The Clod and the Pebble and the politics of resentment

"Blessed is anyone who takes no offense" — Luke 7:23

Here is a story from Sunday's paper that will make some people happy and some people unhappy.

That's not quite it. What I mean to say is that it will be a source of happiness for happy people and a source of further unhappiness for those who have chosen to be unhappy.

Neither category of readers is directly affected by this story, so these opposite responses are a matter of choice, or of many choices over time that have come to shape habit, perception and character.

Choice, habit and character are the language of ethics, and the distinction I'm exploring here is, primarily, an ethical one. It is a matter of morality — of wrong and right, bad and good, selfish and unselfish.

But this article does not present itself as an ethical dilemma, and neither set of readers will experience it that way. Their respective reactions will seem to them, rather, as simply a matter of temperament or sentiment — a "gut reaction." And that gut reaction will be felt as either happiness or as unhappiness, depending on habit and character cultivated over time.

Since this story is, in fact, a happy one, we can further see that one such gut reaction is more appropriate — more accurate — than the other. The inaccurate response carries consequences. To respond to happiness unhappily is to live in conflict with what is — a recipe for further unhappiness.

When St. Paul advised the early church to "rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn" he was speaking mainly of empathy as a necessary prerequisite for love, justice and virtue. But he was also reminding his readers to live honestly and accurately. To mourn when others rejoice and to rejoice when others mourn is cruel, but it is also out of step with reality. Conducting your life out of step with reality is self-destructive. It will make you miserable.

Anyway, the story. What happened was that 78 poor children whose fathers are incarcerated received free back-to-school supplies provided by three area churches. Their dads were permitted to be on hand to help present these presents, getting a rare chance to spend a few hours with their young kids.

This is, unambiguously, a Good Thing. "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the needy have their needs met, children are prepared to learn, broken families experience healing, the poor have good news brought to them."

Most readers will respond to such good news appropriately — seeing it as good news. That's accurate and appropriate and therefore not very interesting. Why do these readers respond to good news as good news? Because it's good news.

The opposite, anomalous response is more interesting. Why do some readers respond to this good news with such hostility? Why does this story make them angry and unhappy?

The answer is suggested, I think, in William Blake's short poem, "The Clod and the Pebble." It reads at first like a Sunday-school jingle, but as usual with Blake, there's quite a bit more going on here.

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

That pebbly centrality of self is always on the lookout for new sources of unhappiness, new grievances, new slights or causes for offense and resentment. And when that is what you're looking for, that is what you're likely to find, even in a heart-warming, happy story about churches getting it right by helping poor kids get ready for school.

Here is my approximation of the unhappy response to that story. This is not entirely a product of my invention or imagination — it's based on having seen thousands of such reactions in the online comments to newspaper stories, in letters to the editor and on cable news. I'm not sure it's the most generous representation, but I don't think it's inaccurate:

Why should the children of criminals get something for free? Something that I, as a hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen had to pay for? I just spent two weeks driving all over spending my hard-earned money on back-to-school supplies for my kids and nobody gave me anything. This is how the world works and it's unfair to me. I follow the rules and I always get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile, those people get handouts. The game is rigged in their favor and I'm getting screwed yet again. Freeloaders. Lucky duckies. I resent them. I resent them and I am convinced that they are the reason I have to work and scrape and scramble as much as I do.

This angry resentment is periodically a major force in American politics. It is a destructive force — destructive of self and destructive of the whole (self-destructive people always have bad aim). The Resenters rejoice when others mourn and mourn when others rejoice and their politics of resentment has the crabs-in-a-bucket effect of making things worse for everyone, themselves included — making sure that nothing ever improves, that no problem is ever solved. The politics of resentment can never be for anything. That which benefits others will provoke resentment, even if it benefits all, including the Resenters themselves. They will still manage to resent the benefit to others — mourning at their rejoicing — convincing themselves that they might have benefited more if those others hadn't also been unjustly included in the common good.

