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The Dangers of Political Resentment

Allesandra Mussolini

Resentment has long driven much of American politics, and global politics too. Think of antebellum southern planters who resented northern manufacturers and moral “meddlers” we know as abolitionists. Think of yesterday and today’s anti-immigrant xenophobes. Think of anti-labor tycoons who resent the notion that their workers are human beings to whom a crude definition of “property” should not apply.

But the Right has no monopoly on resentment. Sadly, I’ve heard its call, and acted upon it. So, I bet, have many of us. But if we don’t learn to abandon anger and resentment, a still young progressive movement has little chance of long-term success.

Nothing good comes of resentment. If that sounds platitudinous, so be it. It is nonetheless true. The American Revolution to a large extent was driven by positive hopes for the future. The crude and stupid colonial policies of King George were resented, of course. But resentment was neither the melody nor the beat of the Revolution.

Similar hopes were raised in revolutionary France, but the French Revolution succumbed to the spirit of resentment. In the backlash was born a modern conservatism that learned to turn resentment to its own purposes, counting on its monopoly authority to keep it restrained, like a monster chained in the basement of its tower that turns the wheel of  power.

Here’s how psychologist Theodore Dalrymple described a recent political scene driven by resentment:

To an observer, it was transparently obvious that she cared as much for her supporters, and in approximately the same way, as a poultry farmer for his chickens. Any promise she made them was self-evidently false and worthless. As I looked around me, at the faces contorted by a hatred expressed in unison, I was surprised by how many of these latter-day Fascisti were lame (like Goebbels) or otherwise impaired, small and mean men who were searching for an enemy whom they could blame for their dissatisfaction.

No, he wasn’t writing about Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. He might as well have been. Instead, he was writing about Allesandra Mussolini, a former actress, current leader of the Italian neo-fascist party and granddaughter of Il Duce himself.

I doubt that Palin or Bachmann even know what fascism is, but they share with Ms. Mussolini an understanding that glamour can give the authoritarian production of resentment a patina of normalcy. Call it a soft machine.

And the strategy isn’t exclusive to women. Former actor Ronald Reagan and current presidential wannabe Rick Perry also got the value of a good comic book hero’s haircut, a suit coat with shoulder pads, and a practiced schoolyard swagger. But I digress. Let’s return to psychologist Dalrymple, who said of resentment:

It’s Futile. It’s Destructive. It’s Blinding. But this universal emotion does have its rewards. It assures us of our own impotence. And it allows us to hang on to our image of ourselves as fundamentally good-whatever our actual behavior.

Dalrymple, however, underestimates the power and consequences of resentment in politics, writing that its impact is largely felt in our personal lives.

Political scientist William E. Connolly doesn’t make that mistake. In his new book, A World of Becoming, Connolly recommends a kind of four-step program for political (and personal) actions and relationships. His thoughts spring from deep meditations grounded in process philosophy, philosophical pragmatism, neuroscience and chaos theory. For more on that, read the book, which I highly recommend. Here are his recommendations, in my words:

1. Replace resentment with gratitude. Don’t deny or passively accept the tragedy and injustice that mark our lives, but resist resentment.

2. Learn to multiply possibilities by pausing and opening one’s mind during crises or “disequilibrium” moments.

3. Use that openness to create new concepts and experimental actions.

4. Critically reflect upon those concepts and actions. Don’t get smug about your brilliance or righteousness, and don’t put a death grip on your own inventions or ideas. Try a little humility. All our creations are experimental. The universe said that.

As I said, I haven’t always followed this advice very well. I can resent, meaninglessly, the anonymous driver who cuts me off or even the traffic light that turns red when I’m in a hurry. I manifest resentment in more meaningful and destructive ways as well. When I reflect on it, it’s downright embarrassing. Maybe by reflecting I can do better.

Resentment has a way of outlasting its cause and the amelioration of its cause. What’s left behind in our hearts is a kind of blind resentment, a perpetual frozen stance toward the universe. Time freezes for the resentful, and change becomes nearly impossible. And that’s a tragedy, because the universe will change in unpredictable ways, leaving the petrified behind.

Yes, the American middle class should be alarmed at the great economic inequality of our time. And, it’s frustrating that the right-wing machine that wreaks such havoc is now playing the hero who will save us from it.

We’re going to have to get creative to overcome our multiple crises and the dark, authoritarian powers we oppose. Those powers are impervious to our resentment. They even thrive upon it. They have no such power over what is truly new and born in thoughtful human gratitude and creativity.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith