Politics & Policy

I Paid for This Microphone

New anger, old history, and the immigration debate.

Late last Thursday night, Republicans quit the House after Democrats played a series of dirty tricks. Republicans were attempting to amend an agricultural appropriation to prohibit taxpayer funds “from going to illegal immigrants.” The measure came to a vote and was passing 215 to 213 when the presiding officer, Rep. Michael McNulty (D., N.Y.), abruptly gaveled it close and declared a tie. Republicans protested, but moments later Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) moved to take a brand new vote on the same measure. That’s when the Republicans stormed out. And if they weren’t sufficiently peeved about Democrats cheating on the vote, they woke up Friday morning to find that Democrats had gone one step further by scrubbing the whole episode from the official record.

The rules of politics, of course, sometimes seem to amount to whatever those in power can get away with. A century ago, the satirist Finley Peter Dunne gave us an American distillation of Machiavelli when he had Mr. Dooley observe that “Politics ain’t bean bag.” While it ain’t beanbag, our politics ain’t outright thuggery either. We have the rule of law, and often go to considerable efforts to maintain at least the appearance of fairness. Indeed, two days before Congressman McNulty prematurely banged his gavel on the no-farm-aid-to-illegals provision, the same chamber passed a new ethics bill. When the Senate passed it too on Friday, congressional Democrats announced it would “take America in a new direction.” Presumably they mean in the direction of abusing parliamentary powers.

David Brooks characterized the flare-up Thursday night — McNulty’s sleazy maneuver and the Republican reaction — as the emergence of “submerged hatreds.” Rush Limbaugh called it “an unprecedented low for the sometimes bitterly divided chamber.” Eric Cantor (R., Va.) spoke on the House floor the next morning rejecting McNulty’s pro-forma apology: “I don’t think he understands our anger.”

I think I do. It is the special kind of anger that crystallizes when you discover an opponent is not only cheating but doesn’t care if you know it.

We’ve seen this anger before — quite recently. It was the same anger that erupted among millions of Americans over the Senate’s immigration bill early this summer. The electorate was roused from its torpor by the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants — but not just by that. The crystallizing moment was the realization that the nation’s political elite in both parties was lying about what the bill would do, and didn’t care that most Americans opposed it.

The walk-out by House Republicans and the mass rising against the immigration bill are instances of public anger put to good use. And I don’t think it is coincidence that the House action was prompted by another bit of the debate over illegal immigration. We are in the midst of a cultural moment in which we are forced to think about our identity as a nation. Nationalism has always been entwined with a certain kind of righteous anger, perhaps because anger is our basic boundary-protecting emotion. Revolutions — even the velvet, orange-scented, or glorious ones — are emotionally grounded in outrage.


To say this puts me on the cusp of banality: It’s obvious that anger has played a big role in human affairs from the point at which we became human and had affairs. What’s not so obvious is how much anger has changed over history and among cultures. Think of the difference between the suicide-bombing mentality of the jihadists and the Gandhi-inspired resistance to British colonialism in India. Shifts in our own cultural attitudes toward anger, however, seem especially hard to grasp. At least when it comes to emotions, we tend — wrongly — to think our predecessors were just like us.

I published a book earlier this year, A Bee in the Mouth, in which I described a cultural shift in the way Americans either restrain or unleash their anger. Because I labeled the new, easier-to-trigger, ostentatious style as “New Anger,” I have regularly been reminded by people who have heard the term but not read the book that anger has figured in American life from the get-go. The clincher of this refutation is when my critic informs me that this country had a Civil War.

I didn’t believe this at first, as it had never shown up in my research, but after checking Wikipedia, I found that, sure enough, between 1861 and 1865, a bunch of soreheads brawled at places like Antietam and Gettysburg. It is true. You can look it up.

Another line of refutation cites the nasty things that Federalists and Democratic-Republicans said about each other during the presidencies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I am scolded that today’s vituperation is nothing like the slanging contests of yore. And what about Burr shooting Hamilton? Shouldn’t the notion that there is anything new about anger in political life bleed away with that reminder?

Well . . . no. Hamilton and Burr fought their duel at Weehawken Heights not out of Daily Kos– or Mark Levin–style umbrage. Hamilton and Burr certainly had low opinions of one another. The duel was prompted by Hamilton’s half-hearted disavowal of some harsh comments about Burr that were attributed to him in the Albany Register. But let’s note what didn’t happen. Neither man pursued the quarrel in the press and neither wanted to be seen as enraged. Hamilton wrote the night before that he opposed dueling and intended to “throw away my first fire,” — and he did, by shooting into a tree. Burr, after shooting Hamilton, put on an air of indifference and returned to Manhattan to have breakfast.


Anger surely is central to the story, but we scramble it completely if we confuse the anger of these self-professed gentlemen with the histrionic anger of our own politicians and media celebrities. Hamilton and Burr lived according to a code of chivalry in which dueling, though illegal, was the dignified manner of settling affairs of personal honor.

Personal honor? We haven’t quite expunged this notion. Some colleges still have “honor codes,” but they don’t typically lead to pistols-at-dawn confrontations. Instead “honor” in this context means something like, “Don’t cheat on tests or you’ll get in trouble.” MacArthur’s 1962 farewell address at West Point, with his evocation of “Duty, Honor, Country,” still touches a chord with many Americans, but honor itself just isn’t an ideal that we generally comprehend anymore.

