Tuesday, October 15, 2019

America Enraged

America wasn’t always such an angry place. Our political debates were not always exercises in who can destroy whom. We did not always spew venom and vitriol, verbal violence whose purpose was not to persuade, not to debate, not to seek truth, but to destroy.

In part, it comes from the fact that we have dumbed America down to the point where people no longer know how to reason. They only know how to emote, on cue, with the worst kind of passionate intensity. American politics is no longer about governing, but about resisting and obstructing, running public dramas that will allow us to express our deepest outrage, our full-throated anger.

Or else, if you prefer, those who know how to exercise their rational faculties are often drowned out by a chorus of angry ranters. These latter care more about shutting down speech than engaging an argument. They do not know how to debate and discuss and deliberate so they scream invectives, most often labeling their opponents by some derisive and derogatory epithet. 

At some point, as Peter Wood argued persuasively in a new piece for the Spectator, we embraced the gospel of expressing feelings because we thought it was therapeutic. But now it has degenerated to the point where if you are not assassinating someone’s character, you are not being truly authentic. As for how one gets from the first to the second, when you express your feelings and do not feel that you have been cured you will need to blame someone. You will double down on anger... now with an object in mind.

Quite correctly, Wood sees the roots of what he calls out angriculture in the arrival of Freudian psychoanalysis. You recall that Freud, upon sailing into New York harbor for the first time, turned to his friend Carl Jung and exclaimed that: “They do not know that we are bringing them the plague.”

With the advent of a therapy culture founded in Freudian theory, learned professionals persuaded people that repressing anger, apparently, an adjunct to repressing libido, would make you neurotic. To be slightly more precise, when Freud argued that depression was really anger directed against the Self, many therapists decided, blindly and mindlessly, that the best treatment for depression must be the full-throated expression of anger.

Wood offered his analysis:

The American angriculture began taking shape as long ago as the Fifties, when the inhibitions against public — and private — displays of anger came under assault. The Fifties were the decade in which Freudian psychoanalysis burst into American consciousness and popularized the idea that suppressing anger causes neurosis. No one cites Freud anymore, but most Americans now believe it is ‘healthier’ to unleash their negative feelings than to bottle them up.

Research has shown this to be an error. Wood continues:

Actually, those who vent their anger on impulse aren’t healthier. They are just angrier, and evidence has mounted that they have become addicted to rage, which releases its own chemical storm. The more often you express anger, the more you want to.

The other salient aspect of the therapy culture was the glorification of individual self-fulfillment, at the expense of social norms and what used to be called good behavior. In this too Freud led the way, by arguing that civilization and culture had been built on repressed libido. Whereas Freud himself believed that it needed to be thus, his theory opened the door to those who argued for greater self-expression, even if it shredded the social fabric and made most human relationships insufferable.

Wood explained:

A cultural divide began to open between those who elevated individual expression over traditional social norms and those who clung with growing apprehension to America’s older values.

In the past and in traditional ethics, the inability to control your emotions counted as a character flaw, a sign of weakness. America was founded on an ethic that valued self-discipline and self-control, thus, leaving anger and other inchoate emotions in their proper place—in the theatre.

In Wood’s words:

Throughout most of American cultural history, uncontrolled anger was regarded as a personal weakness, and public expression of anger outside some limited circumstances was regarded as shameful. The high regard in which his countrymen regarded George Washington drew in part from his mastery of his own explosive temper. Washington’s famous ‘dignity’ was achieved by quelling his overtowering anger. What was good for George was good for everyone else. All through the 19th century, the nation’s presses poured out manuals for married couples on how to manage domestic disagreements without descending into anger. Books on childrearing emphasized teaching the young emotional self-discipline. The nation’s literary culture grew up on stories about the destructiveness of uncontrolled anger. Ahab’s quest for vengeance against the great white whale isn’t intended as praise for the captain’s virtuosity in expressing his passion.

Good character required moderation, the tempering of expressions of anger:

The good man in our national mythology was the one who learned to face provocation with cool self-mastery. The good woman too. At one point in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo’s mother, ‘Marmee’, counsels her about her ‘dreadful temper’. She tells Jo that she too had a terrible temper and is still ‘angry nearly every day of my life’. But she has learned ‘not to show it’. Forty years of trying to cure it have only taught her that it can’t be cured, only controlled.

