Americans can presumably all agree on in our current cold civil war is that civility,
mutual if grudging respect, and rational if testy debate in our political
discourse have all been replaced by a hair-trigger performative outrage, the scorched-earth
warfare of cancel culture, and even occasional violence. It’s difficult to
remember that there was a time when even acerbic antagonists like William
Buckley and Gore Vidal could trade barbs onstage without hurling chairs at each
other and inciting nationwide rioting. What has happened to us? How did we come
to this point? And is this state of rage destined to be a permanent feature of
our cultural and political landscape?
president of the National Association of Scholars and author of the essential 1620:
A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, has addressed
these questions incisively in a must-read, brand new book titled Wrath:
America Enraged. He agreed to answer some questions about the book.
Wood, what is the “new anger,” and what is the difference between anger and
wrath in a political context?
anger" is show-off anger, the display of someone who expects to be admired
for the performance or to boast about it afterwards: anger mixed with
self-delight. New anger contrasts to the older ethic of trying to master
your anger and not to let it master you. Through much of American
history, giving free vent to anger was regarded as a sign of weakness and
immaturity. We admired the man or woman who, when provoked, found ways to
handle the situation without descending into rage. Of course, that kind
of self-control often failed, at which point brawls erupted. Those who
brawled in public or in private, however, were not regarded as good
people. Those who turned to anger too quickly or too often were shamed.
anger" became a recognizable force in American life in the 1950s, though
it was at first a trend confined to avant garde parts of
society: the beat generation, early adepts of Freudian psychoanalysis,
and people reading French existentialist novels. From these seeds grew the
counterculture of the sixties, and then the disillusioned anger of the Big
Chill 1970s. I am collapsing a lot of history into a few sentences.
The breakdown of the older ideals of emotional self-control and their
replacement by a new ethic of emotional expressiveness didn't happen overnight
or all at once or equally in all sectors of society. Fifteen years
ago I spent a whole book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now)
to describe the slow progression of new anger into the position it now has of
cultural dominance. I'm mindful that whole generations have grown up for
whom there is nothing "new" about "new anger." It is
all they have ever experienced unless they have been immersed in the world of
Turner Classic Movies, where you can glimpse a world ruled by different
But you ask me
"what is the difference between anger and wrath in a political
context?" The political left, going all the way back to the 1950s
and even earlier upheld the view that American society is so unjust that people
should indeed feel righteous indignation and anger at our institutions.
The form of this leftist anger, of course, shifted with other changes in the
national temperament. A Woody Guthrie protest song of the Dust Bowl years
expressed leftist anger in a vivid way but it was meant to rally people and it
had a good-humored element to it. As new anger emerged in the 1950s,
leftist anger began to take on a darker tone. The Beat poet Allen
Ginsberg wrote a poem in 1956 titled "America," in which he told the
country, "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb." The shock of a
line like that has dissipated over the years as vulgarity has become common,
but it was a pretty big step at the time, and it opened a rhetorical arms race
on the left. Finding ever newer and more offensive ways to express
anger became a competition among leftist artists, intellectuals, and
I won't recite
that long chain of developments either, but it eventually landed us in the
24-hour sneerfest of Facebook and Twitter, and the perverse joy of Antifa and
BLM rioters. Anger for the left is not a response to provocation. It is
rather a settled way of life, a lifestyle in which emotional satisfaction comes
from vituperation and sometimes naked aggression and vandalism. Anger
does indeed make people feel powerful, at least for a while, and the left has developed
ways of excusing the perpetrators of it as people driven to violence because of
the oppression they suffer.
Both the anger and
the excuses for it are a distinct characteristic of the political left.
The political right has its own long history of anger too, but it is anger of a
very different character. It might be called reluctant anger because it
is anger always at odds with other values which block it or complicate
it. William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale (1951) was an angry
book at some level, but on the surface it is cool and restrained. There were
episodes in the ensuing decades such as the "hardhat riot"
on Wall Street in May 1970. But it took the rise of talk radio in
the 1980s for American conservatives to discover a more expressive angry style
of their own, and it was generally one of mockery and disdain for the
left. Donald Trump ultimately became the master of this style. But
that doesn't get us all the way to "wrath."
I'm using the word
to capture that moment of emotional impasse in which the person has been
angered beyond endurance and sees no way ahead. All the exits have been
blocked and the places where emotional expression could be channeled into
political or legal action seem to be out of reach. Wrath is collective despair
suddenly torn free of all (or at least most) restraints because the other side
has chosen to rule by foce and intimidation, not by the consent of the
MT: How has anger become such a dominant factor
in American politics?