Friday, July 19, 2019


This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes.
Andrew Sullivan "Democracies end when they are too democratic."
I have never met a person who was simultaneously desperate to survive and magnanimous. The gay left that Mr. Sullivan refers to may have had stunning successes, but for the people I met, they were also tenuous ones, liable to be rolled back at any moment. Likewise the white working class; for all that they'd held sway in American politics and the American economy for generations, they see the advancement, and the anger, of non-whites, sexual minorities and women as something capable of permanently marginalizing them the moment that "the left" regains power on the national stage. When has a perceived life-or-death struggle ever lead to magnanimity?

For people to be magnanimous in victory, they have to be secure in that victory. And, perhaps I am overly pessimistic in this, but most of the people I meet in my day-to-day life strike me as deeply insecure; victorious doesn't even enter the picture. When Mr. Sullivan wrote his piece, the 2016 election was still in the primary stages; some Republicans still hoped that there would be a way to unseat Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee, although that hope was soon to be snuffed out. Likewise, it was still "an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president;" that Democratic hope would last until November before dying. Three years later, everyone is still in existential fear of unending cultural, political and economic marginalization; they are still openly insecure in their positions in life and their responses to that insecurity are the raw materials for the tools of stoking insecurity in others. President Trump is still able to inspire his supporters to what is often regarded as virulent bigotry by casting his political opponents as not only hateful, but powerful; the Battle for America was not won in November of 2016, and the barbarians are still at the gates, bloodlust in their hearts. For Liberal America, especially the Progressives, the past two and a half years have been a disaster, and many perceive their cause to be on the brink of destruction.

A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain.

I would disagree with Mr. Sullivan here. Not because I fail to empathize with "a struggling white man in the heartland," but because my experience teaches me that it is decidedly easy for people not to empathize with him, disdain or none. For empathy is a component of magnanimity, and it is smothered by fear. When people feel that they are in a fight for their lives, and if they don't win now, there will be no viable later, empathy is simply viewed as an unaffordable luxury. When empathy comes to be seen as an impediment to bringing desperately needed positive change through necessary evils, it becomes a weakness, and those who champion it are unintelligent, credulous or unethical. In such a circumstance, the conclusion that "the Other" is intentionally malevolent becomes commonplace. And empathizing with the person who engages in deliberate wrongdoing is seen as itself wrong. Likewise, it's common for people to see themselves as unambiguously and self-evidently on the "right side" of things, and to see a failure to recognize that by others as proof of ill-intent. And so it's easy to begin a cycle of self-reinforcing demonization, where each side both pushes back against the other as wrong, and sees pushback from others as proof that those others are wrong-headed.

And here's the thing about a conflict with "evil." It is, almost by definition, a very high-stakes contest. And when people are given to understand that their very survival is at stake, then all bets are off, because on some level, concepts such as empathy, magnanimity, moderation and "playing by rules" are all predicated on the idea that there are more important considerations than winning. But if losing means final obliteration, what consideration could be more important than winning? Magnanimity is set aside until after the threat has been effectively and permanently neutralized. In order to show mercy, the other side has to need mercy. The undefeated don't need that. And for the insecure, the enemy is always undefeated.

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