Now, we are living in a different culture defined by different rules. We have learned to admire those who express their emotions most fulsomely, regardless of how foolish they look. In fact, we have been warned, on pain of ostracism, that we are never ever to tell our emotionally incontinent brethren that they are making fools of themselves. Some of them in the depths of their psyches know that they are, but they imagine that if only they can persuade everyone to stand up and cheer, rather than to sit back and sneer, they can negate their moral sense, their sense of shame. And feel good about themselves.

Wood explained:

We have learned that anger is self-empowering and that the individual who has mastered the art of look-at-me verbal rage is to be admired. Sportsmanship has been traded for tantrumosity. The internet has spawned a particular form of public shaming known as call-out culture. YouTube sports a whole genre of ‘girl fights’, in which angry young women are caught on camera swinging at each other. Anger has invaded nearly every genre of music from country star Carrie Underwood’s taking her ‘Louisville slugger to both headlights’ to hip-hop star Childish Gambino’s murderous anthem ‘This is America’ and Joyner Lucas’s expletive-filled fugue ‘I’m Not Racist’.

Not only are we dumbing ourselves down, but we are taking our cues from those members of society who have the least self-control, who are the most emotional and the most likely to strike out in anger. We no longer want to set an example of good behavior but prefer to behave badly, in order to allow those lower on the social hierarchy to feel good about themselves.

For too many Americans, anger has become the default emotion. We should recognize this, however, as a particular historical moment. It wasn’t always this way, and it won’t last forever.

We are in an age of anger — the Gilded Rage — that embodies the breakdown of older social norms for which we have as yet no compelling substitutes. New anger was distilled by the cultural left over several generations but bottled and sold to the cultural right, first through talk radio and eventually through Trump. The left’s attack on ‘angry white men’ as the source of the nation’s animosities misses the mark. Those white men, in one of the left’s fashionable words, ‘appropriated’ the style of vituperative grievance from the norm-breakers of the left, going all the way back to Allen Ginsberg telling America in 1956: ‘Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.’

He continues:

Proud-of-itself anger is now, unfortunately, a dominating presence in our national life: a permission slip to treat others rudely and to spew contempt on the innocent if we believe we are acting on some higher principle such as ‘social justice’.

New Anger’s foray into politics accounts for the wild acrimony among those who would prefer tearing the country apart to making peace with having lost an election.


David Foster said...

A lot of academics (mainly those who are not in STEM) appear to be very bitter people; I wonder how much their influence has contributed to social toxicity?

Webutante said...

Such an important topic. I have seen the anger-to-violence culture in my own family for decades and it's not only dangerous but an absolute bore. The other loss is a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and others which lightens the mood and perspective.

UbuMaccabee said...

Hip-hop has been a non-stop expression of violence and anger for almost 30 years. It has ruined American music. The bacillus has now spread to almost every other genre of music, along with the wider culture, and around the world. The gesticulating incoherent anger of American hip-hop is a test of the local culture. Weak cultures incorporate this stupid, belligerent ranting (Tom Wolfe called it "dirty nursery rhymes") into their culture entirely, and it becomes their de facto form of expression, while the most developed, resilient cultures reject it. It is sort of a cultural litmus test.

I believe Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn would have hated it. I saw Roy Haynes a year back, and I think he was mocking hip-hop on stage--but Roy is a hard read. Nice pants, though.

Sam L. said...

I'm a pretty calm guy. I have had access to, and held in my hands, 34 of 66 keys that would have opened the Gates of Hell if I were on duty when ordered to launch our missiles. Calmness is a requirement. But that was 41+ years ago, and I'm still easy-going. The missiles, and launchers that I manned, have been destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Emotion has replaced logic. You can acknowledge your emotions but you don’t have to let them influence your actions.

Peter B said...

Freud may have started the ball rolling, but his student Wilhelm Reich is probably the real source of the "letting it all out" madness.

As is common, he constructed a system in which his pathologies were indications of health and his vices virtues.

Sam L. said...

Anger: Well, we know why Hillary! and many other Dems/lefties/socialists are angry. They LOST the election that was PROMISED to her/them. To Orangeman bad, Bad, BAD!!!11!!

Anonymous said...


The UK is just the same.

Anonymous said...

Great piece and comments. Oh, how I agree with the one blaming thug rap for a lot of it. (No, I won't use the euphemism created to make it sound benign and innocent -- hip hop, like a little bunny). I've seen so many kids thinking THAT is the way to be. Interesting, tho', that the article cited mentioned PDT, who always responds but never instigates, but not BO, whose best friends were thug rappers and badly-behaved b-ball starts who infested our WH.