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Against Self-Pity

May 20, 2011

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Certainly the most destructive vice, if you like, that a person can have, more than pride…is self-pity. I think self-pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have, and the most destructive.

-Stephen Fry

So apparently the world is going to end tomorrow, Saturday, May 21st. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to take this prediction seriously. It is worthwhile however, to consider where this type of thinking comes from: Self-Pity. Lately, I’ve thought a lot about self-pity and its implications in both the private and public spheres. It is easy enough to sneer at people who believe in the rapture and other absurd ideas. It is more challenging and necessary however to look at so called “mainstream” forms of orthodoxy and look for the flaws present in their ideas.

Self-pity goes beyond a healthy awareness of how one is doing. Self-pity takes this awareness and infects it with a sort of emotional “common cold” which if left unchecked can morph into more sinister things like self-hatred, fatalism, and the abdication of personal responsibility. The awful symptoms of this disease include a ludicrous tendency for superstition and a laughable attachment to conspiracy theories. I reference Stephen fry above. He goes on to describe how self-pity acts in the same way Oscar Wilde once described hatred. To quote Mr. Fry again, “it destroys everything around it except itself…it will fulfill all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself.” With the corrosion of confidence and the extinguishing of one’s critical thinking, self-pity acts like an incendiary explosive which leaves only the shrapnel and debris of its own parts.

So how does it work on a personal level? In one form it claims “everything is terrible and there is nothing I can do about it”. And the other sounds a little more like this: “things just aren’t the way they used to be and will never be good again!” While not exactly the same, both statements lead to the same conclusion of “I need someone to blame.” So rather than use the mind to figure things out, those infected defer to an abstraction to do the thinking for them. “But everyone goes through rough spots, why look down on yourself for it?” This statement fits most situations, most of the time. It fits the most traumatic cases the best. Come to think of it, in my experience those who live with real tragedy and adversity are the more stoic people I know. I’ve never known a cancer survivor who took the “woe is me” type of attitude. At that level of hardship, the instinct to keep on living often cancels out the temptation to wallow in your own emotional filth. Let me be clear though: I mean no cruelty to readers who are currently in a rough spot. I just pointing out the folly in prolonging that time, long after the actual event is over.

So where does self-pity actually show up? Think about it for just a moment. You see it in many young people who turn to conspiracy theories or things like astrology, new age spirituality, or some other type of superstition. It comes with the old curmudgeon, frustrated that his youth has long since passed (and jealous of those who are currently enjoying their own). It shows up in the substitute teacher you once had who spent the entire class period lecturing you about how rotten and ungrateful your generation is. I’m sure you can think of your own example, it isn’t hard. If these categorical examples don’t help, let’s make it simpler.

Consider this:

Type A:

1.      I am naturally a passionate and idealistic person, but at the moment have nothing to be passionate and idealistic about
2.      My confidence has been shaken by some negative event or influence on my life
3.      I now feel insecure and unsure of myself and need a person or idea to fill this void
4.      In my own haste to feel better about myself, I will latch onto the first thing that comes around
5.      Aha! I have found something! This something gives me special knowledge that other people don’t have, everyone should listen to me!

Or maybe this:

Type B:

1.      I have an idealized view of my childhood. My childhood and the era it took place in is somehow better than all the other childhoods and eras that have ever been experienced by anyone
2.      Something awful happened which destroyed my childhood. Now I am sad
3.      Therefore, everything from my childhood is “good” and everything outside of or after it is “bad”
4.      I am incapable or unwilling to take responsibility for any of this
5.      Therefore, I  must make everyone else suffer

These are certainly not the only examples out there. Nor are these two “types” mutually exclusive, as many people simultaneously carry the symptoms of both. But again, I want to stay away from easy targets like 9/11 conspiracy theorists, or people who think magic is real. I’ll save that for another article. To come back to the territory of this website, how does self-pity play out politically? I know what some of you are thinking:

  • “Oh I know what you’re talking about Drew; you’re going after all those wussy, cry-baby, socialist, fascist, communist Liberals who are trying to destroy America!”

Or perhaps something more like this:

  • “Yes! Drew’s going to take on all those mean, ignorant, racist, homophobic tea-party people! I’m so glad he’s doing this, I find them so offensive!”

Well then…where to begin?

In the case of the political left, it is true that after the assassination of President Kennedy, there was a strong sense of loss or even fatalism among American liberals. Despite the astounding achievements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and other important pieces of legislation, that insecurity among liberals lingered, long after the 60’s ended. This led to a balkanization of the liberal agenda, saddled with conflicts of interest among its various constituent groups, tied down by identity politics and political correctness. From the initial seeds of self-pity there emerged two phenomena. One comes in the form of radical leftists who, through their own insecurity and self-hatred, have become ambivalent about defending secularism and liberal democracy. The other emerges in what Arthur Schlesinger referred to as “dough-faced progressivism”, the types who always seem so eager to get “offended” by people who question them, while failing to provide a robust case for their own positions. And so a number of superstitions endure on the left, like the lost promise of JFK’s Camelot or that the real problem with the Great Society was that it didn’t go far enough. Apparently you’re not even allowed to call yourself a liberal or a social democrat anymore. No, you have to be a “progressive”. Granted, the last Democrat who ran as a self-described liberal was Michael Dukakis…and you know how well THAT worked out.

