Politics & Policy

A Model of Modesty

Jonathan Chait and political anger.

Last week I cited Jonathan Chait as one of the people on the Left who had made I-hate-President-George-W.-Bush-style anger respectable among mainstream Democrats. Ramesh Ponnuru defended him on The Corner, saying that Chait uses “sneering as a form of entertainment” and that his point in the articles I cited “was to offer arguments for anger.” Yesterday Chait himself rebutted me in the Los Angeles Times, saying that when he declared in The New Republic in 2003, “I hate President George W. Bush,” he really meant that “personal anger can exist, but it ought to be put aside, and there were sound and natural reasons why liberals loathe Bush.” Likewise, in replying to Brink Lindsey’s recent proposal for an alliance between libertarians and liberals with a riff on a Godfather death threat, “I was simply trying to make a little joke,” and that he had elsewhere in the article acknowledged that Lindsey had written “in a friendly spirit.”

#ad#Sneering, of course, is not new to American political life. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” was a sneer that Republicans used against Grover Cleveland in the election of 1884. H. L. Mencken made a career out of a certain kind of sneering snobbery. Let’s grant that Chait is talented at sneering, which is indeed a form of entertainment. But that’s also part of my point about the rise of New Anger, a gloating form of self-satisfied contempt for others. I don’t imagine new anger was invented yesterday or that it first arose in the pages of The New Republic. It’s been around as a possible emotional stance towards the world for centuries, and our ancestors recognized it. Indeed, in my book on anger, I write about Shakespeare’s portraits of this mode of anger in characters such as Hotspur and Mowbray; and I look at various American avatars of new Anger such as John Brown, H. L. Mencken, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. But there is a huge difference between the existence of isolated individuals in love with their expressive anger and living in a culture in which such anger is cultivated as a virtue and justified as a form of righteousness.

That’s what happened among a large number of contemporary Americans, and Ramesh without quite realizing it nabs Chait’s contribution: Chait offers “arguments for anger.” Check that: arguments for anger. Since when did anger need arguments? Anger used to be something we sought to control, something that we tried to expunge, control, or channel, not something we argued for. We argue for the things we value or cherish. We may need anger now and then to rouse the indifferent to defend the things we cherish. Models of that kind of anger include Tom Paine and William Lloyd Garrison. But what happens when “being angry” becomes a pursuit in its own right?

Answer: We get arguments for anger. And that’s how Chait’s “I hate President George W. Bush” manifesto was received. I know because I went back and read thousands of political articles covering the period 2000 through 2005, and Chait’s manifesto really did mark a watershed. The mere fact people still talk about it today is pretty good evidence that it was something out of the ordinary. And what made it out of the ordinary is that the New Anger directed against Bush jumped from the angry political margins to mainstream respectable opinion.

Chait himself is charmingly modest about his achievement, but I suspect that is because he is now in the position of the fish who cannot recognize that the stuff he swims in is water. A lot of Angry Left bloggers responded to my article in the vein that Chait’s mild sarcasm is nothing compared to their withering contempt. Just so. Chait’s contribution to legitimizing Bush hatred comes entirely from the fact that he is a respected mainstream political analyst, not one of the carnival barkers of the blogosphere. Could he have been more savage towards Brink Lindsey? Yes, of course. But my point is that with no provocation at all, Chait let fly at Lindsey in a manner that not so long ago would have reserved for a bitter enemy. Chait now professes that was, in part, his “little joke.” Yes, Jonathan, we knew that. New Anger, as I have said, delights in itself and can treat almost any level of verbal nastiness as though it is all in good fun.

That last sentence, by intention, invites Chait to continue to rib me as “obviously very sensitive.” (Sniff. Pardon me, a moment.) He also imagines along with a lot of Angry Left bloggers that conservatives are getting uppity about anger at this moment because Democrats just won Congress. Well, I started writing the book three years ago, with no Democratic Congress in sight. And while I do relish the idea of being thought of as exquisitely sensitive, the point about new anger is that it is a culturally destructive force that elevates style over substance and cheapens all of us with momentary illusions of empowerment.

– Peter Wood is author of a Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.

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