The age of schadenfreude

Posted: Jun 08, 2005 12:00 AM

Consider the words guru, detente, glasnost, pundit, gravitas and schadenfreude. Each of them, in their time, was an obscure foreign-derived word that, suddenly, gained such currency that even the modestly educated came to bandy them about with regularity and confidence.

 The English language is blessed with a vast vocabulary that can combine to describe almost any human thought. So, when a foreign word rises to such quick prominence, its useful succinctness may often be catching a spirit of its time. (Dare I say a zeitgeist?)

 "Guru" became popular in the 1960s as young people were seeking guidance for finding the meaning of life, etc. "Detente" and "glasnost" each became the emblems of international relations in their times.

  The Hindu derived "pundit" seems to have flourished recently with the rise of cable television -- which employs so many pundits (allegedly wise men) that it quickly debased the meaning and became almost an epithet.

 "Gravitas" arose as a term of comparative contempt for the perceived lightness of contemporary politicians. (There were giants once. Or at least we think there were.)

 Recently, I have noticed that I am increasingly hearing and reading "schadenfreude" from the lips and pens of people usually more comfortable with simpler and more wholesome words. Sure enough, when I googled the word, I got 425,000 hits in .06 seconds. It turns out there are websites dedicated to the word and various organizations, such as comedy troops named for it.

 Upon brief reflection it seemed to me that perhaps we are living in a period in which schadenfreude tends to characterize people's thoughts more than it ought to.

 Gaining pleasure from the suffering of others is, at best, a dark pleasure. One could make a case that it reflects a neurotic or even pathological personality trait akin to sadism. It is true that most of us tend to judge our condition relative to the conditions of most other people. We are naturally pleased if we are better than average in some category.

 But it is a far healthier mentality if we have gained our advantage by having uplifted ourselves, rather than to be the mere beneficiaries of some other poor soul's degradation or failure.

 So, if our current politics are generating larger quantities of schadenfreude, we would expect to be seeing more failure than success. There is no better example of this phenomenon than last week's French and Dutch votes on the E.U. constitution. Particularly the French.

 I admit that one would have to have either a heart of stone or the soul of a saint not to have smiled at the comeuppance of Jacques Chirac. But even if one thinks, as I do, that defeating the E.U. constitution was the right decision, there is a difference between being intellectually gratified at good policy prevailing, and chortling.

 It is bad news for us when almost the entire leadership class of our closest cultural and political allies -- Europe -- have led their nations to the edge of a cliff. While we are justifiably relieved that the people did not follow them over the edge, political and economic chaos in Europe is not good for America. So why are we so cheerful?

 That the dominant reaction amongst Americans who followed the matter was joy, rather than relief, suggests just how bad our relations truly are. It is a further measure of the bad times we are in that Europeans, too, are indulging in schadenfreude over our struggles in Iraq.

 In domestic politics, also, there is entirely too much schadenfreude. A large percentage of activist Democrats and the Left gain pleasure from the continued embarrassing or tragic incidents surrounding President Bush's Iraq effort. "The Daily Show" would have to come up with almost completely different material if it didn't have Iraqi setbacks to guffaw over. Can you imagine Bob Hope's audiences getting a good laugh over reports of insufficient armor in the Sherman tank or Gen. MacArthur being forced to escape from Bataan? There really should be nothing pleasurable about seeing your country struggle during a war.

 Neither was it uplifting to see the Bush White House have such fun beating up Newsweek when they mistakenly reported on the Koran. Nor was it heartening to see the recent Senate filibuster debacle, where the measure of success was which side seemed more forlorn. Only after it was clear conservatives were more upset, did liberals start to feel good about the event.

 But perhaps the worst thing about this schadenfreude moment is not the pleasure part, but who we consider to be "others." How have we allowed ourselves to come to the point where our closest allies, our president, our fellow Americans during a war qualify as "others" -- in whose suffering we delight. I suppose schadenfreude is the most available, if brutish, pleasure in an increasingly Hobbesian political world where few succeed in an endless battle of each against the other.