American Anger, Part One

Preface: This is Part One of what I hope will be an ongoing, potentially year-long exploration of this subject. The topic seems well-suited to the “blog” format, serving more as a catalyst for conversation rather than a definitive treatise on the topic. I look forward to continuing the conversation in hopes of reaching some constructive insights, conclusions, and potential remedies.

As you’ll no doubt quickly note, my take on American anger is a rather personal approach; your choices for taking on the topic may no doubt differ. Despite that, I’ll be using terms like “Americans “ and the first-person-plural pronoun “we” rather liberally throughout the entries. I do this merely as shorthand, fully aware that it’s literary sleight of hand, both a contrivance and a conceit. I don’t intend to suggest that there are absolute universal truths here, especially since the insistence on universal absolutes in society tends to generate the very anger I’ll be analyzing.

As always, thanks for reading, and even more thanks to those who respond to provoke or inspire further insight.

 1. Use Your Words

American anger fascinates me.

Here we are, billing ourselves as the “best, greatest, richest, most powerful” nation in the world, and yet people all over the country claim to be angry. Watching the growth of the Tea Party movement in 2010 was like watching the now-famous scene in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film “Network” in which unstable talk-show host Howard Beale inspires his viewers to lift up window sashes across the country and shout out into the night: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Everyone was mad as hell for different reasons, but there was a feeling that bringing all that rage together into one unifying cry might make it either coherent or effective. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) In many ways, it echoed a couple of the poet Walt Whitman’s famous lines from “Song of Myself”:

            I, too, am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

            I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

It was not a specific word or words that Whitman called out into the night; it was not an intelligible phrase or clause. It was a sound, an utterance, savage and undomesticated, more animal than human. In a way, Whitman was suggesting, people had been making those sounds for years and would continue for many more, well beyond his own eventual death. We might never come to know who he was or what he meant, but discussion about it “shall be good health to you nonetheless.”

In this election year, 2012, we are hearing quite a few YAWPS across the political landscape, some less tamed and translatable than others.

In addition to all the contemporary social and political dissent, there is a perhaps an even more powerful undercurrent of dissonance—the lack of a rational link between one’s beliefs and one’s reality, however either one is perceived. It’s the feeling we get when we pay top-dollar for something only to find that it’s cheaply made or ineffectual. We vote for a candidate based on his or her promises only to find those promises later ignored. (To provide some continuity between this blog and an earlier entry on football’s “Tebow Time” phenomenon, dissonance was that sickening feeling the hyper-religious quarterback’s more fanatic fans experienced when the Denver Broncos were humiliated by the New England Patriots in a recent playoff game. For the sake of divisional fairness, it was also the sickening feeling the Green Bay Cheeseheads felt when Aaron Rodgers and the nearly-perfect Packers succumbed to the New York Giants the very next day.)

I’ll be talking much more about dissonance and its relation to anger later on, but it’s worth mentioning here just to keep the idea in mind as the discussion of anger progresses.

As Americans, we see anger glorified throughout our culture, from movies to music, sports to politics. Despite our supposed Judeo-Christian foundation, we have movements in the country that promote violence and greed over diplomacy and charity. As our young people’s generation comes to define itself (or, to put it in the passive voice, lets itself be defined by others) as “ironic,” it also grows indifferent to irony’s cousin, hypocrisy. Sarcasm provides an easy segue from skepticism to cynicism, providing many a political pundit on both ends of the political spectrum with the equivalent of sniper’s bullets.

When anger wears us down into a numbed state of depression, anger’s inward-turned doppelganger, we shrug our shoulders and try to focus our attention elsewhere. For some, this may translate into another glass of wine, another dose of Xanax, another marathon session watching the Real Housewives of Whatever County spit their venomous barbs at one another. Other folks may start in on the next level of “Angry Birds,” one of the highest-grossing games in our country. Or perhaps you want to take a virtual trip around the world—killing people and blowing things up along the way—in America’s top game of the Christmas season, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. What a wonderful gift to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace. (See how easily the sarcasm comes?)

