Sunday, March 25, 2007

George Will And The Rise Of Rage

March 25, 2007 -- "DURING the divisive War of 1812, a livid woman famous for her long hair rode to the White House, stood in her carriage, let down her tresses and proclaimed that she would gladly be shorn of them if they would be used to hang President James Madison. That anecdote, from Catherine Allgor's biography of Dolley Madison, shows that today's theatrical anger is not without precedent. But now there is a new style in anger - fury as a fashion accessory, indignation as evidence of good character.

No wonder Americans are infatuated with anger: It's democratic. Anyone can express it, and it is one of the seven deadly sins, which means it is a universal susceptibility. So in this age that is proud of having achieved "the repeal of reticence," anger exhibitionism is pandemic.

There are the tantrums of TV talking heads or commentators writing in vitriol. (Paul Krugman's incessant contempt, Ann Coulter's equally constant loathing). There is road rage (and parking-lot rage when the Whole Foods lot is congested with expressive individualists driving Volvos and Priuses). The blogosphere often is, as one blogger joyfully says, "an electronic primal scream." Everywhere there is the histrionic fury of ordinary people venting in everyday conversations.

Many people who loathe George W. Bush have adopted what Peter Wood describes as "ecstatic anger as a mode of political action." Anger often is, Wood says, "a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted."

Wood, an anthropologist and author of "A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now," says the new anger "often has the look-at-me character of performance art." His book is a convincing explanation of "anger chic" - of why anger has become an all-purpose emotional stance. It has achieved prestige and become "a credential for group membership." As a result, "Americans have been flattening their emotional range into an angry monotone."

Wood notes that there is a "vagueness and elasticity of the grievances" that supposedly justify today's almost exuberant anger. And anger is more pervasive than merely political grievances would explain. Today's anger is a coping device for everyday life. It also is the defining attribute of an increasingly common personality type - the person who "unless he is angry, feels he is nothing at all."

Shall we inform George as to why folks seem more angry these days? Shall we point to areas of the world where people are not so crowded atop one another and don't seem to be as itchy to shout?

Put enough animals into a small enough space and they will snarl at one another.

Why is this so hard to understand? Why do we need experts framing one hypothesis after another when the truth is easy to see?

Buy my book and I'll tell ya why.

Oh and PS, Georgie; Ann is a humorist. She says funny things using adult language. Generally speaking, grownups understand such matters without having to delve all that deeply.

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