We don’t have to read very far into Peter Wood’s book before discovering that we are in for some deftly served-up fun. The author’s detached tone and understated approach to his subject of meltdown chic are deliciously evident in his story of Harvard administrator Norah Burch, who announced on her blog (AnnoyYourFriends.com) that she was ready to bomb the entire campus and hunt down with a shotgun everyone who dared to cross her. Later, after she was fired, she explained that she had merely been “calming my nerves” in what she described as “an electronic primal scream.” Wood writes,
Ms. Burch’s tone of wounded innocence—the death threats were, after all, a service to her employer, since they helped her return to productivity—is the crucial thing … because she lives in a world where expressing anger—even in the hyperbolic terms of bombs and shotguns—is a legitimate form of self-expression. How can self-expression that doesn’t involve actual dynamite or bullets be taken amiss?
America has come a long way since George Washington made worried entries in his diary about his efforts to control his hot temper. In his time, displays of anger were regarded as evidence of lack of character, justifiable only by offenses against the code of male honor, an attitude that lasted two centuries and provided the plot for countless cowboy movies. In “Shane” and “High Noon,” anger is what the hero tries to avoid, maintaining a stance of quiet strength until, at last, he is forced into “anger as a last resort…the kind of anger that, until just yesterday, Americans imagined as heroic.”
Just yesterday has vanished, taking with it what Wood calls the Old Anger. America is now an “Angri-Culture,” home to the New Anger, a stance of livid fury and churlish execration that is often given jaunty names like road rage, going postal, or Borking. The Angri-Culture’s movie hero counts to one instead of ten before going ballistic, and quiet strength, far from being proof of character, is a sin against the Sixties commandment to “let it all hang out.” As for the code of male honor, it is now observed only in criminal gangs.
When did the bee first fly into America’s mouth? Wood traces the onset of the Angri-Culture to the liberation movements of the Sixties, when constant marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, campus occupations, street theater, and “happenings” kept the national temperature at a permanent boiling point. The calendar filled up with “Days of Rage,” and ideas were replaced by obsessions, fixations, and monomanias: civil rights, Power to the People, oppression, irrelevance, “disrespect,” identity politics, unmeltable ethnics, and the mounting violence of antiwar protests.
There was also feminism, with consciousness-raising and anger workshops to help women get over being sweet ‘n’ nice. The longstanding theory that depression is the result of anger turned inward was dusted off for unliberated housewives around the same time that “women’s studies” hit the fan, inspiring feminist “herstorians” to claim that the world was once ruled by prehistoric battle queens with names like Castratrix who always turned their anger outward, like the scythe blades they attached to their chariot wheels, and who never spoke to men except in tones of sounding brass. That’s how you chased away the blues.
The upheavals of the Sixties made millions of Americans feel “empowered,” and it felt good. They had discovered that expressing anger was a new way of defining the self—“I’m angry; therefore, I am”—and a lot easier than the old way of sacrifice and delayed pleasures. Preening themselves on what they called their “relevance” and “authenticity,” they were ready for the “human-potential movement” that sprang up in the Seventies, which came complete with its own anthem, “Free to Be You and Me,” rote chants of “I … Am … Somebody!,” and a movie that was the first to celebrate the New Anger.
“Five Easy Pieces,” in which Jack Nicholson wrecks a diner because he can’t get plain toast in place of a tuna sandwich, is a study in narcissism gone berserk. The “no substitutes” argument between Nicholson and the waitress, says Wood, “gives us an early version of anger as an egotistic performance of the liberated individual displaying his superiority to the dumb conformists who are aggravating props in his drama.”
Wood finds the New Anger in all the expected places but what is surprising is the reaction to it: nearly total approval. Tennis ace John McEnroe, master of the screaming fit and unsurpassed in splenetic umbrage addressed to referees, “has been missed since his retirement,” lamented a sportswriter, “no one has so captured fans’ imaginations.” Olympic skier Bode Miller, who called his sponsors “unbelievable a–holes,” is called “refreshingly honest” and “petulant and engaging.” The rule seems to be, says Wood, “Play angry or don’t play at all.” His rule applies even to party favors and stocking stuffers. An online gift shop offers Happy Bunny insult buttons (“You Suck”) and, a chat room favorite, the “Give Me Your Lunch Money” lunchbox. If we reflect on the unacknowledged truth that a person’s sadism can be measured by how often he says “just kidding,” this may be Wood’s most disturbing example.
Music is no longer the food of love. As the art form most accessible to effortless emotional response, it can tell us exactly where we are as a people at any given time. The author runs such a test on two popular songs, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” from the Depression era, and the rap classic, “C.R.E.A.M.” (cash rules everything around me). The gap between the common humanity of the first song and the group identity of the second was bridged by Sixties folksingers, specifically Bob Dylan, who “helped teach a generation the imaginative possibilities of performed vexation,” and whose “Blowin’ in the Wind” was “one of those rare instances in which unspecified indignation actually works.”