Many players of these games claim that such pastimes are cathartic—that they help “release tension” and “blow off steam” at the end of a stressful day. If that were truly the case, violent movies and first-person shooter games would leave viewers and players in states of blissful repose. Instead, they ramp up the emotions and boost the adrenalin. (Full disclosure: I play an occasional hour or two of “World of Warcraft” myself at the end of a busy day, so I know that to be successful as a warrior, you need to “generate rage.” It’s right there in the game manual.)

So maybe the term cathartic is a canard when we choose violence-based entertainment as a relief or release of our internal anger and frustration. I’d argue that the proper word is indulgent. Pressing further, I’d express concern that a more appropriate adjective might be catalytic. America seems to like things super-sized and hyper-accelerated, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to anger, amplification isn’t just acceptable; it’s preferable.

An admission: cathartic, indulgent, and catalytic are big words. I’m a writer, so I sometimes use big words. That’s because language, like anger, fascinates me. They’re both acts of expression that have rich, sometimes hidden, roots and origins. Example: I wrote a poem about one such instance, the word decimate. Many people think it means “to destroy completely and indiscriminately.” In fact, the word is based on the Latin root for the number ten and originally meant a methodical act of slaughter in which exactly one victim in ten was killed. (Ironic, eh?) The meanings of words may evolve over time, but the origins of their species are there for all to comprehend and appreciate.

But I digress. Let’s return to the notion of anger as a cathartic force and set forth a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a parent dealing with a red-faced child whose inexplicable rage has sent cereal, milk, and orange juice flying across the kitchen. To calm the child, would you—

  1. put on some soothing, New Age music and send the child into the corner for a five-minute “time out” period of self-reflection?
  2. tell the kid to march off to his/her room and go the f*ck to sleep?
  3. tell the child to imagine having an automatic weapon in his/her hands during a stressful, high-stakes combat mission whose outcome will determine the fate of all mankind?
  4. ask the child, “Why are you so angry?”

Now imagine America as a red-faced child.

Modern child-rearing gurus recommend option d. Many advise parents to respond to their children’s extreme behaviors with the expression “Use your words.” This doubles as both an encouragement of self-expression and a redirection of energy. It’s a graceful dance step that moves the child away from visceral reaction toward more cerebral creation. Emotions, meet intellect. Intellect, say hello to emotions.

To some, however, “use your words” is just so much poppycock. To quote the blogger MetroDad, a rather literate and opinionated New Yorker: “I think it’s a bullshit mantra that only helps raise the next generation of pussies.” Like it or not, that’s using your words.

In some ways, “use your words” promotes a form of therapy. It seeks to replace the outburst with what we might call the “inburst,” a breaking-and-entering of the psyche in order to see what secrets are hidden in the closets or nailed beneath the floorboards. We ask a child “what’s really bothering you?” with an expectation of stolen snacks or missing pets, but sometimes the answer shocks and surprises. I’d argue that this is true even when we as adults ask the question of ourselves.

It’s no surprise that many people view creative expression as a form of therapy. Just read the inexhaustible output of writers writing about writing, a quite profitable if overindulgent niche market. We’ve even “verbed” the word “journal.” Did you know that people who journal frequently are able to reduce their stress and manage their anger more efficiently? I could say the same thing about blogging, but then there’s that quote up above from MetroDad. (I kid MetroDad. His blog entries are actually quite amusing, entertaining, and even insightful.)

Too often these days, when it comes to using our words, people settle for quick fixes rather than deep introspection. It’s the 140-character Tweet of the daily pet peeve versus Plato’s lifetime of examination. I’m not suggesting that everyone sign up for therapy sessions, but I do ask friends and colleagues to strive for clarity and honesty in their communications. That often requires work. True expression isn’t effortless.

