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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Touching the Nerve: Taking on “Tebow Time”

[Music cue:] Sound effect from “127 Hours,” just as Aron Ralston is about to slice the blade of his knife across the exposed nerve on his self-severed arm.

   Over the years, I’ve learned that the best subjects to write about are the ones that touch nerves, and nothing seems to be touching nerves these days quite like the “miraculous” comebacks staged by the Denver Broncos. Strong feelings, pro and con, have led to strongly worded commentaries in the media and threatened to fracture friendships across the country. Obviously, it’s a topic worth taking on.
   For those not familiar with football, the Broncos are the current leaders in the AFC West after having been dismissed by the pigskin pundits as a longshot for the playoffs. That was before rookie quarterback Tim Tebow took over the starting star position and led the team to win seven of its last eight games in clutch situations. Tebow is most widely known for his overt religious beliefs, which has led him to inscribe Bible verse references under his eyes during games, appear in an anti-abortion advertisement last year, and kneel down in prayer frequently during games to beg Jesus Christ for assistance. Tebow is also known for his rather mediocre NFL passing statistics coupled with a strong preference for holding on to the ball and running to make plays by himself.
   As a person, Tim Tebow appears to be a natural leader. He has done an extraordinary amount of charitable work in his life to date—far more, most likely, than either his most vocal critics or advocates. His performance as a college quarterback made him a worthy recipient of numerous awards. In short, he seems like a pretty decent guy, especially in the company of his peers. He’s not working on a criminal rap sheet, not being caught in scandalous romances, and not making weekly headlines for trash-talking about his opponents.
   So why all the hullaballoo? It’s not who Tim Tebow is; it’s what he stands for. With that in mind, let me make one thing clear at the outset: I’m talking about “Tebow Time” here, not Tim Tebow himself. This is a classic case of a public schism between man and myth, self and symbol, fact and fiction, and, in some ways, between reality and fantasy. No wonder it’s got so many people ticked off.
   Americans, like many folks around the world, love their myths and legends. People are willing to twist history into a desired narrative in order to explain the currently inexplicable, maintain the established order, or justify unproveable beliefs.  Over the weekend, I noticed a number of commentators using the words “script” and “narrative” to describe how, yet again, the Denver Broncos were trailing in the final minutes of a game and somehow, miraculously (there’s that word again), won a game. According to an account I read this morning, Tim Tebow won the game against the Bears with two crucial field goals: one in the fourth quarter and one in overtime.
   Of course, a writer/editor craves accuracy and specifics, so I must stop here to point out that Tim Tebow did not kick the tying or the winning field goal. He’s a quarterback, remember? But here’s the first thing about “Tebow Time”: For many people, it’s all about Tim Tebow. People desperately want it to be all about Tim Tebow. Why? Because to a great extent, American myths and legends are about individuals, not collectives. How many times have you heard this line in a movie: “You’re the only one who can save us.” From “The Matrix” to “Avatar,” this messianic streak is alive and well in American culture. You could argue that it matches the political tenor of the times: rooting for a collective team (of Muppets, let’s say, just to cite a most recent critique) seems, at its core, suspiciously socialist. So, let’s foreground Tebow and background the Broncos for the creation of this particular gridiron myth.
   This creates an immediate problem. As a quarterback in most games, Tebow’s performance has been sub-par. Just look at the statistics and compare them to any other quarterback playing the game today, rookie or not. Few people seem to be suggesting, however, that God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost is motivating Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who scores so many of the “miraculous” winning points. In most accounts of the Broncos phenomenon, I’m sorry to say, Matt’s been a footnote. (Though I must point out, the poet in me craves a “Pray for Prater” campaign.)
   So at the outset, a little bit of dissonance creeps into the picture, but let’s just ignore that for now. (If this is going to be a truly American myth we’re creating here, we’ll have to ignore the inconvenient facts for a while.) Instead, let’s consider that the Broncos are always a come-from-behind team, which makes them the underdogs in nearly every game. Despite its current standing as the #1 nation in the world, Americans love to consider themselves outsiders and underdogs. Who knows why; they just do. More on that in some future blog entry.
