Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Know Nothings, the Right and the Politics of Ressentiment

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In the Genealogy of Morals, Fredrich Nietzsche identifies ressentiment as a source for value judgement in Christian morality. German philosopher Max Scheler posits: “We believe that Christian values are particularly prone to being reinterpreted into values of ressentiment…” Bourgeois morality grows from such a place.  In Human, All too Human, Nietzche lays out the foundation for this thinking. “The man who has the power to requite goodness with goodness, evil with evil, and really does practice requital by being grateful and vengeful, is called “good.”  The man who is unpowerful and cannot requite is taken for bad… Our present morality had grown up on the ground of the ruling clans and casts…” (p. 47).  The prehistory of Genealogy of Morals takes shape here, pointing to a disposition toward punishment of outsiders; from this vantage point those without power are bad, without connection to community. 

It is hard not to think of the election in relation to this resentment: of others, immigrants, women, people of color, of gay people, etc.  "This noun highlights a "psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon."  Facing a demographic shift transforming the US, the right doubled down, recalibrating its Southern Strategy into a full scale embrace of the platform of the 19th century US Know Nothing Party, calling for restrictions on immigration and the exclusion of foreign born from the franchise.  Take our country back, make America great again, they cried.  Make America white again, they seemed to imply.  And white nationalists came in droves, inspired by Trump.  The KKK endorsed Trump and David Duke embraced his thinking.  The politics of ressentiment clashes with the rainbow coalition that Jessee Jackson campaigned for and Obama helped pull together.  Those in cities, on the coasts revel in the demographic changes, the browning of America, while those of the new right seem to resent it.  Many see this mixing as a source for art, inspiration, creativity and innovation. Others see themselves as losing ground  to. Today, there is open question about whether Obama’s coalition can hold together or advance its gains of resent years.  With Latinos, Gays, women and progressives, one would think so.  But the white nationalists have the secret police on their side. Certainly, expanded Social Security, Medicaid into public option, public education and reproductive autonomy are ideas worth defending and growing.  But it remains to be seen if calls for an expanded New Deal are enough to propel the Obama coalition.  Most certainly this agenda will erode with the calls to privatize services under the new right ascendant.

The sexism of this moment is astonishing.  In community organizing, I showed the film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a film about the history of the women’s movement.  Several students came up to tell me how much more we had to do, how much sexism still resonates.
The persistence of sexism and racism are pernicious. 

“The future of the world is miscegenation,” Stanley Aronowitz claimed in one of our Saturday classes with the Institute for the Radical Imagination, commenting that the US Communist Party always embraced it.
Saturday, I rode my bike to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear old Stanley Aronowitz speak about the election.   Well into his eighties and recovering from various health difficulties, the conversation extended from the usual eclectic brew of ideas pouring fourth from the sage’s mind. “Trump is riding variations of class resentment,” explained Aronowitz.  A vote for Hillary is a gambit that Wall Street is better than the gangster rap of Trump. Yet Trump is riding a widespread anti-capitalist sentiment on ascent in the right, not the left. 
“And enjoying the support of the secret police,” noted another participant from Eastern Europe in our discussion, referring to FBI director Comey.  
Pointing to Germany and Italy in the 1930’s and the US, Aronowitz argued the struggle is on the right.
Building on the Know Nothing Party of the 19th Century, “Trump is able to say I do not know anything. But it does not matter.  I can appoint people.”
“We have to know the history of the right wing radicals in the US, in France, in Britain.  In the US, it now grips one of the major parties,” noted Aronowitz.

Why has the right absorbed the politics of resentment?
 “The left is the party of pleasure and the right, the party of pain,” Aronowitz concluded.
Anti-pleasure ideology has deep roots.

Still talking after all of these years. 

But Hillary may win because of her ground game, Aronowitz concluded.
The best lack conviction, argued another participant, referring to Yeats.  

The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

   Yet, there are other outcomes that may take shape.  While America could turn fascist, we could also learn from this election and come together a bit. We could learn to listen to each other, to hear each other, to respond to each other a little more.  In the last SNL Trump Hillary skit before the election, the two foes grow so weary of their longstanding battle that they embrace, go outside and dance in the streets, holding hands, grasping adversaries, and inspiring reconciliation.   

   ET online describes the scene:

The opening sketch started as a staightforward lambasting of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton -- specifically the amount of attention being paid to Clinton's email scandals -- but quickly turned into something almost magical.
Baldwin, who has been guest-starring as Trump since the start of Season 42, has faced off against McKinnon's Clinton during every opening sketch, but for SNL's last episode before the general election on Tuesday, it was clear they wanted to do something a little different. 
The two appeared in split-screen, as they usually did during the debates, and after mocking Trump's connections to the FBI, Vladimir Putin and the KKK (with some genial lip locking between Trump and the Russian president), Clinton made a clear and concise list of all the things Trump's campaign has ruined for America.
"What is happening? Is the whole world insane? Donald Trump has ruined so much of what we, as Americans, hold dear," Clinton said. "Kindness, decency, Tic Tacs, Skittles, taco bowls, father-daughter dances, buses, bright red hats, the word 'great,' the color orange, [and] men."
In his response, Trump began by calling Clinton "the most corrupt person to ever run," and then slung his usual bevy of insults and accusations before stopping mid-sentence as Baldwin dropped the whole impression to deliver an apology. 
"I'm sorry Kate, I just hate yelling all this stuff at you like this," Baldwin said, breaking character as the cameras cut to a wide shot showing that the two were actually standing just feet apart.
"Yeah, I know, right? This whole election has been so mean," McKinnon said, walking over to join Baldwin.
"I just feel gross all the time," he replied, before turning to the SNL audience. "I mean, don't you guys feel gross all the time about this?" The question was met with a resounding cheer of agreement.
"You know what I think would help us?" McKinnon said, taking Baldwin's hand. "Let's get out of here." 
The show then cut to a pre-taped segment -- set to Arcade Fire's inspiring anthem "Wake Up" -- showing Baldwin and McKinnon, still decked out as their political caricatures, running through Times Square and hugging each other's supporters and making peace between random people on the street.
The two returned to the SNL stage, with their arms around each other, where a visibly emotional Baldwin spoke directly into the camera. "Now it's time to get out there and vote," he implored viewers. "None of this will have mattered if you don't vote."
"And we can't tell you who to vote for but on Tuesday we all get a chance to choose what kind of country we want to live in," a smiling McKinnon added.
Together, in unison, the pair yelled the show's traditional opening line, "And live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

    Could such a reconciliation happen here? Could it happen to our Democracy?  Could life imitate art?  I’m hoping so.  I hope for my kids, for my students, for New York City, for public education, for reproductive autonomy, for health care, for social security, for the climate, for the public option, for my union, for all unions, I hope that it can. I hope hope can overcome ressentiment.

   I'm hoping for the better angels of our nature. There are so many possibilities.

A faded newspaper clip in our office.  Eight years later. 

And a stroll through New York city the weekend before voting.

Hillary will survive.  I hope our democracy will. 

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