One of the tropes of New Journalism was itself the attachment of the word New on some phenomenon or personality that had gussied itself up with fern plants or sideburns or a listener-friendly vocabulary, and thus had changed sufficiently enough to warrant a fresh article in a stylish magazine or newspaper section: The New Nixon, for example. But with newness having been so profligately ascribed to so much of the same old stuff, the now-threadbare concept has been all but consigned to the clich bin. However, in A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, Peter Wood, an anthropologist who is provost and academic vice president of Kings College in New York, would have us believe that there is a New Anger stirring up trouble in the land.
The idea that we are angrier today than we were before is a hard sell. The heroic figures in the eyes of Americans from the eighteenth through much of the twentieth century generally were not angry men, he writes. Although they may have been men who had good grounds for grievance, most kept their wrath from getting the better of them. Dignity, manliness, and wisdom called for self-control and coolness of temper. But Woods grasp of history can be quite slippery: in the election of 1800, the tie in the Electoral College was not, as Wood says, between Jefferson and his Federalist opponent John Adams, but between Jefferson and his own running mate, Aaron Burr; and if Laudace, laudace, toujours laudace was the cry of yesterdays avant-garde, as Wood says, its because they were quoting Frederick the Great. But to his point: we heap a lot of praise on our paragons, but lets not pretend that anger hasnt been one of the breezes filling the sails of American life forever. Read the rhetoric in the papers in any election campaign in the nineteenth century. Read what editorialists said about the British before the War of 1812, what people wrote about abolitionists and suffragettes and trade unionists and civil rights activists. The armies of the North and South marched to a civil war on clouds of angry words. Remember all our judgmental puritans, gunslinging desperadoes, choleric nativists, the Battling Bickersons, the gangs of New York. Consider that between 1798 and 1815, eighteen officers in the tiny U.S. Navy were killed in duels; Andrew Jackson personally fought in 103 duels. In 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks went to the floor of the Senate and used his cane to beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner senseless. Beatings, whippings, canings, lynchings, labor riots at River Rouge, race riots in Tulsa, zoot suit riots in East L.A.the soundtrack of the American movie isnt exactly played on a harp. Wood looks at a great chain of vituperation and says, None of these events made anger into a national ideal. Geneticists tell us that a tiny, subtle chromosomal difference can yield very different species. Wood must have an awesome microscope.
Its a little hard to figure out what Wood is suggesting here. Are these people mere showmen whose critiques of society were undertaken for their own self-aggrandizement, and whose whinier successors have now infested the land? Or were these people who were sincere in their critiques, but whose style has been copied by counterfeit complainers? Its interesting that he restricts his models to a group of left-leaning people, and does not nominate any contemporary showy, florid, attention-seeking right wingers like Joseph McCarthy, Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Curtis LeMay, or even Barry extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice Goldwater. But if what Wood is trying to say here is that we have become a much more open society, where people are encouraged to express themselves and talk about whats bothering them, well, duh! Yeah, surein recent decades, we as a society, in our homes, schools, churches, doctors offices, and places of business, have encouraged people to open up and talk about whats bothering them. We dont encourage old-school stoicism. And yesfor every complaint about how Doug in shipping is sending his secretary unsolicited X-rated photographs, we get a dozen seemingly trivial complaints about insufficiently ergonomic desk chairs.
One thing that would have been helpful would be if Wood had made it clearer when he believes people are entitled to be angry. Often it seems that when he supports the person who is expressing himself, he doesnt characterize that person as angry. He looks at the American Revolution, for example, and sees an enterprise launched not out of a sense of anger but from a sense of dutya duty to uphold certain principles about the relationship between ruler and ruled. Wood may have a point, although one might ask the Tories whose homes were ransacked by the Sons of Liberty or the Loyalists who were driven into Canada whether anger was involved. Still, one need only look at the French Revolution to see how differently these things can go.
The real question, though, is, Whats wrong with anger? Our civilizations moral tradition stems from laws supposedly handed down by a God who got fed up and flooded the world and set fire to cities and turned people to salt and drowned the armies of the Pharoah, and who sent as a redeemer his son, a prophet of forgiveness who nonetheless had a day when he drove the money changers out of the temple. Anger isnt foreign to us; anger is at our rootat least when it seems legitimate. When it seems legitimate enough, well electrocute your ass. We love it when our
leaders take strong stands for good purposes, when Ronald Reagan says, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! or when George W. Bush stands on the rubble of the World Trade Center and promises a mighty retribution. Its true that Wood seems most especially annoyed with people who make a show of their anger in order to call attention to themselves (though not even Ann Coulter has been able to turn anyone into a pillar of salt), but Wood should give some clearer consideration to the legitimacy of what people are angry about. Sure, the constant and indiscriminate invective that the right poured on Bill Clinton and that the left has poured on George W. Bush frequently seems just the sort of gratuitous grandstanding that so bothers Wood, but its not all showmanship. When a man who ran as a moderate conservative governs from the far right after winning an election he has arguably lost, when he lies about the reasons for launching a war and then criminally bungles the management of that war in such a way that it will redound to the countrys disadvantage for at least a generation, I think folks are entitled to be miffed. I also think that after a man takes an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the country, and then takes another oath to always tell the truth, and then tells lies, people are entitled to get a little hot under the collar. Moreover, when one of the corporately underwritten political parties who run this country gets us into a quagmire of a war, and the other corporately underwritten political parties cant get us out, I think all of us are entitled to be righteously, Old Testament Yahwehly, smite-them-with-a-thunderboltly pissed off. But maybe thats just me.
Woods observation of our increasing tolerance of an anger aestheticconfrontational political discourse, hostile rap music, off-putting tattooscould have gone further. Reality TV is full of nastiness and conflict; people getting thrown off the island; the sneers of Donald Trump, TV star. But where Wood doesnt go far enough is in asking which of our other attitudes have changed. We may be angrier as a society but arguably more accepting of living with people of different religions, races, sexual orientations, and so on. If we allow more in your face attitude among women, we certainly discourage it among men, or at least among authority figures. Were less hierarchical, more encouraging of male sentimentality (seems like every two months theres an emotional, inspirational, tear-wrenching football movie at the tenplex), more encouraging of sexual expression. And what we see on TV and in the movies notwithstanding, we are far less tolerant of violence. We no longer turn a blind eye to family violence, we are much more aware of bullying, we are less militaristic as a society, and we are mostly anti-gun. If we are more tolerant of angry speech and hostile symbols, we are less tolerant of violent actions. All of these changes seem to be upshots of the culture wars of our recent past; all seem like they will be subject to future
The good news is that perhaps the anger that Wood finds so painful to hear in our political discourse may have at long last peaked. People noticed when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire and mocked the shows rock-em-sock-em pundits, and Stephen Colberts parody of Bill OReilly may mean that its time to start shorting the caustic Culture Warriors stock. The two hottest political personalities at this moment are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama, men who are preaching post-partisan approaches to our problems. But even if the New Anger remains a permanent part of our political discourse, I wouldnt be much alarmed: its loud and its nasty, but it really is the sound of democracy, working its way through the body politic.