Not long ago my mother remembered that in one of our family albums is a photo of me, age 6, wearing an excited smile and the uniform of a Confederate soldier. “No one thought it was hateful at the time,” she said. Even at the time, however, we were already defensive on the subject of hate. Growing up in a white-flight suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1990s, I often heard, in a prickly, embattled tone, that our cult of the Confederacy was about “heritage not hate.”
As my 6-year-old self’s smile suggests, we usually did feel something other than hate when we performed our identities as white Southerners. Whenever a casual day at my Baptist school (the setting for the 2009 movie The Blind Side) allowed students to wear T-shirts instead of the usual polos, many of us would show up in something from Dixie Outfitters, bearing the Stars and Bars across our chests and backs with a feeling of mildly transgressive collective enthusiasm. When my school arranged field trips to Civil War battlefields and stately antebellum homes, or showed Gone with the Wind once again in history class, we commiserated with the sufferings of our ancestors. And every day when I returned home, there to greet me in the foyer was a portrait of James Longstreet, one of the Confederate generals whose sense of honor and strategic brilliance filled me with gratitude that I belonged to a splendid, noble people—that I had not been born a Northerner. Now, 25 years later, everything is different, and everyone—all the Yankees on television and all the Southerners who listen to them—knows that such things are hateful, and that hate must be destroyed.
Hate, however, may be here to stay. Indeed it may be that hate is not only one of the regrettably incurable aspects of human depravity, but inseparable from the emotions, experiences, and ethical forces that we consider essential to a good life. In his new book, Living with Hate in American Politics and Religion: How Popular Culture Can Defuse Intractable Differences, Jeffrey Israel argues that a sense of grievance, resentment, and antagonism toward other groups is part of any collective identity. To be a member of a group, whether founded on ethnicity, religion, or any other basis, is to participate, at least sometimes, in shared feelings of hate. The challenge for multicultural liberal democracies like the United States is to find channels for expressing these feelings without becoming trapped in the antagonisms that they can generate—or in a futile effort to eliminate hate from public life.
Israel draws on his experience as an American Jew to demonstrate that resentment is an inextricable part of belonging to a group. Being Jewish, he says, means sometimes feeling contempt, arrogance, and fear of gentiles. These moods sustain a vision of the world divided between “Jewish and goyish.” In such a vision, the United States is populated by Jews, “an exceptional group of people who have seized the opportunities given to them in America with distinctive determination and brilliance,” and “goyim,” who although not particularly clever or hardworking are nevertheless dangerous. Goyim “believe in religious nonsense” and look for any chance to “oppress” others. At times, Israel writes, this way of seeing the world reaches such a pitch of intensity that he entertains “aliyah fantasies” of abandoning “gentile America” where Jews risk becoming “dissolved into the American cultural mayonnaise,” becoming no better than “Italians or Poles.” In “darker moods of Jewish paranoia and chauvinism,” there appear even worse possibilities than assimilation. Then, “I feel like the goyim will always find a reason to hate the Jews,” even in America.
Such attitudes can seem not only inappropriate but also politically dangerous. What Israel feels, in certain moods, toward gentiles, is after all what anti-Semites feel toward Jews. The image of a superior people confronted by a hostile and inferior mass of outsiders is the foundation of all nationalisms, and the fear that one’s group will be attacked by others is the inevitable justification for preemptive violence. Israel notes that when we consider “normal existence in a liberal society” like our own, one founded on respect for universal norms of human rights, we usually expect that its members ought to put aside their historical grudges. A long tradition of liberal political thought urges us to see each other as fellow citizens, not as members of distinct rival groups toward which we feel “historical anger, fear, distrust and resentment.” Many thinkers warn us that such feelings can only ever be a danger for a society like ours, that they lead to authoritarian government or civil war.
