EDITOR’S NOTE: One thing (of the many things) that makes Florence mad is people refusing to get…mad. But what else can one expect in “Mealymouthed America, where even laxatives are gentle.” This is one of Miss King’s earliest NR contributions–from the December 3, 1991 issue–and we dare say one of her best.
Of course, this column, and all of Miss King’s delightful back-page oeuvre for National Review, can be found, and enjoyed, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
Welcome to America the Mealymouthed. The most revealing moment in Anita Hill’s Oktoberfest came when her supporter, Judge Susan Hoerchner, said in her mincing, teacher’s-pet voice, “I have never known Anita to express anger.” It was supposed to be a compliment.
Watching the hearings, it was hard to believe feminists had once urged women to get mad. Learning how to explode was the cornerstone of their early “consciousness-raising.” Twenty years ago, when I lived next door to a feminist who conducted assertiveness-training workshops, my walls shook with bellows of “This steak is tough!” and “I demand to speak to the manager!” But feminists fell all over each other in their rush to excuse Anita Hill for not nipping Clarence Thomas’s libido in the bud and telling him where to get off the very first time he allegedly talked dirty to her.
Their explanation? Womanly forbearance. Women don’t do that sort of thing. Women swallow their pride and remain silent for fear of losing their jobs. Women meet aggression with salvos of forbearance and dire threats of “There’s more forbearance where that came from,” but they never, ever come out swinging.
It was not always thus. The Anita Hill in a popular Gay Nineties ballad was a waitress who could easily have lost her job when she lowered the boom on two traveling salesmen making suggestive remarks to her:
My mother was a lady,
Like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister
Who needs protection now.
I’ve come to this great city
To find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir,
If Jack were only here!
That would never play in Mealymouthed America, where even laxatives are gentle. Today the spunky waitress would be called what we call everybody who shows the slightest propensity for lowering the boom: “out of control.” It’s the newest catchphrase, having sprung up around the same time as that softener for the declarative sentence: “Hey.” Few Americans use declarative sentences now, but when they wish to express a strong opinion without appearing to do so, they kick off with “Hey” to achieve a tone of good-natured recalcitrance, as in George Bush’s frequent, “Hey, I’m not against that.” We also use “Hey” to soften other people’s declarative sentences. If certain unequivocating authors, now dead, were to come back to life and tour their books, this is what we would hear:
“Ed, you’ve been pretty hard on the barbarians, but, hey, don’t you think that extending the frontiers of the Empire gave the Romans a chance to meet new people?”
“Oswald, you said a lot of critical things about the West, but, hey, don’t you think it’s God’s country?”
I submit that last month’s sexual-harassment World Series was only incidentally about sexual harassment. It was actually about our national dread of getting mad and throwing a fit.
We dread tempers for three reasons. The first has to do with the primacy of psychiatry in our national life, and the insidious potential danger it poses to us all. In a story about the reaction of the people of Utah to Senator Orrin Hatch’s part in the Thomas-Hill hearings, Washington Times reporter Valerie Richardson quotes an anti-Hatch letter sent to the State Democratic Party by an Anita Hill partisan: “As Mr. Hatch’s temper flared, his eyes glared, and his voice rose, he himself demonstrated he was the one mentally and emotionally disturbed.”
There you have it. Don’t get mad because “out of control” has joined the long list of American euphemisms. It means crazy, and if enough armchair psychiatrists pin the rose on you, people will believe it. The blood libel is out and the Rorschach libel is in.
The second reason is more fun than a barrel. Losing one’s temper is undemocratic–really, it is. Think of sword fights and dueling oaks, think of the Southern hothead known as the “beau sabreur,” think of the Southern belle. These people are not peasants because peasants don’t have the kind of nostrils that “flare,” nor do they carry the riding crops and walking sticks that help get things started.
Getting mad, really mad, is aristocratic, which is elitist, which is verboten. The American object of your un-American explosion will become what is now known as “shaken,” because getting mad, really mad, is like using “whom” in an offhand remark in the supermarket. When egalitarian American eyes are not smiling they are flashing inchoate and inarticulate alarm like heat lightning. A nostril-flaring explosion probably wouldn’t help a victim of sexual harassment in today’s political climate. A Southern-belle tantrum, properly thrown, used to bring a man to his knees, but it was class, not gender, that did the trick. Today, class is more of a damsel in distress than women ever were.
The third reason Americans dread loss of temper is simple. Hey, the country’s on the brink of a civil war, and we’re trying to delay it as long as possible. The Day the Niceness Stopped is fast approaching, but look on the bright side: At last I shall have been avant garde.