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Ressentiment As Religion

Here’s the definition of the word ressentiment — the French version of the word “resentment,” but one that has a particular meaning in philosophical and political discourse:

In philosophy and psychology it is a concept that was of particular interest to the existentialist philosophers. According to the existentialists, ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward an object which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority complex and perhaps even 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. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one’s own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

I’ve been thinking about this concept this morning, after reading some of the comments on my post yesterday on “Moralistic Therapeutic Med School.”In that post, I wrote about the move in medical schools to take down and relocate photographs of distinguished alumni, including Nobel Prize winners, and past leaders of the schools, because those people are overwhelmingly white males. I said this is a racist, sexist attempt to rewrite history to bring it more in line with contemporary left-wing political ideology, which is based on soothing emotional distress in women and people of color. The idea is that being reminded of white male achievement does violence to non-whites and non-males.

Dr. Jeffrey Flier, a past dean of Harvard Medical School, protested very mildly against this kind of thing on his Twitter account. How mildly? Dr. Flier featured a photo of a hospital auditorium that used to have photos of past medical luminaries — white men — that have now been taken down. His comment on it was simply: “Connecting to a glorious past. Now all gone. Hope everyone is happy. I’m not.”

I encourage you to click on that link and read the responses to his post from doctors and others in the medical field. It’s like looking into an abyss of ressentiment. It’s deeply unsettling to see the extent to which this malign ideology has conquered the field. As near as I can tell, it’s based on these principles:

  1. Historical achievements by white males are tainted because they occurred in a social context in which women and persons of color were not offered the same opportunities to excel.
  2. Righting this historical wrong requires diminishing white male achievers, because in some sense, their achievement came at the expense of women and persons of color.
  3. Evidence of white male achievement — such as photographs honoring those whose deeds embody excellence — must be removed from public prominence, because it might hurt the feelings of women and persons of color.

In the comments under my blog post, some readers defended the new ideological moves by saying — I’m summarizing — that those achievements cannot be understood apart from the injustice of the society that produced the white men who accomplished them. Someone suggested that a plaque should be installed pointing out that such-and-such achievement occurred during a time in which women and people of color were not allowed to study at that institution, or in some other bigoted way were not given the chance to succeed.

It can’t be denied, nor should it be denied, that these obstacles to female and ethnic minority achievement existed. Removing them has been a moral achievement — a moral achievement, let’s acknowledge, of liberal democratic thought. We should celebrate this!

But that is not enough for our progressives today. Driven by ressentiment, they seek to impose their own egalitarian ideology on history by tainting the achievements of those not like them. Never mind the fact that no society has been completely egalitarian, and that we will never know about the white men of scientific genius who spent their lives pushing a plow because rigid class inequalities, or other obstacles, prevented them from rising as far as their talents would take them. Once you go down that historical hole, you will never come out. You’ll end by affixing a warning label to Newton’s Principia Mathematica, cautioning that it was produced in an era that denied educational opportunities to women, Jews, and so forth.

Actually you won’t end there. There is no end to this neurotic exercise. But note well: it is very close to the two German Nobel Prize winning scientists who denounced Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science.”It is not far at all from Stalin and Lysenkoism, which denied the universality of science for political ends. Frankly, it is incredible that we are not yet two decades away from the 20th century, and one of its nastiest evils is reasserting itself in a new guise.

This quasi-Marxist view of history is a miserable way to live. I struggle to understand the mindset of the person who looks at, say, the Empire State Building, and only thinks, or thinks at all, of it as a monument to white male privilege, because of all the female and ethnic minority architects who weren’t offered the opportunity to study architecture in the early 20th century, and to participate in its construction. What sort of person visits a museum and leaves agitating for the removal or diminishment of the presence of Italian Renaissance masterpieces because women were not permitted or encouraged to take up painting in 15th-century Italy?

What sort of person interprets the world as a rebuke to themselves and people like them? Earlier this month, I heard a story on NPR (naturally) about Mexican brothers who had excelled playing classical music, and who decided to make an album of roots-influenced music. That’s an interesting idea! But look:

On his end, Alberto says that he had previously felt conflicted devoting his time to music by mostly white, male classical composers. “I didn’t see myself represented,” he says.

