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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

On “Contempt”

I am a bookseller’s dream: when I see a review of a book that looks interesting or important, I buy it — even if it remains on my shelves, unopened for years. But there it is when I need it. Such was the case with Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, a history of Europe in the 20th Century. received wondereful reviews, (this one by Tony Judt, with whom I had studied this same period in grad school) and so I bought it, but there it sat, waiting for me. As some of you know, in writing about J. Edgar Hoovrer, I had to think a great deal about the Cold War, and that period has stayed with me. I am thinking of other books that will take me back into those dark years. And so I decided to read Mazower, and am so glad to be doing so.

Mazower is a clear writer who has read across many languages, and establishes convincing themes. A main focus of is book is that, looking back from today it is easy to argue that liberal democracy is somehow normal for Europe, or that Europe is inherently drawn to democracy. He shows how, in the 1930s, quite the opposite was true. Two ideologies that disdained democracy: fascism and communism, were clearly gaining strength in both popularity and in the number of nations which turned to them, while liberal democracy had proven itself to be a total failure after WWI. One of the keys to the rise of the anti-democratic movements was the emotion I mention in the title: contempt. Contempt is to scorn, to dismiss, I found one etymology that links it to “a whiff of breath through the nostrils, or protruded lips” — an expression of disgust. In the 30s, fascists and communists saw themselves, and seemed to many, strong, masculine, determined, linked to modernity, to the technological destiny of the 20th century and the iron laws of evolution, science, and history. Liberal democracy was thus weak, ineffectual, bourgeois in its worst sense of simultaneously almost senile and oppressive.

That contempt allowed people to blind themselves to the implications of their own thinking — the need for the mass to overule the individual. I suspect that contempt is so powerful because it is directed as much against the inner self of the person who expresses it as at his enemy. It is a kind of self-bullying — to kill off any doubt, to crush it, to dismiss it, and replace it with the iron certainty of superiority and truth. Contempt is the direct opposite of doubt. We often teach young people about cliques, peer pressure, mean girls, gangs — they read The Crucible, and Lord of the Flies, and go through endless state-mandated anti-bullying programs. But I wonder if we might pause to look at one emotion — contempt — and another — doubt — and teach them to turn away from the easy power of the first, and value the frail, life-giving strength, of the second.