Some of my best friends are conservatives-really-and one of them hates the Soviet Union with such passion that he would be insulted if you did not label him a fanatic. Rather than picket the U.N. or join The John Birch Society, he’s harnessed this hate, writing for newspapers and prestigious right-wing think tanks. After the recent Reagan-Gorbachev summit and the signing of the INF treaty, I fell to thinking about what would happen to my friend if, by some miracle, we really made lasting peace with the Russians he so loves to hate. If the bombs were forever defused and true glasnost robbed him of his totalitarian enemies, his world might be a safer but duller place.
In this month when custom and Hallmark cards urge us to worship Love, it may seem rude to splatter the bugs of reality across the windshield of our dreams and dwell on love’s powerful opposite, hate. After all, hate is that eternal evil we pray to be rid of. It’s the canker in the soul that has plagued our world since Adam wandered east of Eden. No, this is not one of those “pet peeve” stories in which someone “hates” snoring or “hates” those boors who talk in movie theaters. Everyone who has known hate in any of its gradations-calculating, smoldering, violent-knows that real hatred, whether it issues in the carnage of the daily headlines or silently metastasizes like cancer, is something grim and soul-searing, and no laughing matter.
Into the luckiest of lives a little hate will fall; with the rare exception of a Jesus or a Gandhi, most of us seem prey to the disease. We may as well face the fact that, at least until the millennium, hate is a part of the human condition.
While we wait for perfect love to descend, we have to reckon with the power of hate. (Here we speak as victims, the unlucky objects of hate. We, of course, are too wise, too tolerant, too sophisticated to succumb to that low emotion. We love everyone, as nice people should.) So we ask the question: can hate, produce any good at all?
Maybe. In a sense, our enemies can be used as mirrors-albeit cracked and distorted mirrors. Whatever we do, the hater will throw back a twisted reflection of ourselves. We think we are acting nobly and charitably, but the enemy will be convinced that we are cleverly angling for personal glory or currying favor with the boss. These silent partners lurk on the periphery of our minds, waiting for us to slip up, to drop this guise of competence and kindness and reveal ourselves as the bungling, coarse, selfish schmucks they know we are. Being human, sooner or later we do just that, and they have us.
Haters, if properly used, can keep our psychic gyroscopes running smoothly. Our mental health and happiness depend on our loving ourselves a bit more than we probably deserve in the cold light of justice; in the words of that pop-psych classic, we tilt toward the “I’m O.K.” side, always giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Yes, we tell ourselves, I was a bit sharp with X today, but surely he knew that I was sick or worked late last night or was worried about my taxes. But the hater never gives us the benefit of the doubt, and thus helps balance our natural self-love. With the hater, we are always running a deficit. He is the cold shot of water in the face, the sharp snap of the locker room towel: hey, buddy, you’re not O.K. Got it?
A few caveats: I) We must distinguish between rational and irrational hate. Have we ever, honestly now, done anything to warrant this malice? And no fair concluding that everyone who hates us must be wacko. Once in a while, once in a great while, we must grant that even the enemy might have a point. 2) Some people ought to hate us and if they do not, something is wrong. Just as we judge a person by his friends, certain enemies are also a badge of character. If you stand for anything at all, someone on the other side will hate you. When Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list” was revealed, many politicians and journalists were mortified to learn they had been left off. Jimmy Hoffa hated Bobby Kennedy for very good reasons: Kennedy was out to derail Hoffa’s gravy train. 3) We must not grant the hater too much power over us. If we constantly wonder how our every word and act will be interpreted by an enemy, we could be paralyzed. Think of haters as the pit bulls of the mind. They may do you a service once in a while, but they’ll take your arm off if you don’t watch it. (I know, the pit bull people will hate me for this.)
None of this means we must love our haters. The best we can do is use them as negative role models and measure our success by how different we are from them. Think of your most nightmarish hate scene. You were humiliated, belittled, wronged, cheated. .. But what can you do about it? Unless we subscribe to the Sicilian code of revenge, we can cut our losses from such incidents only by carving this vow on our memories: never be like them.
As a journalist I’ve felt my share of hatred, usually in the form of hate mail following a column on some hot-button topic like gun control, which I strongly support. In this part of the country, any talk about licensing handguns or banning Teflon-coated bullets or requiring a two-week (or two-hour) waiting period before purchasing a handgun will teach you a lesson in the power of hate. You will hear from those “hunters, collectors, and sportsmen” who think the Constitution and God approve of Saturday night specials.
Some of the letters are clumsy and semi-literate and some are written by educated, professional types. But the great majority of them send one point-blank message: we hate you, and we would gladly spit on your grave. Among the more printable remarks, I’ve been called a “liberal gutless wonder” and invited to take my opinions to Russia. Another fan says I am blind to the Communist conspiracy to take over America after disarming the populace. One choosy fellow hoped that “A Cuban person would stick a long gun” in my face. And those are the cooler heads. I keep a separate file of letters that read like out-takes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Several describe in ghoulish detail the doom they hope will overtake me. In a typical scenario. I am breezing down the highway, probably mulling over new ways to crush freedom, when I am accosted by “a greasy mob of Hell’s Angels bikers.” I am slowly tortured to death, all because I left home without a trusty heater. Another classic hater writes to share his dream: he hopes I have a daughter, so that one day I will have to watch helplessly (gutlessly, liberally) while she is raped and sodomized by a gang of thugs.
This kind of hatred is enough to make a guy start praying. Yeats, in his great poem “A Prayer for My Daughter.” hoped that she would shun politics and unpopular causes that breed enemies. “An intellectual hatred is the worst/So let her think opinions are accursed.” He’s got a point: apathy might be better than letters from gun nuts. But then I think of Voltaire’s famous prayer, which seems more fitting: “O Lord, make my enemies ridicu lous.” Come to think of it, He’s already granted that one.