The politics of resentment is clearly illiberal, but it is not conservative either. It doesn't present a coherent political ideology. That's part of why the purveyors of this resentment so often seem to contradict themselves. Fox News, for example, portrays itself as conservative, but it's real guiding principle is that of pebblish resentment.

Fox is quite skillful, usually, at the fine balancing act this requires. Cultivating, teaching and nurturing perpetual resentment involves a measure of restraint. The story in today's paper can be used to encourage this resentment, but take it too far and you arrive at something more obviously absurd. "I wish I was a prisoner so my kids could have it easy like prisoner's kids do." Unless one is extremely far gone, the silliness of that notion will cause the swelling resentment to burst like an over-filled balloon, forcing the Resenter to acknowledge that he or she actually is much better off than the supposed objects of resentment and exposing him or her to gratitude and empathy — the antidotes for the disease of perpetual resentment. The happiness that gratitude and empathy carry cannot be tolerated by the politics of resentment. It requires — and generates — unhappiness.

That unhappiness, more than anything else, is what interests me here. The purveyors and proselytizers of resentment make their followers unhappy. Fox News and talk radio make their viewers and listeners less happy. The closest they can come to allowing joy is schadenfreude, but all other forms of delight are forbidden. Resentment, indignation and offendedness can be addictive, and thus these outlets remain popular, but lots of addictive things are popular despite precluding joy. Smoking crack makes you feel good too, but that's not the same as making you happy.

Blake's poem, like St. Paul's maxim, conveys an essential law of the universe: Selfishness creates misery. Seeking "only Self to please" can never really succeed in pleasing self. Rejoicing and mourning at all the wrong things renders one incapable of ever really doing either.

The Resenters seek to make a virtue of selfishness, to embrace its misery and inflict it on others through their politics of resentment — building a hell in heaven's despite and forcing others to live in it with them. That effort, as I mentioned earlier, is an ethical endeavor — a matter of morality or, more precisely, of immorality. It's a sin.

But I'm not focused on morality here. Here I just want to consider happiness and the perplexingly self-destructive choice of preferring its opposite — resentment, indignation, high dudgeon, umbrage, offense, whatever you want to call it.

Bad money drives out good and this counterfeit happiness just as surely drives out the genuine article. It erodes the possibility of and the capacity for such happiness. Someone who scorns the opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn will eventually lose the ability to do so, and thus will also lose their capacity for happiness.

The Resenters have learned to be unhappy. They have been taught to respond unhappilly to happiness, taught by a steady toxic diet of Fox News and resentment radio and the demagogues of the politics of resentment. Part of our job, then, must be to help them learn again how to be capable of happiness. We must teach them, remind them, show them how to again look at a smiling child with a new backpack and to take delight instead of taking offense.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    The attitudes they are exhibiting jibe with conservative values — being ‘tough on crime’ a.k.a. treating criminals, people accused of crimes, and those associated with criminals like subhumans. This is a standard practice of conservative politics.

  • P J Evans

    mmy, may I move North? I have a great-grandfather from Ontario. (Actually, there are Canadians all over the family tree.)

  • Trixie Belden

    @ Le Jardin You have no evidence that Fox News, or any conservative, would react negatively to, or resent, this story. I know this, because they wouldn’t. You’re entirely missing the point of why they WOULD react negatively to a similar story: They would resent the GOVERNMENT giving free handouts… not churches!
    Well, in theory, perhaps. I’m sure if you asked Micheal Gerson or George W. for their opinion of such a program, they would gush about how wonderful it was, and how this was exactly how things were supposed to work, etc.. However, in practice a lot of the people I’ve met who identify as conservatives will, when they think it’s safe, be pretty sour and disparaging about programs like the one Fred’s writing about. It’s true we don’t know the political affiliation of the people who are commenting negatively on that story, but, like I’ve said, I have heard conservatives make statements like that. More basically, I think the conservative response of “of course we believe in helping people – BUT THE HELP MUST COME FROM PRIVATE CHARITY AND NOT THE GOVERNMENT!!!!” is a smokescreen. People who really want to see other people being helped don’t get their knickers in a twist over where the help is coming from if it’s working. If a hungry person gets fed, that’s good. It doesn’t matter if it’s food stamps or a church pantry.