Oh for pity’s sake. Classical music, in the common sense of the term, was a European phenomenon of the 15th through the 19th centuries. Does this guy think that a white male boilermaker in Pittsburgh listens to Mozart and sees himself “represented,” because hey, that pale penis person Austrian who died in 1791 is just like him? It’s absurd.

But this is how progressive people think. They judge others not on the content of their character, or the quality of their achievements, but on the color of their skin and the character of their genitalia. This is progress, don’t you know.

I am not especially enamored of classical music, but when I listen to it, I don’t undertake to see a reflection of myself in it. I want to encounter something beautiful, something that tells me something truthful about the world and everything in it. In the best music, and art, I do hear (see) myself reflected in it, insofar as I encounter something human there.

I wrote a book about how going on a literary journey guided by a 14th-century Tuscan — Dante Alighieri — pulled me out of a dark hole of depression, and gave me a new perspective on life. I traveled to Ravenna, Italy, to the grave of Dante, and prostrated myself on the ground in thanksgiving to him for the gift of his Commedia, which saved my life. What an extraordinary thing, for a man who lived seven centuries earlier, on the other side of the ocean, to reach into the life of a broken middle-aged American and give words of comfort and liberation! It turned out that by looking hard enough, I did in fact see myself in this work. I saw the man I was, and the man I could become.

I gave a speech about this once, in Kansas, and a young woman who appeared to be a graduate student, stood during the Q&A and asked why I thought anybody today should study Dante, given that he came out of a culture that was racist and sexist. Honestly, I thought it was a joke. What kind of nitwit would ask such a question? But it was no joke. That was all Dante was to this young woman: a representative of a sexist, racist culture. She had nothing to learn from him, in her mind, because he was tainted by the sins of his time and place.

It must be exhausting and dispiriting to go through life searching for bigotry and bias at every turn. How can you enjoy anything, or learn from anything? Must every classical music concert be preceded by a formal statement acknowledging that the music was composed by white males, in a culture that privileged them? How would these progressives feel if a white supremacist society preceded classical music concerts with statements saying that this music was composed by white males, and let us all take pride in that fact?

Are the sons and daughters of Pittsburgh boilermakers to be discouraged from studying Chinese and Japanese brush painting because they don’t see themselves in it? Are Swedish children with musical talent to be put off of studying jazz because jazz was invented by black Americans, and the greatest jazz musicians are almost all black Americans? Yes, according to progressive ideology, these white kids probably are to be discouraged from doing that, because learning to play a musical form created by and dominated by black Americans is “cultural appropriation.”

Again: what a miserable, miserly way to go through life. And what a guarantee of generating more ressentiment.The New York Times‘s 1619 Project is not simply a deep dive into the history of chattel slavery in America, and its lasting effects. As one of the paper’s editors put it in a tweet:

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If you don’t think that this is laying the groundwork for delegitimizing the Founders and their achievements, you’re naive. And if you don’t think that’s going to have major political consequences for us today, by stoking white ressentiment, you’re dangerously naive.

As regular readers know, I’ve been immersed this summer in reading about the communist era in the Soviet Union and the European nations it took captive after World War II. It’s ressentiment all the way down. Here, in our decadent liberal democracy, left wing radicals are instituting their own version of this very thing. They are trying to create utopia in part by controlling historical memory. This is how it is always done. They are trying to make it impossible to remember history, and historical achievement, according to any other narrative but their own, suffused as it is by egalitarianism and bigotry.

In the current issue of National Affairs, Georgetown University political theorist Joshua Mitchell writes about why conservatives struggle with identity politics. Excerpts:

Just as Adam and all his progeny carry the stain of original sin, the transgressor is permanently marked. He himself may have done nothing to contribute to transgressions that predated him by decades or even centuries. But it makes no difference. He stands for the sum of the transgressions linked to his identity. Pressing Christian imagery further while at the same time distorting it considerably, the transgressor, like Christ, also stands in for those who are purportedly innocent and covers over their stains, so no judgment against their identity may be rendered.

