We’ve been hearing that our current politics is driven by fear. I won’t dispute that instilling fear is a much used tactic but the emotion that dominates these uneasy times seems to be disgust rather than fear. I turned to Google for enlightenment and came up with the following, along with a few other helpful articles here and here.
“The feeling when you encounter something that you don’t want to get into contact with in any way (neither see, hear, feel or taste it), because you expect it is bad for you. You want it to get away from you.” *from emotiontypology. Disgust is similar to contempt when related to human characteristics. “Moral disgust and contempt can be difficult to distinguish.” Outrage is not far away.
Among animals which prompt disgust, snakes, spiders and other crawling insects lead the unpopularity sweepstakes. Having worked at zoos at both ends of my career, I remain afraid of snakes but not disgusted by them, whereas I’ve always been disgusted by rats and other invasive rodents, even to the point of booing Mickey Mouse cartoons at the movies as a kid.
According to one of the articles linked, people who feel disgust readily are more likely to be conservative, whereas liberal people tend to feel less disgusted morally. My background is from a family of faltering Dutch Reformed faith. The severity and the religiosity were diluted but the Calvinist judgmental tendencies were retained, leaving us to experience disgust and contempt much more readily than most of our neighbors.
Curiously, my brother and I share this trait but owing to divergent political leanings, the objects of our contempt are usually polar opposites. My radically conservative brother would seem to be more within the confines of probability, in that his contempt is usually triggered by “the other”, i.e. whatever is outside the American suburban norm of the 50’s and 60’s, whereas mine, more often driven by aesthetic concerns, is rooted there. We get along remarkably well by simply avoiding the discussion of politics.
The picture toward the top of the page is of viburnum, known locally as sambuchelle. These plants have nice flowers and make a dense hedge. We have many of them. Unfortunately, they stink, a characteristic described in plant catalogs as an “intoxicating fragrance”. Besides the Calvinist baggage, I have a strong sense of smell, not good enough to be a paid food or wine taster but enough to render me susceptible to disgust brought on by cigarette smoke, wet dogs and viburnum. My vision of Hell is riding in a car of a cigarette smoker with a dog. Indeed, my many years of smoking cigars resulted not only from a love of the scent of cigars but as much from the need for a counteroffensive against the ubiquitous poison gas ambiance generated by cigarette smoke, a tactic akin to using excessive cologne when riding the buses of Rome. As defined above, disgust arises from all the senses and while I’m conventionally liberal enough to oppose capital punishment, I would be tempted to make exceptions for “graffiti artists” and other desecrators of the visual environment. Likewise, aural stimuli, from much white pop music of the fifties, through decades of the San Remo Festival, to the sound tracks of the cartoons that my grandchildren watch, induce extreme distress. At the gym which I frequent, when the screaming military cadences of the ladies’ dancercizes subside, the aural vacuum is filled by the sounds of Radio Subasio, an agency possibly set up by the CIA to soften the will of terrorist prisoners held at Abu Graib. After two hours of exposure, normal brains turn to mush so I try to hold my workouts to an hour and a half.
In my bachelor days, many years ago, my Siamese cat slept inside my bed with me. This provoked some discomfort, if not outright disgust, in a number of visitors, not so different from my own unease at seeing people share their dishes with their pets. Our thresholds of disgust are highly subjective and personal.
Occasionally the disgust sweeping the world can be curiously bipartisan. In the UK, the failure to resolve the Brexit crisis has provoked disgust with the political establishment across the British political spectrum, even if abroad, the disgust has been sprinkled with other emotions ranging from disbelief through ridicule to pity.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the times we live in is that while President Trump has exceeded all precedents for provoking disgust, the intense disgust that he inspires is felt mostly in people usually considered liberal. His “conservative” base theoretically consists largely of easily disgusted people. It’s no surprise that they will not be upset with his treatment of poor people or of non-white people, but one might reasonably expect that people who are intolerant of others outside their experienced norms of appearance and custom would be appalled by his constant flouting of social norms of behavior that have evolved over centuries. Have actual conservatives been supplanted by a new breed of monsters, such as those filling his swamp cabinet, all dedicated to destroying the agencies they run? While a few collaborators have thrown in the towel, the President’s steadfast minions, from Mitch McConnell to William Barr, surrender whatever dignity or decency they may have ever possessed to the campaign to destroy every significant institution and all aspects of the natural environment, in the United States and beyond. Their mission is to redistribute all economic resources to their oligarch patrons. It is not a zero sum game. They don’t really care if the pie gets smaller; they just want all of it. Will a new James Bond emerge to save the world from the plot by the spiritual descendents of Dr. No and Goldfinger to establish a neo-feudal regime? Will the level of disgust rise to the point of forcing change? We shall see.
Still, every one of us reacts to different things emotionally and stimuli come from all sides. While the Governor of Virginia was flubbing his press conference to explain a proposed law legalizing third trimester abortion and what to do with fetuses which accidentally survive the procedure, causing the law to be scrapped, in New York State the passage of a similar law was celebrated with the illumination of the NYC skyline in pink, ordered by the First Girlfriend of New York. It may have been all congratulatory smiles in the citadel of secular orthodoxy but there were more bitter pockets of outrage in flyover country than the New York Times is ever likely to report. We think of flyover country as places like Iowa and Nebraska but the planes actually lift off in Newark and Queens. Not even the Pope appeared to take umbrage but the President was quick to jump at the chance to displace the Pope as the champion of unborn babies, thus ingratiating himself with more angry voters of short and narrow memory.
Another topic which provokes psychic, not to mention physical, discomfort is genital mutilation, a practice mostly carried out in African countries. African issues don’t carry much weight in the US but when some Africans get to the US and try to continue this tribal custom, a storm of indignation erupts. Given that opposition to such practices is so vocal and strong, it is beyond ironic that a recent objective in “progressive” circles is the surgical and chemical altering of pre-adolescent children to make their bodies better align with their perceived gender identities. Barring revolutionary medical advances, this will leave them sterile, perhaps a worthy goal for progressives concerned with rapid population growth at a time when the planet’s survival has come into question.
Disgust fatigue risks our turning away from the news of the world, which would be problematic if the major media actually reported news more than gossip. One story that somehow slipped in quietly the other day was about the comeback of asbestos. The formerly all purpose wonder substance was banned several decades back when its lethal effects became known but now the Trump Administration, in its efforts to create jobs and stimulate the economy, has eased the restrictions on its use. Previous sources of asbestos in Brazil and Canada have long since suspended operations but there is a small town in Russia which still produces asbestos and is now looking forward to a new era of prosperity. Residents there don’t worry about dangers inherent in the mining since they are only a few kilometers from a large, run-down nuclear power plant and all life has risks anyway so what the hell.
We’ve never been much caught up in the agitation over the alleged efforts of Putin to influence the 2016 US election since his efforts were at least furtive, whereas the more forceful interventions of Benjamin Netanyahu were carried out in plain sight on the floor of Congress shortly before the election. The combined efforts of Putin, Netanyahu, and Bill Clinton to subvert the election never added up to anything close to those of Kris Kobach. He remains unindicted and free despite his effective work to disenfranchise many times more voters than were needed to prevent the surprise victory of Donald Trump. Inasmuch as he is not a foreign agent, his work did not constitute the intervention of a hostile foreign power but only something more akin to treason or, at the least, as massive a civil rights violation as we’ve seen since the days of the KKK.
Nevertheless, those looking for more evidence of Russia’s hold over the current administration might want to follow the asbestos trail. Could this be a link that Mueller missed? Election help and Moscow building permits in exchange for jobs in a struggling Russian town plus the poisoning of the US homeland with the consequent weakening of its population?
Finally, as we end today’s sermon, we note that right-wing Democrats are loudly calling for the emergence of a Democratic presidential candidate who will not threaten the status quo. In 2016 they were very successful but they started from pole position in that race. (They did win the race even if the series championship eluded them.) Can they replicate that performance while starting from behind in 2020? At the moment, their efforts appear to be concentrated on Joe Biden, whose candidacy has only now been officially proclaimed, after delay after delay of a declaration ceremony, mostly caused by allegations of improper conduct towards women with him on prior campaign trails. Some women claim to have been disgusted by his actions in putting his arm on their shoulders or even sniffing their hair (ucch!). Joe Biden has always struck me as a very likable person, unusually so for a politician. Wealthy Democrats seem to adore him. Of all the twenty or thirty potential candidates in the race he is near the bottom of the list of whom I would want to see as the next president, but I would be happy to have him as a friend or neighbor. A compelling op-ed appeared in the NYT by a woman who is deeply offended by the attitudes he represents. We can respect her views without sharing them. I would have shared the article here but can't find it. I too have been disgusted by some of Joe Biden’s actions, from his treatment of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to his advocacy of the criminally insane invasion of Iraq.
We risk drowning in a sea of disgust. It’s a constant companion, much like hypocrisy. An excess of hypocrisy leads to cynicism, as in Italy where universal cynicism has led to political paralysis. Similarly, the daily tidal wave of disgusting events in the USA appears to have rendered the population numb to the most grotesque outrages but sometimes hypersensitive to mini affronts. I would modestly suggest that we all take a deep breath and put this emotion under control and focus it where it matters. Asbestos could be a start. Climate science denial, or all science denial for that matter, would be better yet.
For my part, I pledge to resist kicking overly friendly, drooling dogs and to refrain from derogatory comments in the presence of cigarette smokers. I will even hold back from dropping a barbell on the hi-fi system at the gym. As an occasional political cartoonist, I can’t step back from disgust completely or I’d have nothing to draw, but should Joe Biden stop by the Circolo of Acqualoreto on a long campaign tour, or even on a post-withdrawal Umbrian vacation, speaking for the membership, I can assert that he will be welcomed with open arms, friendly hugs and all, by the assembled members, with the possible exception of my wife, but even she wouldn’t denounce him in the press. The presence of Kristen Gillibrand might prove more problematic since there is a lot of casual hugging and kissing at our Happy Hours and we wouldn’t want to risk being reported to the authorities.