The Better Contempt

The modern west is characterized by two competing conceptions of contempt. One, the neanderthal cudgel of Twitter.[1] The other, lurks and simmers among think-tanks and the occasional Supreme Court justice.

Why do so many young people have contempt for their parents? Why do many Democrats and establishment Republicans display an aggressive contempt for their fellow Americans? The fount of partisan contempt as a general operating principal is fairly newly established (circa late 18th c.), but a very different kind of contempt has a long history in American and Britain. And the fundamental political question today may be whether Americans reclaim the contempt on which the country was founded or affirm the establishment of a resurgent feudal genus of contempt.

The Northampton County court official pounded on the door of Anthony Longo. The judge had issued a warrant for Longo to appear before the court to answer charges of not paying taxes. Longo answered the door, and, in the words of the court official, “I told him I had a warrant for him.” Longo responded, “shitt of your warrant have I nothing to do but go to [judge] Walker, go about your business you idle rascal.” The court officer reported that “when I had done reading the warrant [Longo] stroke at me, and gave me some blows.” Longo’s response to the court official was contempt laced with sarcasm, and such contempt was the standard response of aristocrats to government mandarins. But the year was 1647, the location was Virginia’s eastern shore, and Longo was black. More salient was the Longo was an aspiring planter aristocrat with 250 acres and indentured servants (both black and white), and contempt was an expected aspirational response to civil servants and their burdensome government.

Contempt of a political position makes its first significant appearance in Britain in the Magna Carta, the history of which is filled with the rebel aristocracy’s contempt for King John (they’d accused him of everything from incompetence to rape). The Magna Carta demonstrates the rebel aristocracy’s position that while the king may have feudal superiority, he certainly does not have moral superiority. Five centuries later, philosopher David Hume contemplated the phenomenon of contempt. For Hume, contempt was a reaction to the inherent inferiority of someone and an assertion of inherent superiority of the contemptuous. A position of contempt includes a psychological distance and lack of identification with the object of contempt, and a conclusion that the object of contempt is unethical or unsavory (sound familiar, Twitter?). Hume’s contempt was transformed by the Founding Fathers and memorialized in myriad founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence to Common Sense, in which Paine described King William as “A French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.” Paine argues that commoners ought to claim contempt as their own instead of being a subject who “contemptibly crawls through the world like a worm.” For Paine, it is the aristocracy and the government who should be viewed “with contempt.”

Contempt was formally reclaimed in the Constitution and its list of rights that stoop to inform the government what it can and cannot do; in what lower position could a government be held than one confined by an amendment that asserts the government can’t do anything unless the people permit it? Contempt also makes an appearance in the misunderstood fifth amendment, which in its list of government limitations declares that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The surface logic of this statement is that one may not be required to incriminate oneself, thus implying there is a crime (at least to the invoker’s perception). But this amendment is derived from the Salem witchcraft trials and really stems from the idea that a zealous prosecutor and riled up lynch mob can always find a crime. So, we discover in Cotton Mather’s contemplations on the Salem trials that a defendant should have a right not to participate in his or her own investigation (which interestingly does not apply in modern tax courts), while maintaining there is no crime. So really it’s less about incriminating oneself and more a check against prosecutorial corruption. In jurisprudence, there’s a line between Longo’s contempt for the court and contempt for the prosecution, but the latter is not only tolerated but enshrined in our founding document. If only, Mather reasoned, the accused “witches” could have mustered legal contempt for the prosecution’s spectral evidence, then the power of the government could have been checked. This check on the power of the government ultimately was an effort to reorganize the feudal order. Contempt would be the social, legal and political weapon to ensure that the inevitable few who held much power could not use it to abuse the inevitable many who were powerless. Contempt was their power and was the bulwark against prosecutors “under the influence of enthusiastical impressions and impulses.”[2]

George Hewes, a poor and mostly unskilled shoemaker and cobbler, was thought to be one of the last surviving participants in the events that preceded the Revolution, so he was interviewed often in the 1830s as the States celebrated various anniversaries of those events that had occurred int he early 1770s. Hewes tells one story of being invited to visit John Hancock after repairing one of his shoes. Hewes washed himself, put on his best clothes, and walked to Hancock House. A servant answered the door and told Hewes to wait in the kitchen. A few minutes later, Hancock appeared and invited Hewes into the sitting room. Hewes was scared “almost to death.” Hewes gave a “pretty” little speech that he had prepared, announcing how honored he was to be in Hancock’s presence and complimenting the merchant on everything Hewes could imagine. Hancock pressed a coin into Hewes’ hand and thanked him for the compliments. He called for wine, and they each had a glass, clinking them together to make a toast, an act that Hewes had never before witnessed. Still horrifically frightened of Hancock, Hewes thanked him and attempted to leave as quickly as possible. He bowed, repeated his compliments, and, before he could run out, Hancock asked him to visit again next year. Hewes said he would but never did.

That was early 1763; Hewes — grateful, frightened, mystified — played perfectly the role of deferential commoner to Hancock’s feudal lord. But Hancock had no reason to meet with Hewes, yet did so and invited Hewes to meet again. It was as if Hancock were aware that though now they were nearly lord and serf, someday soon they would be equals. The times would be altered, and as banker to the revolution, John Hancock would press coins into the hands of many rebels so that one day a man like Hewes could visit a man like John Hancock without being overcome with fear and trembling.