   As come-from-behinders, Tebow and the Broncos always appear to be beating the odds. The “lamestream” media can make all the predictions they want; “Tebow Time” is all about pulling it out in the clutch. And if this is God’s plan, as Tebow fanatics would have us believe, it leaves a few uncomfortable questions. First of all, why does God let so many of Tim Tebow’s passes miss the mark? Why do the Broncos fall behind in nearly every game? Why is God such a tease? Why does God’s will always seem to necessitate and instance of dumb luck? If Tim Tebow is truly representative of divine forces on Earth, why did God not anoint a better quarterback? Why, for example, is there no halo around Aaron Rodger’s head? If there’s any argument to be made for true grace and strength in football these days, the holy land would be in Green Bay, Wisconsin (even if, technically, the Bronco’s Mile-High Stadium is closer to heaven).
   One of the likely appeals of “Tebow Time,” however, is that Tim Tebow looks like a regular joe. Aaron Rogers used to have that look, but these days too much has been made of his swagger and confidence for him to satisfy the casting call for common-man hero. Instead, we have the narrative of the previously down-and-out Denver Broncos being led to victory by a back-up quarterback without any glitzy or glamorous advertising contracts (yet). The fact that some people question his skills and abilities just makes him more like us. After all, it was no miracle that Eli Manning scored two touchdowns against the favored Cowboys to win in the final minutes of the Sunday night game. You expect that from a Manning. But a Tebow? Nah, he’s not one of the “elite.” He’s one of us. His wins are, in a word, all the more “miraculous” because of that. We can relate to that. If it were you or me on that field on Sunday, we’d need a miracle to pull off a win as well.
   By definition, a miracle is something out of the ordinary, something unexpected or unprecedented. When people rhapsodize about “Tebow Time,” they often suggest that they’ve never seen anything like this before. But let’s again look back on American mythology. We have seen this before. In fact, in hard economic times, we see it time and time again. Consider James Braddock, the supposedly down-and-out boxer from the 30’s whose inspirational rise to the championship became a national fixation during the Great Depression.  Or Seabiscuit, the odds-against underhorse who likewise inspired hope in the odds-against masses of the Depression. In more recent times, I’d even mention the post-9/11 New England Patriots with their own fresh-from-the-bench backup in the lead, Tom Brady. In all of these cases, America latched on to an underdog, finding hope in those who rose despite serious adversity.
   But wait a moment. I may have gone a step too far here. Oh, those beloved Patriots of old, who refused to be introduced as individuals in Super Bowl XXXVI, instead staying true to their claims of being “a team.” They were up against the clearly favored St. Louis Rams, led by a man as God-fearing then as Tim Tebow is today: Kurt Warner. And lo, the Rams lost. In the final moments. By a field goal. Dear God.
   I’m not writing this to sing the praises of kickers like Adam Vinatieri, though I certainly could after that clutch kick. I’m writing this because writers like narratives, and the current Denver Broncos story is one of today’s most talked-about examples. But like many writers, I question narratives that distract from the central questions, whether those questions be of the narratives themselves or the contexts in which those narratives occur. And with “Tebow Time,” the central question seems to be about the positive influence of Christianity in major-league athletics.
   My argument is simple: It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. People wouldn’t be risking careers and friendships if it were that simple. On any given Sunday (great movie, by the way), professional athletes praise their Almighty and point to the sky all the time after a great play. Keep in mind that a fair number of darn good pro football players are Muslims, by the way. Oh, how this narrative would play out differently if Tim Tebow were praising Allah and facing Mecca after every victory.
   But something in America, nearly all of America, craves a new hero these days. We’re looking for someone like us, facing oppressive challenges and persevering despite dominant adversaries. With the political and economic outlooks both bleak, we want a light in the darkness. We want reassurance, an optimistic narrative, an uplifting myth. Some may turn to movies and music, others to fiction and poetry. Others will look to the stadium on winter’s Saturdays and Sundays.
   Even so, some Americans don’t want that dream to have a religious prerequisite. They don’t want it to have political or financial prerequisites, either. We’d prefer that it take place on that mythological “level playing field,” especially as so many other myths seem to be crumbling around us.
   This seems to get at the heart of the “Tebow Time” narrative. With “Tebow Time,” there is no level playing field. If we take that myth at face value, then no amount of skill, talent, spirit, or grace will help you win in the end. After all, Tim is the Chosen One. He is the only one who can save us all. The health and survival of America’s entire professional sports conglomerate depends on that one person.
   If you mistake that myth for reality, then God help us, every one.