While liberals would condemn the kind of resentment Israel displays in his fear of an American “Amalek” as a danger to civic norms of equality and tolerance, post-liberal adherents to wokeness would condemn those feelings for other reasons. In the contemporary United States, Jewish “paranoia” about anti-Semitism and insistence on the history of Jewish suffering can appear as a strategy for disguising the fact that Jews are generally “prospering” and largely assimilated into whiteness. Israel notes that critics of “white supremacy,” particularly coming out of post-1960s Black radicalism, increasingly see Jewish narratives of victimhood as an “egregious disavowal” of Jews’ comfortable position in America’s “racial hierarchy.” Thus whether one is an old-fashioned liberal or a follower of the aggressive new political correctness, it might seem imperative for American Jews to abandon their “lingering distrust and resentment.” From both of these perspectives, they should refuse to indulge in the “guilty pleasures of ethnic panic” and bad feelings toward gentiles. But, Israel insists, that is never going to happen—nor should it.
Being a Jew, in his account, means remembering that Jews have enemies. Holidays recall the dangerousness of Greeks, Egyptians, and other gentiles: “the traditional Jewish ritual calendar is a litany of opportunities to keep Amalek at the forefront of one’s mind.” And “the daily recitation of the Aleinu prayer, which praises God for choosing Israel,” is hardly compatible with a liberal ethos of universal tolerance or a woke narrative in which white and “white-adjacent” groups must disavow any hints of thinking themselves superior to others. Outside the religious sphere, Israel finds that an “unspoken imperative” is at work throughout Jewish culture, an imperative that insists: “never give up on your resentment!”
What is true of the Jews, Israel argues, is true of all other groups. Our identities are inescapably tied to hate. Many aspects of our religious, ethnic, and other communities, of course, are about more pleasant emotions. We feel connected to members of our groups, and open to outsiders, whom we invite to share our festivities, favorite dishes, sense of humor, moral precepts publicly avowable aspects of our cultures. But this can never be the full picture. When the outsiders leave, we remember that God spoke to us and not them, that they eat dreadful things, that the qualities for which they pride themselves are offensive vices, that they have done unforgivable things to us. Belonging to a group means, among other things, continuously retelling the story of the historical wrongs that we have suffered. To be Black is to “never forgive the history of white supremacy.” To be Native American is to “forever mourn when others celebrate Thanksgiving.” What we might think of as negative emotions like hate and paranoia thus have a kind of positive role in perpetuating group identities.
And in our society, having a group identity seems to be a necessary part of having a good life. It is important for us to feel like we belong to a community that jokes the way we do, that believes (or doesn’t believe) in the same God, that understands our sense of how a human being ought to be—and understands what’s wrong with those other people who don’t live the way that human beings should. If a group identity is our ticket to that set of shared feelings, norms and understandings, then resentment of other groups is part of the price of the ticket.
This is not how we are supposed to talk—at least in public, among outsiders—about our feelings of belonging to a group. As a gay man, for example, I talk about “pride” in myself and my “community.” Pride is imagined as the opposite of shame. It is supposed to let gay people overcome the negative feelings that keep them isolated and afraid, freeing them to join others in a visible group and resist oppression. But besides this passage from shame to pride (or, more likely, back and forth between them) is a steady pulsing of resentment. Hardly a month goes by that, speaking with a gay friend, I don’t hear or say something like, “straight people just can’t help themselves!” Straight people ruin drag. Straight people dress their babies as pumpkins. Straight people don’t get it, whatever it happens to be. Even the good ones, the ones who don’t seem homophobic, can’t really be trusted.
From a certain liberal perspective, such remarks about the purported failings of a group of people are hate speech, the first step on the road to violence. Whether made as serious complaints or off-hand jokes, they contribute to a stereotype of straight people as an inferior (and unfortunately large) portion of humanity. Luckily for heterosexuals, gays don’t have the power to do much with their resentments, and according to the new common sense of woke morality, what matters in these situations is who has the power.
Power is a vague concept that would seem to resist measurement, but nevertheless Americans increasingly imagine that imbalances in power make it acceptable for gays, people of color, women, etc., to talk about straights, white people, and men in ways that would be unacceptable if the tables were turned. Thus I can get away with telling you what I might say over brunch about “breeders,” but I would have to be a great deal more circumspect acknowledging what white Southerners say about other groups.
