were leaked by the press. A strong majority of the public has supported keeping the Guantanamo prison open, and slim majorities have favored the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics. As for pre-emptive wars of choice, public support of the Iraq war from 2003 to 2007 closely matched the perception that the war was going well. It would seem that we support illegal wars in the short term as long as we appear to be winning, though the perceived success of the 2007-08 surge did not restore the war’s popularity.

Unprincipled compromise of moral values can be found even among academics, who are supposedly more thoughtful. Although the vast majority of American historians are politically liberal, their vaunted concern for human rights diminishes when discussing Truman’s use of the atom bomb. Indeed, the man who wiped out two cities and later led the nation into the disastrous Korean War is cited by most historians as an example of an unpopular president who was later vindicated by history. This supposed vindication consists only in the approval of liberal historians, who are evidently as prone to place partisanship over principle as their conservative counterparts. We can only imagine what they would write if a Republican had dropped the bomb.

The general coarsening of morality, even among the educated and among those who claim to preserve traditional social values, is a worrisome development. Some paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan have adduced from this reality that the left has won the culture war, through their domination of academia and the entertainment media that shape public opinion. Those who would defend the classical virtues must find themselves in a constant struggle against societal tendencies, and they must risk ostracism and ridicule for merely holding what has been held by practically all the great moral philosophers in history. The tyranny of the majority of which Tocqueville warned is evinced in the perception that the rectitude of same-sex “marriage” can be determined by persuasion of the majority. The majority, as we know, is notoriously fickle. Fifteen years ago, even liberals shrank from same-sex “marriage”; now, the propaganda machine would like to portray any opponent of such unions as a Neanderthal.

All too often, shifts in opinion on moral matters (and associated historical, sociological and anthropological judgments) hinge upon nothing more than emotion and propaganda. A thing becomes right or wrong simply because the current majority says it is. Such a hermeneutic is utterly unworthy of an adult human being, yet democratic culture makes it seem natural. Few even among the paleocons will go so far as to identify democracy as the root of moral relativism. Most have held some form of the naive view that the majority would freely accept virtue if only it were presented to them clearly. In actual experience, the morality of the masses, when uncoerced, gravitates toward mediocrity. We can see this with the gradual shedding of social constraints and the coarsening of mores over the last forty years. This coarsening is expressed in dress, diction, and bearing, as well as more quantifiable sociological phenomena. On the Internet, the more popular sites invariably attract cruder and more degenerate discourse. While democracy romanticizes the virtue of the masses, reality teaches that we can hardly expect great virtue from a people fed a steady diet of mind-numbing television and Twittering.

The ancient Athenians recognized that democracy, or indeed any form of government, could work only if it was governed by laws, which they called nomoi. The nomoi were not the acts of a legislature, but basic moral precepts that defined the legal principles of society. Even the popular assembly did not presume to have direct authority to change the nomoi, though they sometimes appointed a committee of jurists to recommend additions to the laws. Even this limited power was too much in the eyes of Plato and Aristotle, who emphasized that nomoi, especially those that are unwritten, must bind even the people as a whole. For this reason, they posited the necessity of founding a polity with a lawgiver such as Solon, a man (or men) of eminent ability, whose superior wisdom would establish basic laws that are better standards than most would choose for themselves.

When basic moral principles are considered immutable, or at least not subject to popular sovereignty, the nomoi rule, and people only implement them. They are to be amended only after grave circumspection by the most competent men. The basic morality of society as a whole is shaped in large part by the excellence of the lawgiver. If, on the other hand, people are given full sovereignty even over right and wrong, we will invariably gravitate toward social mores that reflect the moral mediocrity of the majority. Few would work if there was no need, and few would strive for excellence unless they were constrained to do so. We should expect a society just moral enough to keep the economy functioning, and indeed we increasingly expect our statesmen to be little more than business managers.

When a political or religious institution commits some crime, demagogues like to say that the institution has lost its moral authority or credibility. What, then, shall we say about the moral authority of the masses? Most of the great crimes of powerful institutions were committed with popular consent, and even when the people are sovereign, they seem to be unable to discern whether it is moral to exterminate hundreds of thousands of unarmed people, or to invade a nation without provocation. Given this dismal track record, I should not like to entrust any of our civilization’s most revered values to the whims of popular sovereignty. To quote Horace, Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt? Modern political society seeks in vain its salvation through statutes and policies, as long it pursues moral mediocrity. The notion that the people are sovereign even over morals has led to the enshrinement of our baser instincts as rights. Those on the political left wallow in the sins of eros while those on the right commit those of thanatos. If society exists for something more than the fulfillment of animal impulse, it ought to strive for something better than the natural human condition.

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