The Vanities of Self-Hatred

Self-hatred is a form of self-absorption, which is rarely a source of moral clarity. In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, the French writer Pascal Bruckner said:

Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West, that passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. By issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. The suspicion that hovers over our most brilliant successes always threatens to degenerate into facile defeatism. The critical spirit rises up against itself and consumes its form. But instead of coming out of this process greater and purified, it devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself. Hyper-criticism eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins. A new dogma of demolition is born out of the rejection of dogmas.

Thus we Euro-Americans are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity. How can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil can come only from us; other people are motivated by sympathy, good will, candor. This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. Since Freud we know that masochism is only a reversed sadism, a passion for domination turned against oneself. Europe is still messianic in a minor key, campaigning for its own weakness, exporting humility and wisdom. Its obvious scorn for itself does not conceal a very great infatuation. Barbarity is Europe’s great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility).

For Bruckner, there is a crucial distinction between repentance and remorse. He said, “the former recognizes the sin the better to separate itself from it and to enjoy the grace of convalescence, while the latter remains in sin out of a sick need to suffer its burning. Remorse does not repent of its sin; it feeds on it, wants to remain attached to it forever.” The latter is often mistaken for moral courage, but in reality, it is an expression of condescension. When we refuse to hold a group of people fully accountable for their actions, we are treating them as less than equal.


The most pervasive hatred in American politics – of which I am trying to wean myself – is also the least chastised. It is the obsessive hostility to professional politicians and the transactions of everyday politics. Jonathan Rauch dubbed it “politiphobia.” In his essay “How American Politics Went Insane,” which is a sort of addendum to his recent book Political Realism, Rauch said:

Using polls and focus groups, [political scientists John R.] Hibbing and [Elizabeth] Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even _exists_. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

If politicians won’t do the job, then who will? Politiphobes, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, believe policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by _ENSIDS_: empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers. These are leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions. _ENSIDS_ can be politicians, technocrats, or autocrats – whatever works. Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.

Chances are that politiphobes have been out there since long before Hibbing and Theiss-Morse identified them in 2002. Unlike the Tea Party or the Working Families Party, they aren’t particularly ideological: They have popped up left, right, and center. Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies of 1992 and 1996 appealed to the idea that any sensible businessman could knock heads together and fix Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama pandered to a center-left version of the same fantasy, promising to magically transcend partisan politics and implement the best solutions from both parties.

From this point of view, there are “obvious, commonsense solutions,” which “special” interests have undermined. Most political conflict does not come from the clash of rivalrous goods or honest discord between legitimate interests. It comes from selfish indulgence – when it’s not the result of some conspiracy. A wholesome unity lies just beyond our reach, if only we had the right leadership.

The promise is as alluring as it is false. This unease and unhappiness with conventional politics is, I expect, genuine, but it cannot be eradicated. It is an example of what Karl Popper called “the strain of civilization,” which must be borne by those who live in – and reap all the advantages of – an open society.

J. D. Vance on Culture

J. D. Vance believes in human agency. As someone who climbed out of poverty, Vance finds the commonplace denial of agency “incredibly insulting.” In wide-ranging interview with Rod Dreher on contemporary politics and his new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, Vance said:

Obviously, the idea that there aren’t structural barriers facing both the white and black poor is ridiculous. Mamaw recognized that our lives were harder than rich white people, but she always tempered her recognition of the barriers with a hard-noses willfulness: “never be like those a–holes who think the deck is stacked against them.” In hindsight, she was this incredibly perceptive woman. She recognized the message my environment had for me, and she actively fought against it.

There’s good research on this stuff. Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers. The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease. If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so why judge an addict for drug use.” This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans. On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction — in that way, it does mimic a disease. On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it. It’s this awful catch-22, where recognizing the true nature of the problem actually hinders the ability to overcome.

Interestingly, both in my conversations with poor blacks and whites, there’s a recognition of the role of better choices in addressing these problems. The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. Since _Hillbilly Elegy_ came out, I’ve gotten so many messages along the lines of: “Thank you for being sympathetic but also honest.”

I think that’s the only way to have this conversation and to make the necessary changes: sympathy and honesty. It’s not easy, especially in our politically polarized world, to recognize both the structural and the cultural barriers that so many poor kids face. But I think that if you don’t recognize both, you risk being heartless or condescending, and often both.

