Disgust with mankind?

In 1841, Alexandre Dumas famously described the changing attitude of the Paris newspapers as Napoleon marched toward their city after his escape from Elba:

The cannibal has come out of its lair.

The ogre of Corsica has just landed at the Gulf of Juan.

The tiger has arrived in Gap. The monster slept in Grenoble.

The tyrant crossed Lyon.

The usurper was seen sixty leagues from the capital.

Bonaparte advances with great strides, but he will never enter Paris.

Napoleon will be under our ramparts tomorrow.

The emperor arrived at Fontainebleau.

Yesterday, His Imperial and Royal Majesty entered his Tuileries castle in the midst of his loyal subjects.

(Frank Jacobs and Carrie Osgood produced a delightful map illustrating Dumas’s description.)

Alas, it appears these news headlines are apocryphal. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Dumas story would not have resonated with so many people if there were not a grain of truth.

I just finished volume 2 of Chateaubriand’s excellent memoir. This caught my eye:

Bonaparte solemnly says he is giving up the crown, leaves, and returns nine months later. Benjamin Constant publishes his vigorous protest against the tyrant and changes his mind within twenty-four hours [ . . . ] Marshal Soult rouses the troops against their former leader; a few days later, he laughs aloud at his proclamation in Napoleon’s office at the Tuileries and becomes major general of the army at Waterloo. Marshal Ney kisses the king’s hands, swears to bring him Bonaparte locked in an iron cage, then delivers every soldier he commands to the latter. And the King of France? He says that at sixty he cannot imagine a better end to his career than dying in defense of his people . . . and he flees to Ghent. Faced with such an absolute absence of truth in human sentiments, such discrepancy between words and deeds, one feels overcome with disgust for mankind.

It doesn’t take much insight to see the same sad spectacle playing out in the conservative movement, where politicians and pundits that stomped on Trump’s political grave after January 6, have returned to licking his boots as he rose inexorably in the polls.

But should this cause us to have disgust with all of mankind? Surely the problem is just a few bad apples—people like Kevin McCarthy, Tucker Carlson and JD Vance. And yet, according to The Atlantic, almost the entire GOP apple is rotten:

Perhaps Romney’s most surprising discovery upon entering the Senate was that his disgust with Trump was not unique among his Republican colleagues. “Almost without exception,” he told me, “they shared my view of the president.” In public, of course, they played their parts as Trump loyalists, often contorting themselves rhetorically to defend the president’s most indefensible behavior. But in private, they ridiculed his ignorance, rolled their eyes at his antics, and made incisive observations about his warped, toddler­like psyche. Romney recalled one senior Republican senator frankly admitting, “He has none of the qualities you would want in a president, and all of the qualities you wouldn’t.”

OK, the GOP is totally corrupt. Perhaps the Democrats are ethical. The Atlantic suggests that all politicians are the same:

[Romney] joked to friends that the Senate was best understood as a “club for old men.” There were free meals, on-site barbers, and doctors within a hundred feet at all times. But there was an edge to the observation: The average age in the Senate was 63 years old. Several members, Romney included, were in their 70s or even 80s. And he sensed that many of his colleagues attached an enormous psychic currency to their position—that they would do almost anything to keep it. “Most of us have gone out and tried playing golf for a week, and it was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna kill myself,’ ” he told me. Job preservation, in this context, became almost existential. Retirement was death. The men and women of the Senate might not need their government salary to survive, but they needed the stimulation, the sense of relevance, the power. One of his new colleagues told him that the first consideration when voting on any bill should be “Will this help me win reelection?” 

OK, but politicians are merely a small slice of humanity. And can you blame them for not wanting to lose their jobs? If only they had lifetime job tenure they would boldly stand up for what is good and true. According to Ross Douthat, even that’s not enough:

Tenure, in theory, should provide a counterbalance, enabling academics who survive the initial gauntlet to enjoy more freedom than the more precariously employed journalist. And there are certainly academics who use this freedom to the fullest. . . .

As Sarah Haider writes in a thoughtful post on the limits of tenure as a guarantor of diversity and debate, in many cases “tenure might simply make more room for social pressures to pull with fewer impediments.” Because “if keeping your job is no longer a concern, you will not be ‘concern-free.’ Your mind will be more occupied instead by luxury concerns, like winning and maintaining the esteem of your peers.”

Even tenured professors with job security are terrified of speaking out against unjust cancellations by the woke, and indeed often applaud these acts just as Soviet commissars vigorously clapped their hands during speeches by Joseph Stalin.

