Magazine article The Spectator

All the Rage

Magazine article The Spectator

All the Rage

Article excerpt

New York

The western world seems not just unhappy, but intoxicated with anger.

It is the kind of anger that feeds on itself. Offence is not just taken but relished, and multiplied as in a hall of mirrors.

I have a name for this kind of anger. A few years ago, in a book about how Americans had learned to brush aside their old ethic of self-control and plunge into the delights of sneering and rage, I christened it the 'new anger'. It was as if the snarling John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981 had become the embodiment of national ideals.

Of course, it wasn't entirely new. The emotionally flamboyant have always attracted notice, and a certain type has always wanted to out-Herod Herod.

The difference is that we used to think that habitual and unbridled choler was a fault. A man without self-control was pathetic, and in situations that counted - such as battle - a danger. A woman without self-control might be indulged if she had the voice to sing Verdi, but shrews were either for taming or domiciling in the attic.

But now we have licensed everyman to be his own spigot of hot steam, and a woman without a screw-you attitude is treated as a quaint relic of a bygone age. I exaggerate, of course. Precisely because displays of anger have become a form of entertainment and because it is often more a performance than an emotional reality, most people know how to turn it on and off. We just prefer the on tap a lot more than generations past.

When I wrote about the emergence of new anger in America, I considered then put aside the idea of commenting on anger elsewhere. That's because every nation has its own emotional habits, its tacit rules for when to weep and when to keep a dry eye - or when to give a Clint Eastwood stare and when to bring forth one's inner Jeremiah.

But since then I've noticed that something very much like the American rage-on-demand syndrome has spread to a lot of other places.

Anger itself is certainly nothing new in Europe. Old Europe was full of national rivalries and class resentments, occasional revolutionary fever, and all manner of personal antipathies. But for a while we heard that the whole continent (and its outliers as far away as Iceland) had turned the rage page. A new Europe, we were told, had emerged, grounded not only in sturdy financial institutions and a measure of common governance but also in emotional maturity. Soft power, quiet diplomacy, open borders, and a new spirit of multicultural relaxation had settled like a late dusting of spring snow over the meadows and calmed all the vexations of centuries.

It was a pleasant thought while it lasted, but it never had much to do with reality.

Europeans took at most a short pause and a refreshing breath before diving back into acrimony at the first sign of financial distress.

The endless summits to fix the debt crisis seem destined only to fail, and sow yet more resentment. This week's 'ten-year plan' to unite and strengthen the eurozone probably won't last the week.

It's not all to do with money. I see a dozen or so distinguishable waves in this surf, some more obvious than others. Ethnic hostility went underground for a while. The second world war gave racial and ethnic resentment a bad name, and Germans in particular have a guilty conscience that still lingers. But Bosnia and Kosovo showed that, at least in the states that were frozen in the glacier of communism, ethnic hatred had only been in suspended animation, waiting like Otzi for a little global warming. It's back and, from this side of the Atlantic, it looks as if low-level ethnic resentments are endemic in new Europe and ready to break out into open enmity any time. Greece vs Germany is primarily played as an economic divide, but the mutual ethnic hostility is clear to everyone. And Germany's victory over Greece in the Euro 2012 football tournament gave opportunity for headlines that voiced the otherwise unvoiceable: 'Germany kicks Greece out of Euro' and so on. …

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