I don’t imagine new anger was invented yesterday or that it first arose in the pages of The New Republic. ~Peter Wood
Not that I would want to be contrary or anything so disreputable as that, but wasn’t the whole point of Mr. Wood’s original anti-Chait article last week that “New Anger” (which used to be capitalised in Mr. Wood’s writings, but has now apparently lost its special status) was very much a new phenomenon in political journalism, one of whose leading pioneers was none other than Mr. Chait at TNR? Wasn’t the main point that Mr. Chait’s response to Brink Lindsey, which I discussed here, was a shining example of New Anger (I am confident that Mr. Wood was profoundly wrong on this vital point) and that Chait was therefore a prominent representative of that phenomenon? According to Wood, Chait did not invent this kind of anger, but he unleashed it in the world of “respectable” journalism and commentary (where it had supposedly never existed before then). Thus Mr. Wood wrote last week:
This is the anger of show-offs and eager-to-ignite match-heads. It had been gaining ground in American culture for decades before arriving in mainstream politics. When it did arrive in politics, New Anger found homes on both the Left (e.g. Howard Dean) and Right (e.g. Ann Coulter), but the Left provided much more commodious quarters.
“Mad About You” broke a long-standing taboo in serious political journalism. Before the article few would have thought that “I hate President George W. Bush,” was a respectable argument — or any argument at all. But Chait’s declaration somehow changed the chemistry of liberal political rhetoric. In the months that followed the article, declaring that one detested President Bush moved from the fringes to become a mainstream way for many liberals to articulate their political passion.
So he never claimed that the phenomenon arose “yesterday” or that it finds its origins solely at TNR, but he did say that Chait and TNR provided the catalyst for making this kind of “anger” respectable, such that it “changed the chemistry of liberal political rhetoric.” That still lays a rather considerable part of the blame, if so it can be called, at their door.
Let me first declare an interest. As a blogger and a curmudgeon, I “sneer” at all kinds of people on a regular basis and whether or not this is a new addition to our political discourse (which, of course, it isn’t) it is certainly no more undesirable than the dreary mumble of consensus politics or the dreadfully affected seriousness of wannabe “experts” that make up most political arguments today. Typically what the mumblers and “experts” find so troubling about political passion of any kind is that it is a) volatile and therefore difficult to manage and stifle as they are normally able to do to political opponents and b) likely to exist among those who have no time for people like them. It is also normally not something that the elite possesses, but is something obviously visceral and populist. To such people, someone like Lou Dobbs disqualifies himself as a reporter of the news because he gets, well, rather agitated about the ongoing betrayals of the nation by corporations and their time-serving lackeys in government, which doesn’t mean that his claims are actually untrue or that it is wrong when his sense of patriotism is outraged by such betrayals. (Note: to call someone a “time-serving lackey” is, according to the milquetoast guardians of public discourse, an angry and mean thing to say.)
Indeed, you almost have to think that there would be something deeply wrong with opponents of Mr. Bush and his policies if we believed that Mr. Bush and his policies were as abominable as we hold them to be without getting a bit angry about what they have done to our country. While there is the real danger that inflamed political passions can be blinding and irrational (for a good example, see the near-insane hysteria of war supporters in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq), the alternative that these sages propose is one of living death in which we watch as our country, Constitution and Republic are savaged, mistreated and insulted by treacherous villains with a mild equanimity. Apparently, we must never get upset about even the most appalling crimes and wrongdoing. The irascible aspect of the soul should not go to excess, but there is something vicious and strange in the failure to get angry at gross injustice and criminal misrule. Many of the people who are angry at or even hate Mr. Bush have very good reasons, and they are not making arguments for anger but are making impassioned arguments against an abominable and awful administration. If those arguments put off many “moderates” and the like, it is because our political culture has almost certainly become too pathetically nice and has been completely sapped of the kind of vigour that once made politics the sort of rough-and-tumble affair in which decent men would not have wanted women to participate because of its harshness.
