Years ago – I don’t remember how many and I don’t remember much about who or why- I met a man who was full of resentment towards people who had college degrees, sure they’d gotten them because they had the money to go to school while he didn’t, and certain they thought themselves better than he was. I haven’t met many of those people face to face over the years, although I’ve certainly run into them in magazines, on TV, and, today, on the Internet. They’re all over, and they’ve multiplied, I think. I’m pretty sure that resentment is at the heart of the Tea Party Movement, and other parties of the far right.
I’ve been trying to understand this phenomenon. I don’t have to look much further than my mother, who was very resentful even though she was also a lifelong Democrat. Something about rationality and playing fair, I think, superceded the resentments.
She didn’t spend long hours, ever, telling us who and why we should hate. But I remember one of those interminable Sunday afternoon drives when I was a kid. The neighborhood outside the car windows suddenly became one of shacks and brown people. I was fascinated. It wasn’t like the suburban communities I was familiar with. My mother was angry and full of resentment and I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe just because it was so different?
My mother grew up poor and part of an ethnic minority (Volgadeutsch – Germans from Russia). They were considered inferior to all but the Mexicans who worked in the same hot sugar beet fields in Colorado. I had always known she nurtured resentments towards people who had more, or people she thought felt superior to her. But I was surprised by her feelings towards the poor.
I’m not sure, but I think many Tea Party people harbor the same bias. They resent the poor, rather like Presidential candidate Herman Cain who, along with other right-leaning folks has suggested the jobless should stop complaining and find work. Rather like the Republicans who used to complain bitterly about welfare queens. Who worry that Americans have grown soft because the government has done too much for them.
But mostly resentment is directed against the “liberal elite.” People on the right resent liberals because they think they’re sentimental and condescending. Perhaps, their best known spokesman is Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas who, for example, in his dissent from Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion upholding the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School, said: “All the Law School cares about is its own image among know-it-all elites….” In another opinion he wrote, “If our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories.” In his autobiography, he described the ordeal of his confirmation hearings, as a time when “America’s elites were arrogantly wreaking havoc on everything my grandparents had worked for and all I’d accomplished in forty-three years of struggle.” (The quotations are to be found in the very excellent article about Thomas and his wife by Jeffrey Toobin in the August 29 New Yorker.)
I suppose resentment is a normal and natural feeling, born in those who believe they have suffered unjustly. But then again…. Years ago I dated a guy who rode the San Francisco hills on a motor scooter. I remember motoring up Nob Hill on a glorious night before the fog came in; I remember the two of us having coffee in “a clean, well-lighted place.” I felt very much part of my time. It would have been exciting except for my companion who, for what seemed like a very long cup of coffee indeed, complained about a third grade teacher who’d refused him permission to go to the bathroom. Seems he never forgot the incident and his resentment had festered the whole decade of his growing up. He would gladly have taken revenge then and there. I was glad never to see him again–despite that very wonderful motor scooter.
It seems to me that resentment is a very unpleasant state of mind.