Monday, October 7, 2019

"Proud-of-itself anger"

.... Throughout most of American cultural history, uncontrolled anger was regarded as a personal weakness, and public expression of anger outside some limited circumstances was regarded as shameful. The high regard in which his countrymen regarded George Washington drew in part from his mastery of his own explosive temper. Washington’s famous ‘dignity’ was achieved by quelling his overtowering anger. What was good for George was good for everyone else. All through the 19th century, the nation’s presses poured out manuals for married couples on how to manage domestic disagreements without descending into anger. Books on childrearing emphasized teaching the young emotional self-discipline. The nation’s literary culture grew up on stories about the destructiveness of uncontrolled anger. Ahab’s quest for vengeance against the great white whale isn’t intended as praise for the captain’s virtuosity in expressing his passion.

The good man in our national mythology was the one who learned to face provocation with cool self-mastery. The good woman too. At one point in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo’s mother, ‘Marmee’, counsels her about her ‘dreadful temper’. She tells Jo that she too had a terrible temper and is still ‘angry nearly every day of my life’. But she has learned ‘not to show it’. Forty years of trying to cure it have only taught her that it can’t be cured, only controlled. ....

For too many Americans, anger has become the default emotion. We should recognize this, however, as a particular historical moment. It wasn’t always this way, and it won’t last forever.

We are in an age of anger — the Gilded Rage — that embodies the breakdown of older social norms for which we have as yet no compelling substitutes. New anger was distilled by the cultural left over several generations but bottled and sold to the cultural right, first through talk radio and eventually through Trump. The left’s attack on ‘angry white men’ as the source of the nation’s animosities misses the mark. Those white men, in one of the left’s fashionable words, ‘appropriated’ the style of vituperative grievance from the norm-breakers of the left....

Proud-of-itself anger is now, unfortunately, a dominating presence in our national life: a permission slip to treat others rudely and to spew contempt on the innocent if we believe we are acting on some higher principle such as ‘social justice’.

This speaks to a profound confusion in the country about what’s important and what it means to be a citizen of a self-governing republic. When our ability to govern our everyday selves by stilling our worst impulses disintegrates, our capacity to participate in governing others collapses too. ....

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