Don’t make me angry
I’ve been on vacation, but a few days ago, Ace at the Ace of Spades wrote a rant about anger and how it is unproductive and wrong; especially in political discourse, but also in day-to-day life. He references a Dennis Prager teaching on the moral necessity of happiness. This is extremely important.
There are times when I see what people are doing—criminals, politicians, bad agents of the government—and I want to just yell fuck fuck fuck from the rooftops (or in the blog). I’m guessing it would even draw in the hits1 . But it’s not the writing style I try to maintain on Mimsy. It doesn’t actually change any minds.
A long time ago, well before 9/11, we had our own domestic terrorist in Oklahoma City. My first thought on hearing that the BATF had been bombed was, well, yeah, you reap what you sow. They were (and, as far as I can tell, still are) a very out-of-control government agency that should not be trusted with tinkertoys let alone firearms and heavy artillery.
I realized that my first, angry response was the wrong response immediately, and that it would have been wrong even if the ATF had been the only ones in the Murrah Building. I’ve been wary of angry blogging ever since.
Anger is not an American virtue. We don’t get angry: we get even. And we get even by making things right. Then we “go back to our farms”. In our most bloody conflict ever, when it was over, the soldiers who fought each other got together afterwards (and sometimes even during) to share stories. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson wanted us to get involved in world politics, but we chose to retire. Only after World War I re-erupted into World War II—due partially to the anger among the European participants of WWI—did we decide we needed to take part in the United Nations. But even today, we tend to just give them money and let them do their thing, until such time as we need them to make sure the rest of the world (today, terrorist-loving nations) doesn’t consider us a paper tiger.
Ace quotes Stanley Kurtz, writing just after the 2006 elections, discussing Peter Wood’s A Bee in the Mouth:
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.
According to Kurtz, Wood says that “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.”
Ace adds that “It is not manly to become unmanned.” A sense of this remains in the new Avengers movie, despite Kurtz’s use of the Hulk as an example of the New Anger. In the Avengers, Banner is always angry. You just don’t know it because he keeps it in check. That’s the secret, he says, when Captain America asks if he needs any assistance becoming angry enough to manifest the Hulk. “I’m always angry.” The secret is not in becoming angry. The secret is keeping it in check.
“Anger does not produce good decisions, nor good results.”
Don’t get angry. Get even. Make things right. Recognize what you can do, and then do it. There is a prayer that I use regularly, despite having lost most of my religion; it’s a paraphrase of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
My version is simple, “Lord, grant me wisdom, serenity, and strength.” It helps. It reminds me that some things need to be tackled now, some things need to be turned away from, and I need to choose what kind of a problem this is. This is defeating anger. Not making the choice but turning away anyway, that’s repression. It simmers inside and eats away at you, because until you turn it into a choice that you can make, you are still obsessing over it.
Or, as Al said in the comments of Ace’s post, “There’s a significant difference between sheer unrestrained rage, and fierce determination.” Fierce determination is usually quiet. And it succeeds while the unrestrained rage is still bellowing at the starting line. You can see that in the difference between the effectiveness of the Tea Party movement vs. the effectiveness of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. OWS is a bunch of people being angry at, for the most part, some power they can’t even define except in vague statistics. The Tea Party movement started in anger at specific financial insanities, and moved immediately to fierce determination. Their determination paid off in 2010.
Anger didn’t elect a Scott Brown in Massachusetts; fierce determination did. Anger did, however, cause the Republican Party to kill their chances of winning in New York 23 back in 2009. It’s beginning to sound like it might kill the Democrats’ chances of retaking Massachusetts, something originally thought inevitable.
There is a wider issue here. It is not virtuous to succumb to temptations. That’s what the New Anger is: redefining deviancy down, so that anger is virtuous. Not just sometimes necessary or sometimes unavoidable, but praiseworthy.
Ace’s masthead is a quote from H.L. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.”
And some people read that as supportive of spitting on your hands, hoisting the pirate flag, and slitting throats. Buzzion in the comments adds “Some apparently think ‘tempt’ means ‘totally do it dude’”
This, I think, is absolutely true. To some people today, it is virtuous to succumb to temptations. The man who does not succumb to temptation is a puritan, repressed, showing a bad example. And too many of these folks who think succumbing to temptation is virtuous go into politics. It is very tempting to use taxpayer money to further your electoral chances. But that’s not the manly thing to do. It isn’t manly to tweet your junk, to leave your passenger to drown, to solicit sex in an airport restroom, to get blowjobs from interns, to accept that just because you probably won’t get caught that it’s okay to totally do it, dude.
Our culture lets you usually get away with it because we are a manly culture: we believe you should have some privacy even though you’re spending all of our money and making our laws. It is not manly to take advantage of that.
It isn’t manly to shout your hate, to say that a prominent politician’s kid should have been aborted because he’s got Down Syndrome, to hope that someone kills the kid’s mother because she brought him into the world.
It isn’t manly to make targets with the President’s face on it—neither Bush nor Obama. It’s childish.
Wood writes that “New Anger is a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted”. It’s the same anger that exploded on the left when Senator John McCain chose an up-and-coming moderate from a heavily libertarian state to be his running mate in 2008. It is this anger that caused people to cheer when her personal email was broken into, even though it turned out to be squeaky-clean. It is this anger that allowed reporters on otherwise apolitical blogs like Ars Technica to turn in stories using personal, stolen photographs knowing that they would face no recriminations from their employers.
…there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.
And Fuck of the Mountain knows I need those nowadays.↑