In new woke dispensation, intergroup resentment is both ubiquitous and unacknowledged. The members of some groups, said to lack power, are encouraged to express their grievances and even their hate for others, but not to admit that what they are expressing is hatred. When members of supposedly powerless groups air such feelings, they are usually said to be doing something morally and politically commendable—not airing dark emotions in a sinister psychodrama. In contrast, it often appears that white people, men, straights, and members of other groups that are supposedly in power are no longer permitted so much as an expression of group pride.
This perspective gives members of certain groups free reign to express their identitarian resentments, presented as protests against injustice, while condemning others to silence. Those who see the world in such terms may believe that once patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism and all the other ills of history have been dismantled, we will be free from the weight of the past. We might be able to live without historically constituted identities like white and gay, or to experience our membership in these groups without guilt, resentment, fear and other negative emotions. Israel argues that if this is what we’re hoping for, we are bound to be disappointed.
If our “ideal society” has no place for group identities, then almost none of our fellow Americans will want to live in it. For most of us, a good life is one in which we can live out our religious, ethnic, sexual, and other identities. Living out our identities, Israel notes, includes not only irreducible, if occasional, feelings of paranoia, anger and hate toward other groups, but also transmitting those feelings to the next generation. “Don’t forget what they did to us!” is the command we receive from our ancestors and teach to the young. Remaining who we are, and ensuring that there are people like us in the future, means passing down, along with our recipes and dance steps, an imperative to hate.
Both old-fashioned liberalism and our new woke order refuse to give hate its due. Liberalism tries to banish negative collective emotions from the public sphere, while wokeness permits some groups to vent their hate against others, on the pretense that they are thereby pursuing justice. Liberals posit the existence of a public sphere in which individuals should speak to each other as citizens, pitching their political arguments in appeals to the general interest, facts and logic, and rights that apply to everyone equally. To enter this public sphere, individuals should leave their particular commitments and prejudices—and their group identities—behind, in a private realm where they are free to be themselves, but on which they cannot found legitimate political projects. Woke post-liberals, in contrast, abolish the distinction between private and public, treating all of our civic life as a battlefield between progress and reaction.
Neither of these political visions appears acceptable from Israel’s vantage. We certainly do want to be treated as citizens in some instances—when we face a judge, we do not expect to be seen as a member of a particular ethnic, religious, or sexual category, but as an American with the same rights as everyone else. Nor do most of us want to abandon the idea that there are inequalities in our nation that can only be corrected by paying attention to disparities among identity categories. We are in fact continuously, and confusingly, rewriting the rules about when we expect other people to interact with us based on our group identity and when we expect them to pretend not to notice that we belong to various groups. Throughout the day, as we move through different situations and spaces, we expect others to affirm or ignore our identities, as we affirm or ignore theirs, in a process that is too subtle, shifting, and complex to be understood through the liberal dichotomy of private and public, or the woke dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed.
If what we want is to live out our identities, with their irreducible elements of resentment, as we interact with neighbors, colleagues and friends who are living out their own identities—including ones we sometimes complain about or thank God we are not—then there can be no easy formula for coexistence. In addition to liberal norms that provide a public sphere of deliberative citizenship, and a progressive quest to right historical wrongs, we need what Israel calls a “domain of play.” In such a domain, individuals can stage their historical grievances and shared hatreds in registers that resist direct political or moral interpretation.
Most of Israel’s examples of “play” are taken from the tastes of a Jewish man of a certain age: the novels of Philip Roth, the comedy of Lenny Bruce, and the television shows of Norman Lear. His brilliant analysis of Portnoy’s Complaint, for example, reads the novel as both a direct expression and a dislocating exaggeration of Jewish antagonism toward WASPs. By presenting, in a poignant and parodic form, “the divisive emotions that still fester among Jews about the goyim,” Roth is inviting his Jewish readers to take on multiple perspectives, seeing themselves in Portnoy, but also distancing themselves from the ridiculous, perverse lengths to which the protagonist lets his resentments run. And the novel is not just for Jews, after all. Roth is “ready to invite others—even to invite all Americans—to join him” in his play. At the story’s end, readers are probably not drained of all their resentments and ambivalences, but they have a new sense of how these are shared by other people, and how silly they can appear. Better able to laugh at themselves and see their grievances from multiple perspectives, they are stocked with the reserves of patience, tolerance, and unseriousness that citizens of a multicultural democracy will find themselves drawing on as they interact with their at times frustratingly diverse compatriots.
