The British National Health Service (NHS) was launched on July 5, 1948, after a colossal political struggle. It was an extraordinarily ambitious scheme: to provide free healthcare for the entire country, so that nobody would again have to pay a medical bill for basic services. Nearly 90 percent of British doctors had opposed the scheme, making arguments that are familiar today (doctors would be “slaves” and the government would embark down the road to totalitarian serfdom). The socialist Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, a left-wing firebrand who had been born into a Welsh coal mining family, had worked diligently to overcome opposition and make the NHS a reality. He negotiated deals with the medical establishment and successfully charmed his enemies, so that on the morning of the 5th, all of Britain would wake up to find themselves able to go to the doctor without having to pay.
It was one of the most remarkable political triumphs of the 20th century. But the night before the NHS was to begin operating, Bevan nearly ruined everything. On July 4th, he gave a speech to a conference of Labour Party activists in Manchester in which he unleashed his rage upon the Conservative Party. Describing his background among the poor of Wales, and the avoidable suffering he had witnessed growing up, Bevan thundered:
“That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now… I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.”
The speech was a political disaster. Bevan had tried to convince the country that the NHS was a unifying measure that all reasonable people could agree to. He had presented himself as a pragmatist, a compromiser. Now he was denouncing the party of Winston Churchill as “vermin” and admitting that he hated their guts. The newspaper headlines were predictable: “BEVAN: MY BURNING HATRED OF THE TORIES”; “THE MAN WHO HATES 8,092,858 PEOPLE.” The Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, expressed his disappointment in Bevan, and the speech was alleged to have cost the party millions of votes. (The Conservatives returned to power three years later, in 1951).
The “vermin” speech may or may not deserve credit for affecting Labour’s political fortunes. But it was certainly a political misstep for Bevan, especially on the very eve of the NHS’s creation. And for conservatives, the speech proves what they all believe to be true: The left may speak in the language of pragmatism sometimes, they may claim to support unifying goals and unobjectionable principles, but beneath it all they are hateful class warriors motivated not by love, but by a burning desire to destroy a bourgeoisie whom they envy and despise. Bevan “let the mask slip.” He told the truth and exposed the left for what it really was.
But the reality here is more interesting and complicated. I think many of us on the left probably sympathize with Bevan, because we grapple with the same opposing instincts that he did: We simultaneously believe in “universal” programs and love “all” of humankind and keep seeing particular portions of humankind inflict terrible pain on their fellow creatures. This does not mean that we are “hateful” people, but rather that one day we wake up overflowing with love, the next day with hate, and our love of justice makes us enraged at the practitioners of injustice.
Frankly, I see where Bevan was coming from with that vermin speech. He had spent his early years watching miners spend their entire days in an 18-inch high tunnel beneath the ground, getting paid barely enough to subsist on, and having no medical care to speak of. As Minister of Health, he had had to spend years fighting against extremely well-off people who had the audacity to suggest that giving these working people the basic necessities of life amounted to forced labor for the professional class. Is it not human, is it not indeed quite rational, to hate a party that “condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation”? Isn’t that kind of hatred the mark of a functioning moral compass?
Today, a lot of people seem to think “hatred” is what’s wrong with our politics. Republican senator Ben Sasse has written a book called Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal. (Sasse: “When one half of the nation demonizes the other half, tendrils of resentment reach out and strangle whatever charitable impulses remain in us.”) On the left, Matt Taibbi has a new book called Hate, Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another. (“[D]omestically, we sold conflict. We began in the early nineties to systematically pry families apart, set group against group, and more and more make news consumption a… stimulation of the vitriolic reflex, a consumer version of the ‘Two Minutes Hate.’”) The Southern Poverty Law Center is known for tracking “hate” groups—a category in which the center includes both white supremacists and black nationalists—on the theory that there can be nothing worse than hate.
In a recent book called Against Hate, German journalist Carolin Emcke links hatred and “populism,” worrying about the rise of a hate-fueled politics in Europe that demonizes foreigners and religious minorities. Notably, Emcke does not just talk about right-wing bigotry, or attacks on the powerless by the powerful, but about “hatred” as an emotion, which she sees as blind, uncivilized, and dangerous. Haters, she says, are supremely confident people incapable of the nuance and humility that is the basis for sophisticated thought. Here are a few paragraphs from her introduction that capture her position:
Sometimes I wonder how they do it: how they hate the way they do. How they can be so sure of themselves. Because the haters have to be at least that: sure. Otherwise they would not talk the way they do, hurt the way they do, kill the way they do. Otherwise they could not insult others, humiliate others, attack others the way they do… You cannot hate and be unsure about hating at the same time… Hating requires absolute certainty. [..]
Hate is fuzzy. It is difficult to hate with precision. Precision would bring delicate nuance, attentive looking and listening; precision would bring that discernment that perceives individual persons.. ..[But once] individuals have been blotted out as individuals, then all that is left are indistinct groups to serve as targets of hatred; then they can hate to their hearts’ content, and defame and disparage, rave and rage: the Jews, the women, the unbelievers, the Blacks, the lesbians, the refugees, the Muslims, or perhaps the United States, the politicians, the West, the police, the media, the intellectuals… Hatred is aimed upwards or downwards but always along a vertical axis: against those ‘at the top’ or the ‘lowest of the low.’ It is always categorically ‘other’ who is oppressing or threatening the hater’s ‘self.’ …
I, In any case, do not think uninhibited shouting, slandering and insulting represents an advancement of civilization. I do not consider it a sign of progress that every inner baseness may be turned outwards just because exhibiting resentments is now supposed to have some public or even political relevance… I do not want to see the new, unbridled appetite for hatred becoming normal.
