I was reading an intriguing page-turner called Radical Wordsworth, a book about the poet extraordinaire, William Wordsworth (born almost exactly 250 years ago)(link). A quote that got me thinking about self-interest, greed, self-righteousness, and certain cognitive biases that cause one to make an exception out of themselves, so so speak, is the following (p. 121):
Wordsworth arrived [back in England, after being in France around the time of the French Revolution] amidst a growing movement for the abolition of the slave trade and swiftly came to the conclusion that if the revolution prospered in France, then the spirit of humanitarianism would spread and bring an end to the vile trade in human flesh. At the same time, he watched anxiously as the forces of reaction took hold and his native land moved inexorably towards armed conflict with the new republic across the Channel.
So, WW (whom I will call Wordsworth—not to be confused with his American predecessor of the highest caliber of artistic ability, Walt Whitman!) was fairly progressive in that time of his life (early 20’s). He felt optimistic that the revolution in France—marked as it was by an ostensible love of liberty, equality, and fraternity—would make the slave trade absolutely glow in its rank barbarity, and callous love of money.
Humanitarianism, the author of the book, Jonathan Bate, termed it.
At the same time, the forces of reaction worked against that spirit of progress and high virtues such as freedom and goodness.
I would note that a term for hard-core ideological conservatives (at least in this country, at this time) is reactionary. So, one could then say that WW hoped that this progressive desire to free the chained and give hope to the downtrodden was being countered by a fear of such values, and a conservative backlash or reaction.
I believe these somewhat opposed forces are still alive and well in the heart of human beings on this side of the Atlantic, and in our modern time. The two ideological/moral/political ends of the spectrum seem quite passionate and self-assured, as well…..
Let go off onto a tangent and point out that I am not reflexively progressive—liberal, radical, revolutionary, and egalitarian, if you wish. I value progress, but I do have some respect for some tradition under some circumstances. I believe, for example, that under no circumstances should anyone pay more than 33% of their income to Federal taxation (though the top two or three tax brackets should pay at least 25%). And I believe that political correctness, post-modernism, and the like are tearing at values and ideals and institutions I would consider to be traditional/proper, such as the case both Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom made when they were alive and sharing their unmistakable views with the world (written link)(YouTube link)(Charlie Rose interview). As well, the inimitable Mort Adler was a big proponent of “great ideas of Western civilization” and how they can’t just be discarded because they were, say, written by imperfect white men from prior centuries (link). Finally, I think that certain things that are going on in society nowadays are very disconcerting (the way sports works now, the waning excellence of public education, the way the news works now, and of course obnoxious social media getting its tentacles into almost every aspect of society).
In a word: the love of money, certain illegitimate aspects of government, and the overindulgence of America’s youth have torn at our national character and nearly brought our most important institutions to their knees. I might sound conservative in a way when I say: I believe that so-called traditional values are not being honored as they should, and that that does have some causal role in the decline in American society in the last 40-50-100 years. I’m not lobbying for a sexist/racist/patriarchal culture a-la the fabled 1950s, I’m just saying that there is a lot that is going on that is not morally good or socially salubrious.
By “traditional values” of course I do not mean the darker side of America’s past, but things such as willingness to share, work ethic, personal responsibility, trust in others and in social institutions, and generally the belief that to serve America is far superior than to act as a parasite on it. That reminds me of an old saw that I think works beautifully:
Politics: (n.) from poly, meaning “many”, and ticks, meaning “blood-sucking parasites”. To be clear about my belief: I would say that politicians, the moneyed class, the educated elite, corporate CEOs, old-timey industrial tycoons and “robber barons”, members of the military-industrial complex, and white collar criminals have sucked more blood from this country than a millions welfare cheats, poor immigrants, uneducated types, street urchins, or lazy/entitled individuals could accomplish in a millennium! Think about all the fraud that has occurred re: COVID relief funds, or Medicare fraud, in the last two years (or two decades, respectively)—that is white collar crime!
Despite what I said above, I do not consider the basis of America’s problems with self-interest, self-indulgence, and disintegrating character to be largely the fault of the progressive spirit. One can easily see this if one compares, say, 1) F.D.R.’s societal/economic interventions to combat the Great Depression with 2) the love of money, certain illegitimate aspects of government, and the overindulgence of pleasure in America’s adults of that era (a Great Gatsbyesque and “Roaring 20s” and “hyper-capitalistic economic culture that led right up to the stock market crash of 1929, which kicked off the significant recession for the entire next decade).