Even as I write this, I am surrounded by reference materials. As a writer, it often isn’t enough simply to “use your words.” As you’ve noticed, I often rely on the words of others, be they expressed in song or psalm, poetry or prose, book or blog. I would be lost without the dictionary, the thesaurus, the atlas, the encyclopedia, and the patient guidance of my editor/husband—even though all of those things can tempt me along time-consuming tangents with their fascinating insights. Likewise, I am inspired and guided by the works of scholars like Geoffrey Nunberg, whose books and NPR spots on language have both educated and entertained me. Honestly, how many of you get excited when you see an essay entitled “The Politics of Polysyndeton” Hands? Hands? Hello?…

My own fascination with language started in second grade, when my wonderful teacher Miss Burke introduced me to bookmaking with the simplest materials, and it has grown deeper ever since. Even so, one catalytic instant stands out. (Please, if you still don’t know what catalytic means, either look it up on your iPad’s dictionary or ask your car mechanic. After all, these elite, ten-dollar words aren’t reserved for professors holed up in their ivory towers. If you truly love your country, learn the English language. Have I made my appeal clear in both liberalese and conservatese?)

Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the holder of a Congressional Medal of Honor, is another humanitarian hero of mine. Wiesel spent most of his life coming to terms with the violence, anger, and despair he witnessed as a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. I heard him speak about his experiences shortly after he received the Nobel Prize. One of his responses during a question-and-answer session has haunted me ever since.

“Americans,” he stated matter-of-factly, “have one of the most violent languages in the world.”

The truth of that comment struck me. No…it hit me in the face. No…it blindsided me. No…it knocked me out. No…it fell on me like a ton of bricks. No…it blew my mind. No…it bowled me over.

Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to—suddenly, I was keenly aware of the insidious presence of anger and violence in everyday American language. On one occasion, I felt compelled to alert a pacifist minister to her repeated use of violent idioms and imagery in a sermon on compassion. She stood there dumbstruck (as we say), amazed by the horrible truthfulness of the comment.

For a while after hearing Elie Wiesel speak, I too felt dumbstruck, “made silent by astonishment” (to quote Webster). As a writer, I also felt aware in a way I had never felt or experienced before. The Buddhist in me smiled silently. Mindfulness, after all, is one of the key concepts of the practice, summed up simply in the popular mantra “Be here now.”

And so here I am, now, in an American culture defined (in part) by its reactionary anger toward so many things—including each other. I’m struggling to understand that anger, both in myself and in others, and to use my words to describe it. But what do we talk about when we talk about anger?

Defining anger, as I hope to demonstrate in the forthcoming part two, is no easy task, but it’s well worth the effort. Our fate as a nation, if I can ramp up the election year rhetoric, may actually depend on it.

• • •

Playlist for “American Anger”

“Music is food,” says my artist-friend James “Mayhem” Mahan, and so this post comes with a playlist for the full multi-media experience. These are songs that fed my mind as I considered this post and its upcoming parts. It’s also collaborative, so if you’re on Spotify, I encourage you to contribute as well as to listen. Mostly it’s for fun…testing once again how all of this interactive interconnected technology works. Enjoy.

  1. Green Day, “American Idiot”
  2. Public Image, “Rise”
  3. Nine Inch Nails, “Terrible Lie”
  4. Kanye West, “Monster”
  5. Florence and the Machine, “Kiss with a Fist”

(You can listen to and help build this playlist on Spotify here:

American Anger)

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The Best of 2011…Is Yet to Come

"Opportunity for Reflection"

First of all, happy Gregorian 2012 to everyone!

In this season of endings and beginnings, I’ve been thinking instead about continuity and the hope that it offers us. After all, just a few weeks ago many of us were celebrating the winter solstice, that annual moment when Earth’s perpetual journey around the Sun begins to favor daylight over darkness. We could say with scientific certainty that brighter days were ahead. Ecologically, this is also the time when seeds stir in the earth and prepare for the upcoming growth seasons, even though their first green shoots are still a few months off. We celebrated that cycle of life along with the turning wheel of the seasons—the ongoing recurrence of natural patterns over time.

