Man overboard! The Virginia ship of state has recently taken on perilous amounts of water. The medical school yearbookof her captain, Ralph Northam, was dredged up from beyond thirty fathomous decades. There on his “personal page,” is a roundly decried photo of two men in costume, one wearing blackface and the other in KKK garb. To whatever degree Governor Northam is or is not guilty of racism, powerful political currents threaten to sweep him out to sea. But these overwhelming waves conceal even more powerful forces. Resentment is one such force, and offers tremendous political power to those who harness it. It connotes intense indignation or anger with reflexive reactions. Resentment often operates imperceptibly, making it difficult to tie its cause to effect because it takes time for power to swell and manifest collectively. Then seemingly without warning, resentment crests to dash everything in its path.
In 2007 Lanny Davis, Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton, published Scandal: How “Gotcha” Politics Is Destroying America. Davis puts his thesis in the subtitle, but it can be expanded. Partisan extremists on both sides aim to defeat their political enemies by destroying them personally. Hawk-like, they scan for the slightest misstep or sign of weakness, then … Gotcha! The victim is branded a perpetrator, the new (i.e., the real) victim is identified, and judgment-to-verdict is promoted through mass media. With moral outrage ringing from the mountain tops and validating the entire process, the objective becomes bringing to justice the privileged, and securing justice for those so long denied it. Whether or not the person caught in the deluge is treated fairly in terms of due process, intent, or proportionality is not the concern. Overwhelming victory is the issue.
God forbid Governor Northam be given a fair trial, but it’s the tilted playing field on which the entire thing plays out that concerned Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche claimed that traditional morality, which touts Judeo-Christian values, was created to help the oppressed slaves of Rome gain power over those who ruled them. Unfair! And those treated unfairly would not be denied their justice. Nietzsche claimed that their resentment was critical in obtaining justice, and renowned sociologist, James Davison Hunter, claims resentment has “become the distinguishing characteristic of politics in modern cultures.”
No one is exempt from unfairness. If truth be told, we’ve all dished it out as well as received it. It’s normal to resent those who inflict injury on us. Losing “my” promotion generates prejudice against the “winner.” We incrementally justify hatred toward the one whom we perceive inflicts pain on us. The cause may be real or imagined, but the emotional response is all too real. Those who are afraid to act out their responses, or at least express their feelings openly, must push them down. Resentment’s anger, envy, and hatred go subterranean to reappear suddenly at odd moments.
Resentment may burn in theindividual breast, but any personal attempt at retaliation is, practically speaking, inconsequential. People acting solo feel “powerless,” afraid to challenge the status quo. Not so on the corporate level. If misery loves company, resentment yearns for discontentment. Ember joins ember, and the smouldering bed becomes a blaze. Everyone knows there is strength in numbers. Friedrich Nietzsche calls the masses “the herd” because he knew that grievance properly guided leads to privilege, and privilege brings power.
Nietzsche famously declares himself to the “the last antipolitical German.” See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist: An Essay towards a Criticism of Christianity, “Why I am So Wise,” §3. InNietzsche: The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other WritingsJ Norman, trans., A Ridley & J Norman, eds, (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, K Ameriks & DM Clarke, eds, 69 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-67. Richard Wolin argues this is not so in The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 30-32. See also John Andrew Bernstein, Nietzsche’s Moral Philosophy(Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987), 149-51.
The elite channel the explosiveness of resentment for political revolution by doling out rewards and punishments. Followers are promised a share of newly won power, and the mantra becomes, “United we rise!” Oppressors, those formerly in control, are branded evil, and everyone knows that evil must be permanently vanquished.
If resentment of the oppressed were described as a mechanism, it would have four moving parts:
- Victimize—casting the aggrieved party as “injured,” i.e., wronged, threatened, or otherwise mistreated by a more privileged and powerful party.
- Demonize—blaming that injury on someone else, repeating it, and then amplifying it till it seems unjust and the offending party appears grossly unfair, overbearing, and, ideally, evil.
- Galvanize—consolidating the injured individuals, and recruiting those sympathetic to them into a movement.
- Capsize—accumulating the social energy of the aggrieved to invert power structures so they can triumph over their “oppressors” in their own bid for power.
Resentment expresses itself euphemistically in “passive resistance,” but the founder of modern community organizing, Saul Alinsky, claims that resentment will amass people to become menacing violence. The tide has been rising in America for years, and serves as an entrée for the next article in this series. For now, we can say this. When personal resentment swells into political resentment, the resulting wave threatens to overwhelm a population and subvert its leadership. Just look at Virginia and her Governor.
William Power, II is a philosopher, theologian, and minister. He holds the degrees of bachelor of science, masters in theology, and doctorate in philosophy. He has conducted leadership training in eastern Europe for more than a decade and has lectured at numerous universities across the US and around the world. He works in restricted access countries, and his passion is leading those bound by the duty to believe into the freedom to think for themselves.
This is the third article in a multi-part series. For the previous article, see “Politics of Resentment”.
The photo may be found in this article, posted online by The New York Times, 5 February 2019.
John A Simpson & Edmund SC Weiner, eds. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 1566; Robert K Barnhart, ed. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 656; Alister Kee, Nietzsche against the Crucified (London: SCM, 1999), 64.
“Which of them has triumphed … Rome or Judea? But there is simply no doubt: just consider before whom people bow today in Rome itself … and not only in Rome, but over almost half the earth.” Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Vol. 8, trans. Adrian Del Caro. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1stedition. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014) I, 16.