This second understanding of identity is more often what we mean today when we speak about identity politics. Identity politics has no single progenitor or champion; it is less a single theory than a large genus within which nearly all modern theories of victimhood are species, because all of them invoke the relationship between transgression and innocence. Identity politics began penetrating our vernacular in the 1990s, but since that time, and at an ever-escalating pace, more and more groups have self-consciously claimed that they, too, have an identity — with a view to revealing to an unseeing, scapegoating society the transgressions that they, the innocent, have endured.

In this quasi-religious arena, innocent victims alone are hallowed; they alone receive what could be called “debt point” recognition. The rest — however much their legal, economic, or social status might indicate otherwise — have no legitimate voice. Indeed, their penance as transgressors is to listen to the innocents, and their lay responsibility in the liturgy of identity politics is to assent to the right of the innocents to tear down the civilizational temple their transgressors have built over the centuries — paid for, as it has been, not simply with money, but with the unearned suffering of the innocent scapegoats.

Whatever the innocents want to accomplish in politics is legitimate because the basis of political legitimacy is innocence. The past belongs to the transgressors, who today are an archaic holdover and an embarrassment. The future — politically, economically, and socially — belongs to the innocents. Little wonder that the prime transgressors — white heterosexual men who, in the world identity politics constructs, can have nothing important to say — eventually wonder if they too have been victims, and begin cataloging their wounds.

The logic of this still-novel political and moral framework is not obvious on its face. But it is essential that we come to know it, because it is already transforming the character of American politics. For the rising generation in particular, it offers something like a new default conceptual vocabulary for American life. Conservatives in particular have struggled to answer it because they have failed to understand it.

This is true. This is profoundly true. Mitchell goes on to say that conservatives — both the libertarian, market-oriented ones, and conservative traditionalists — respond to the identity politics challenge as if they were responding to standard Marxism and progressivism. This is a serious mistake, says Mitchell. More:

Identity politics, too, overturns the existing state of things, but it poses a much more aggressive and complicated challenge to tradition. Tradition is not an inheritance through which civilization is sustained; it is the tainted resume of transgressions perpetrated. Slavery in America, European colonialism in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia — these are the real meaning of the celebrated historical inheritance of the West. The hallowed past that traditionalists celebrate was purchased with the blood of the innocents. That is all we need to know to pass judgment. Progressivism thought tradition was an obstruction to the future. So too did Marxism, though on different grounds. Neither thought of tradition as identity politics does — as a stain that delegitimizes inheritance altogether. Tradition, in this sense, does not so much obstruct the future as deform the present, and so it must be rejected.

How have conservatives responded to the indictment of the Western inheritance in toto that identity politics pronounces? Among themselves, they offer confident, full-throated endorsements of the inheritance of the West and the American founders. But when their political opponents publicly charge that the blood of the innocents has indelibly stained the Western tradition, conservatives grow silent, fearful that they will be scapegoated and crucified for what they believe or say. The nails that hammer them to the cross of humiliation are words like “racist,” “homophobe,” “Islamophobe,” “fascist,” “Nazi,” “hater,” and “denier.”

Mitchell has just described the Republican Party.

Here, he makes his overall point very sharply:

The indictment that identity politics levels at the Western inheritance is comprehensive. The stains of slavery and colonialism are the “original sins” that taint the entire inheritance of the West, no less than Adam’s sin taints all of his heirs, irrespective of what his heirs might achieve. The accomplishments in science, philosophy, art, theology, politics, and economics that are the inheritance of the West subtract nothing from the debt that transgressors never can repay.

The comprehensive project that remains, now that the long history of transgression is nearing an end, involves recovering the silenced traditions of the innocents. The project began when multiculturalism equalized all traditions, and soon will end as identity politics scapegoats and delegitimizes the tradition of the transgressors. Conservatives have not dared to challenge this repudiation of the Western tradition directly because they have not yet grasped the breathtaking aspiration of identity politics, which is to cleanly distinguish between the transgressors and the innocents, silence the former, and listen to the “voices” of the latter.

