Soundings October 8: Aboard a ‘Ship of Fools’ Awash with Hate

I write as the nation just witnessed the final stage of what might politely be labeled the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination debacle. President Donald Trump insisted on nominating the Appeals Court judge and GOP Senate leaders embraced his choice with a fierce partisan devotion only affected slightly by the emergence of several allegations of sexual assault against the nominee that purportedly occurred while he was in high school and college. The most public and poignant of these was advanced by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Nonetheless, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court on an almost completely partisan vote.

Kavanaugh doubtless complicated his course to the Court by adopting an unsubstantiated, lie and hate-filled stance in his testimony before the Senate committee handling his nomination that blamed Democrats for Ford’s allegation and decision to come forward:

This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus. … And as we all know in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.[1]

If Kavanaugh elected to address the concerns about his past behavior and his character in a coarse, mendacious, hyper-partisan and strangely conspiratorial way, he was backed by virtually all Republican Senators, who consistently sought to present the entire matter of his possible perpetration of assault as a power-play smear by Democrats against an extremely able individual. Typically, Trump went even further, and at a political rally in Mississippi, not only embraced a wild conspiracy claim that the entire episode was the concocted product of Democratic Party nefariousness—an assertion for which, again, there is no evidence—but mocked Dr. Ford’s Senate remarks to underscore his contention.[2]  Few political leaders on either side of the aisle publicly supported Trump’s ruthlessness, which his audience cheered. While one may not be surprised at his behavior, given his past actions, Trump chose to engage demagogically in mob incitement, rather than simply make the case for his nominee. And sadly, that decision and the response of the crowd bespeak the divide Trump is daily shamelessly deepening and crudely exploiting among Americans. That he believed it was to his personal and partisan advantage to ridicule the experience and pain of a victim of assault, and that his devotees, his so-called “base,” applauded him as he did so, says all one needs to know about this political moment.

In all of this, I was reminded not only of the tribalism that our principal party politics today demonstrate, but also, and more deeply, of the calculated call to hate that both Kavanaugh and Trump evidenced in their public remarks. Of the many who have explored the implications of humans’ capacity to hate, none has done so more perceptively and forcefully than the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009).  It is useful to consider Kolakowski’s insights when pondering the implications of this cancerous turn in our nation’s politics. In the first instance, Kolakowski argued, hatred can never be made holy because unleashed in the name of a supposedly “good” cause. And still more profoundly, he wondered why all totalitarian regimes

… always need hatred as an irreplaceable tool? They need it not just to maintain a desired readiness for mobilization and not even principally to channel human despair, hopelessness and accumulated aggression toward others and thus to forge them into their own weapons. No, the desire for hatred is explained by the fact that it inwardly destroys those who hate. It makes them morally helpless against the State; hatred resembles self-destruction, or spiritual suicide, and thus it uproots solidarity among the haters. … Hatred’s pure negativity, which paralyzes all human communication, also destroys the inner unity of personality, and hence it is irreplaceable as a means to disarm the human soul. [3]

As hatred enfeebles human capacity for moral deliberation, it also corrodes and finally stifles the capability likewise to care about even one’s fellow haters as one slides into despair. Those counseling hate tell their hearers that empathy is for “losers,” as, perhaps not surprisingly, Trump has been wont to say. Kolakowski warned of the implications of this sort of political behavior this way:

‘You are perfect, they are perfectly depraved. You would have lived in paradise long since, if the malice of your enemies had not prevented it.’ … The self-complacency of hatred bestows upon me the feeling that I am the happy possessor of absolute values. Thus, hatred finally culminates in a grotesque self-idolization, which is—as in fallen angels—only the reverse side of despair.[4]

In all of this, our nation—at least those of its citizens willing to rationalize viciousness and disregard for claims for human dignity, due process of law and human and civil rights—finds itself at a crossroads in which its capacity to judge moral claims is under systematic attack. And once a democratic people loses its competence to discern and reason prudently, history teaches it will ultimately lose the privilege of freedom either to its own tyrannizing or to its willingness to support the cheapening bombast of a would-be autocrat. In this sense, hate as motivator and mobilizing tool, as evidenced in Kavanaugh’s rhetoric, Trump’s calculated and nasty public spectacle of scorn and in the stance of the major share of the GOP Senate caucus, is the purveyor not of righteousness and freedom, but of a depraved despair that is eroding the foundations of governance as it is practiced.

Such blind hatred and the calculation among many GOP leaders that it is to their advantage to unleash and curry it, cannot be repaid with the same bloodlust lest its adverse social effects simply be redoubled, nor can its consequences be readily undone. Instead, the body politic writ large now remains the only arbiter with the power and legitimacy to cry halt to the slide into collective ignominy that the Kavanaugh nomination process symbolizes. And those citizens must rebalance the ship of state on the basis of a realistic view of humankind that accepts the brokenness of human beings. As Kolakowski memorably put this vital point:

In a world filled with hatred, vindictiveness, and envy, which to us—less through the poverty of nature than our gargantuan voracity—appears narrower and narrower, hatred is one of those evils, it seems plausible to say, that will not be driven out by an institutional action. … [Rather], each one of us can contribute to limiting hatred in society by restricting it within ourselves; thus each one of use can achieve for himself the uncertain and fragile anticipation of a more endurable life on our Ship of Fools.[5] 

However difficult it may be to attain, this is the path forward for our society and it remains the province of its general citizenry to undertake it. The question is whether that population can summon the will to resist the siren song of hatred now being played for it. As Kolakowski observed, “Education to democracy is education to dignity, and that presupposes two things: a readiness to fight and freedom from hatred.”[6] Conflict will ever be with us as long as human beings enjoy the freedom to think and choose independently. The grave matter now before the American people is whether they can take steps to realize that fact and preserve the endlessly frustrating and hope-filled possibilities that its recognition represents.

 

Notes

[1] “Brett Kavanaugh’s Opening Statement: Full Transcript,” The New York Times, September 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html  Accessed September 27, 2018.   

[2]  CBS News, October 2, 2018, “Trump Mocks Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate Testimony,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWv1ipoi-c8 Accessed October 2, 2018. 

[3] Kolakowski, Leszek. “Education to Hatred, Education to Dignity,” in Modernity on Endless Trial, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, p.258.

[4] Kolakowski, “Education to Hatred” p. 259.

[5] Kolakowski, “Education to Hatred,” p.261.

[6] Kolakowski, “Education to Hatred,” p. 260.