In polite society, it’s almost obligatory to say, “Most people are basically good”. Maybe, but what is the evidence for that claim? Are human beings qualified to offer an objective appraisal of the ethical value of humanity? I cannot dispassionately judge myself, how could I possibly judge all 8 billion people?

Sorry, but I’d like a second opinion, preferably from an alien life form. Someone unbiased. When we get GPT-6 or GPT-7, we can ask it to evaluate just how good the human race actual is. I suspect we are not going to like the answer.

PS. Have you ever hesitated before mocking the idiots who invaded the Capitol on January 6, not knowing if the listener is a Trump supporter? Here’s Chateaubriand:

It is hard to be born in times of improbity, in days when two men chatting together must be on guard against using certain words for fear of causing offense or making the other man blush.

PPS. Here’s another gem:

One of the things that most contributed to rendering Napoleon so repellent in his lifetime was his penchant for debasing everything. . . . While empires collapsed, he hurled insults at women. He enjoyed humiliating those he had brought low; he especially slandered and affronted anyone bold enough to resist him. His arrogance was indistinguishable from his happiness; he thought he grew in stature by diminishing others. Jealous of his generals, he blamed them for his own failings, because, as far as he was concerned, he could never have failed.

PPPS. And this:

Bonaparte, like the race of princes, wanted nothing and sought nothing but power, which he attained through liberty merely because he stepped onto the world’s stage in 1793. . . . The sophism put forward regarding Bonaparte’s “love of liberty” proves only one thing: how easily reason can be abused.

To be sure, Napoleon was a great man, with significant achievements. Indeed in some respects he was a genius. That other guy . . . er . . . not so much.

Read the whole thing (all 1300 pages.)



20 Responses to “Disgust with mankind?”

  1. Gravatar of Matthias Matthias
    17. September 2023 at 15:46

    All but one of your examples of people’s questionable behaviour are from politics. And the other is from government-financed academia. I suspect that says more about these milieus than mankind in general.

    Perhaps a chat with your barber or grocer would cheer you up? Or perhaps re-reading Tyler Cowen’s Big Business?

  2. Gravatar of sara sara
    17. September 2023 at 17:59

    Yes, a bunch of unarmed people attempted to take over the country.

    As you know, there are so many examples throughout history of unarmed protestors with their kids, and candy and soda pop, ‘invading’ capital buildings.

    Even the majority of democrats don’t buy into that establishment propaganda.

    The Seattle autonomous zone, however, where a man was shot to death, was in fact an invasion. It was a group of radical left Antifa members, armed and dangerous, who hijacked Seatles downtown. Where was your concern at that time? Where was your outrage over this blatant disregard for democratic principles and the rule of law?

    As Chris Rock might say: you have “selective outrage.” If it’s a conservative, and/or Trump, and/or someone of the christian faith, you scream and yell at the top of your lungs.

    If it’s someone on the left, however, it’s all fine and dandy.

    Trump is a populist, which means he’s a man of the people. The blue collar class likes him, so get over it.

    Comparing him to Napolean is bizarre. Xi, on the other hand, with his fulon gong and uigher genocide, is in fact Hitler 2.0. Where is your outrage?

    It’s called ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. September 2023 at 18:42

    Matthias, I agree that commerce makes people more polite. But that’s not the same as being good people. Realtors are polite. Lawyers are polite. Used car salesman are polite.

    (My dad was a realtor, so they aren’t all bad.)

    Sara, “you scream and yell at the top of your lungs”

    The top? Not even close. But someday I will scream and yell at the top of my lungs. Watch out!!

  4. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    17. September 2023 at 18:42

    RFK Jr. and Donald Trump are the only two candidates (maybe DeSantis) who support liberty.

    And Sumner hates them both, which is not surprising.

    This is the same academic who said that we should “do more” for Ukraine, by which he meant armed troops, presumably because he’s so afraid of Russia.

    It apparently didn’t occur to him that if Russia wanted us dead, they would have done it already and with the only means available to them, i.e., a nuclear weapon.

    He also advocates for a one-world-NATO (i.e, one world Europe). Napolean would have liked the sound of a one-world-NATO. That was his goal, and if it wasn’t for Russia, he might have achieved it.

    Btw, the hard-left Axios recently compared Elon Musk to Napolean too. I wonder if that’s where Sumner got his idea. It must be their new attack strategy.

    It’s kind of funny, because the same people calling Trump Hitler and Napolean, are the same people who support endless wars, limits on speech, canceling voices they don’t like, banning books, etc, etc.

