Magazine article The American Conservative

Angri-Cultural Revolution

Magazine article The American Conservative

Angri-Cultural Revolution

Article excerpt

[A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, Peter Wood, Encounter Books, 303 pages] Angri-cultural Revolution

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 . …

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