I Would Like Very Much to Hate You: A Rumpus Lamentation

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My wife got upset last night, after she heard about the Rand Paul supporters who tackled a progressive activist named Lauren Valle.  One of them stepped on her head. Valle suffered a concussion. The technical term is aggravated battery.

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I told my wife the incident is resonating because it’s a microcosm of the midterm elections. The Right is stomping the Left’s head into the sidewalk with no governing authorities in sight.

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Psychology and emotion are a lot more powerful than facts. People enjoy feeling wronged. This is why Republicans refuse to believe (for instance) that Obama has cut their taxes, even when presented evidence. They need to preserve their sense of victimhood, so as to experience their aggression as self-defense.

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The man who tackled Valle to the ground wore a large button that said Don’t Tread on Me. His friend, who stepped on Valle’s head, was a county organizer for Paul. After the incident, he explained that he had to step on her head because he had a bad back. He said Valle should apologize to him.

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Two years ago, during the final days of the 2008 election, a young woman named Ashley Todd told police she had been robbed at knife point by a black man who carved a “B” (for “Barack”) into her cheek. She was being punished for her political views. She was a Republican martyr. But she hadn’t been attacked. She cut her own cheek. She so needed to feel wronged that she wronged herself.

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A friend of mine recently complained about his mother-in-law. She was going to vote Republican again. When he tried to point out that she’s voting against her economic interests, she assured him, almost tenderly, that she hates all politicians.

I said it might not be a great idea to discuss politics with her, because she’s not a rational actor. She’s an anxious person who wants to feel safe.

My friend said, “She’s not just anxious. She this got all this pent-up rage.”

He also wanted me to know that she’s a gentle and loving grandmother.

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Maybe it makes sense to regard the demagogues of the Right as emotional alchemists. Every day, they convert unbearable feelings into exalted ones. Powerlessness becomes fear which becomes rage which becomes righteousness which becomes heroism.

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We all yearn for narratives in which our role is essentially heroic.

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Most Americans have no sense of genuine heroism. We live in a cloud of entitlement. The government provides us cheap food, clean water, electricity, medication, roads, everything. We still feel helpless. We don’t know how to fix our cars or grow food or find enduring love. We wander giant emporiums like children, full of wonder and jittery need. Corporations fleece us, then convince us to blame the government for our problems. The worship of wealth perverts a nation’s soul.

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Seventy years ago, one of Steinbeck’s migrant workers, upon hearing of a man in California who owned 100,000 acres, pondered what a man would do with all that land.

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The Germans of that same era didn’t think of themselves as mass murderers. They were victims of the Jews, the Communists, the Allies. They projected their darkest impulses onto their adversaries and victims so they could feel heroic. They traded the sound of moral surety for a genuine morality.

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It may be that we’re on the verge of transforming ourselves from a guilt society to a shame society. In a shame society, there’s no such thing as moral self-knowledge. You do what you do because it’s expected of you.

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When I ask political reporters why they write about polls and fake scandals, rather than real crises and policy solutions, they say because it’s expected of them. Ask a Wall Street trader why he flouts regulations, or a soldier why he shoots at strangers.

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I have not had my head stomped by Rand Paul supporters. But I get a lot of mail from folks who describe themselves as patriots. Sometimes they threaten harm. Sometimes they insult my daughter. Once, after a right-wing blog posted my address, I got a few phone calls. One guy pretended to be a journalist, before melting down.

“Why are you shouting at me?” I said.

He was stunned into silence for a few seconds.

Then he started shouting again.

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It’s those few seconds I’m always hoping will win out. You can see it in the video of the attack on Lauren Valle. The assailant can’t bring himself to really stomp on her head. He’s conflicted. There’s a part of him that realizes stomping on the head of a stranger isn’t really right. But he’s caught up in this situation. Here’s this brazen leftist stirring up trouble, trying to tread on Rand Paul, trying to tread on him, his buddy is holding her down, doing his part, and so he lowers his foot onto her head. He does what’s expected of him.

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I hadn’t meant to go on. I realize the Rumpus isn’t a place for political invective. People get very touchy about it. But the undercurrent of violence in this election doesn’t feel political to me. It feels moral. It feels like a moment in which the political process is becoming divorced from its essential purpose. We’re not electing representatives to govern anymore. We’re rounding up a lynch mob.

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Here’s an exchange from my DIY book Letters from People Who Hate Me that tries to explain what I mean.

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Steve,

I’m actually proud that I served my country and If I was younger I would do it again. If you liberals get your way and let others take down our country I wouldn’t be sorry at all that you would end up in a work camp. With your comments I wish not to have a happy retirement.

Signed,
B

B,

I get the first part of your letter. You want me sent to a work camp. But the second part confused me. I think what you’re saying is that you’d rather feel rage at people like me (whoever it is you think I am) than spend your retirement years engaged in joyful activities with people you love.

Maybe there are no people for you to love, but I suspect it’s something more profound, that the very expression of such vulnerable emotions – whether hope or desire or mercy – has become somehow too painful or frightening for you to bear, and that you find it easier therefore to retreat into ancient grievances, to regard the world as a cold, hateful place, full of violent strangers with dirty bombs, or naïve nincompoops like me, who have the Communist Manifesto tattooed on our genitalia.

I suspect there’s nothing I can say to change your mind about any of this, Bill. I exist only as a momentary occasion for your outrage. By the time you read this, you’ll have forgotten what it is I said that made you so mad, because you’ve got dozens of trained media professionals for whom your sadism is a precious resource, truly brilliant men and women whose job it is to sit in front of a microphone day after day and find new reasons for you to hate. These people will never disappoint you, Bill. Because they understand that love is merely a form of weakness, that it is the duty of all true patriots, in these dark days, to beat ploughshares into swords. They will never ask what happened to you in the service or why you turn to hatred for succor. They will never leave you behind. They will never break your heart.

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Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →