In praise of anger
by Michael Brenner on 23 Apr 2020 1 Comment

Anger is as normal a human emotion as any other - sex, affection, combativeness, protectiveness, sorrow. It gets a bad press these days, though. That is especially true in intellectual circles and among the self-consciously virtuous/goodhearted in general. That’s surprising in one sense. After all, an incapacity to get angry probably would have resulted in homo sapiens being beaten out in the survival contest against the evolving Neanderthals, Denisovans and other hominoids we competed against - like that recently unearthed Morocco guy who resembled us and had a larger cranial capacity.


Anger was crucial to survival – not anger directed necessarily at other tribes. Much less beasts of the forests. Rather, anger at the slacker, anger at the bully, anger at the (game) poacher, anger at the thief, anger at (s)he who sowed discord, anger at the vain warmonger ever looking for a fight, anger at the rogue who broke the rules just to show his superiority.


Anger makes so many of our contemporaries uneasy due to its association with violence. The fact that violence is an action while anger is a feeling contributes to that uneasiness. In ‘enlightened’ modern societies, we believe that our aggressive instincts should be controlled (contained) by our rational intellect and restrained emotions. Impulsive, unmanaged violence is what we expect from crocodiles. Of course, they, along with God’s other creatures, only act violently in order to survive. No one denies that humans do, too. But most prefer to keep it pretty much out of sight - except when fishing for tasty trout or viewing a documentary about slaughterhouses. We don’t celebrate our Reptilian brain – except for the likes of Erik Prince and Luca Brasi. Culture and social norm stand between us and it. We call that “progress”.


Probably, the main reason we are so ambivalent in our thinking about violence is the frequency with which we direct it against other humans. For that turns out to be against ourselves. The more organized the violence, the more it employs the tools and techniques created by our complex brains, the more dangerous and frightening it becomes. That ambivalence is expressed in our attitudes toward the sacred moral codes that have emerged to keep societies from dissolving into mayhem. All the great religions have a humanistic core. Killing, in particular, is proscribed - with qualifications, very important qualifications. That is, unless you are a Jain, certain types of Buddhist or a Christian who lives by the word of Jesus instead of the word of a Church.


Attitudes about anger have been intertwined with attitudes toward violence. They should not be - not for a discerning mind anyway. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons to get angry - good reasons for wanting to take action against those whose behaviour makes us angry. To suppress those feelings is no virtue. For it has several perverse effects: it enables/facilitates harmful actions, it obscures norms of socially acceptable behaviour, it leads to making ethical judgments hesitant and contingent, and it permits the deepening of a cultural nihilism that already is unravelling our society.


America today is divided between those who are vehemently angry and those who are unable to feel anger or to act in countering persons/things that are a reasonable target of anger. The former have remade national politics with the tragic consequences we live with every day. They are remaking our government. They are revising our system of laws along with our codes of right-and-wrong. Much of that anger is free-floating. Most of it is rooted in their own sense of failure and inadequacy. Peering into their beings they see only a void – leaving them desperate for somebody or something to give a shape to the emptiness. The current period of enforced isolation conceivably could heighten awareness of that meaninglessness – with unfortunate effects.


Most of their anger gets directed at scapegoats rather than at those who indeed have damaged them, their families, their lives. That condition makes them prey for demagogues of all stripes: the deranged flake in the White House, the neo-Fascists, the Christian charlatans, the Christian Fascists, the racists - and by no means least, the plutocrats whose perverse emotions are found not in violence but rather in all-consuming greed and narcissism.


All of this has historical antecedents. There is little that is new about it. No great mysteries. Yet, those segments of society who are not so infected, seem incapable of generating the anger it warrants. Incapable, therefore, of appreciating the depth of the challenge they confront. Incapable of taking effective counter-action. Incapable of shedding the illusion that all will work out in the end - since Americans are good people at heart and this country is blessed (e.g. Barack Obama and his admirers).


This asymmetry is a distinguishing feature of the current political landscape. All the talk about the great partisan division, of two sides at each others’ throat, is misleading. It totally misses the point – or, more exactly, two points. By far, the largest share of the passion and hostility is on the Trumpian side. The is no counterpart of any consequence. Look at Congress, look at the talk shows, look at Trump juxtaposed to the ‘23’. They are not at all comparable. Look also at their conduct. It is as if the two sides were playing by different rule books. One has thrown out the rule book altogether – slashing, gouging, roughhousing. The other spends long blocs of time in the clubhouse discussing the finer points of the in-the-grasp rule. The resulting outcome is predetermined.


