No, They Are Not (for the most part) “Self-Hating”

Again and again, I see people referring to those Americans who have nothing but bad things to say about their own country as “self-hating Americans.”  I see Jews who display unhinged rage against Israel referred to as “self-hating Jews.”  And I have also seen many references to “self-hating Europeans.”

I believe that the “self-hating” diagnosis of the behavior of this sort of people is in most cases quite wrong, and this wrongness matters.

In 1940, C S Lewis wrote a little essay titled “Dangers of National Repentance.”  Apparently, there was a movement among Christian youth to “repent” England’s sins (which were thought to include the treaty of Versailles) and to “forgive” England’s enemies.  Lewis’s analysis of this movement is highly relevant to our current situation.

“Young Christians especially..are turning to (the National Repentance Movement) in large numbers,” Lewis wrote. “They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…Most of these young men were children…when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?”

“If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happen) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society…The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor…A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him,every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.” (Emphasis added.)

Lewis points out that when a man who was raised to be patriotic tries to repent the sins of England, he is attempting something that will be difficult for him. “But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen.”

It’s hard to believe that this was written more than 60 years ago–it’s such a bulls-eye description of a broad swath of our current “progressives.” (The only difference being that many of them today are a lot older than “in their twenties.”)


But now Lewis comes to the real meat of his argument. “All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But “my enemy” primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate…If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names–Colonel Blimp and “the businessman.” I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians, and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion.” (emphasis added.)

And here is the two-by-four, right between the eyes. “The communal sins of which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class–its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment.”

Exactly. Many “progressives”–and not just the religious ones–have uncritically and without reflection adopted the ideas and values of “their own age and class”–and, while doing so, they have congratulated themselves on their courage and independence of thought. Thus, they can enjoy a great feeling of righteousness without running the risk of condemnation by those whose opinions really matter to them. Who cares if Republicans and evangelical Christians would disapprove of your statements (if they ever heard of them, which they likely won’t), when there are so many nods of agreement in the faculty lounge or among the other associates at the law firm? Those are the people you see ever day, after all, and the ones who really matter for your career…

I don’t doubt that there are indeed some “progressives,” particularly among the Trustafarians, who really are driven by a personal sense of guilt, but I think this motivation is pretty clearly the rare exception rather than the rule. For the most part, “progressives” feel no personal guilt at all…they think the rest us, those outside their circle of assumed moral superiority, should be the ones feeling guilty.  The behavior which is often termed “self-hating” is normally actually self-aggrandizing, representing an assertion of superiority by means of a contemptuous and disrespectful attitude toward the majority of their fellow citizens.

I’ve excerpted the Lewis essay previously; see particularly my post Aspiring American Elites versus America.

The Lewis essay appears, along with several other thought-provoking pieces, in the essay collection titled The Grand Miracle.

11 thoughts on “No, They Are Not (for the most part) “Self-Hating””

  1. I find it discomforting that there are so many so parallels in the USA today to 1920’s-1940’s Europe. On a similar note, Orwell’s 1984 seems particularly apt.

  2. I think there is a strain of New England Puritanism that runs through much of the Progressive Left. The “anointed” of the Calvinists are judged to be the progressives and the rest of us are going to hell, or using too much energy, or contributing to global warming.

    A guy whose name I can’t recall write a book about this recently.

  3. Joseph Bottum, “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.” An excellent book on post-Protestants as Neo-Puritans. (Part 2, on what he calls John Paul Catholics, is less convincing.)

  4. Richard Landes, a historian at Boston University, has anatomized the moral psychology of the left and the jihadis they love so much. His essays at his blog discuss all of this and its operation, especially in the context of Israel and the Palestinians (Patient #1).

    Look under the headings at the top of the web page: Essays on Judeophobia » and Reflections from The Second Draft »

  5. Thanks for the plug. There will be a follow-up about Virtue-Signalling on the cheap, which is my real worry. I have also written on this very essay of Lewis’s. He gets a fair bit of the idea from Chesterton.

    @ Mike K – I have read several who tie the idea to Calvinism, or to Protestantism in general. It feels very right at first encounter. Yet I notice that western Catholics are doing the same thing, and many Jews in the west take the same apologetic attitude toward an Israel they did not build. The idea does seem to be part of a Northern European Culture, and frankly, I can’t see why. But I do not see it in southern or eastern Europe or the wealthier Asian countries.

  6. “I think there is a strain of New England Puritanism that runs through much of the Progressive Left.”

    Highly attenuated. Remember that Calvinism fought for New England in the Great Awakening and lost. Jonathan Edwards was sent to the boondocks. By the 19th Century, Unitarianism had taken over the churches of Massachusetts. In the 20th century, they turned to Marxism.

    Do not underrate Marxism as a religious phenomenon. It is very much like Calvinism. It has historical inevitability where Calvinism has predestination, and the Vanguard of the Proletariat where Calvinism has the Elect.

  7. One of the major elements of the Reformation was the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”, in contrast to the Roman church’s emphasis on the priesthood, indulgences, and good works.

    I have long believed Marxism, as the true progenitor of progressive, collectivist ideology, is a secular form of Christian gnostic heresy, and contains strong religious elements within it.

    When someone becomes “saved” due to a religious experience, we are not surprised when that person interprets everything from then on in light of religious sentiments.

    Exactly the same “conversion” mindset occurs when someone feels they have been saved by their commitment to a utopian ideology, and subsequent admission into the rolls of the elect, who have a special insight into humanity’s problems due to their belief in the “correct” ideology.

    Many of the motivations and arguments, reactions and condemnations, that collectivists routinely exhibit can be more clearly understood if the essentially religious nature of utopian ideologies is understood.

    There is an element of self-hatred is some deep ecology, and contempt for one’s family and other unhip outsiders is also common in those who believe themselves among the vanguard, but the fundamental motivation is religious fanaticism.

    This is one of the core reasons, by the way, for the otherwise incongruous alliance between progressives and Islamists has developed—they are fanatical religious devotees, like non-identical twins.

  8. Good essay, on point.

    In American Politics now we have much to discuss and nothing left to say to each other.

  9. (R)esentment against others and titillating satisfaction with oneself:

    What is socialism? In part, it is optimism translated into a political program… Socialism is also unselfishness embraced as an axiom: the gratifying emotion of unselfishness, experienced alternately as resentment against others and titillating satisfaction with oneself. The philosophy of Rousseau, which elevated what he called the “indescribably sweet” feeling of virtue into a political imperative, is socialism in ovo. “Man is born free,” Rousseau famously exclaimed, “but is everywhere in chains.” That heart-stopping conundrum—too thrilling to be corrected by mere experience—is the fundamental motor of socialism.
    Roger Kimball, The death of socialism, The New Criterion, April 2002

  10. “One of the major elements of the Reformation was the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”, in contrast to the Roman church’s emphasis on the priesthood, indulgences, and good works.”

    The book by Amir Tehari, “the Persian Night”, is the best thing I have read about the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam.

    He points out that Shia reliance on imams and preaching corresponds to the Catholic Church in Christianity, while the Sunnis, are more like Protestants in that each believer may choose his own interpretation the Quran.

    It’s the best thing I have read on Islam and Iran.

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