Country music is relatively free of the New Anger. Nashville’s songs are not angry, Wood reminds us, they are songs about anger. Their saving grace is that they treat life from childhood to old age and often include family values—Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” sounds angry, but there’s a catch: It’s about a man who no longer sees the point in working because “My woman done left an’ took all the reasons I was workin’ for.”
What makes country fans angriest is condescension by liberal elitists who call them dumb and make fun of their piety and patriotism. When we compare this reaction to the venomous alienation and contentious self-pity that pulsate through rap and hip-hop, we realize the extent to which popular music mirrors the red-state/blue-state cultural divide that is driving our politics.
The New Anger made its political debut when antiwar protesters stormed the 1968 Democrat convention. It achieved its first victory in 1987 when a rabid band of policy goths from every salt lick on the Left joined forces to defeat U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork with a savage campaign of relentless vilification. All that remained after the dust settled was a new verb, “to bork: to destroy a political candidate without bothering to examine his qualifications for the job.” The lesson was learned, writes Wood. “Debate is unnecessary; anger is enough.”
In a normal political milieu, the Bork episode would be the acme of the New Anger, but starting in 1992 new summits rose up before us when we acquired the two most personally hated presidents in our history—one from each party. Between them they offered something for everybody. If you were into disgust and loathing, Bill Clinton was your man; if disdain and mockery turned you on, there was George W. Bush. What’s more, you could say it with music. Conservatives, constrained by strict upbringings and manly stoicism, came late to the paroxysms of New Anger, but the odium they heaped on Clinton’s draft-dodging hippie past and Rhodes-scholar elitism was as unleashed as Merle Haggard’s threat-filled tribute to Okies from Muskogee. And when liberal Jonathan Chait led off his New Republic confession with “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it,” his puerile tone of sullen pride immediately conjured up a mental picture of Chait morphing into Eminem, nose ring, tattoos, and all.
“[T]he eruptions of anger against Clinton and Bush took us beyond vituperation to a kind of anger that luxuriated in its own vehemence,” Wood concludes. “Conservatives saw Clinton as a man seducing the country into a cheaper version of itself—and, what was more galling still, succeeding. Democrats see Bush as tricking the country into becoming a meaner version of itself—and using the war on terror to make that change permanent.”
Wood, the provost of King’s College and a professor of anthropology, has written such a provocative book that one wishes he had dwelled longer on some of the issues he raises. Noting that “the French Revolution licensed a frenzy of anger and cruelty that the American Revolution generally avoided,” he explains that Americans simply wanted a new government, while the French wanted “a new culture and a new emotional stance toward life.” This is true as far as it goes, but it begs the question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his influence on Western civilization’s attitude toward emotion. It was a lasting influence indeed—we see it on television all the time.
Rousseau was the 18th-century equivalent of a faddish self-help author on a book tour, a self-dramatizing babbler who spoke in buzzwords. He believed that “natural man” had been ruined by civilization’s emphasis on polished formality and “insincere” good manners, and that he could never again be the happy “noble savage” he once was until he put heart over head, emotion over logic, nature over culture, and soul over all. To this end, he urged pre-Revolutionary French society to think sweet sad thoughts and cry; to “let it wash over you” until you were “drunk with emotion”—clichés that are with us still. He kept flacking his war on self-control until he had the French as conditioned as Pavlov’s dogs. His message of “I feel; therefore, I am” encouraged a crude primitivism that spilled over into political anarchy and led to the sanguinary excesses of the Reign of Terror. Rousseau called his philosophy sensibilité; we call ours “getting in touch with your feelings,” but both are fraught with the same danger: When you unleash one emotion you unleash them all. If we had less soul-baring and indiscriminate hugging we might have less anger.
Wood also ignores the bee in the ear. Nowadays any display of anger, even a crisply delivered declarative sentence, is likely to be greeted with a diagnosis of “out of control.” It has joined the long list of euphemisms meaning crazy, and if enough armchair shrinks pin the rose on you, people will believe it. The blood libel is out and the Rohrshach libel is in, but the anger police are absent from Wood’s book.
Finally, the author’s efforts to connect identity crises and hysterical demands for one’s “personal space” with the growth of the self-storage business—and even with the cryonics movement—is, to put it mildly, a stretch, albeit an entertaining one.
But enough carping. A Bee in the Mouth is a thoughtful, disturbing, and well-written book that examines what too many Americans have become: inarticulate on-line furies incapable of venturing beyond the S-word, the F-word, and their lists of everyone and everything that sucks. Too shallow to match the towering rage of Lear or the baleful imprecations of Achilles, they indulge in the sputtering, foot-stamping tantrums of Rumpelstiltskin.
Florence King, a regular columnist for National Review, is the author, most recently, of two collections: Stet Damnit! The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991-2002; and Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again..