Play always has an element of danger. An anti-Semite reading Portnoy’s Complaint may respond, “that’s exactly what they’re like!” Gentile women may find the novel to be an intolerable example of misogyny. But the advantage of play is that it allows us to express our resentments both honestly and at a distance. Liberalism demands that we leave grievances in the private sphere, complaining about Yankeedom or Amalek where members of other groups cannot hear. Wokeness requires us to pretend our hate and fear are brave gestures of political struggle. Play, however, lets resentment appear for what it really is, while giving us permission to adopt a number of possible attitudes toward it, or rather to move among them, from agreement to annoyance to amusement. As participants in play, we are not obligated to commit ourselves to a specific stance—to say to what degree exactly we think Portnoy’s attitudes are justified—or to fill out a moral balance sheet. Play offers a unique combination of honesty (where else but in fiction can Roth tell such truths about gentiles and Jews?) and ambiguity (where do Portnoy and Roth, or Portnoy and the reader, really coincide?). It gives us a mask through which we can tell the truth about ourselves and others.
Israel ends Living with Hate by considering some examples of “rough play” beyond the American Jewish culture of his growing up, including BDSM and Civil War reenactments (to spare my family any further embarrassment, I’ll just admit to knowledge of the latter, although I think Israel is on to something in both cases). Reenactments, Israel argues, should be seen as “a ritualization of Southern white resentment,” and it is difficult to see what could motivate men to put on Confederate uniforms and march around a state park if not a certain unhappiness about the way the Civil War ended. Although I grew up hearing “heritage not hate,” I also grew up hearing, saying, and believing things about Yankees that were no kinder than what Israel in his darkest moment thinks about goyim. This resentment, and occasional hatred of Northerners, is part of what it means to be a Southerner. To let go of it, if that were even possible, would be to lose my identity—to be no better than a smug, godless Yankee!
Yet doing anything practical, let alone political, with that resentment seems unimaginable. All but a handful of Southerners recognize that the Confederacy was morally indefensible, and the vast majority of us are patriotic citizens with no desire to secede (at least when we’re sober). Reenactments let us redirect resentment “from instrumental pursuits in the domain of the political,” that is, from actually having to do something about our feelings, “to noninstrumentality in the domain of play.” Reenactments may not look much like Portnoy’s Complaint, but Israel suggests that they serve the same function, helping Southerners maintain their identity (resentments included) while acquiring the peculiar virtue of self-conscious ridiculousness necessary for peaceful coexistence with others in a diverse America.
Many Americans may find the idea of good ol’ boys dressed as Confederate soldiers an unacceptable expression of white supremacy, and it is perhaps only a matter of time before Civil War reenactments and Philip Roth are both canceled. But if Israel is right that resentment is a necessary ingredient of group identity, and group identity a necessary ingredient in a good life, then Americans must make sure that there are forms of “rough play” available to stage our mutual antagonisms. Otherwise, pinned between an old liberal order and its successor ideology, we will keep trying, and failing, to ignore the hatreds that define us.
Israel hopes that “play” can allow us to survive our resentments, and even turn them into a kind of “political love.” But this can only happen if we take responsibility for our hateful natures. In a society where political and moral authority are increasingly grounded in claims to blameless victimhood and the discovery of other people’s vices, it is becoming harder to recognize the hatefulness that hides behind our sense of individual virtue or group pride. If we are not equal to Israel’s own example of courageous self-examination, if we cannot acknowledge our resentments and accept those of others, then there will be no place to play out our hatreds and no hope for peaceful coexistence.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia.