Hatred, Horace and Homer
In Book 20 of The Iliad, when mighty Achilles re-enters the battle in his dazzling new armor, the Trojans are at first "taken every man in the knees with trembling and terror" at the sight of him. At this point, however, the gods come down from Olympus, some to help one side in the battle, some to help the other, according to their inclinations. Says Homer*: "After the Olympians merged in the men's company, strong Hatred, defender of peoples, burst out …"
Strong Hatred, defender of peoples. Apparently Homer thinks that hatred serves a useful purpose, spurring soldiers on to defend their country against invaders. It helps, he seems to be saying, to hate the enemy. He even hints that this fortifying hatred is a gift from the gods.
It would be hard to think of a sentiment more at odds with the spirit of early 21st-century America. Homer's implication, if I have read it correctly, would be rejected by every significant political faction in modern American life.
To the political Left, hate is, well, hateful. Haters, in the leftist imagination, are snaggle-toothed rednecks looking for black people to lynch, or uncouth beery types beating up homosexuals, or insecure, starch-collar Soames Forsytes trying to keep their womenfolk in the kitchen and the bedroom, where they belong. Haters are people so benighted they cannot appreciate the enriching effect on our society of having millions of scofflaws pouring across our borders. Haters are conservatives, who want to turn back the clock to Jim Crow, the closet, the Patriarchy, and the Exclusion Laws. Leftists are not haters, they are lovers, possessed of a compassion for their fellow men so profound, so all-embracing, that their political platforms consist mainly of proposals to shower money — your money, of course — on the wretched of the earth.
Yet hate does not have much of a constituency on the Right, either. I hang out with these folk, and read their stuff. I have not yet heard any one of them say, even in private conversation, that we should make war on Iraq because Iraqis are loathsome people. Those who do want to make war on Iraq mainly want to do so for the benefit of the Iraqis, to relieve them of a horrid dictatorship and bring them the joys of democracy and prosperity. Those who do not want to go to war mainly argue that there is insufficient cause, that the Iraqis are not doing us any harm, and that it is wicked, or at least unwise, to go to war against people who haven't attacked you. The range of attitudes on display towards the people we might shortly be dropping bombs on, goes from indifference to tender concern. Not a spark of hatred in sight.
Certainly hatred is not a part of our military code nowadays, not in the West, at any rate. The modern military ethic in the USA is one of cool professionalism, "getting the job done," in which hatred of the enemy plays no part. GIs in WW2 used to boil up the heads of dead Japanese to get the flesh off, then send the skulls home as presents to their wives and sweethearts, who used them as living-room decorations. (There are some actual photographs of this process in Paul Fussell's book Thank God for the Atom Bomb.) None of that in the Army of One. There is no proscription against actually killing the enemy, not yet, but having killed him you pass on to the next task, feeling a mild regret at the distasteful thing you have just done to a fellow human being. Like you, the poor guy was only doing his job.
I am speaking here about generalized hatred, the kind of hatred that fired up the Trojans as they faced the army of well-greaved Achaians advancing on their city. It is OK — though not, I think, entirely PC — to express hatred for Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein. What President Bush calls "the evil ones" are legitimate objects of our hatred. Hatred has thus been corraled and tamed, directed towards a very small number of particular persons, the way our great-grandparents tried to fence off and tame sexual desire into the institution of monogamous marriage.
Like that other taming, this one has a lot to be said for it. Personally, I don't want to live in a society awash with promiscuous hatred. Yet I can't help but notice that there is plenty of generalized hatred around still. Taking the world at large, I don't think there can be much argument that the commonest form of strong, generalized hatred is antisemitism. Hundreds of millions of people hate Jews — all Jews, not any particular Jews. I don't know how one could measure the sheer quantity of antisemitism in the world, but I feel pretty sure it is greater now than it has ever been. My impression from reading the papers, and web sites like MEMRI, and my e-mail, is that we have entered a new age of virulent antisemitism, when hatred of Jews is going to drive large historical events.
Antisemitism seems to me to be only a " slight and occasional " feature of life in the U.S.A. We do have at least two common forms of widespread generalized hatred here, though. I write as an American who first came to this country in adult life, so that the national peculiarities presented themselves for inspection in a clear and striking way. The two hatreds that I am most aware of are:
- The hatred felt toward Christians by irreligious Americans.
- Hatred of white people.
Both points need a good deal of qualification, of course. Neither is anything like universal. A lot, very likely a majority, of irreligious Americans couldn't care less about Christianity one way or another. Likewise, millions of nonwhite Americans — again, probably a majority — don't hate whites at all. Our current national ethic is, as I said, one that deplores hate. Most Americans subscribe to that ethic, more or less whole-heartedly. It's hard not to notice, though, the endless rancorous campaigns against the public display of Christmas trees, or the Ten Commandments, or the Cross. (It doesn't help that some of the people running those campaigns seem to be quite dewy-eyed about Islam.) Nor was it easy to miss the celebrations of glee with which the O.J. Simpson verdict was greeted, or the fact that New York City Councilman Charles Barron remains a New York City Councilman, and more popular than ever with his constituents, after remarking at a reparations rally recently that he'd like to "go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health."
Most likely hatred — generalized hatred, hatred of people who look like that, or act like this, or live over there, or whose ancestors did such-and-such to my ancestors — is bred deep in the bone, and we are indulging ourselves in a lot of self-deception and wishful thinking about it, as our great-grandparents did about that other source of passion. We can do this because we are tremendously rich and powerful. We are so rich we have little occasion for envy, on which hatred so often feeds and grows fat. We are so powerful that Homeric hatred, the hatred that fortified the Trojan warriors, "strong Hatred, defender of peoples," is not a necessary part of our armory. We shall not any time soon be meeting our match in battle, as Achaian met Trojan, because we have no match, being better-equipped for war than our nearest rival by an order of magnitude. We can look generously on our enemies because: "We have got / The carrier group, and they have not."
Let's enjoy our dreams of a hate-free world, then — for a while, at least, since nothing lasts forever, certainly not national supremacy. But while we're nosing around in the classics, let's also reflect on Horace's remark that you can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she'll always come running back. Is Homer's assumption that hatred is a normal part of human nature — that it can actually serve some purpose, at least in battle — a profound insight into the human condition? Or does it belong strictly in the Bronze Age, along with war chariots, plumed helmets, slavery, concubinage, and the exposure of unwanted infants? Look around you, listen, and read. The answer's not hard to find.
* Says Richmond Lattimore, actually — I am using his translation here. My knowledge of ancient Greek peters out about halfway through the first line of The Iliad.