Too many liberals balk at such talk of culture and dismiss it as blaming the victim. But for Vance, culture is something too palpable to ignore:

[D]omestic strife and family violence are cultural traits — they’re just there, and everyone experiences them in one form or another. I learned domestic strife from the moment I was born, from more than 15 stepdads and boyfriends I encountered, to the domestic violence case that nearly tore my family apart (I was the primary victim). So predictably, by the time I got married, I wasn’t a great spouse. I had to learn, with the help of my aunt and sister (both of whom had successful marriages), but especially with the help of my wife, how not to turn every small disagreement into a shouting match or a public scene. Too many conservatives look at that situation, say “well that’s a cultural problem, nothing we can do,” and then move on. They’re right that it’s a cultural problem: I learned domestic strife from my mother, and she learned it from her parents.

Vance recognized that too many his fellow conservatives invoke “culture” and move on, which he called a “total copout.” He was equally exasperated with the “weird refusal” of too many liberals “to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”

Liberals have to get more comfortable with dealing with the poor as they actually are. I admire their refusal to look down on the least among us, but at some level, that can become an excuse to never really look at the problem at all.

The entire interview is worth your time.

I like to keep autobiography to a minimum, and I am not going to change now. I grew up middle class, but some of the people who were closest to me were poor and white. The one person who was closer to me than anyone else did not escape. He self-destructed, and he damaged — and even ended — the lives of others. When Vance’s describes cultural entropy, I see him.

Beyond Hate

There is something inadequate about describing last weekend’s massacre as “hate.” The word is too amorphous, like a semantic fog. It obscures the conscious and sustained movement behind such atrocities.

However conflicted Omar Mateen may have been about his identity, he chose to become a jihadist. Mateen joined the ranks of theocrats the world over who execute those they deem sexually deviant. And if Mateen were himself gay, it would hardly be unprecendeted. Some Muslim men, as jihadist expert Will McCants said, “who feel ashamed of their ‘sinful’ behavior commit violence on behalf of ISIS to redeem themselves.” Rather than being mutually exclusive, internalized stigma and Islamist fanaticism are more likely to reinforce each other.

We should make it harder for violent fanatics to arm themselves, and I support David Frum’s reform aggenda. We should not, however, reduce the issue to “hate plus guns.” Doing so would be obtuse, for reasons explained well by James Kirchick:

Denouncing hatred, guns and evangelical Christians is easier, not to mention more intellectually comforting, than confronting the dangers of a new-old form of religious obscurantism adhered to by untold millions of people who belong to groups that we – not they – have positioned as benign objects of our well-meaning attempts at equalitarian uplift. For products of a free society, which greatly values sensitivity to others, and wishes to continue enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while forthrightly condemning the sins of racism, sexism and homophobia, its unsettling to imagine that other people don’t want the same things we do. In fact, they want to kill us, for reasons that we simply cannot undo, if we want to remain who we are – especially if we are gay, female or Jewish, or atheists, or like to read the wrong books, or look at cartoons.

That’s the truth. Yet for the self-anointed community of the good, anything is easier than dealing with the reality of a fascistic political movement that cloaks itself in religious language and religious hatreds, enjoys meaningful support in Muslim communities and even among Muslim religious leaders, and which routinely uses brutal violence to erase the basic human rights and often the lives of everyone who fails to adhere to their medieval theocratic dictates. Desperate to transform violent oppressors into the Christ-like oppressed, the regressive left averts its gaze, and, more often than not, boldly blames the victims.

Clearly, progressive leaders are not speaking candidly about the darker varieties of Islam. The conservative Ramesh Ponnuru suspects there is “a hidden argument behind this delicacy about terminology,” and I suspect he is right. Ponnuru said:

What motivates it, if I’m right, is not just a concern that using the wrong terms will grant legitimacy to terrorists and convince non-violent Muslims we’re against them. There’s also a concern that the wrong terms will convince non-Muslim Americans to think we’re at war with Muslims, too, and thus encourage bigotry. But this seems like a self-defeating tactic. If our choices are to view all Muslims as our enemies or to insist that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” as Clinton has said, some people are going to choose door number one.