  • MercuryBlue

    Actually it does matter sometimes, Trixie. There’s no shortage of churches where the charity comes with conditions, regular attendance or evidence of sufficiently moral behavior or the like. Food stamps, as long as you’re sufficiently desperate, you’re golden.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    Speaking of handouts, how’s Sallie Mae and the feds doing? Pretty damn well, actually, as the picture notes.

  • Trixie Belden

    Actually it does matter sometimes, Trixie. There’s no shortage of churches where the charity comes with conditions, regular attendance or evidence of sufficiently moral behavior or the like. Food stamps, as long as you’re sufficiently desperate, you’re golden.
    True, that. But, if there’s no conditions or coercion used on people who are vulnerable – if it’s working – then I don’t mind how they’re getting fed, but it seems to me that if some conservatives had a choice between a private program that left a lot of people hungry, and a government program that managed to feed almost everyone that needed it – they would choose the private program, without hesitation. What I’m trying to say is that if you really cared about helping people, I don’t think you’d be so hung up on the agency that was doing the helping. For conservatives, I get the impression that it’s more about control. Hence the attraction to the agency where they could impose the conditions.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    Yeah. There’s something really unfunny about their fixation on the idea that poor people have to be forced into a position of expressing gratitude for the tiny crumbs that get left for them.

  • ajay

    There is a long and very scholarly history behind present-day Canadians considering themselves part of a group that their ancestors were part of
    In other words, “everyone in the British Empire was a Canadian just like me, doesn’t matter where they were born”.
    I personally don’t mind you saying that too much (“Admiral Cockburn? English Canadian! General Ross? Irish Canadian! The Royal North British Fusiliers? Canadians, all of them! From Scotland, Canada! The 44th Essex Foot? Canadians!”), it’s frankly more entertaining than anything else.
    But I’d really love to see you try that line on an Australian. Ideally in a Melbourne pub, around late April time. “The diggers who died at Gallipoli? Canadian! Donald Bradman? Canadian! John Monash? Canadian!”

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    For conservatives, I get the impression that it’s more about control. Hence the attraction to the agency where they could impose the conditions.

    Some of them sound as if they have a moral objection, like abortion opponents who don’t want their tax money being used for that procedure. I would be interested to know the specifics of Le Jardin’s objection to tax money being used for assistance. In my experience, the smokescreen that Trixie mentioned usually involves attitudes about ethnic minorities.

  • hagsrus

    Carol rose. She suggested that the Thanatopsis ought to help the poor
    of the town. She was ever so correct and modern. She did not, she said,
    want charity for them, but a chance of self-help; an employment bureau,
    direction in washing babies and making pleasing stews, possibly a
    municipal fund for home-building. “What do you think of my plans, Mrs.
    Warren?” she concluded.
    Speaking judiciously, as one related to the church by marriage, Mrs.
    Warren gave verdict:
    “I’m sure we’re all heartily in accord with Mrs. Kennicott in feeling
    that wherever genuine poverty is encountered, it is not only noblesse
    oblige but a joy to fulfil our duty to the less fortunate ones. But I
    must say it seems to me we should lose the whole point of the thing by
    not regarding it as charity. Why, that’s the chief adornment of the true
    Christian and the church! The Bible has laid it down for our guidance.
    ‘Faith, Hope, and CHARITY,’ it says, and, ‘The poor ye have with ye
    always,’ which indicates that there never can be anything to these
    so-called scientific schemes for abolishing charity, never! And isn’t it
    better so? I should hate to think of a world in which we were deprived
    of all the pleasure of giving. Besides, if these shiftless folks realize
    they’re getting charity, and not something to which they have a right,
    they’re so much more grateful.”

    Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

  • Will Wildman

    There is a long and very scholarly history behind present-day Canadians considering themselves part of a group that their ancestors were part of
    In other words, “everyone in the British Empire was a Canadian just like me, doesn’t matter where they were born”.

    Only if we’re now using ‘in other words’ to mean ‘to completely rewrite what you’re saying’. Compare the statements again and see how thoroughly they don’t line up.

  • Drake Pope

    The attitudes they are exhibiting jibe with conservative values — being ‘tough on crime’ a.k.a. treating criminals, people accused of crimes, and those associated with criminals like subhumans. This is a standard practice of conservative politics.
    </blockquote?
    That's true, but surely you can see how a conservative who doesn't feel that way might not be persuaded by the argument that, yes, they do because some random, nameless assholes on the Internet COULD BE conservatives.
    I agree that those comments ("How dare those people get a benefit that I don't particularly need!") do fit in line with traditional rhetoric, but I don't think it's fair to assume that the commenters are conservatives. Again, maybe they’re just horrible people.

  • Lori

    That’s true, but surely you can see how a conservative who doesn’t feel that way might not be persuaded by the argument that, yes, they do because some random, nameless assholes on the Internet COULD BE conservatives.

    I wasn’t basing my reactions on random anonymous comments on the internet. My reactions are based on the conservatives with whom I regularly have contact. They can get themselves up in arms about these kinds of freebies for the lucky ducky poor at the drop of a hat. They don’t necessarily react that way totally without promoting, but it takes only the tiniest hint to get them off on a rant about this sort of thing. If other conservatives want to argue with them about it they should feel free, but it’s sure as heck no my job to wait to form an opinion until they settle their No True Scotsman feud.

  • ako

    My reactions are based on the conservatives with whom I regularly have contact. They can get themselves up in arms about these kinds of freebies for the lucky ducky poor at the drop of a hat.
    I’ve seen a lot of that. They may nominally take a “It shouldn’t be government, it should be private charity!” stance, but the moment a private charity gives things away to those in need without reinforcing shame and demanding displays of gratitude, it’s all “How dare they?” rage.

  • Emcee, cubed

    I agree that those comments (“How dare those people get a benefit that I don’t particularly need!”) do fit in line with traditional rhetoric, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that the commenters are conservatives. Again, maybe they’re just horrible people.
    So, do you think they are liberal trolls, just making the comments because they are horrible people and want to stir up trouble? I get the idea that you don’t want to make the assumption that all conservatives are horrible people, and that is true. And yes, there are liberal horrible people. But I somehow doubt that liberal horrible people would make this particular argument. So while these horrible people may not represent all conservatives, I think we can safely say that they are conservatives.

  • Art

    Only if we’re now using ‘in other words’ to mean ‘to completely rewrite what you’re saying’. Compare the statements again and see how thoroughly they don’t line up.
    The point is that the “Canadians” who burned down the White House weren’t actually from Canada. It would be one thing if they were technically “British” because Canada was part of the Empire but they were all from the part of the Empire that was Canada — but they weren’t. They were British troops that had been transported to North America for the express purpose of dealing with the problems the USA was causing. Their leader, General Ross, had been born and raised in Ireland, distinguished himself in combat on the European continent, and had never been to North America before the War of 1812 — nor, to my knowledge, had the vast majority of the rest of his troops, who all arrived in North America for the first time in 1814 when their ships landed in Maryland to begin their punitive expedition against Washington DC.
    You can claim a *connection* to them for being part of the same Empire/Commonwealth, but they weren’t “Canadian” by any of the definitions of the time — neither citizens of a Canadian nation-state *nor were they from the parcel of land we now refer to as Canada*.
    “Canadians burned the White House” is indeed a statement roughly equivalent to “The diggers who died at Gallipolli were Canadian”. It makes no historical sense. It’s like saying that a Canadian named King George III was head of state when the War of 1812 was fought. Or that what we call the War of 1812 in the Western Hemisphere was a distraction against the Canadians’ more important war against the tyrannical, expansionist rule of the Quebecois emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
    Again: This is not “rewriting” what you were saying. The British troops who sacked Washington *were not Canadians* — the term “Canadian” was already in use at the time, and none of those troops (or, at least to my knowledge, not the vast majority of them) would have used that term to describe themselves. They *were not from Canada*. Saying so is not just a minor quibble about Canada not being an independent country at the time — these were overseas troops shipped in from the Old World.

