I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
–W.H.Auden, “September, 1939”
I am not a big fan of cultural criticism, and only a little better disposed toward social psychology (its somewhat harder working older brother). But unless one wants to live between the questions posed and the answers recorded by pollsters, one needs sometimes to resort to social reflections to get a sense of what is going on. And with European and U.S. politics suddenly seeming to converge – and with Donald Trump seemingly able to surf the headlines on both continents – one needs to know what is going on.
Leon Wieseltier – a writer I stopped reading about the time The New Republic sank deeply, about 30 years ago, into neo-conservative predictability – has published a piece in the The Washington Post that pulls together several things I have been thinking about, and quite a bit more. Wieseltier’s theme – and it takes him a while to work it up – is how “grievance narrows the imagination.” Some liberal readers may accuse Wieseltier of classic “blame the victim” thinking. I don’t think that is what he is doing – but what he is doing is rather unusual and makes me somewhat uncomfortable.
If I can skip to build-up part of Wieseltier’s peroration:
“People in adversity turn not to economics but to culture. They are fortified not by policy but by identity. They seek saviors, not programs. And as the direness of their circumstances appears to imperil their identity, they affirm it by asserting it ferociously against others. Hurt people hurt people.”
I’ve no problem with that summary – it is what is going on. But Wieseltier continues:
“Against these hurt people, therefore, and against the profiteer of pain who shabbily champions them, it must be insisted that no amount of sympathy for their plight justifies the introduction of a version of fascism into American life. No grievance, however true, warrants the fouling of American politics by the bigotry and the brutishness peddled by Donald Trump. Either he wins or America does.”
Forget the last two sentences of the second section. It’s the first sentence that troubles. “Against these hurt people…” It’s not just Donald Trump, but the Donald Trump voter, who is is the object of critique.
Elections are not usually won by campaigning against the voters. By contrast, I’ve been frustrated by the inability of Hilary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic candidate, to articulate any kind of agenda to an electorate that seems thirstier for change than worried about candidates’ qualifications. But Wieseltier is saying, essentially, to get past that. The race, is his view, is between those who will affirm constitutionalism and multiculturalism and those who won’t. I would like to think he is wrong. But I wonder.