However noble the lie may have once been, it is still a lie. It is also something fewer and fewer of those on the receiving end are buying. Most Americans recognize this fascistic movement has something to do with Islam. They may not know much about Sayyid Qutb, and they may not know much about Muslism resistance to Islamism. But they do know the claim this has “nothing to do with Islam” is false. And they probably care less about any admirable motives behind the claim than being talked down to like incorrigible bigots.

The insult is only made worse by progressive double standards. If ideology mattered in Charleston, South Carolina at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then it mattered in Orlando, Florida at Pulse. Otherwise, it gives the impression that the political motives behind a terrorist attack only matter to progressives when it’s rhetorically convenient.

Direct Action Draws Blood

Not all “social justice” activists are committed to liberal democracy. Some chafe at what it requires, which is a way of living and arguing together without resorting to violence against political opponents. By assaulting their peaceful opponents, activists in San Jose, California made clear that they accept no such constraints.

Coercive “direct action” can work, when the goal is inflicting pain and spreading fear. As a writer at Salon said back in 2014:

Intimidation tactics targeting the employees of major corporations are nothing new and have a history of success: Indeed, animal rights activists achieved some major victories in securing the closure of animal testing facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s through the intimidation of key investors. This intimidation was deemed terrorism, but, hey, it worked.

The author was referring to campaigns like the one against Huntingdon Life Sciences. That campaign included both “home demonstrations” and several bombings.

For years, a faction of the left told us they were embracing tactics of lawless coercion. They rejected norms against political violence as too restrictive and reduced nonviolence to a matter of personal preference. Simply put, they asserted the authority to use whatever means they deem necessary against anyone they deem complicit in oppression. But challenges to this radical privilege by the center left have been too few and too faint.

Liberal acquiescence comes at a price. A free society has two kinds of restraints on political violence, hard and soft. Hard restraints are the criminal penalties for specific threats and harms. Soft restraints are things like social censure, which must be enforced by civil society. The more the latter are worn down by fanatics, the more we must rely on force to maintain order.

Liberals already accept an obligation to enforce norms against activist violence – when the threat comes from the far right. We do not rationalize the bombing of abortion clinics as some kind of rough justice. We do not grant the bombers any license on the basis of their grievance. We do not explain away their moral culpability. We condemn their actions, clearly and unequivocally, as political extortion.

The temptation to violence is a powerful one, especially when activists are drunk on their own righteousness. And when a movement is diffuse and decentralized (“leaderless resistance”), activists may try to play a double game (“diversity of tactics”), as they did in the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Here is how a double game is played: the public face of the movement engages in conventional protests, while the background of violence adds punch to their demands. At the same time, they claim plausible deniability for any violence done in the name of their cause. Criminal actions are written off as the work of a bunch of randos. In the same breath, however, they scold the victims and blame the violence on a failure to heed their demands. Shouts of “no justice, no peace” become a threat, not a plea.

Illiberal fanatics will do whatever they can get away with. The less price they and their enabling movements pay for activist violence, the less reason they have to be peaceful.

Update: (August 19, 2016) Noah Rothman linked the increase in activist violence to the authoritarian campaigns against “hate speech.” If “hate speech” is a traumatic act of violence, then its repression by violence is a matter of self-defense:

For an unacceptably large number of progressive activists, a violent response to speech has not only become excusable but obligatory. Such undemocratic behavior is the natural outgrowth of an increasingly mainstream progressive worldview in which the distinctions between speech and violence have been blurred beyond recognition.

Central to the ethos of a new class of progressive activist is the notion that “hate speech” can be traumatic, and not in a figurative sense. They contend that this trauma is not different from genuine physical violence. The conflation of speech with violence has resulted in the acceptance of real violence as an equivalent of free speech.

Too many progressives are flirting with furies they do not comprehend and cannot contain. In their hubris, they remind me the rage mongers on the right who brought us Donald Trump.

Update: (August 16, 2016) Original post has been revised and expanded for clarity.


One of the most disturbing prospects of a Donald Trump presidency is what the man could do with the powers of the executive branch. The danger comes less from drones or surveillance than from prosecutorial discretion. Benjamin Wittes explained it well:

A prosecutor — and by extention, a tyrant president who directs that prosecutor — can harass or target almost anyone, and he can often do so without violating any law. He doesn’t actually need to indict the person, though that can be fun. He needs only open an investigation; that alone can be ruinous. The standards for doing so, criminal predication, are not high. And the fabric of American federal law — criminal and civil law alike — is so vast that a huge number of people and institutions of consequence are ripe for some sort of meddling from authorities. A template here is how former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli was able to harass climate scientists he didn’t like. This stuff is not hard to do, and you don’t even need to win to succeed.

