Charting the loss of civility and rise of anger in modern American life
Having a bee in one’s mouth isanold-timer’swayofsayingthatoneistalkingtoovociferously and too heatedly. PeterWood,provostofKing’sCollege in NewYork City, likes the phrase so muchthatheusesitforthetitleofhis latest book describing anger and its uses in modern America.
In classical times anger was recognizedaspartofthehumanmakeup butifnotcontrolled,disastroustothe holder.Aristotlewrotethatangerunderminesourabilitytochoosewisely. The Romans always preached control and noted that while the barbarian might run amok, a true Roman never took leave of his senses. The thinkingmanwouldalwaysdominate the emotional man.
StoicismhasbeenpartoftheWestern tradition for over two millennia and has been preached, practiced and admired throughout American history; that is up until now.
In“ABeeintheMouth,”Mr.Wood examines popular culture in detail and notes what you might call the philosophical changes that have taken place during the last two generations. At one time the cowboy moviewasthequintessentialrepresentation of America. In “High Noon,” Gary Cooper was the prototypicalAmericanhero,asoft-spoken man, not given to boasting or flamboyance, but of extraordinary competence. He was modest enough to ask for assistance, but when it was not forthcoming — and he was clearly worried about what lay ahead — he was able, nevertheless, to perform superbly.
Intoday’sAmerica,however,Gary Cooper would not quite fit in. He does not protest enough, he does not wear his heart or his anger on his sleeve. He keeps it to himself, rather than letting it all hang out.
Mr. Wood feels that we now live in anageofwhathecallsangri-culture. Stemmingfromtheanti-intellectualism of the 1960s, when accepted norms of behavior were rejected because they had been established by “deadwhitemen”andeveryoneover 30 was an enemy to progress, it became “cool” to be angry. It established one’s persona as an activist whocareddeeply,andinmanycases replacedtheneedforthought.Being angry felt good, and often made one, if only briefly, the center of attention.
The author spends some time comparing current popular music with what has gone before. Hip-hop is particularly instructive because itssingersarealwaysangry;theycall all women including their close relatives whores, and continually threaten violence. What are they so angry about? The social order, presumably; the world does not give them the respect and opportunities they deserve and accordingly they threaten mayhem. Hip-hop, fortunately, will eventually die but one wonders whether its replacement will not be equally angry, if perhaps a bit more musical.
We see how anger has become a criterion of success in almost every modern endeavor. In tennis John McEnroe achieved celebrity status despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he seemed perpetually angry. Pete Sampras, who replaced him as national champion and was a far better player, was criticized because he lacked color, meaning he didn’t provide copy for tired sports writers by arguing with the umpire or screaming at the fans.
It is in politics, however, that the newanger has become most prominent. The author states that it is evidentinboththeleftandtheright,but the left has the most practitioners, those who have abandoned Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” for “I am angry, therefore I am important.” They avoid discussing issues by sneering at the lack of intellectual sophistication of Reagan, the twoBushesorwhomevertheyareattacking,becausewhatisimportantis not the matter under discussion but the character of the person talking.
On the right there are such masters of the verbal put-down as Ann Coulter. Each side has its star performers who are enjoyed more for their partisanship than their wit.
Nottoomanyyearsagoatelevision showcalled“Crossfire”becamevery popular.Itconsistedofaconservative and a liberal arguing current affairs, twoliterateandobviouslyangrymen. The producers wanted noise and anger, rather than consensus and solutions. In time the show began to resemblemudwrestling,andeventually disappeared.
As happens in dynamic societies changes in cultural modes bring about new industries. We now have squadrons of Ph.D.s in psychology givinglessonsinangermanagement; publishers churn out books on when to be angry and when not, and how to make that anger useful for you. Anger,astheauthorpointsout,isnow embedded in our national culture and we are all learning how to deal with it.
But what of the future? There are a fewstraws in the wind that might giveonehope.“Crossfire”diedadeserved death, and every year equally shallow TV programs die. Unfortunately, they are all replaced.
Sol Schindler writes from Bethesda, Md.