    Trump is NOTHING like Napolean. He’s a man of peace, not war. If he wanted war, he would have started one. If he was hell-bent on being a dictator, he wouldn’t have left office. He wouldn’t have tried to smooth relations over with Kim Jung un. He was the only president in recent memory that avoided any overseas conflict. Reagon had his secret wars in Latin america. Clintons bombed Serbia. Bush and his thugs got us into Iraq, and Obama continued that atrocity.

    The globalists are shaking in their boots because they know Trump is a threat to their supranational world order.

  5. Gravatar of Ted Ted
    17. September 2023 at 20:55

    Why do you assume a lot of people don’t just support Jan 6? I loved that day. After a year of left wingers rioting constantly it felt like a great f u to them. Then you got to see the nyt crowd flip and screen about how bad rioting was. Jan 6 exposed the hypocrisy of the regime once again,

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. September 2023 at 21:48

    “Why do you assume a lot of people don’t just support Jan 6? I loved that day.”

    Thanks for proving my point—there are lots of bad people.

    It seems like almost every week I see a story in the Orange County paper about some fascist local cop who gets a really long prison sentence for January 6. I love those days.

  7. Gravatar of Ted Ted
    18. September 2023 at 12:19

    How do you know your opinion of them isn’t in the wrong and that cop is the good person?

  8. Gravatar of David S David S
    18. September 2023 at 12:40

    The hard-core Trumpers–who represent about 80% of voting Republicans–have been rock solid in their support for the Orange Jesus. He could order them to a compound in Guyana any day of the week to guzzle Kool-Aid and feast on Trump steaks. McCarthy, DeSantis, etc…have less credibility than a heroin junkie. But, they won’t ever be punished at the ballot box because they’ll back abortion bans and the NRA.

    We had some neo-Nazis show up in our neighborhood a few weeks ago to protest an immigrant shelter. Their actions are protected by the 1st Amendment–right up until they start driving cars over people. Then, they become folk heroes.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. September 2023 at 14:03

    Ted, Juries don’t typically give “good people” 10 year prison sentences.

  10. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    19. September 2023 at 00:33

    “terrified of speaking out against unjust cancellations by the woke”

    Compare numerous reports of senators and other politicians who didn’t vote for impeachment or speak out against Trump for fear of the physical safety of themselves and their families.

    Or doxing and intimidating election officials for doing their jobs.

    Or universities rescinding academic job offers under pressure from the right wing.

  11. Gravatar of Tom M Tom M
    19. September 2023 at 04:53


    I wasn’t aware that juries give sentences? The US judicial system sure has changed I guess.

  12. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    19. September 2023 at 05:59

    It appears Sumner is now upset because he feels that he needs to show a modicum of inhibition and diplomacy when around others who disagree with him: namely, Trump supporters.

    Oh, the horror.

    What is the world coming to when you cannot openly mock and bully people, for fear that some of them might disagree with you and retaliate with words of their own.

    We better call the WEF and setup a ‘trusted new initiative.’ oh, wait, that already happened. Quick, let’s create lists of speech, so we can cancel and imprison anyone that disagrees with us. Aw man, we tried that too. Okay, let’s start a war to keep the blue-collar class in perpetual fear. Damn, we also did that. Okay, let’s bribe intelligence officials to keep mum on the wuhan lab leak…oh, shucks a whistleblower ratted on us. Okay, screw it. Let’s write, in lockstep, how horrible a new variant is so we can shutdown all of those ‘non essential’ people we don’t like, and bring a million frivilous lawsuits against everyone who opposes our agenda like musk, russel brand, Trump, and RFK Jr.

    And FYI guns are now illegal because I declared an emergency. You cannot protect yourself because I declared an emergency. Don’t like it, I hear you say. Well, not liking what I have to say is hate speech. Gulag time for you!

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. September 2023 at 07:44

    foosion, You said:

    “Compare numerous reports”

    Yup, very comparable, as I said.

    Tom, Very funny. You people think you are so clever.

  14. Gravatar of Tom M Tom M
    19. September 2023 at 09:06


    It’s a LITTLE funny 😀

  15. Gravatar of Jonathan Miller Jonathan Miller
    19. September 2023 at 11:57

    I have put some thought into the issue of tenure.

