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Wrath and Rage

There’s such a thing as righteous anger.

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Supporters of anti-trans activist Chris Elston demonstrate against gender affirmation treatments and surgeries on minors, outside of Boston Childrens Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 18, 2022. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Wrath: America Enraged by Peter W. Wood (2021, Encounter Books), 256 pages.

“Doest thou well to be angry?” God asked the prophet Jonah. It is the same question that Peter Wood asks himself and his fellow populists. As an anthropologist, Wood has long been concerned with the subject of anger in America. In 2006, he published A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, examining the emergence of what he called “new anger.” Rather than a spontaneous emotional response, new anger was a cultivated, theatrical gesture of self-expression enacted to secure social recognition. In his latest work, Wood pays particular attention to political anger on right and left, and he encourages those angered by elite betrayal of the American people to use their passion constructively.

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Such a task grows ever more urgent as the regime grows more willing to use the power of the federal bureaucracy and intelligence agencies to score partisan points rather than secure the common good. The August raid by the FBI of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate has further animated even moderate Republicans to see the threat potentially posed by the “fourth branch” of the federal government against those the regime chooses to label “domestic threats.” That label now includes parents protesting at school boards as well as the former president. 

Wood assigns Trump only a bit part in Wrath. As he explains, journalists have sought to create “an indictment of Donald Trump as a man of unbridled anger”—Bob Woodward called his 2020 book about the Trump White House Rage—but the evidence points more to “the rage [Trump] induces.” For careful readers of Rage, “Trump comes across not as an especially angry man but as one who licenses himself to get angry at those who betray his trust.”

Wood distinguishes between anger and wrath, a feeling “more intense and usually more sustained,” which seeks to remove the offender rather than the offense. He examines how great American figures, such as Lincoln and Washington, sought to embody emotional self-government rather than licentious self-expression even while channeling their legitimate outrage at injustices towards productive solutions. Such models of virtue are desperately needed by today’s young people, even as their true images are effaced by the graffitti-level analysis of Nikole-Hannah Jones and others in the hotly contested 1619 Project, which Wood critiqued in another recent book. 

But governing the passions does not mean suppressing them. I am currently teaching a group of college freshmen Homer’s Iliad, the foundation of Western literature, in which the poet asks the goddess to “sing the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.” When I took this class as a student a decade ago, freshmen tended to think that this wrath was overrated, that Achilles ought to just stop whining about the injustice done by commander Agamemnon to his best soldier Achilles and to the common good of the Greek armies. I asked my students this year if they thought this, and not one concurred. The emotional climate is changing, even among young, generally conservative Catholics.

Wood correctly notes that, for Christian conservatives, “Achilles isn’t our ideal… We tend to view unleashed anger with suspicion, doubt, and misgiving.” But in elite secular universities, young people are being taught to perform their own wrath against the very society that has given them so many opportunities. Without any of the cause Achilles has to be angry, such students often lead lives that eventually turn into tragedies like his, losing their friends and dignity as the woke ouroboros devours itself, feeding on its own wrath. 

Of course, not all wrath is created equal. Wood concludes his work by noting the differences between anger on the left and the right. Both are responses to apparent injustice, but the left is motivated by claims of unfairness whereas the right responds to claims of betrayal. Betrayal, in Wood’s analysis, “is the injustice you never expected, and it tears up the possibility of accomodation.” Wood worries about the possible repercussions of such right-wing wrath, occasioned by reasonable concerns about issues such as the status of the 2020 election and authoritarian Covid measures. But there is another issue that will likely occasion wrath born of betrayal in coming months and years: the plight of transgender de-transitioners. 

After having been encouraged by those in positions of trust, from teachers to doctors, to make life-altering decisions because of childish fantasies, de-transitioners will have the best grounds for justified wrath since Achilles the son of Peleus. We must assist them in grappling with the wretched features of their new reality—for their sake and for that of our country.  The transgender-industrial complex must eventually fail, but woe to those who do not constructively use their anger to do what they can to protect children from being led astray and help heal those who have been grievously wounded.

Wood has done conservatism a worthy service, issuing a call to action for populists tired of only feeling anger. We who have seen the wasteland of leftist wrath should respond to the evils of our time with a constructive measure of charitable indignation. In answering God’s question to Jonah, we must recall that St. Paul reminds Christians to “avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.”

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