Now, at a time of unprecedented crisis, Democratic leaders have decided that prudence dictates that they temper criticism of Trump’s disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 threat out of fear that strong condemnation will alienate voters who want displays of national unity above all; hence they should observe the same civic ethics that Trump flouts. In line with this reasoning, Abe Lincoln in 1860 should have called President Buchanan for a ‘nice chat’ about the President’s efforts to deal with the slavery issue and the need for national unity. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt should have urged the Democrats in Congress to work with Herbert Hoover to come up with a compromise that would tap the Treasury to keep failing Wall Street banks afloat in exchange for allowing the National Guard to lend a hand at soup kitchens. 


Then, there are the basic emotional differences. The Trumpians’ hatred is total, unqualified, malicious; there is no nuance or differentiation. ‘They’ are all enemies whom we owe no mercy, and anyone can become an enemy, i.e. classic Fascist mentality. For the opposition, above all so-called liberals, all is relative, qualified and conditional. That holds, too, for the personality of those who hate them and aggress them. Not only is there faith in the ultimate redeemability of their lethal enemy, but there are signs that they harbour a sublimated respect for the haters. For the latter demonstrate a conviction, a fanatical dedication to cause, a damn-the-torpedoes recklessness which is completely beyond the former.


Some, I suspect, envy it – even though it’s exhibited in the wrong cause. This feeling coexists with the dread anxiety that those ‘primitive’ emotions represent the natural order of things; or, at least, that they are closer to the locus of popular sentiment than are the attitudes of the sweetness-and-light set. Obama, himself, often gave expression to this view – in word and deed. That helps explain his instinct to concede. One might wonder: are these persons at the core weak of fortitude? have they turned weakness into an asset for self-advancement in circles where a yielding character is confused with virtue?


There are some individuals with a steely character who can avoid being neutered by these incapacities. People who can act with determination and focus in a completely cool-headed fashion. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. They are rare - for they are exceptions to human nature. We need the anger to stir us, to move us, to energize us. We need anger to override all the inhibitions of the complacent, comfortable existence enjoyed by most of America’s political class, by its professional classes. For that generates the lethargy, the timidity, the obsession with security that has opened a clear path for the crazies - for the destroyers.


It is absurd that we are treated to endless homilies decrying angry responses; that we should be counselled - still - about the necessity of compromise; about cultivating common ground. That kind of Joe Biden talk, New York Times Editorial Board talk, Pelosi-Schumer talk, Barack Obama talk, Foundation talk, NPR talk - is a killer. It is digging our grave. Even that small handful of public figures who demonstrate a good measure of courage and conviction - even anger - like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (when it pleases her) find sustained anger uncomfortable.


Should it not be normal, and human nature, to get passionately angry when the Federal Reserve gifts the financial predators $4 trillion - and then adds a couple of trillion more to relieve them of their toxic derivatives, and low-grade junk bonds - at taxpayer expense? Isn’t anger the healthy reaction to sacrificing the lives of truly heroic health workers to the vanities of the Orangutan and the fatuous Jared Kushner? to the resumes of clownish appointees in non-performing agencies? to the warped national security calculations and career plans of Pentagon officials who dispatch desperately needed medical supplies to Israel which can well fend for itself?


Isn’t outrage the natural reaction to the self-serving hospital administrators who fire doctors and nurses who complain that they are denied vital protective equipment? Or neglecting the inmates of nursing homes where the staff do not get essential supplies, the owners get no financial assistance and the dead get no recognition as victims of the Corona virus – just written off like the ‘collateral damaged’ civilians killed by our rampage through the Middle East? Or the coercion employed by businesses who demand that their most vulnerable workers show up for (perhaps illicit) work at the risk of illness and death? Should we not denounce with all the emotion we can muster the craven military’s persecution of Captain Crozier?


Are we supposed to accept with no more than a mild reproof that COVID-19 is scything its way through the crowded semi-prisons where we have warehoused thousands of immigrant children - torn from their parents – in defiance of court orders nobody enforces?


Abroad: shouldn’t we be angry that America has been a belligerent in the Saudi campaign to slaughter Yemen’s Houthis in a war that serves no national interest other than to satisfy the crazed ambitions of Trump’s “my friend” Mohammed bin-Salman? Angry that we are accessories to the systematic brutalization of the Palestinians? Angry that for 7 years we have been allies of al-Qaeda’s murderous affiliate in Syria? Angry that we take the lead in toppling democratically elected governments in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Guyana, Ukraine to be replaced by neo-Fascists, dictators, resource predators, bigots and police states? Angry that our government is placing the country’s very life in jeopardy by tearing-up hard-won nuclear treaties?


In today’s circumstances, shouldn’t we be reluctant to put trust in leaders who are incapable of outrage and healthy anger? The expression of anger, we should remind ourselves, need not involve screaming, yelling, throwing things. That’s juvenile, that’s Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. Usually, it’s just a pose. Anger can be expressed more effectively by cold fury. Of course, to do so well you must truly feel it, you must have a vocabulary of more than a hundred words and an ability to modulate your voice. Alas….

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