The Justice Department has some institutional defenses against this sort of thing, but they are far weaker than the intelligence community’s institutional defenses against abuses. They mostly do not reside in statute or in the sort of complex oversight structures that [Jennifer] Granick complains in the case of NSA are not restrictive enough. They reside in the Levi Guidelines, in certain normative rules about contacts between the Justice Department and the White House, in norms that have developed over the years in the FBI. And they reside in the hearts of a lot of replaceable people. Ultimately, they reside in an institutional culture at the Justice Department, and that is precisely the sort of thing a tyrant leader can change.

The reason this great vulnerability exists — and is probably irremediable without grave damage to our legal system — is that our system actually depends on prosecutorial discretion for a lot of good things. It’s what prevents the mechanical application of the law in a fashion that would itself be tyrannical. It’s what allows focus on the most important offenses. It’s what allows the justice system to be nimble, focusing on drug cartel crimes in the 1980s and 1990s and shifting to terrorism and internet crimes in the subsequent decade.

Wittes stressed that no institutional fix can “tyrant proof” the presidency. The “relative unity and vertical integration” of the office, which are also its strengths, make that impossible. There are simply too many ways to abuse its powers. And though a thug president might be impeached and convicted, it would take not only a simple majority in the House but a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Better then not to elect a vindictive goon who openly threatens his critics with persecution in the first place.

This last point is something on which American liberals should linger. No permanent legal framework can vanquish the perennial threats to liberal values. No ideal constitution can relieve us of the burden of confronting illiberal demagogues in the political arena. Pursuing such a project, as John Gray has argued for years, is a fool’s errand.


Activists against order-maintenance policing are getting exactly what they demanded. Police officers throughout the nation are scaling back. The reason, as Heather Mac Donald explained, is simple:

Policing is political. If the press, the political elites, and media-amplified advocates are relentlessly sending the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional conduct; it is how policing legitimacy is calibrated. The only puzzle is why the activists are so surprised and angered that officers are backing off; such a retreat is precisely what they have been demanding.

The surprise and anger — and the lack of shame — makes a perverse kind of sense. Demanding change is, among other things, a way to affirm one’s righteousness. Any change that exacerbates injustice, however, is a threat to one’s pride. Impugning any such change as false, distracting, or insufficient, deflects blame. It also avoids the awkward question of whether the activists know what they are talking about.

This is hyperactivism. It occurs when activists place the performance of their own righteousness above all else, including the consequences of their own proposals — even when those consequences are lethal.

Update: (June 22, 2016) As usual, Peter Moskos said it well:

The problem isn’t criticism of police, the problem is an effort to reign-in what some people see as out-of-control racist policing. This is being accomplished by concerted lawsuits, paperwork requirements, public accusations of racism, and, in Baltimore’s case, straight up criminal prosecution of police officers who arrested a man who later died.

And anybody who even attempts to discuss these issues, even in a thoughtful and nuanced manner, such as FBI director Comey, could be slapped down by none other than President Obama himself!

And no, I don’t like the term “Ferguson Effect” either, but enough with the semantics. Lives are being lost. Maybe “viral video effect” will catch on, but the “Ferguson Effect” is the term most people are using to describe a very real phenomenon of less proactive policing leading to more crime. So be it.

And now be enguard for specious arguments about “declining legitimacy” from the police-are-the-problem brigade. The problem isn’t legitimacy. The problem isn’t even poverty (that is a separate problem). The problem is violence linked to public drug dealing and people who believe that policing has no effect on preventing violence. Too many people criticize even effective policing and really do want police to do less. They’re not evil people. They’re just wrong.

Civil servants must answer conflicting demands by the public. They must reconcile these conflicts, which means tradeoffs. If enough people balk at an initial tradeoff, then civil servants may need to adjust. But when activists balk at every plausible adjustment, then the activists should take a hard look at their own demands. They should practice some of that accountability they preach for everyone else.