That is to say that it seems almost inarguable that F.D.R.’s “New Deal type interventions in society” (the liberal/progressive approach) were fairly well-conceived and decently effective, whereas the relatively conservative/industrialist/materialistic forces in society at the time were those very ones which brought on the spectacular rise in the lifestyle of many rich individuals as well as the subsequent collapse of this “Gilded Age” lifestyle when their greed and self-interest crashed the stock market and ushered in a financial catastrophe of gargantuan proportions. In a word, “gilded age” refers to everything being covered with gold, and the New Deal meant jobs and soup kitchens. Which would you say is better from the moral point of view? I would urge you to read The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath or watch the more recent movie The Wolf of Wall Street, or the 80s movie Wall Street, if you are having trouble deciding.
Okay, so back to the idea WW had about the forces of revolution in France, versus the counterreaction in England (and how it is still operative within human hearts, and also largely based on urban vs. rural, educated vs. blue collar, and, increasingly now: extremist/fanatical/fascistic/open to violence and revolution—as compared to “more reasonable”. You can no doubt guess on which side of the political aisle I place extremist/fanatical/fascistic/open to violence and revolution!
My thesis is that two important reasons human beings tend to—by and large—resist social justice and progressive reforms in modern society have to do with a) self-interest and b) self-righteousness.
First, self-interest. Indeed, one of the impulses/tendencies/habits/predilections that animate Americans is self-interest. Now, I don’t want to paint with too broad of strokes here; I believe that everyone has a proper right to look out for their own self-interest. I’m an individualist to a large degree; a free thinker. I don’t want to lobby for some kind of Dalai Lama-esque, Christ-like way of being wherein someone sacrifices and endures privation so as to look out for the interests of others. Yes, some of this does (reasonably so!) operate in families. But whereas one should respect—maybe even to some degree love—their neighbor or a stranger, certainly one should not place the well-being and advantage of those individuals above the self. That wouldn’t comport with human nature.
However, I’m here to tell you that when I look around me, I see way too much self-interest. Some of it is kind of “garden variety”—as when a teen spends a lot of time looking in the mirror, or staring at screens. Two-year-olds are preternaturally self-interested, and that’s just how things are.
But there is a disconcerting amount of self-interest that suffuses the ideological/political/cultural Right (i.e., conservatives/reactionaries/MAGA types). It’s like Ayn Randian philosophy on steroids, now.
You see all kinds of “ME-ME-MEism!” operating in the wealthy, the elite, the “endlessly aggrieved” (as I call those who think that it’s open season on whites, men, Christians, the wealthy, straight people, etc.), etc. There is a crop of what I call ne’er-do-wells on that far end of the political spectrum who really only seem to look out for “#1”. Whether they are facing trial for causing pain and suffering to shooting victims’ families with their propagandistic/hate speech/Orwellian nonsense (Alex Jones) or basically openly fomenting rebellion and counter-democratic ideas (Steve Bannon) or acting like a repugnant demagogue (Marjorie Taylor-Greene) or breaking laws and traditions like knocking down dominoes (Madison Cawthorn) or failing ignominiously to be a patriotic individual (Mark Meadows), it’s glaring and it’s appalling.
When those folks get together for “fascism hour”—also known as “let’s all hate together!”—also known as “what kinds of conspiracy theories will we be aggrieved and paranoid about today?”—also known as “Scientology meets A Handmaid’s Tale“—also known as “George Orwell rolls over in his grave, again” (I’m talking about Trump’s rallies)—bad things happen to the American soul. Abraham Lincoln’s ethos and Ronald Reagan’s decorum and Teddy Roosevelt’s animating spirit are all denigrated.
The GOP is more like the Grand Old Party of hyperindividualism + endless grievance + racial animus + hatred and intolerance + fascism + white nationalism.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating one bit, or being extremist, or slandering them. This is the party of my father, and it has transmuted over time—since Gingrich, but especially with Trump and Trumpism—into a farce; a disgrace. Those on the Right will tolerate virtually any kind of boorish, unscrupulous, uncouth, soulless behavior in its leaders, candidates, and platform. Nothing is too extreme now. Christianity in its best form is out the window.
The chimpanzees are running the circus now, folks.
What this has to do with self-interest is that self-interest absolutely suffuses this ethos; this cultural phenomenon; this political-religious-ideological mindset.
