Read Jim Sleeper’s Essay on Ressentiment

Before it gets too late, I want to take a moment to recommend Jim Sleeper’s excellent essay that ran at TPM last week, expanding on his recent Washington Monthly review of William McGowan’s Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale, doesn’t much like McGowan’s book. But rather than dismissing it out of hand—or, like the rest of the mainstream press, ignoring it altogether—Sleeper does a valuable and important thing: he uses the book as a peg for a very, very smart analysis of the us-against-them mindset that mutates legitimate grievances against individual news outlets into wholesale denunciations of the establishment media.

According to Sleeper, this is all fueled by something called ressentiment:

The word (in French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”) refers to a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds that had been nursed by many people in private converge in public, presenting themselves as noble crusades in scary social eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big.

In ressentiment, the little-big man seeks “easy” enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for weaknesses and frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his exploitation and oppression by powers he fears to face and reckon with head-on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of both the hardships and opportunities that lie before him. It shapes the disguises he tries on in order to pursue vindication, without incurring reproach - at least until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to step out together en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval Catholic Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, or nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” or political correctness, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. These gusts of collective passion touch many raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse.

These movements’ legitimate grievances often goad them to a fleeting brilliance, but they soon curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies. For all McGowan’s pretensions to be saving the Times’ soul, he, like other bearers of ressentiment, is trying to burn it at the stake. Surreal journalism like his — sometimes smooth, sometimes loud — softens up the public sphere for something much worse.

The entire essay is wonderfully incisive and thought-provoking, and articulates something hugely important for anyone who wants to understand what motivates much of our political discourse. Read the whole thing. It’s long, but it’s absolutely worth it.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.