  • Art

    Do you have a record of the place of birth of every single person who served in the British forces at the time? No you don’t. The distinctions you are talking about were not made them.
    Producing the individual birth certificates is not really necessary here any more than it is with the case of President Obama. The British troops who burned Washington were *shipped to Maryland* as a single brigade under the command of Robert Ross, and was an army consisting entirely of veteran troops who had served with the Duke of Wellington in the European theater. They were Brits, from the Old World. There may have been a handful of troops in the British Army who’d been born in the New World and, through various exigencies of life, somehow made it back to the Old World and then gone on to a long military career entirely in Europe, but this would have been a very unusual life story back then — emigration went almost 100% the other way, and despite the ideal of being all one empire a Canadian who went back to Britain would’ve faced a certain degree of discrimination and exclusion.
    If anyone can actually provide any examples, I’d be interested, but it was not a life story nearly common enough to make it reasonable to claim that the British Army regiments that were, again, *shipped in from over the ocean* to sack Washington were “Canadian”. They weren’t — it’s really that simple. There were UELs and Canadian patriots, yes, who fought in land battles on Canadian soil against American invading forces. None of these forces were dispatched on the punitive expedition against Washington DC.
    Patriotic myths aside (we all have them), the British military leaders at the time didn’t think highly of *any* of the “bloody colonials” when it came to fighting experience, and the elite troops were troops who’d been raised and trained in the British Isles and who’d fought in “real” wars against “real” foreign powers (rather than against the Indian savages and other colonials), and so they didn’t entrust as important a mission as a punitive raid against a hostile power’s capital to any of their colonial loyalists — they shipped in troops from outside.
    The Canadian mythology that there was no cultural or political distinction between British citizens regardless of origin back then was just that — mythology. The myth that it was “Canadians” who burned the White House — that all or most or even a majority or even, really, probably any of the troops burning the White House had even set foot in the New World before being dispatched on this specific mission — is even more so mythology.
    (I don’t begrudge our neighbors to the north their myths, sure — you can stack that up against the much larger stack of stupid stories Americans tell themselves about how the world has always revolved around the USA — but myths are, nonetheless, myths and should not be mistaken for facts. I’m pretty adamant about shit like this; the main reason “Canadians burned the White House” is something I speak up about is that it’s just *wrong*, just like it may make Germans feel better about their national history to believe a German monk invented gunpowder or it may make Afrocentrist black people feel better to think the ancient Egyptians invented calculus but that, too, is wrong.)

  • Art

    There is a long and very scholarly history behind present-day Canadians considering themselves part of a group that they ancestors were part of. If you think you know more than generations of scholars then
    Okay, this is just silly. “Generations of scholars” can be and often are wrong, especially about emotionally-charged issues that have become matters of national pride. Generations of scholars in the American South have said that the Civil War “wasn’t about slavery”, too, but that, too, is quite obviously wrong to anyone who even tries to approach the issue objectively.
    (Granted this is a much more *significant* issue politically and morally than the other one, but it’s still one where a lot of people who have national-pride issues have a mental block. And no, I don’t think this has anything to do with me having any national-pride issues personally as an American; the White House got burned either way, regardless of who did it, and if anything giving credit to the Canadians at least would let me keep the credit within the Western Hemisphere without having to give anything to those hated Brits.)