In Emcke’s formulation, then, hating “the media” or “politicians” is the same as hating Muslims or women. Whether or not your hatred is aimed “up” at a rich elite or “down” at the poor and dispossessed, the problem here is that people are expressing “resentments” and are “slandering and insulting” entire groups instead of seeing people in their full humanity.
I see the same problem with Emcke’s analysis that I do with those who condemn “populism of the right and left”: It collapses attacks on the powerful and attacks on the weak into one category, “attacks,” making Bernie Sanders’ attitude toward David Koch the same as the El Paso shooter’s attitude toward working class Hispanics. Emcke talks about those who “insult,” “hurt,” and “kill” as if those actions belong in the same category.
I am not sure I have a problem with hatred in and of itself. I certainly don’t think all hatred belongs in the same category, and the idea of lumping Aneurin Bevan’s hatred of preventable suffering in with the hatred of refugees and Muslims. The disdain for “hatred” and “divisive rhetoric” lacks an awareness of differences in who has power and who doesn’t, who actually has their lives threatened by being hated.
“Dehumanizing rhetoric” can seem like the worst and most dangerous kind of language—the first step toward rounding people up and exterminating them is to convince others that the target population are “vermin” rather than beings like ourselves. I am sure there are those who felt Bevan was engaging in “Hitleresque” comparisons. And yet there is a critical difference: Hitler was speaking about a vulnerable population, while the British Conservative Party were one of the most powerful political organizations in the world. In fact, after Bevan’s speech, conservatives formed “Vermin Clubs” and embraced the label with pride. In fact, the extremity of Bevan’s rhetoric was motivated in part by his sense of impotence and frustration, his anger at the fact that he could not secure the most basic humane concessions from this group of powerful people.
Is hatred ever healthy? Does it “strangle our charitable impulses” and make us stupid? I certainly try not to spend my life consumed by hatred, but I also think we should be infuriated by injustice, and I have always had respect for William Lloyd Garrison’s defense of “extremist” language in the anti-slavery movement:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.
I don’t know how you can look at certain features of the world and not feel very strong negative emotions toward those who are turning away from—or even directly causing—other people’s pain. My colleague Brianna Rennix has written about how her time working as an attorney at an immigraton jail has made her unable to think about the issue without a burning sense of rage coursing through her body:
I used to not think of myself as an angry person—and stupidly, I used to believe this was a virtue of some kind, that I was sanguine enough to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Well, that was fine, back when all I had to be annoyed about was some workplace drama, or an unrequited crush, or someone not doing the dishes. I had no fucking clue. In our immigration system, you sometimes run across people who are so petty, who are so ready to put their egos above the real lives of other human beings, that they feel like some kind of comic-book parody of a villain. At Dilley, too, you often get to hear the stories of how the detainees were treated just before getting here, while they were still at the border, far from observant legal eyes—made to sit in their wet clothes for three days in ice-cold temperatures, given frozen masses of rotted food to eat, forced to use an open toilet in a room packed with people while their children’s bottoms blistered in unchanged diapers, kicked and screamed at all night to keep them awake. These are things monsters do. This is what our country does to the poor and helpless, in a time of prosperity and peace. I think of how the little children I see every day are going to grow up, those who end up allowed to stay in the United States, with this their first welcome as refugees.
I am so angry that I am rapidly losing the ability to communicate with people and their facile opinions: “Well, but what’s the solution?” and “Well, but we can’t just let everyone in.” In the past I would have thought these people were moderates, probably. Now I think they are the accomplices of extreme evil. I don’t know what to do with all the rage in my body. And this is how I feel merely as an advocate and onlooker. If my family and friends were being tortured in this way, how would I live? Would my heart simply explode? How are there so many people in our country carrying this feeling in their body every day?
Is Brianna being “divisive”? Is she being “unsubtle”? Is she failing to “see the other side”? Possibly. But I also think she is having a more morally defensible reaction than those, like Emcke and Sasse, who think the problem is “anger in politics.” Sometimes anger is not only acceptable, but it is compelled.
Injustices persist without those who are passionate about opposing them, and I worry that without those who have some hate in their heart, nobody will be concerned enough to take radical action. Personally I don’t make jokes about David Koch’s death, but I have no problem with those who despise him, because David Koch chose to jeopardize the fate of the planet for his own personal financial enrichment. I hate that kind of behavior and you should too.
Aneurin Bevan should not have said that he hated the Tory Party, because it was a huge political miscalculation at a critical time for the NHS. Ultimately, the NHS proved an overwhelming popular success in spite of his speech, and despite decades of budget shortfalls and privatization pushes, British people today still affirm the underlying principle Bevan articulated, that “no society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.” (Let us reflect on the implications of this for the contemporary United States.)
But pragmatic considerations aside, was there anything wrong with Bevan’s hatred? I don’t think there was. He didn’t propose to hurt Winston Churchill, and I would have felt differently if Bevan had been inspiring Labour Party members to commit acts of random violence against ordinary Conservative voters. There is a distinction between the hate of frustration and the hate that calls for and incites murder, and the problem is with the murder far more than the notion of “extreme dislike” itself. If I had Bevan’s background, I would have felt the same way about those who are indifferent to the “semi-starvation” of other human beings, and I am glad that there are those passionate enough and honest enough to hate what needs hating. While everyone should reflect on whether their hatreds are defensible, and it’s easy to get carried away, I think the right kinds of hatred can actually be a sign of elevated intelligence and compassion.
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