Sixteen years later, the still greatly impoverished Hewes got a job on the ship Hancock. But before the ship sailed out, he walked by the ship’s Lieutenant on the street. The Lieutenant demanded that Hewes remove his hat; Hewes rejected this act of feudal deference and refused to sail with any man who required it. So Hewes quit that ship and found another job. It was 1779, and George Hewes refused to remove his hat for any man. The times were indeed altered. The ideas of rights and consent had infiltrated the colonial consciousness. The chains of the feudal social structure had been broken, and a poor man like George Hewes could now confidently refuse to sail on the Hancock. One suspects the ship’s owner knew perfectly well that his coins pressed into the right hands would lead to such a result. George Washington’s education reached conclusion in hand copying the “Rules of Civility” from the 16th century Bienseance de la Conversation, demonstrating how little had changed over centuries. But now, just three decades after young Washington spent his days transcribing “In putting off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen, &c., make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred,” Bienseance de la Conversation died in the streets of Boston.

Henry Hulton, a Custom Board commissioner (that is, a tax collector) who had stepped off a boat in Boston harbor on November 5, 1767 and haughtily laughed at the parading mob of poor colonials, soon too discovered that the times were altered. Writing in February 1770, he observed that colonial attitudes were disconcertingly and increasingly different from those of England’s residents:

The servant will not call the person he lives with Master; and they have the utmost aversion to wearing anything in the shape of a livery, or performing any office of attendance on your person, or table; We have however a Coachman, who had the fortitude to drive us in spite of the ridicule of his Countrymen, who point & look at him, with contempt, as he passes by.

These people seemed to Hulton to be a new breed incapable of acknowledging an innate hierarchy in society and government — and mocked those who did. The “Coachmen’s” countrymen were not pointing and ridiculing a man as he passed by; they were ridiculing feudalism. Contempt for invested power, for government, was fundamental to defeating feudalism and checking the unyielding penchant of power to make itself permanent. It was a way to express that government was other, necessary but morally unsavory. And contempt works as a principal response to government because it isn’t an active response; objects of contempt are held in low regard but not actively fought, so a contemptible government may continue to operate unmolested by a people who consider public works inherently inferior to private works.

Woven into the fabric of the national discourse, contempt expressed itself in the election of Andrew Jackson, Buckley’s famous assertion that “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard,” to the rise of the Tea Party, the divided reaction to Edward Snowden, and the popularity of Donald Trump. But along the way a competing theory of contempt developed and opposing theories of contempt are the foundation of our current political discourse. Karl Marx’s potent mix of mythology and historical paranoia asserted that a cabal of covert forces controlled nations, and that the only (and inevitable) method to defeat these forces was a greater force — a greater government. And thus general contempt for government metastasized into selective contempt. Progressives, socialists and fascists alike seized on this reordering of the objects of contempt, and it has now become the operating theory of the Democrat party and some Republicans such that the cabal of covert forces — “Wall Street” or “special interests” or “racism” — can only be defeated with the greater force of government in order to realize “human rights.”

General contempt for government was co-opted into effective selective partisan contempt starting in the 1930s when FDR argued through multi-billion dollar programs that the government wasn’t a necessary evil but a paternalistic necessary good — a position Paine would have found contemptible. The 1960s completed the transformation of contempt from contempt of authority to contempt of non-Marxist authority under the idea that any government that isn’t Marxist is part of the covert cabal. For the Marxist progressive utopia to manifest itself, contempt for authority must be transformed into idolization of a specific kind of authority, and thus contempt was transferred from being directed at authority in general to being targeted at the counterrevolutionaries who supported and benefited from the supposed cabal. The irony is that this new contempt of non-Marxist authority became the establishment position with Johnson’s Great Society attempt to leverage Roosevelt’s New Deal political success. If Democrats would maintain partisan contempt, then they could maintain political control. And thus for the children of the 1960s, the objects of contempt became their own parents and peers who refused to become fellow travelers. And the cohesive founding contempt was replaced with a purge-oriented Marxist contempt that sorted people by whether they embraced the new idol.

With this transformation, the necessary psychological distance and lack of identification with the object of contempt — government — was rejected and replaced with the opposite — psychological proximity. The contempt that was the social, legal and political weapon that ensured that the inevitable few who held much power could not use it to abuse the inevitable many who were powerless transformed into a Marxist contempt for those who thwarted efforts to aggregate power in order to, according to dogma, aid the powerless. And instead of a contempt that refused to acknowledge an innate feudal hierarchy, Democrats have animated a contempt for those who reject a new feudal hierarchy and thwart the feudal-cum-Marxist unyielding penchant of power to make itself permanent.

And thus the Conservative/Libertarian Republicans and Democrats are having two very different conversations: the former expressing the contempt of Anthony Longo and George Hewes and the latter expressing the contempt of Karl Marx and George McGovern. The success of the Democrat position relies on their efforts to paint conservative contempt as partisan and regressive. Historically, it is not partisan — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. But it is regressive. The question before the American electorate is whether to embrace to the selective partisan contempt of the Democrats or the general contempt on which America was founded.

[1] Demonstrated here:

[2] Call back to Goes without saying (yet anyway said) that the Mueller investigation is a perfect litmus test for the differences in the conceptions of contempt: one side relishes the partisan spasms of government power while the other feels such spasms are generally filthy. Of course, those who argue that (1) Mueller should indict President Trump or that (2) Mueller should indict Hillary Clinton are, of course, actually on the same side of the argument from a Marxist historical perspective.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….




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