From the winter solstice, fast-forward a few weeks and the focus shifts to the close of the calendar year, a somewhat arbitrary and historically variable marker. After all, if you so desired, you could celebrate New Year’s Eve throughout the year, as long as you researched all of the lesser-known calendar-flips (Happy Gudi Padwa, everyone!) in addition to the more well-established date-changers, such as Rosh Hashanah and the Chinese Spring Festival. For much of the world, however, the calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII holds sway, making us all followers of the Catholic tradition, if only for a short time. This might explain all of those confessions of guilt and penitent vows of self-renewal associated with New Year’s resolutions. (Religious history purists can make what they want of the fact that January 1 also marks the supposed anniversary of Jesus’s circumcision. Perhaps that explains the noisemaker tradition?)

In western culture, the end of the calendar year has also become a time of retrospective judgment. “Best of” lists vie with “Worst of” lists for our consideration. Many of these seem contrived solely to boost sales at the end of the fourth business quarter (or second, if your company uses the July-to-June model). It’s probably no coincidence that the holiday season segues so seamlessly into the “awards season.”

For a long time, I was a huge fan of year-end best-of lists. Reading them was like sneaking a peek at the teacher’s edition of some cultural textbook: Had I chosen the right movies to watch? Did I memorize the words to the most worthy songs? Would reading the highest-rated books provide clues to help propel my own to the top of the list some day? One of my friends, a film studies major, regularly sent out a detailed report of his top-rated movies from the previous year, and I learned a great deal about cinema while studying his reviews and rationales. For weeks afterward, I sought out the films he had mentioned—no small feat, given the obscurity of some of them and the occasional lack of comprehensible subtitles.

Then, one year during graduate school, it all went sour. A film critic published his “Best of the Year” list in the city’s newspaper. There were just a few slight problems. First of all, he hadn’t screened all of the movies that had been released that year (but then again, who could?). Perhaps more importantly, he confessed that he hadn’t yet seen some of the films topping the box office charts or other critics’ “best of” lists. Furthermore, several of the movies that he mentioned were well over a year old, and the reviewer admitted to having only SEEN them during the course of that calendar year. In short, his list was a sham.

A subsequent exchange of letters between the reviewer and me was quite instructive and forever changed both our minds about end-of-year pronouncements. During our conversation, we noted that a movie often takes years to produce and premiere. The film itself is, in turn, based on a screenplay that may have been written and developed for several years prior to that. By extension, some films are based on pre-existing stories and novels (and, in more recent times, comics and board games). Those original artistic creations themselves might have required years of germination. The date stamped on such a film (or novel or musical composition) masks years of hard work and risks becoming, as dates sometimes do, misleading and meaningless.

Based on these musings, I will go out on a limb and suggest that Jane Austen did not fret over the fact that Pride and Prejudice was not named “Best Novel of 1799,” the year in which she completed the first draft of the manuscript. In fact, she would have to endure another fifteen “not-best-of” years before the book was even published. This should serve as an inspiration to all of us who labor on long-term projects like novels, child-rearing, and the deployment of particle accelerators. Some things just take time. To appropriate T.S. Eliot, those of us who craft lengthy books should measure out our lives with coffee spoons and printer cartridges, not calendar pages.

So, for many who look upon the start of a new year as a time to “take stock and start anew,” I counsel patience and perseverance instead. There is no reason to pause at this specified instant and judge what we did or did not achieve in 2011. Opportunities for reflection will no doubt come in 2012, and we can decide for ourselves which moments and contexts best serve our current endeavors.

In the meantime, here’s looking forward—perhaps far forward—to those future years in which the seeds we planted all these past years bear fruit.