I was watching the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" and was struck by one of the passages in the film. Basically, some of the young-earth creationists interviewed expressed disbelief, even resentment, over the idea that Man is not "special." Meaning, if Man is simply the result of natural selection, nothing more than a highly-evolved species of animal, and not created by God separately and distinctly from all other living things, then ... well, then man was not created by God separately and distinctly from all other living things, and is therefore not "unique" or "special" but is instead rather ordinary. The resentment comes, I think, from being thought of as ordinary, rather than as extraordinary, when one feels deserving of the latter.
As I was watching this I thought about some of the other issues I've written about here and elsewhere. For some time I've noted that right-wing/"conservative"/Tea Party™/Republican/whateveryouwanttocallit politics has, particularly in the Obama era, revolved largely around the dual emotions of self-congratulation and resentment. Indeed the whole Tea Party™ "movement" started with a rant by Rick Santelli on CNBC in which he asked his audience if they, the good and decent and responsible people who paid their mortages and didn't borrow beyond their means, wanted to "bail out" the "losers" who didn't, and did.
That's been the recurring motif on issue after issue, in speech after speech, in Fox News segment after Fox News segment, ever since. We are the Good People who have done everything right and believe in all the right things, They are the Bad People who wrongly benefit at our expense and don't deserve our help. Not only that, but We are not getting the respect and admiration we deserve [from the Bad People] for being the Good People, indeed We are Being Attacked for it [by the Bad People]. They "hate" Us, when They should admire Us.
I couldn't help but notice a connection.
What these young-earth creationist folks were basically saying is that they feel insulted by the idea that Man is not as unique and special as the Book of Genesis would have us believe. Quoting Darwin, "Man ... thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity." There was even some talk in the documentary about pride; paraphrasing, Man should be proud of being Man, of being God's most highly favored earthly creation. That's the self-congratulation part. The resentment comes from being told that perhaps that feeling might not be entirely justified.
Pride is supposed to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, after all. But, quoting Darwin again, "Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen -- though not through his own exertions -- to the very summit of the organic scale." Yet somehow, in some people, that pride has grown into a sort of grotesque and exaggerated sense of self-admiration. There are those who admire themselves so much that even an idea that might undermine the basis of that self-admiration becomes profoundly threatening.
I wrote about this recently, on the topic of gun enthusiasts and the Second Amendment. I came to the realization a while back that the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is grounded in property rather than liberty, as "Arms" are themselves property, viz., consumer goods that must be purchased before they can be Kept and Borne. As one insightful commenter (and gun enthusiast) rightly pointed out, thinking of gun rights as property rights instead of liberty interests has no real practical effect; it certainly doesn't enable any regulations or restrictions that are not already permissible. But it is taken, perhaps also rightly, by gun enthusiasts as an attempt to "diminish" them, their guns and their "rights," even though it really doesn't. Characterizing guns as property or as consumer products, merely thinking about them that way, implies that guns are about sales and profits, not Liberty and Freedom. It makes those who take such great pride in owning and using guns feel like nothing more than ordinary retail consumers. It tells them that owning guns doesn't make them heroes, doesn't make them "unique" or "special." It tells them, or seems from their perspective to tell them, that their pride is unjustified.
Here again, as with the young-earth creationists interviewed for the HBO documentary, a new or different idea undermines the individual's sense of his own importance, greatness, specialness, uniqueness, personal heroism, or whatever. Something that is of great emotional importance to the individual and about which he cares very deeply, is presented to him as a rather ordinary and unremarkable thing. Hence an idea that objectively should not be the least bit threatening, is. Whether the idea is valid or not becomes well beside the point; the person who feels threatened by it will vigorously defend himself against it, even though it is not directed at him personally, because he feels he's being attacked where he should be admired.
Marriage exclusivists, as I call them, can also be motivated by that sort of pride. The best, and worst, justification I ever heard or read for marriage exclusivity was grounded in the premise that straight couples' capacity to procreate offspring makes them "unique" and "special" and therefore worthy of special consideration, special reward, and special compensation from the state, in the form of exclusive access to marriage. This person actually compared marriage to veterans' benefits, the obvious implication being that straight people have earned exclusive access to legal marital status by ... well, by being straight, by being potential breeders for the state. By extension, then, same-sex couples have not earned it, and therefore ought not to expect it and ought not to complain that not getting it makes them "second-class citizens."
Sick, yes, I know. I had to at least give this person credit for not bringing religion or "morality" into the discussion. But time and time again I had to remind him that nothing he was talking about with respect to procreation and child-rearing would change one iota if same-sex couples could be "married," each the other's "spouse," under the law. He was arguing the virtues of marriage as a justification for marriage, not exclusivity. Ultimately, what he was saying was this: Marriage is a "special benefit" reserved for special people; if we extend that benefit to non-special people, the benefit itself will not change in any material way, but it will no longer be special. The law should make special people feel special. One commenter related an anecdote in which she was told by a marriage exclusivist that that person "would not feel respected" if same-sex marriage became legal. Again, equality threatens the pride of those who deem themselves "special" and "unique," and insufficiently "respected" for it.
Which brings us to the 1%. I haven't written much about this, but we're all aware of what 1%-ers Tom Perkins and Sam Zell have recently said on record about themselves, their class and its critics. The wealthy are being criticized, vilified and persecuted when they should be thanked, admired and celebrated for being who they are and doing what they do. Perkins foolishly compared this to the Nazi Holocaust, whereas Zell actually came out and said, paraphrasing, Leave rich people alone; we're just better than you, so deal with it.
For five years Republican politicians and officeholders have been telling us the same thing: America's Job Creators™, these captains of industry and masters of the financial universe, are sensitive, delicate flowers who must not be criticized, scrutinized, or talked about in any way that does not acknowledge and laud their self-evident awesomeness. Republicans actually told us that our economic problems were solely attributable to the "fact" that the President of the United States was hurting rich people's feelings.
Obviously this is stemming from all that Liberal talk about "income inequality." What progressives are essentially saying to the 1% is, No, you and what you do are not worth 1,000 times more than your workers and what they do. And the 1% are fighting back, saying, Oh yes we are, and yes it is. Once again, we're seeing pushback from people who think themselves, whether justifiably or not, to be unique and special and even heroic, for which they congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated, being told instead from the outside that they're neither unique nor special nor heroic, which they resent.
Which brings me to an interesting question. If right-wing/conservative/Tea Party™/Republican politics is grounded in self-congratulation and resentment, as illustrated herein, what is left-wing/liberal/progressive/Democratic politics grounded in? Is it grounded in envy, and a different kind of resentment? Is it grounded in an actual desire to take from others, to reap unearned benefits at others' expense, for "free stuff," as we're often accused? If it's true that what liberals and progressives are doing in promoting science, gun control, marriage equality and economic fairness is deliberately bursting the bubble of Good People, telling those who are unique and special that they are neither unique nor special, undermining the pride that Americans justifiably take in themselves, their beliefs, their possessions and their achievements, why are we doing it?
We see people threatened by ideas that undermine their pride. They see people doing everything they can to undermine that pride. Are we both right?