Angry Talk

Published January 2, 2007

National Review Online

So the Democrats won the election. Is there any less anger in our politics for that? Not as far as I can tell. To be sure, you’ll find some relief on the Left, and a bit of smugness as well (the latter stemming more from our troubles in Iraq than from the election itself). But are we back to sweetness and light, say, on the web? I don’t think so. That is exactly why Peter Wood’s new book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now scores a direct cultural hit. America has entered an enduring age of anger, and Peter Wood is the able (and unruffled) chronicler of that epoch.

I doubt that even Barack Obama can save us from our anger now. That’s because the anger that lately pervades our politics is more than just an aftereffect of six years of Democratic setbacks (although the strikingly angry Democratic response to their six bad years does call for an explanation). Our political anger is only the most impressive expression of a much wider cultural transformation. In politics, in music, in sports, on the web, in our families, and in the relations between the sexes, American anger has come into its own. Wood says we’re living in an era of “New Anger,” and regardless of who becomes our next president, New Anger isn’t going away anytime soon.

Anger Old and New

What exactly is New Anger? Let’s find out by first having a look at Old Anger. Before we lionized all those angry anti-heroes — from Jack Nicholson in the movies, to John McEnroe on the tennis court — Americans admired the strong silent type: slow to boil, reluctant to fight unless sorely provoked, and disinclined to show anger even then. Gary Cooper in Sargent York comes to mind. Old Anger was held in check by ideals of self-mastery and reserve. As Wood puts it, “Dignity, manliness, and wisdom called for self-control and coolness of temper.” The angry man, Wood reminds us, was once thought a weak-minded zealot, bereft of good judgment and prey to false clarity. Above all, Americans (especially women) kept anger at bay “lest it overwhelm the relations on which family life depends.”

On behalf of this ideal of reserve, anger was not merely checked, but was even partially defeated (today we’d say “repressed”). There was a time when Americans strove to train themselves away from actually being angry — a time when even the private, inner experience of rage felt shameful and was shunned. Yet in compensation for the inner sacrifice and discipline demanded by the art of self-mastery, Americans experienced a mature pride in “character” achieved. In what Wood calls that “now largely invisible culture” of Old Anger, refusal to be provoked was its own reward.

That was then. America’s New Anger exchanges the modest heroism of Gary Cooper’s Sargent York for something much closer to the Incredible Hulk. New Anger is everything that Old Anger was not: flamboyant, self-righteous, and proud. As a way to “empowerment” for ethnic groups, women, political parties, and children, New Anger serves as a mark of identity and a badge of authenticity. The Civil War, and America’s past political campaigns, may have witnessed plenty of anger, yet not until recently, says Wood, have Americans actually congratulated themselves for getting angry. Anger has turned into a coping mechanism, something to get in touch with, a prize to exhibit in public, and a proof of righteous sincerity.

Blogging Anger
New Anger is nowhere more at home than in the blogosphere, where so far from being held in check, look-at-me performance anger is the path to quick success. Wood’s section on the “proud maliciousness” of bloggers (titled “Insta-Anger”) will stir debate, yet it’s far from a blanket indictment. The Insta-Pundit himself is off the hook, for example. “[Glenn] Reynolds’ comments are often sardonic but seldom angry,” says Wood. On the other hand, Atrios explaining “Why We Say ‘F***’ a Lot”” (expurgation most definitely not in the original) fares far less well at Wood’s hands.

In a fascinating interview with Wood, Noah Millman (of Gideon’s Blog) Wood says, “Yes, I think bloggers are overly contemptuous of political opponents.” That is the question. Is the affected contempt that characterizes New Anger a good thing? It is not, thinks Wood. Yet blogger contempt is a novel and fascinating cultural phenomenon, and Wood dissects it with flair. Here’s a bit of Wood on blogs: “Perhaps the dominant form of political blogging in general (Left and Right) is a sassy, hyperarticulate belittling of one’s opponents. The blogger’s rhetorical stance is one of self-confident control over the facts and sneering disregard for the intelligence and honesty of those he criticizes.”

Compelling as Wood’s treatment of blogging is, it’s even more fun to take some of Wood’s general characterizations of New Anger and apply them specifically to blogging. For example: “[New Anger involves] deriding an opponent for the sheer pleasure of expressing contempt for other people….New Anger is a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted….If in your anger you reduce your opponent to the status of someone unworthy or unable to engage in legitimate exchange, real politics come to an end….Whoever embraces [New Anger] is bound to find that, at least in the political realm, he has traded the possibility of real influence for the momentary satisfactions of self-expression.” Although not about blogging per se, these comments all amount to dead-on characterizations of the downside of the blogosphere. Best of all is the longish passage Wood quotes from St. Ambrose, which could serve, I think, as a tiny manual on how to handle an angry blogger. In short, one way to read A Bee in the Mouth is to treat it as a kind of extended commentary on the weaknesses of the blogosphere.

No False Symmetry
Yet sharpest barbs of A Bee in the Mouth come as Wood jabs our political anger back into its larger cultural context. The exhibitionist pleasures of contempt on the blogosphere are foreshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s movies, Bob Dylan’s music, Jimi Hendrix’s riff on the Star-Spangled Banner, much contemporary music, and even, Wood argues, by The Return of the Jedi. (Wood’s superb music chapter is especially strong on Dylan.) But let’s stay with politics for a moment, since that is so central a sphere for the expression of New Anger.

