February 22, 2019

The Joy of Hatred

“There is a spider crawling along the floor mat, William Hazlitt tells us (in an immortal essay from 1826 called “On the Pleasure of Hating”), and he hates it. Hatred does not lead him to violence. He is an evolved and superior creature, in that regard, or so he says. Lesser persons—“a child, a woman, a clown, or a moralist a century ago” (Hazlitt does want to be noticed)—would crush the bug. But his own impulse is to lift the mat and generously allow the insect to scurry away. He is proud of himself. And yet, he does hate the creepy little thing. He acknowledges a satisfaction or pleasure in hating it, too. The acknowledgment leads him to observe that he does not mind indulging a few other hatreds, as well. Finally he recognizes that hatred is an abiding hunger, stronger and more reliable than love, and its gaping maw demands to be fed, and it will be fed.

This was an immortal observation because Hazlitt did not blame the spider. Nor did he attribute the hatred he felt to the devil, or to social conditions, or to theological error, or to some horrible disfigurement of soul. He attributed it merely to his own normal and natural human quality, which was an observation that, so far as I know, nobody had ever offered so clearly and purely in the past (though I might be wrong about that). In later years, the study of hatred may have undergone a few advances, culminating, as I see it, in 1946 in a brilliant essay by Sartre called Reflections on the Jewish Question, or Anti-Semite and Jew. Sartre’s big discovery bore on the sources of racist hatred. In his interpretation, hatred does not begin with the object of hatred. It begins with the hater, who, for reasons of his own, finds a satisfaction in hating. Anti-Semitism is not about the Jew; it is about the anti-Semite. But the road that led to Sartre’s insight began with Hazlitt and his spider.

Does anything in these ruminations shed a light on Donald Trump and his wall? Trump himself invokes common sense on behalf of his wall, or, at least, he pretends to do so. But there is a reason why, judging from the polls, a significant number of people seem to have concluded that policies more sophisticated than a wall might do a better job of coping with whatever problems are worrying the president. Drug smuggling, for instance, might best be dealt with at places where drugs actually enter the country, which is the official entry ports. And why crack down at all on people who overstay their visas?”

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