TCS Daily


The Natural History of Bush-Hating

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - October 21, 2003 12:00 AM

My teacher, Joel Feinberg, once wrote that, "Every philosophical paper must begin with an unproved assumption." Argument, in other words, must start somewhere, preferably with a proposition that is widely accepted. The unproved assumption of this column is that hatred is bad.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed.) defines "hatred" as "The condition or state of relations in which one person hates another, the emotion or feeling of hate; active dislike, detestation, enmity, ill-will, malevolence." To hate is "To hold in very strong dislike; to detest; to bear malice to. The opposite of to love." 

Each of us knows firsthand whether, whom, when, and why he or she hates. Hatred is seldom admitted and often denied, usually vociferously. It is denied even when the evidence overwhelmingly supports its ascription. One says, by way of denial, that one has contempt for X or is angry at X or merely dislikes X -- but doesn't hate X, as if contempt, anger, and dislike are any better than hatred. That we deny hating shows that we view it as a character defect and are ashamed of it. And well we should. Hatred is a vile and destructive emotion, one that distorts our thinking (leading to, among other things, fallacies [reasoning errors]) and disposes us to commit cruel acts. Hatred is not one of the seven deadly sins, but it should be.

 

To condemn hatred is not to impugn emotion generally. There is nothing per se wrong with or suspicious about emotion, as Plato and others have thought. Human beings are naturally emotional as well as rational, even if only the latter separates us from the other animals. Emotions themselves can be sources of knowledge. But some emotions, such as hatred, are dangerous to self and others. Few people, I suspect, regret having loved. Many, I feel confident, regret having hated. Most of us find ways to sublimate our hatred. Some of us fail at it, often miserably.

 

Like any emotion, hatred (in others) must be inferred from (their) behavior (including linguistic behavior). There are four signs of hatred:

 

* Obsession. The hater returns again and again to the hated. Nothing looms larger in the hater's mind. The hated becomes a brooding omnipresence, a focus of suspicion, fear, and loathing.

 

* Inability to see -- much less to acknowledge -- good in the hated. The hated becomes the very personification of evil, incapable of being, intending, or doing good. Nobody is perfectly bad, of course, but this is how the hated appears.

 

* Cynicism. Nothing the hated says is taken at face value, however plausible it may be on its face and however sincerely it is expressed. Indeed, the hated's claim of good motivation is often taken as further evidence of his or her viciousness, duplicity, or perversity.

 

* Malevolence. The hater is not merely indifferent to the welfare of the hated, as might be the case with a stranger, but wishes things to go poorly for him or her. The hater delights in the hated's misery or misfortune. The Germans have a special word for this: "schadenfreude."

 

The most hated person in the United States today (dare I say the world?) may be our president, George W. Bush. I did not vote for President Bush -- I voted for Ralph Nader the past two times -- and hold no brief for him. On some issues I agree with him and on others I disagree. I like to think that I am a fair-minded and honest critic. How do I know that he is hated? I read newspapers and magazines (see, e.g., Jonathan Chait, "The Case for Bush Hatred," in a recent issue of The New Republic); I watch public-affairs programs on television (cable as well as network); I visit Internet websites (including blogs); and I talk to people (friends, colleagues, students, neighbors). The depth and breadth of animosity toward President Bush astounds me. It is also dismaying, for it distracts attention from matters of principle and policy in which all of us have a stake.

 

As I explain to my Ethics and Philosophy of Law students, politics can and should be the most noble of human endeavors. It is the means by which citizens forge their collective destiny -- and identity. But the politics we actually have falls far short of this ideal. American politics today has become the politics of personal destruction. Temperate comments are the exception rather than the rule. Reason gives way to emotion, and not just any emotions, either: the very worst of them, such as spite, anger, envy, greed, and hatred. Politics has become warfare by other means. Anyone who loves this country has to be saddened.

 

Hatred in Action

 

Let me illustrate these points with a prominent columnist. As most readers of TCS know, Paul Krugman writes a semiweekly column for The New York Times. I know little about Krugman except that he is an economist. I have been reading his columns (online) for about a year. At first I thought he was a run-of-the-mill liberal critic of a conservative administration. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. Indeed, such criticism (loyal opposition) is vital to our democracy. Politics at its best is about policy and principle: about collective goals and constraints on their pursuit. Reasonable, well-informed, well-meaning people can and should disagree about such things. But as the weeks and months went by, I began to detect a certain meanness and unfairness, even a touch of pathology, in Krugman's columns. I now think that he hates President Bush.