Nowadays we have the ludicrous Speaker of the House having photo-ops of children holding the Speaker’s gavel and the President talking about how much he cares about this or that suffering group. The endless appeals to bipartisanship, the constant flow of saccharine rhetoric and the nauseatingly cheerful ranks of professional politicians tell me that our political culture is so far from being flooded with anger that it isn’t even funny. For those who, like Mr. Wood, think we live in an age of considerable political anger and fear its culturally destructive effects, I will point them to the bizarre enthusiasm for Barack Obama, who always offers the sickening “let’s bring people together” pap and embodies the tiresome “I understand your valid concerns” style of disingenuous politicking. Everyone seems convinced that the midterms were a message to Washington to start working together, when nothing could be further from the truth. We elected the Democrats to start throwing up roadblocks and engage in pigheaded obstructionism. Why else would you elect the opposition party except to actively oppose the President? Personally, I regard this treacly, meaningless kind of political appeal as a far more serious threat to the quality of our political discourse than legions of bitter Kossacks shouting themselves hoarse with contempt for the GOP. The Kossacks and the like may not have much to say, but they do say something. Politicians operating in the Obama style have nothing to say and actually seem proud that they deal in such empty banter.
People who are passionately stirred up over questions of policy are usually people who believe that the political consensus has got it horribly wrong and that the mumblers and “experts” are doing serious harm to the country. For the most part, those who supposedly want us all to calm down really just want us to roll over and play dead while they continue to ruin the country. The number of people complaining about liberal anger today or conservative hatred ten years ago because of a deep concern with upholding Stoic morality is assuredly very, very small.
When Chait finds Republicans rather ridiculous and two-faced for making a sudden discovery of apatheia as a principal political virtue, he is quite right. In the ’90s, people on the right were genuinely angry and they let everyone know it. It was assuredly the media that created and pushed the stereotype of 1994 as the year of the “angry, white male,” but that didn’t mean that a lot of white men weren’t angry at Clinton and the entire state of affairs. Conservatives once found liberals’ habit of dismissing every legitimate defense conservatives made against the latest social or cultural outrage of the left as “hate” to be intellectually vacuous and insulting. Now some on the right would apparently like nothing more than to adopt this pose of righteous calm (righteous indignation being so very culturally destructive) at the very moment when liberal rage is likely to diminish and moderate with the Democratic takeover of Congress. There has been the tendency on the part of liberals to reduce an opponent’s entire position to being nothing than “hate,” as if no one could oppose rampant immorality, racial preferences or intrusive government, to name just a few things, without hating other people. Alongside this, though, there was real hatred of a terrible President in Clinton, whose administration only appears relatively decent today because of the hideousness of his successor’s policies.
Clinton-hatred was frankly a major part of the glue that held conservatives together despite differences among ourselves. Oddly enough, without a Democrat in the White House to serve as a hate-figure against which all conservatives could rally, all those who call themselves conservative have (re)discovered that they haven’t had a lot in common with each other for a very long time. To that extent, those who stoked the anti-Clinton fury of the ’90s knew what they were doing: they were attempting to keep some kind of coalition together during the right’s time in what was still effectively the opposition despite having control of Congress. Anyone familiar with most talk radio or the blog right will also know that the same passions that animated so many conservatives back then have not gone anywhere and have, especially with respect to the Iraq war, gotten worse and worse in the last few years.
There may be a sense in which there is a real difference between the types of irascibility across the political spectrum that both Wood and Chait miss. It was Chilton Williamson, I believe, who proposed in the pages of Chronicles that an important distinction between right and left was the difference between hatred of those things that threaten and endanger what you love and an aimless, insatiable rage that simply seeks new things about which one can be enraged. The former is not only sometimes necessary but is actually the mark of sanity, whereas the latter is a consuming, demonic force that devours those who participate in it.