In March, more than 55 million Americans tuned in to the Oscars to see a universally beloved historical love story win Best Picture. It was a glorious, unifying moment in our culture. People had been seeing the movie and talking about it for three months. Almost everybody was enraptured by it. Many went to see it more than once.
It wasn’t March of this year, though. I’m talking about 20 years ago, in 1998, when Titanic won, as its director, James Cameron, jubilantly proclaimed, “I’m king of the world!” That victory felt widely shared because his movie was so broadly loved. Cameron had made a piece of popular art that drew planetary attention. In a sense, he was crowing for everybody.
This March, the film that won Best Picture was a bizarre left-wing fantasy that was like a joint cover story from Mother Jones and Fangoria. That film, The Shape of Water, had been seen by less than 2 percent of the American public. The sci-fi romance about a mute cleaning lady’s erotic affair with a gym-buffed fish-man, which culminates in their having sex in her flooded bathroom, is by some measure the most peculiar movie ever to take home the highest honor in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards.
What are we to make of it? It’s not an urgent plea for societal acceptance of bestial erotica. (Perhaps the next generation will read it that way, its most ardent progressive activists camped out on the steps of the Supreme Court shouting that the Constitution guarantees the right to interspecies marriage.) So it isn’t really a love story. Like some other recent Oscar winners, it’s best understood as a declaration of all the things it’s against — as a hate story. The reason it doesn’t come off that way to its fans is that it stokes hate for the perceived enemy, the haters, who richly deserve the obloquy. Any uneasy feelings about hate are washed clean when that hate is obviously justified. Hating haters, these days, produces a kind of ecstasy. It is easily mistaken for love.
In the film’s Cold War setting, the cleaning lady and the fish-man and their three accomplices (a gay man, a black woman, and a Soviet spy) unite to outwit and destroy the movie’s villain, who in one tiresome scene after another is tagged as an emblem of sexism, racism, militarism, ableism, commercialism, patriotism, sexual harassment, and woefully inconsiderate bedroom practice. The audience’s loathing for this man and everything he represents is the principal emotional response that director Guillermo del Toro seeks to provoke. It’s certainly far easier for the average moviegoer to despise the jerk in the suit than it is to share the leading lady’s erotic fixation on a walking fish. Leonardo DiCaprio he is not.
The Academy’s choice of The Shape of Water is, however, consonant with our politics. November 2016 presented the voters with two remarkably unpopular candidates and asked the electorate: Whom do you hate more? Connected with the division and the tribalism that are being explicated in several new books, including my colleague Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, is the startlingly hate-centered nature of our culture and discourse.
The term “hate speech” is frequently lobbed at the Right, and few would disagree that skinheads shouting anti-Semitic or racist slogans are motivated by hate. Rarely, though, is one’s morning commute delayed by a mob of Hitler Youth in the street. Yet hardly a month passes without a mob assembling to excoriate President Trump, and the online mobs never disperse. During the George W. Bush administration, the hatred was equally palpable and visceral. Meanwhile, Trump’s most committed followers, citing the sublime taste of “liberal tears,” seem willing to forgive or even cheer anything he does, provided it causes anguish to the Left, even if what he’s doing is bizarrely unpresidential or contrary to established principles of Republicans and conservatives. Indeed, the contempt and ridicule Trump heaped on other political and media figures seemed to be the operating system for his astonishingly successful candidacy.
Hate is the emotional accompanist to the precept that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Genuine hate speech may be fairly rare, but we have an all-pervasive and growing hate culture. The most widely heeded figures in the public square — the superstars of the movies, the news channels, and the late-night comedy shows, to say nothing of politicos — are enthusiastically promoting a culture of enmity. Even Tom Hanks, previously made of smiles and filled with down, these days is calling Trump’s jibes at the media “insidious” and saying such things as “We have to decide when we take to the ramparts.” You know things are getting out of hand when Forrest Gump is crying “Aux barricades, citoyens!” But Hanks would describe his hate as defensive: “Ma, he started it.” It’s an echo of Herbert Marcuse arguing that we must be intolerant of the intolerant. Hit them before they hit you. Hate them because they already hate you.
A term that would have been difficult to explain in the 1970s is “hate-watching” (or “hate-reading”). Picture yourself explaining to Mrs. Brady why you took such a keen interest in something you loathe. “Why don’t you just change the channel, dear?” Answer: Because it’s too much fun! To ridicule, to condemn, or even just to jeer: These are exhilarants, their pleasures greatly amplified by the group participation easily afforded by social media.
Economist Noah Smith (no relation), a Bloomberg columnist, noted on Twitter about a visit to Japan: “Talking to Japanese people, I always have the same slow, creeping, momentous realization: PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT STUFF THEY LIKE INSTEAD OF STUFF THEY HATE. It’s just . . . kind of amazing.” He continued: “Americans are OBSESSED with criticizing things. Especially on social media. We venerate and worship ‘snark,’ and sneer at positivity as ‘smarm.’ . . . Positive tweets get a few dozen retweets, while denunciations go viral. . . . I think we changed.” Smith’s suggested counterexamples are dubious — he cites the outrage-fueled and vociferously anti-Trump Women’s March as an example of “positivity.” But that merely shows the difficulty of identifying any instances at all in which the masses celebrate instead of excoriate. Awards shows whose stated purpose is to extol the worthy are turning into barely disguised ritual denunciations of the unworthy. Even in the Obama era, jubilation among the president’s acolytes proved boring and quickly turned to rancor: nonstop denunciation of the Tea Party, Fox News, and Republicans in Congress. Rarely during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations — rarely this century — has it felt as though America was more or less happy.
Consider how late-night comedy has changed since the Johnny Carson era. Comedy was then mainly about human foibles, our peculiar shortcomings. Today it’s targeted. Stephen Colbert barbecues Fox News. John Oliver unloads on Sinclair Media. In both cases, the contempt is inspired by a perceived alliance with Donald Trump, whom they and practically every other comic slash and scourge nightly. Carson wouldn’t even mention the Vietnam War because he thought people needed a break. Today, hate comes along with the politicization of everything: You can’t even flip through a copy of Entertainment Weekly without being reminded which side you’re on and that the other side hates you.
Was it ever thus? William Hazlitt wrote in his essay “The Pleasure of Hating” (1826): “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. . . . The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible.” Hazlitt further offers that “pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit.” Hatred certainly provides plenty of entertainment value, and who would want life without it? I’ve been hate-watching the New England Patriots for years, so my joy was unbounded when they were foiled by Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. But hatred ought to be a side dish. It’s becoming a meal. We’re sitting down to banquets of hot salsa served with glasses of lemon juice.