Read the whole thing. Mitchell doesn’t provide an answer to identity politics, but he does say that if conservatives are to come up with an answer, they are going to have to stop thinking that they are arguing with Marxists or progressives, and understand that instead, they are confronting a militant new religion — one that looks a lot like Christianity without mercy. Mitchell says Jesus Christ’s Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is a good place to start coming up with a response:

The parable tells us that the world is always mixed; good and evil interpenetrate. The transgressors (the tares) and the innocents (the wheat) are never completely separable. That separation will happen at the harvest, the time of which no one can anticipate. Man (the servant) does not wish to live in this mixed world, and conceives of a plan to distinguish and separate the wheat from the tares. Identity politics is that plan.

But in this parable is also the beginning of an answer to the logic of identity politics. The parable tells us that man cannot purify the world. Because the world is broken, tradition, too, is mixed, no matter whose tradition we consider. Repudiating one tradition in favor of another — say, by rewriting the history books so they depict the “marginalized” innocents as pure and without stain — will not redeem a broken world.

The kind of people who remove photographs of a medical institutions past greats because those greats are white men are making a fundamentally religious decision. They are purifying the temple. The problem is, the temple of the world can never be fully purified. It will not stop with the photographs removed. The cycle of purgation and purification will continue, until they have built Utopia — which, of course, is an impossible goal.

The pseudo-religious madness will not be stopped until those who recognize it for what it is put a stop to it. They will destroy every institution, until they are stopped. As Mitchell has clearly understood, the end game is not finding a more just way to live together amid our common human brokenness; it is about identifying and purging the body politic of the transgressors.

And if the only ones who are prepared to fight them from the Right are white supremacists, we will destroy ourselves. The cowed silence of the decent Right on these matters passively empowers the indecent, racist Right. Similarly, the cowed silence of the old-fashioned liberal Left — those who know that the abandonment of liberalism and the embrace of identity-politics leftism is wrong — only makes things worse.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

“..if the only ones prepared to fight them from the right are white supremacists, we will destroy ourselves.”

Who is this “we?” I’m not being snarky, please don’t misunderstand. I am a millennial whose educational and professional milieu is very much WEIRD, so I’m not just giving you the view from coal country when I state the following: the civic nationalist ‘we’ has a weakening purchase on increasing numbers of my generation, and the civic nationalism of the ‘I have a Dream’ variety is practically a punch-line. I say that not as a full-throated endorsement, but merely as a sociological observation of a fairly large slice of Evil Pale Cis American Males born after about 1990. The notion of any meaningful “we” still existing in this country is fast joining paeans to Hayek and quotes from Reagan as pitiful, ash-heap-of-history Boomer memeing. It moves no one under 40, except the sort of under-40 who wears bow ties and isn’t embarrassed to be seen reading ‘Atlas Shrugged.’

The commenter ‘Seoulite’ said it well earlier this week, I believe: he said more or less, all history is identity politics, it is the last 40-50 years in Western Europe, Canada, and the US that has been the glaring historical exception in the wide span of human history. Japan practices “identity politics,” as does the Republic of Korea, to the extent that they rather like Japan and Korea, and want to make sure it is ruled by Japanese and Koreans one hundred years from now. Does this mean “they have destroyed themselves?” Uhhh, actually no, it means precisely the opposite: they’ve preserved themselves. (I laugh every time some American or European commentator writes a dispatch from Tokyo commenting on the number of older virgins, the graying population, etc, and writes all the ‘Death of Japan’ cliches…In two hundred years, Japan will still exist in some shape or form that is recognizably Japanese. That will not be the case with whatever hideous amalgam of McMansion and favela emerges from the chrysalis of 21st century America…)

I love reading this blog, as a relatively new arrival, and I really appreciate your good will for the future, Mr Dreher. I really do! And I hope much of my generational cohort’s pessimism for the future of this country is wrong. But my head tells me that a Tonkawa or a Kiowa brave, in the Texas Hill Country of about 1850, would have more to tell us about the shape of the future of this country. (It’s funny, but Indians and the frontier seem to have receded from much of contemporary discourse, for all the talk of white America’s ‘original sins.’ I suspect it has something to do with a line from the late Russel Means, towards the end of his interesting life, that “Indian policy’ will be brought down upon the American people, and the American people will be the Indians of the 21st century.”

I’ll never forget a biker patch I saw west of Del Rio a few years back: “Ask a Native American about border control–if you can find one.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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