“For the first time in our political history, declaring absolute hatred for one’s opponent has become a sign not of sad excess but of good character.” That, Wood says, is why our political anger is now New Anger. For Wood (a conservative who’s written for National Review Online) New Anger is a phenomenon of both Left and Right. Yet Wood eschews false symmetry, and one of the fascinations of A Bee in the Mouth is following Wood’s attempt to make sense of New Anger’s long, slow, and decidedly incomplete seepage from the Left to the Right side of the political spectrum.

Wood brings the detached eye of a professional anthropologist to our freshest political controversies — which only insures that everyone-and-his-brother is going to want to venture a second opinion on this hot-off-the-presses history of the present. As Wood tells it, the formative political moment for New Anger on the Left was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It took till the Clinton years for New Anger to bleed over to the Right. Yet Wood argues that the Left is far and away angrier than the Right nowadays, the turning point being Jonathan Chait’s 2003 “I Hate Bush” essay in The New Republic. (Wood’s analysis of Chait’s piec
e is another don’t-miss moment of the book.) As noted, Wood says the Right is angry, too. Yet, as Wood puts it, political anger on the Right is often anger with a guilty conscience, “anger that would prefer to be old anger, but can’t quite recover the old restraint.” The Left’s New Anger turns out to be infectious, at times goading the Right into a New Anger-style counter-reaction. (For a textbook case of New Anger on the Left infecting the Right, see Wood’s account of that original angry secular leftist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair.)

There are many reasons why anger on the Left and the Right lacks symmetry. “To be deprived of that which we are possessed of is a greater evil than to be disappointed of what we have only the expectation.” So wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Smith’s observation applies as well to cultural prestige as to property. The Left has seen its taken-for-granted cultural monopoly threatened, of late, while the right, after decades of cultural decline, has merely suffered the frustration of its hope for a broader traditionalist restoration. So, over and above any character differences between liberals and conservatives, the freshness of the threat to liberals’ self-perceived “right to rule” evokes proportionally more deafening howls of rage. Wood’s careful dissection of such Left/Right differences is one of the best parts of the book.

For Wood, America’s divisions are real — so real that even the New Anger that each side in our culture war to some degree shares actually serves to pull us apart. In contrast, scholars like Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe and Stanford University political scientist Morris P. Fiorina have argued that the culture war is largely the trumped-up creation of political elites and their ratings-happy friends in the national media. Observers like Wolfe and Fiorina claim that, beyond a narrow elite, Americans largely agree on most cultural issues, and eschew polarizing rage to boot. Wood sets himself squarely against this view. The culture war is real, says Wood — the product of a new form of anger — an anger experienced in different ways, and to different degrees, even by the warring camps that broadly share its novel style.

Real Ghosts
Yet if New Anger is as novel as Wood claims, where exactly does it come from? Wood’s answer to the causal question strikes me as a turbo-charged version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic concept of democratic “restlessness.” Tocqueville thought of nineteenth century Americans as perpetually at work — not only on ambitious new business projects, but even on exhausting travel plans to fill what little leisure they left themselves. For Tocqueville, the very equality and liberty that freed Americans to shape their own lives left them perpetually concerned that their decisions might have somehow been mistaken, or their achievements less than they ought to be. The lack of pre-assigned social roles served as a spur to both effort and self-doubt.

Tocqueville was talking about the public world of business and government. The family, he noted, was the great exception — the one great sphere of American life in which traditional roles and constraints had some force. So what happens to American restlessness when even the role-bound constraints of American family life unravel? At that point, America’s characteristic restlessness would likely be super-charged, and this, in a sense, is Wood’s claim.

The decline of our old ideals of self-mastery and reserve both caused and flowed from the unraveling of the family. What remained was a vast new realm of restlessness. According to Wood, the effect was strongest, not in the baby boomers who first broke with the old emotional restraints, but in their children. The boomers, after all, for all their rebellion, were raised in the shadow of traditional emotional norms. Yet the children of the boomers have grown up with still less restraint, and this, says Wood, has produced a personality type that both lacks and craves self-definition.

Restlessly seeking some restraint against which to define or prove ourselves, Americans must now imagine and oppose oppressive authorities or hateful enemies, even where none exist. The newly unbounded American self, says Wood, is a ghostlike figure, perpetually in search of “something solid against which it can prove its own existence.” New Anger, Wood concludes, “is the desperately intense effort of these ghosts to feel real.”

Wood, by the way, is an old friend and colleague — we’re both anthropologists. (If you want independent confirmation of just how good A Bee in the Mouth is, check out Stephen Miller’s recent review in the Wall Street Journal.) I saw an early version of A Bee in the Mouth in manuscript, and was immediately struck by Wood’s distinctive style, which is tough to describe and tougher to ignore.

In a sense, A Bee in the Mouth is, in its entirety, a critique of New Anger. Yet Wood actually waits until the last few pages of the book before saying anything overtly negative about New Anger. In the body of book, Wood consistently underplays, relying on deadpan descriptions and subtle juxtapositions to do the work of criticism. Wood’s comparison of the classic Depression-era song, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and the contemporary rap hit “C.R.E.A.M.” (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) is alternately horrifying and hilarious. Yet the traps are sprung with minimal fanfare. In effect, the dry humor and seemingly effortless criticism of A Bee in the Mouth serve teach that rhetoric — even critical rhetoric — need not rely on angry display for power. With any luck, even in this era of New Anger, Peter Wood’s lesson will hit home.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center .

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