 

The signs of Krugman's hatred are there for all to see. First, he is obsessed. Nearly every column for the past year has been about the Bush administration, and often about the president personally. I assume that Krugman has free rein as far as column topics go (just as I do at TCS), so why he focuses almost exclusively on President Bush requires explanation. Hatred explains it. Second, I have never seen Krugman make a favorable comment, even grudgingly, about President Bush. Someone might say that there is nothing favorable to be said, but that is disingenuous. Nobody is perfectly bad (omnimalevolent) and nobody performs only evil deeds (omnimaleficence). Krugman could prove me wrong by writing an occasional favorable column about the president or his administration. I will not hold my breath waiting for it.

 

Third, he systematically questions President Bush's motives. If the president says he did X for reason Y, Krugman says it was really for reason Z. Awarding a contract to Halliburton cannot possibly be legitimate; it must be a case of cronyism. Reducing taxes cannot be based on principle (e.g., that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor; that self-sufficiency is intrinsically good); it is calculated to "secure a key part of the Republican party's base," namely, the wealthy. To read Krugman is to see only corruption and deceit on the part of the president and his staff. It's not that the president's good intentions go awry, mind you. That would be a legitimate criticism. The president has bad intentions. Fourth, Krugman gives every indication of wanting the Bush administration's policies to fail, even if this redounds to the detriment of the American people. Krugman's incessantly negative and increasingly shrill and virulent columns about the war in Iraq, for example, come across as positively gleeful. One senses a hope, on his part, that the American reconstruction of Iraq fails.

 

It might be objected that for every Bush-hater like Krugman, there is (or was) a Clinton-hater. But what ice does that cut? Do two hatreds cancel each other out? Are we doomed to play a losing tit-for-tat game? Must we sink inexorably to the bottom of the political barrel? Someone must rise above vindictiveness, pettiness, and hatred if we are to achieve the promise (and realize the genius) of our political system.

 

Perhaps the first step in this redemptive process is for people to refuse to read Krugman's columns -- and to let the editors of The New York Times know about it. I'm serious about this: I have long since stopped reading Maureen Dowd's silly rants. I found that they contributed nothing to my thinking. They didn't even have the merit of entertaining me. To read Krugman is to support him. To support him is to encourage his hatefulness.

 

There is another and even better reason to refuse to read Krugman: He expounds on matters outside his field of expertise. Krugman's "economic" columns consist, in the main, of criticisms of President Bush's policies. The recent blackout, for example, was President Bush's fault. The California electricity crisis was President Bush's fault. Everything that happens in Iraq (or the Middle East generally) is President Bush's fault. Where did an economist get normative expertise? Graduate school? If so, which course or seminar, specifically? Was it during the research for and writing of the Ph.D. dissertation? But how does that work? I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation. It didn't make me wise(r). Economists are technicians, not moral preceptors. They can tell policymakers what they must give up in order to get this or that. They are not equipped, even if they are so inclined, to decide which action to take.

 

In case you're wondering, I say the same about my fellow philosophers. We, too, are technicians. Whereas economists are trained to ascertain the costs of policies (including laws), philosophers are trained to ascertain the costs of beliefs. The philosopher's only leverage is the law of noncontradiction. The economist's only leverage is the law of supply and demand. That Krugman is an economist gives his values no more weight than anyone else's. Yours. Mine. My mother's. That I am a philosopher gives my values no more weight than anyone else's. There are many authorities in this world, but there are no moral authorities. If you don't share the values expressed by Krugman's premises, then you have no reason to accept his conclusion. That he is a brilliant economist (assuming, for the sake of argument, that he is) is neither here nor there.

 

Unfortunately, some of Krugman's readers may unwittingly infer normative authority from his authority in the technical realm of economics. If he were honest he would disabuse them of this and never let them forget it. He would say that the values he expresses or argues for in his columns get no additional weight from the fact that he is an economist. When he plumps for a bundle consisting of high taxes and ample social services rather than a bundle consisting of low taxes and minimal social services, as he did in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, he is expressing a preference that has nothing to do with his economic expertise. At that point he has become a political player or ideologue. But then, if Krugman were honest rather than hateful, he wouldn't be writing about matters that lie outside his field of expertise to begin with.

 

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington.

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