The Benefits of Resentment and Cynicism

I really like this quote from Break Through at Kevin Drum’s site. So yet another book that I’d better read.

Here’s the quote that Drum pulls out of Chapter 7 of the book:

From Break Through, courtesy of Kevin Drum: “In America, the political left and political right have conspired to create a culture and politics of victimization, and all the benefits of resentment and cynicism have accrued to the right. That’s because resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse. They are the weapons of the reactionary and the conservative — of people who fear and resist the future. Just as environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot. Grievance and victimization make us smaller and less generous and can thus serve only reactionaries and conservatives.”.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up why I reject the proposition that the way to fight unfair or malevolent attacks on the academy (or anything I value) is to out-shrill the shrill, out-swear the profane, out-simplify the simple-minded.

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10 Responses to The Benefits of Resentment and Cynicism

  1. withywindle says:

    I suppose if the quotation remotely resembled reality, I might find it interesting too.

    Not to be harsh or anything, but come on. Look, ma, conservatives and reactionaries! I’m so glad I’m more generous and large-minded than they are, and that I can get to second base with the future on a first date. Thinking about how good I am makes me feel extra good about myself.

    If you want simple-minded, that quotation isn’t a bad place to start.

  2. topometropolis says:

    Salon ran a related article/excerpt by the authors of Break Through ealier this week.

  3. JasonII says:

    sounds real to me. listen to conservative radio stations. i also remember a conservative blogger before the last congressional elections claiming we should vote republican or face an apocalypse.

  4. Gavin Weaire says:

    The Burke position in the Great Burke-Withywindle Debate on Is the Academy Going to Hell and What Should Be Done About It is IMO the conservative one, as defined in these terms. (Well, as defined in a way less pejorative version of these terms: resistance to losing valuable, long-established, aspects of the present in service to an imagined ideal future.) So you should apocalypse it up!

    More seriously, this just seems empirically wrong. Without taking a position on the rightness or wrongness of left-wing movements as such, it seems strange to say – as this implies – that e.g. the successes of organized labor in either the US, Britain, or Ireland had no component of mobilizing people based on anger and resentment.

  5. back40 says:

    There’s a ditzy wrapper around a useful main point:

    “environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot.”

    The other bits are face saving excuses for past and current gaffes, a sweetener that may make it easier to swallow bitter medicine. Take the medicine. Get well.

  6. As Weaire says, taken on its face this quote is just wrong. What “great progressive politics” has ever existed in the absence of a group that feels aggrieved and victimized? Perhaps they mean that people shouldn’t just sit around stewing in their own juices, which is obviously true; but it seems to me that’s usually a result of political impotence, rather than a cause of it.

  7. Chris Clarke says:

    As an enviro, I’m not so much trying to “create a great ecological politics” out of apocalypse as, well, to try and see if that apocalypse can be averted.

    Perhaps that requires creating a politics, and if you’re creatng a politics you might as well try to create a good one.

    But that apocalypse is out there looming where it is not already in progress, and it’d be ridiculous — not to mention infantilizing of the people you’re trying to reach — not to at least mention it, I’m thinking.

  8. paul spencer says:

    Maybe the difference is that reactionaries and conservatives “feel aggrieved”; while labor, occupied peoples, victims of genocide, and the environment actually are victimized.

  9. Consider the following passage from Leonard Sagan, The Health of Nations (1987, p. 184):

    The history of rapid health gains in the United States is not unique; the rate at which death rates have fallen is even more rapid in more recently modernizing countries. The usual explanations for this dramatic improvement—better medical care, nutrition, or clean water—provide only partial answers. More important in explaining the decline in death worldwide is the rise of hope … [through] the introduction of the transistor radio and television, bringing into the huts and shanties of the world the message that progress is possible, that each individual is unique and of value, and that science and technology can provide the opportunity for fulfillment of these hopes.

  10. dave mazella says:

    I sympathize with your worries about a backwards-looking politics of resentment, but I also worry about the rhetorical effects of a term like “cynicism,” especially when used by the left.

    Newt Gingrich, who knows about such things, once stressed in his GOPAC tapes that “language matters,” and encouraged Republican politicians to repeatedly apply the term “cynicism” against Democrats as a way to “define our opponents.” This was one of their “contrasting words” used to bring people onto the side of the “optimistic, governing” Republican party. It seems odd to me to criticize hyper-partisanship with a term that has its own, recent partisan history.

    If we are worrying about the risks of perpetuating a shrill, unproductive, and unsatisfying rhetorical battle, then perhaps we should consider retiring a term that was used, very effectively, to start this partisan battle in the first place.

    Best wishes,


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