I used to think that, say, a baker not wanting to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding was pretty odious and classless. Now, I would long for that kind of gentle intolerance. Have you seen a Trump rally? The shit they talk about is so unhinged, despicable, and obvious it is frightening. But it is also self-interested. True, the wealthy (what was once about 1/2 of the Republican Party) have virtually always lobbied for their own best interests. It was “devil take the hindmost” and it was made justifiable by the 1980’s and Reaganism. Bush, of course, put it on meth.
But the Christian elements of that political-ideological-cultural movement have fused with the “alt-Right” interests and the “seditious sensibility strain”, and could also be considered a kind of self-righteousness.
Self-interest in this context refers to: “It’s all about me. I care not what your life is like, or what your interests are; I care about myself and my family and my tribe.” If you’re an immigrant, I don’t want to hear it. If you’re a liberal, you can go kick rocks because you are dangerous to this country. If you’re not Christian, I don’t really think you matter. If you don’t like this country, you are welcome to leave it. It’s exclusive; it’s angry; it’s potentially violent; it’s anti-patriotic at heart.
And make no mistake, when this kind of malignant conservatism is joined with white supremist movements and militia-level of anti-government thinking—and guns—we’ve got a big problem. This plus conspiracy plus disinformation plus grievance equals seditious conspiracy like we saw on January 6th. This is why the SPLC and FBI consider domestic terrorism, violent extremism, hatred, and guns to be a major threat to this country. 25x what any liberal who is angry about police misconduct or abortion rights being outlawed are capable of.
Christians specialize in self-righteousness, I’m afraid. Look, I’m not saying Christianity at its core is self-righteous, but I am saying that modern evangelical Christianity is only one step away from The Handmaid’s Tale. Not when it is confined to a person praying silently, but when it’s mixed with mega churches, televangelism, politics, “the South will rise again” kinds of rhetoric—it becomes almost weaponized. It leads to a kind of hate and disrespect for minority rights, and basically a Fox News kind of mentality. We have witnessed it with Rush Limbaugh; we see it in KKK rallies; we know it exists in dark chat rooms for conspiratorially-minded white males with more guns than brains, and more of a hallowed past than a future.
What this has to do with William Wordsworth and his feelings about England in 1800 is that he was pointing out that there exist these forces of reaction that will work against progress. As he was writing in about the year 1800, it’s clear that these malignant conservative impulses have always been, and perhaps always will at least lay dormant, in certain people/ideological factions. In certain people, and during certain cultural contexts, these impulses flourish.
In WW’s time, he was referring to slavery—which was only being considered as unethical in England, and certainly still robust here in America (it was the Civil War, after all, in which 600,000 Americans died because the Southern gentry just couldn’t imagine living without slave labor, and Southern boys with their muskets and their rage took up arms against the people of the United States).
True, in our time, slavery has been abolished. But that’s about the best that could be said for our times. And that, my friends, is an exceedingly low bar. I won’t list all the things that concern me and keep me awake at night.
But all this is to say that though progressivism and that progressive sensibility has always sought the sunlight, the forces of reaction—reactionary is a term that refers to an extreme anti-progressive individual or political sensibility—are essentially hyperconservatism, neo-fascism, noxious nativism and violent anti-democratic ideology.
From the John Birch society to the Federalist Society, from Fox News to exclusive dark corners of the web, this stuff doesn’t sleep. It can be characterized sort of poetically as: the self-righteousness of Alex Jones combined with the self-interest Steve Bannon. It’s Herschel Walker plus 2nd Amendment extremists. It’s “No I won’t bake a cake for you faggots” to people who shoot abortion doctors. It’s Donald Trump as demagogue and the quintessential endlessly aggrieved con man. It’s fascism plus social media plus cognitive biases. It’s shooting an unarmed black man in the back to voter disenfranchisement. It’s Fox News + the Supreme Court + Rush Limbaugh + 8-chan + the tax-evading rich corporatists + the quintessential megachurch pastor.
We have seen these elements before—from the bad guys in Lord of the Rings to George Orwell’s denizens of autocracy; from Hitler’s Nazi Party to Vladimir Putin’s war machine; from the landowners in The Grapes of Wrath to the rich in The Great Gatsby; from English anti-democratic mania vis-à-vis the French Revolution to McCarthyism; from the Confederacy to Jim Crow. Now it is voting rights assaults in red states to election denialism; anti-vaccine sentiment to school board populism; from mass shootings to militia groups.
This level of self-interest combined with self-righteousness — mixed with political unrest and conspiratorial disinformation and hate and intolerance — is not the America in which I was raised in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and it’s not the America our Founding Fathers founded.