Sentimentality and the building blocks of bigotry
Last week Dutch TV regaled us with a humanising segment about Geert Wilders’ cats. In this segment, journalist Eva Jinek asks pressing questions such as how he scratches his cats’ ears and how he dealt with the grief of losing his elderly cat. This is an opportunity for the viewer to connect with Wilders’ “soft side”, share his emotions, empathise with his tenderness and warmth.
That this is a man whose strategy is based on the systematic denial of factual information is conveniently omitted from the segment. We are not reminded that his politics are the politics of feelings and emotion. His hatred of Muslims is not based on facts or concrete evidence but on his “hunches” (he just knows they are up to no good! he has suspicions, he has an inkling they are bad people, etc). So, when he shows his warmth and affection for his cats, it is strongly implied that his emotions are just like ours. This is a man of pure heart! His sentiments can be trusted, you can see it for yourself! We do not merely get a humanised Wilders, we get a validation of his emotions. When at the next opportunity he incites hatred for a group, you might remember how his feelings for his cats are just like yours so why wouldn’t you also share these other feelings with him? After all, the man is just like you, isn’t he?
The role of sentimentality in the rise of the right
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that sentimentality, or “the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth” became a mainstream staple during the 18th century, at the height of European colonial expansion. While the European Empires were defining the racial and gender hierarchies that still rule us to this day, sentimentality became the dominant way of “knowing”. In The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture, Lauren Berlant writes:
This mode of sentimentality takes up the Enlightenment project of cultivating the soul of the subject toward a visceral capacity to embody, recognize, and sanction virtue, and it expands it into the collective activity of compassionate cosmopolitanism, which places affective recognition at the center of what binds strangers to each other. Yet sentimentality’s universalist rhetoric gains its authority not in the political domain, but near it, against it, and above it: sentimental culture entails a proximate alternative community of individuals sanctified by recognizing the authority of true feeling — authentic, virtuous, compassionate — at the core of a just world.
And to this, I would add, via James Baldwin, “sentimentality is the mask of cruelty” that binds the bigots together.
One of the contemporary legacies of Enlightenment, however, is that the only emotions worth considering as “valid data points” are those of white people. A Google search for “Trump voters feel” renders more than 2 million results. Practically every day mainstream media will feature a new survey, poll or data collection quantifying these emotions: Trump voters feel confident; Trump voters feel empowered; Trump voters feel betrayed, etc. In turn, these catalogued and quantified emotions become the foundation on which his administration can unleash a new rhetoric attack on a marginalised group or another (immigrants as a whole, Black people, Muslims, Latinos, or whoever happens to be useful as a target). Trump himself, very much like Geert Wilders, centers his subjectivity as the basis for his public persona. The way he speaks resembles a stream of consciousness one might experience before falling asleep, eschewing the rules of grammatical coherence or manifesting as an endless thread of disconnected ideas. His subjectivity, his emotions, at the centre of his political project. He feels, thus he knows.
The nostalgic wound and the appeal of “the good old days”
To quote the great philosopher Don Draper “In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Nostalgia doesn’t quite mean “the pain from an old wound” in Greek but whoever wrote those words for Don Draper’s character was certainly up to something: nostalgia as the driving force of the sentimentalist. The populist right winger appeals to the wound created by what was “lost” when racial and gender inequality were no longer seen as desirable. That hurts, they say. We must do something to stop hurting. Nigel Farage has perfected this reminiscing of the old days of the British Empire, when white men ruled unchallenged and everyone else knew their place in the social ladder. Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, regularly features the “good old days” of Dutch history as an appeal to national sentiments and, in turn, remind the former colonial subjects of their place in society. In fact, in The Netherlands, this powerful racist nostalgia manifests via another sentimental bigot’s favourite: think of our children! Strongly implied: “haven’t you hurt us enough? Aren’t we wounded enough? Do you also want to hurt our children now?”.
Invariably, the sentimental right winger invokes a return to “tradition”: they will reinstate the racial and gender values of the good old colonial times, the same taxonomies of the Enlightenment that Wilders invokes as an excuse for his bigotry. They promise the return of jobs, the recovery of what was “taken from them”. Trump promises his voters that coal mining will make a come back. Brexiters promise to return Britain to “greatness”. The sentimental right winger as the healing medicine for the nostalgic wound. The sentimental bigot will fulfil whichever void has been left in the wounded pride.
Much has been said about the appeal of these right wingers to white women. “How can they vote for leaders that will take away their rights?” we hear. This appeal can perhaps be best contextualised vis-à-vis the failure of a white mainstream feminism that is mostly preoccupied with “breaking glass ceilings” or accessing board rooms. When feminism becomes a vehicle for the incessant promotion of white wealthy women to positions of power, those who either have no interest in such power or who feel they are being left behind might latch to the nostalgic promises of the right wing populist. After all, in the taxonomies of Enlightenment, white women were not at the bottom of the social hierarchy so why wouldn’t they also desire a return to the old days? If, like Wilders, the right winger promises them equality to white men, the appeal is even greater.
It was Carl Jung who stated that “sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality”, perhaps it should come to us as no surprise that it has now become the foundation on which our contemporary political ethos rests. The sentimental right winger feels, just like Wilders and his cats. And their feelings, we are repeatedly told, are just like ours.
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