  • Jeff

    re mmy vs ako, it would have been so much simpler if the British had used their Hessian troops to burn the White House. I doubt there would be any argument at all if they had…

  • SkepticalIdealist

    After reading the comment section of various news articles about unemployment insurance and healthcare, I am now convinced that the rich and the elite could never have as much contempt for average Americans, as average Americans have for one another.

  • JoJo

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read your blog Fred. I love your Words. OK, now back to work. Agape isn’t easy.

  • Spearmint

    …it seems to me that the logical conclusion from mmy’s premise that the British Canadians of 1912 weren’t politically differentiable from British citizens of England is not that it was the Canadians who burned Washington, but that it was the British who defended Queenston. After all it was Canadians who arguably didn’t exist yet- the British certainly did.
    After reading the comment section of various news articles about unemployment insurance and healthcare, I am now convinced that the rich and the elite could never have as much contempt for average Americans, as average Americans have for one another.
    Everyone despises traitors more than they despise suckers. It’s not the rich who can’t pay for their medical care, it’s we average Americans.

  • http://pecunium.livejournal.com/ Pecunium

    K: Why, exactly, would I care about the colonials’ silly misunderstanding of the class system? Because an intelligent respondent to a question of politics and behaviour in a given system would have the wit to inform themselves of the system which they were discussing.
    Then again one can’t really expect a pommy-git to take the time to actually pay attention to much outside the narrow compass of her vision; why, one wonders, with so much pressing on your plate at home, do you feel the need to try and educate the citizenry of the US (and and involved subset thereof, even if you disdain voting (which given that it’s a recent privilege in the UK, all things being considered, for the general populace to be numbered among the electors, I can see how one might fail to see merit in it).
    The arrant nonsense of all change being for the worst? Well the Normans coming in and kicking Saxon ass, that was a pretty shitty change, but since then… you are right, nothing has improved, the world (or at least the England) would be so much better off with absolute monarchs, villienage, petty warlords, etc.
    Since you are attempting to teach grandmothers to suck eggs, it might behoove you to learn some newer way of doing it, one that actually showed some sort of sense to go with the education you seem to be otherwise wasting.
    Steven S: it was meant to be condescending… an attempt to pretend that the “Colonials” didn’t manage to outmaneuver the Brits (both on the ground, and diplomatically) and so take the largest of the Great Powers of the Day to school. Some of them still possess a petite-bourgeoisie resentment of that little fact.

  • http://pecunium.livejournal.com/ Pecunium

    mmy: The issue of the Marines in Korea… not quite the “Army folded, the Marines stood the test”. The Army was in a much more exposed position when the Chinese pushed back; and the numbers they faced were different.
    More to the point, in some ways, the Marines (for a variety of reasons) had a higher percentage of WW2 vets in the ranks, and the army was shipping in National Guard Troops (the last time, prior to Iraq, in which a massive call up of the Guard sent troops to combat, in particular the 40th Inf Division from Calif.). The Guard were all volunteers, but the level of steady training tells.
    All in all, the Army and the Corps performed about the same; but the Corps has a (not unjustified) sense of being the red-headed stepchildren of the US forces, and they like to embellish this. (I speak as the son of a US Marine, and a Staff Sergeant of the US Army: who went to Iraq as a Guard Member, assigned to an active duty unit)
    As for unit cohesion: Any combat unit has it. A poorly run one (regardless of nationality, or branch) will have poor cohesion, at some level of scale, but the cohesion in the primary units (fire-teams, at the very least, and usually at the sqaud level) will be so tight nothing can come between the members. A well run unit (be it platoon, company or battalion) can aslo have it. Much larger than Bn, and it’s all smoke and mirrors. Paratroopers, Marines, etc., will talk a lot of rubbish about the loyalty of the class, but it’s not really so.

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