As for the right? I like to be careful when talking about the Tea Party. Wherever the movement’s origins lie, many of those attracted to it are honest civil-libertarians and business-oriented conservatives who are simply looking out for their interests. I always thought it was silly when people just dismissed the Tea Party as racists or gun-toting rednecks, or some other easy stereotype like that. Sure there are xenophobic and extremist elements that show up at the bigger rallies. But what if you held a big labor or anti-war rally? Would you condemn those demonstrations just because a few people from the ANSWER Coalition showed up? While it’s difficult to universally condemn the Tea Party, it’s not easy to actually praise them either. The ideals and agenda of the movement are so vague that you’re left with very little to go on. This may be a testament to its spontaneity or, if what some researchers say is true, the “astroturfing” involved in getting it started. Its members talk a big game about cutting the deficit and reducing the national debt. But when surveyed, most members don’t want to see cuts made to Medicare, the largest driver of the deficit. Whenever a member of the press actually pushes a Tea Party supporter to describe his or her principles, you always end up with the same vague statements like “the government has gone too far”, or “taxes are too high” (even when most members are not even in the top income tax bracket), or “Washington is broken”. In some respects, they’re absolutely right, but they tend to be short on specifics. There is one other phrase which I’d like to pay special attention to:

“I want my country back”.

This is where the trouble starts with me. There is indeed an element of the Tea Party, or a strain of thinking that runs through it, which carries the isolationist and paranoid tendencies of the old Right. It’s this sort of thinking whose message has always been, seemingly since our country began that “America has lost its way”, or “the country is all gone to hell”, and of course “we need get back to the way the founding fathers wanted things!”- as if any of us could possibly know what James Madison would do about the social safety net, or that we could predict what Thomas Jefferson would do about Libya. It’s the same nonsense as was the case with Type B as I described before, “back in my day, America was a strong country were people were good to each other and I can’t believe what I see happening today”, blah, blah, blah. What they don’t realize is something that George Orwell once pointed out, that to be a patriot is to love something that changes and evolves over time. Therefore, it is impossible to be a patriot and wish for the United States to revert back to the way it was in say, 1954. You want to complain about taxes now? Think about how high they were back then!  And there was still segregation, let’s not forget about that. The idea that you should roll back all of that cultural, legislative, scientific, and of course personal development borders on lunacy. Since my own birth in 1987 the world has seen the Berlin Wall come down, the explosion of the internet, the mapping of the human genome, and countless other advances. Why would I want the US to reverse all of this? Whatever year you posit, whether its 1776, 1946, or any of the 1970’s (no thanks), there will always be a set of facts which makes the desire to move back outright foolish. Here one can see difference between the patriot and the nationalist: the split between those who love their country based on civic duty and matters of principle, and those who long for an idealized, essentialist version of America that never really existed.

Perhaps what I’ve just said vindicates part of the Tea Party agenda, that of strict adherence to the constitution and the enlightenment principles that went into its construction. The idea is that man should not be governed by man, but by the law and only the law. This makes for an impartial system which prevents the arbitrary whim of one person or group from forcing its agenda without the proper checks and balances. The Tea Party would do well to remember however, that this principle does not come from any conservative or libertarian tradition, but is nothing less than procedural liberalism, cut and dry. I would also caution them on political correctness. In fact, this point could go for all conservatives. Conservatives criticize liberals for their adherence to political correctness and the self-censorship that arises from it. While I’m glad they do this, it annoys me when they fall into the same trap. When people criticize the Tea Party, conservatives denounce them as “liberal elitists”, who are “out of touch with people out in the country”. Now don’t get me wrong, are there liberal elitists out there? Enough to keep the soy industry going for years to come? Certainly, but the character of your critics does not on its own invalidate what they say. If you think liberals are the only people who have a gripe with the Tea Party, you’re simply fooling yourself. This jump to hyperbole does not help conservatives, because it makes them look like hypocrites. But don’t tell them that, unless you don’t mind being called a Marxist. An acquaintance of mine pulled that once. I’ll end with that little anecdote, just for kicks.

When this person found out I was back from college, he wanted to get together and play some music and maybe even start a band. I’d tried this with him years before and the results were not very good, so I was reluctant to grant his request. I took a hard line with him: “Listen man, we can play if you want, but I’m really into the more heavy stuff, and lyrically I feel like we would totally clash with each other.” Not deterred by this, he tried to convince with this: “C’mon Drew, we could write about things like how our government is stealing from us”, my eyebrows began to stir upwards and then he added:

“Or how people just don’t believe in the power of love anymore”

I almost passed out.

What the hell does that even mean?! I know I’m being flippant, but I think it illustrates what I’ve tried to describe with this essay. Later on we talked about politics and I was arguing for at least a basic social safety net and that taxes are a necessary evil if you want certain social services- nothing controversial, even to most conservatives. And he went ahead and called me a Marxist. Here was someone who previously had no interest in politics whatsoever, anointing himself as some sort of expert and defender of freedom. What do you say to someone like that?

In a way, to pity one’s self is to be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. I don’t mean to say that liberals are the idealistic “Type A” and conservatives are the disaffected “Type B”. Again, these forms of self-pity and self-loathing often overlap. But it makes liberals lose confidence in their own convictions. And it makes conservatives lose confidence in the future of the United States. Such are the convulsions of a society that feels insecure about itself, paranoid about those abroad, and guilty about its past.

Again, I could go on for days about what it does to people privately. It makes those with little power feel they need to blame their problems on some weird abstraction like a secret society or force of nature. It even makes some very silly people think the world will end tomorrow. Worse, it even makes others hopeful that it will. To anyone who dreams of this, I have nothing to say.

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