As optimism yields to disheartening reality in the Democratic Party primaries, we probably haven’t paid enough attention to the problem of dignified contempt, also known as highbrow indignation. We encountered this concept originally in our coverage of Joe Biden’s rallies, which were defined by a bourgeois bloodlust and loathing for Donald Trump and his voters, although such simmering hostility could have been, and was, observed at Kamala Harris’s events. Dignified contempt, as I have come to understand it, is the deeply personal and passionate hatred cultivated, condoned, and possibly even encouraged by neoliberals. It is a hatred of the enemies of neoliberalism, whosoever those enemies happen to be at a particular point in time, regardless of their ideology or intent.
The significance of this hatred lies within its incongruence with the supposed moral grounding of the Democratic Party. For the last five years, from the moment Trump commenced his candidacy, the Democrats have bemoaned the pervasive hatred in our country, identifying hatred as the cause of our moral failing, which is also the cause of our cultural failing, which is, ultimately, the cause of our political failing. “Hate Has No Home Here”, so reads the sign on our neighbor’s lawn, as if there could be no element more loathsome than that. In representing hatred, Trump encompasses the worst of our inhumanity, and as his political adversaries, the neoliberals stand for the opposite of hate—although this antithesis has yet to be defined.
Likely for the best, as hatred is not completely taboo, entirely or inherently, in neoliberal circles. The neoliberals are permitted to hate Trump, and to extend their hatred to the sixty million people who refuse to apologize for voting for him in 2016. In fact, the Democratic Party has expended an incredible amount of effort in the last five years to harness this particular form of hate: it has proven to be an exceptional marketing gimmick, one which has convinced well-meaning liberals to stand behind contemptible people like Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. This remunerative hatred for Trump will remain a prominent selling point in 2020, as our freewheeling disgust, poured into the neoliberals’ polished channels, may well serve as our outstanding political motivation.
Such a motivation, as hypocritical as it is self-destructive, has culminated in all sorts of ridiculous and unbecoming behaviors. The political naivete and broader immaturity of American adults has been illuminated brilliantly in the Trumpish Age, as their capacity for masochistic folly proves to be genuinely boundless. One remarkable example is the case of Nicholas Sandmann, an absurdist tale of such moral inanity that a pampered, Trumpeting pubescent comes across as the good guy—by default. For those outside the know, Sandmann is a student at a posh Catholic school who may or may not have taunted a Native American man as an act of ethnic bullying. No one has grasped the particulars of this story since it broke, but that didn’t stop the hands of the titans of mass media: within days, the image of a smirking Sandmann, which CNN described as “heartbreaking”, became notorious and ubiquitous in the United States.
The scandal inspired a deluge of unlettered commentary, most of it a veil for the writers’ contempt for Sandmann. Behold this sagacious take from Bill Maher: “I blame that fucking kid. What a little prick. Smirk-face. Smirk-face … I don’t get what Catholic priests see in these kids.” The scandal served as a joyous opportunity for the neoliberal elite to vent their frustrations with right-wing . . . je ne sais quoi. Just as Sandmann’s moral offense was never specified, neither was his relationship to the Trumpish counterculture ever clearly defined. It was an incoherent controversy, most likely because Sandmann did nothing wrong: such appeared to be the case when additional evidence and footage emerged, and such was Sandmann’s argument when he sued CNN and The Washington Post for hundreds of millions of dollars apiece.
CNN recently settled with Sandmann for, of course, an undisclosed sum, and a settlement with the Post is likely to follow. I have been rooting for Sandmann in both lawsuits from the beginning, not because I believe he is hurting for money, but because I believe this may be the only way to force the corporate media, which has behaved with shocking recklessness in the Trumpish Age, to take some necessary responsibility. Today, the most preposterous allegations are taken as incontestable fact, as long as they serve our preferred political agenda. However, there is another, more sinister element to this scandal: Nicholas Sandmann is a minor, yet the media preyed on him as if he were fair game. The traditional protections afforded to minors were completely disregarded when CNN, The Washington Post, and all of the rest decided to make him famous. Such an act of journalistic aggression would have been despicable even if he had done something immoral, but in the absence of any proof of wrongdoing, the editorial decisions made here were shocking.
Predictably, no one has raised this particular point in their coverage of this story. The emphasis is still on the inadequate evidence used to make the charge, yet the charges never should have been applicable to Sandmann because he is a minor. If this point is lost on the executives of CNN when they pay Sandmann, then the lawsuit may have been all for naught, because there will be no cause to trust that they will spare minors this kind of harassment in the mass media in the future; the best we will be able to hope for is that they will be a bit more diligent in their preliminary research. In other words, the caustic compulsion to dignified contempt, and the sadistic fantasy of seeing every recipient of that contempt annihilated, will continue to be tolerated, even encouraged, in our media and culture. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the moral degradation of the corporate media in the last five years, but in the Sandmann saga, it would seem that, yet again, we’ve missed the forest for the trees.