    Tenure is suppose to exist as a reward for the often thankless hard work of postdocs and tenure-tracked professorship and to allow professors to take risks . But what I noticed when I was an academia (as a graduate student, postdoc and tenure-tracked professor, I was never tenured) was that tenured professors were generally just as focused on not taking risks and getting additional prestige and funding as the postdocs and tenure-tracked professors. The few who were not, usually just didn’t work as hard, but still didn’t take risks or challenge consensus. Obviously some of this is that what a person has been trained to do for 10+ years becomes a habit that is very difficult to shake.

    The reward angle also has broken, in physics most postdocs never get tenure-tracked positions.

    I have become convinced that the solution is to introduce a lottery (For funding), and to democratize funding. If most postdocs, maybe all, had their own funding, that they acquired, then there wouldn’t be so many incentives for an hierarchal system (and less power would be held by the prestigious) and taking risks would be rewarded. And we might as well start with graduate students.

    In Chile, both graduate students and postdocs usually maintained their own funding, only supplemented by professor grants and group grants.

    I am not sure how to connect this back to politicians. Using a lottery is the largest break of the tenure system I can think of (some portion of summer salary/postdocs funding/graduate funding goes to a lottery of everyone who applies and fulfills some minimal standard such as maybe having a PhD in a field with some like postdoc funding and graduate funding be something that can only be received once by lottery). There was some greek democracy, I think, where representation was decided in part by lottery.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. September 2023 at 08:50

    Jonathan, I agree that tenure doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. I don’t have any good ideas as to how to fix higher education—other than subsidize it less.

  17. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    21. September 2023 at 06:26

    Does it even make sense for a Rortian to question the general goodness of mankind? Your definition of goodness is determined by consensus, so there is no absolute measuring stick you can compare people in general with and find them wanting. More generally, one can just as easily say that misanthropes are the problem for cultivating unrealistic models of human behavior in their minds.

    On the more mundane topic, from a garden-variety, pre-Trump conservative standpoint, Trump actually had several significant achievements (e.g. many of the greatest conservative victories in recent memory came directly from his three Supreme Court appointments). Conservatives who’ve decided to pretend those things didn’t happen or oppose them just because Trump did them only discredit themselves among conservatives (Bill Kristol comes to mind). Of all the rhetorical strategies one can deploy against Bonapartists, trying to convince people that ‘actually it was Louix XVI who introduced meritocracy and reformed the civil service’ is possible the least fruitful, because it’s just obviously not true.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. September 2023 at 08:28

    Mark, I’ve noticed that conservatives ignore all of Trump’s failures, such as his disastrous fiscal policy (continued under Biden) and his horrible trade policy (continued under Biden), and his support for NIMBYs, and his rhetorical support for Putin, and his blatant corruption.

    That’s far more important than his Supreme Court picks.

    I hardly even pay attention to the modern conservative movement. Under Trump they’ve gone completely beyond the pale, not to be taken seriously. Trump’s just a right wing version of antifa, and he’s likely to be the next president. That’s so bizarre that conservatives twist themselves into knots trying to provide some fig leaf of justification. It won’t work. It is what it is. Years ago, I faced up to the fact that America has become a banana republic—the rest of the world is beginning to catch up.

  19. Gravatar of Kangaroo Kangaroo
    24. September 2023 at 06:13

    “Or universities rescinding academic job offers under pressure from the right wing.”

    Which is funny, since one of the most famous of these rescinded offers was to a leading woke advocate. Just as well. Scott is right that the right is off it’s rocker in many respects but I still argue that its no worse, and in many respects preferable to, the left. Both parties are riddled with quacks and morons.

    Probably the main reason most academics don’t “take advantage” of tenure to offer alternate view points is that it doesn’t work.

    (1) several academics have been driven out of or been ruthlessly attacked in their jobs for their views on climate. No one stuck up for them!

    (2) it hardly matters if you have tenure when your colleagues can cut off your research funding (including your travel funds to go to conferences in beautiful tourist destinations!! Gasp!!) by nixing your NSF / NSERC or other federal funding proposals.

    Whatever the case, academia is every bit as much of a quackhouse as the political parties, especially in the social sciences, where garbage research is the norm, not an exception and research methods that have been discredited over and over and over and over are still routinely used. I’ll never forget my grad-school room-mate, a “geo-anthropologist” who believed in a return to hunter-gatherer societies. He’s now a prof.

    Scott, world banana production has tripled since 1980! Here in the US we’re working to maintain proportional banana representation, so we’ve established the Occupational Fruit Representation Office to ensure that we have adequate banana representation across all sectors of society.

  20. Gravatar of Henri Hein Henri Hein
    29. September 2023 at 12:03

    I think 1841 should be 1814.

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