That’s a round-about way of saying our anger really is different. It is untrammeled by the rules of chivalry. It has also escaped the other cages in which our forefathers — and especially our foremothers — put it. George Washington successfully chained his inner raging beast with a strict code of decorum. American preachers, school teachers, and advice-givers of all sorts spent several centuries helping families instill an ethic of self-control in boys and girls. Their need to do so is testament, of course, that anger bedevils every generation.

And America was not lacking in examples of figures who, succumbing to their vexations, let their countrymen know exactly what their rage sounded like. The abolitionists, for example, were not exactly demur in their denunciations of slave society. William Lloyd Garrison — “I accuse the land of my nativity of insulting the majesty of Heaven with the grossest mockery that was ever exhibited to man” — was Andrew Sullivan before Andrew Sullivan. But if anger exhibitionists were part of the American scene in the mid-19th century, what happens to my argument that “New Anger” is actually new?

This is what happens. As I said in A Bee in the Mouth, what’s new about New Anger isn’t the explosive style or the vainglorious self-satisfaction that comes with imagining yourself as speaking the truth to the contemptible liars on the other side. Anger always was and always will be self-righteous. What’s new about New Anger is that it is now our dominant mode of public expression. The barriers and constrains that used to hold it back have been dismantled and, to a remarkable degree, kicked aside.


How and why this happened is a longer story than I can tell here. That’s why it is a book, not an article. But the basic elements are clear. After World War Two, the American elite absorbed Freudian psychoanalysis and took from it the lesson that “repression” is bad. It is unhealthy to hold things in, and healthy to let them out. The great venting of our pent-up hostilities that began back when Holden Caulfield was denouncing the entire adult world as “phony” caught the cultural updraft. When Allen Ginsberg began Howl-ing and American feminists decided that the family itself was an oppressive institution and that only anger would truly liberate women, we had all the ingredients of New Anger. But it took more than ingredients to produce our current cultural flambé.

Undoing the cultural constraints on anger that had been three centuries in the making took some fifty years of reprogramming, and American culture did not move smoothly into its new incandescence. We had fits and starts of New Anger as the Civil Rights movement turned into Black Panther rage, as protest over the war in Vietnam mutated into the staged riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. We had misgivings along the way. The satiric 1976 movie Network which gave us the Howard Beal line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” looked on the un-directed rage as both a form of insanity and as a form of public manipulation by an immoral, ratings-hungry television industry. When the foul-mouthed tennis pro John McEnroe appeared on the scene with a persona that was nothing but loathing and fury, Americans were still able to summon a reserve of disapprobation — but not enough to hustle him off the court.

And popular music, which teaches most Americans some important lessons about how to respond to the promptings of their hearts, offered numerous lessons on the dark and angry chambers of that muscle. The Great American songbook of the 1920s through the 40s has few angry songs. But from the folk revival and Bob Dylan through Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, we began to craft a popular music that was ostensibly “protesting” but was, more accurately, learning to luxuriate in anger. Today we have the made-in-America but worldwide phenomena of hip-hop, which, though it can occasionally reach other emotions, is essentially stripped-down “I’m angry” music. It is by no means our only angry music, but it serves as an especially clear marker. From which wells are we drawing our emotional clichés? Let’s say, not Gershwin.


A Bee in the Mouth has been bashed by several liberal critics for my failure to give adequate attention to the anger on the political and cultural Right. I thought I had, and I certainly left no doubt that I regard new Anger as a pan-cultural transformation that has altered the emotional lives of conservatives as much as it has progressives and everyone in between. The movie Network, which I mentioned a moment ago, bears on this situation too. It was released in 1976, when Rush Limbaugh was still a disk jockey drifting from station to station looking for a paycheck. In other words, the mass-media commercialization of anger (satirized in the movie) preceded the invention of Right-wing talk radio by at least a decade. Limbaugh’s breakthrough came in 1984, when he became a host at KFBK in Sacramento and began to develop the persona he has today.

By then, anger had begun to assume greater legitimacy as a public stance, but we were by no means basking in belligerence. The sort of sneer-fest that we saw earlier this year with Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump had no equivalent in the Reagan years. Reagan himself could stage an angry moment, as in 1980 when he told debate moderator Jon Breen, who had tried to get a techie to turn off Reagan’s microphone, “ I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green.” The quip, which Reagan took from the 1948 Spencer Tracy movie, State of the Union, left his opponent , George H.W. Bush, looking lame.

Anger has innate theatricality. But the theater is much more compelling when it involves some inner struggle. The anger of Othello or Hamlet, each of whom has to wrestle with conflicting emotions, is far more compelling than the furious Titus Andronicus, who wants unalloyed revenge. In our progressive breaching of the walls that used to keep anger in check, we have a bumper crop of Tituses. Are they more prevalent on the Left than on the Right? Yes, but by saying so, I apparently sacrificed any opportunity to get a respectful hearing for A Bee in the Mouth in the liberal press. The reaction on the Left has been, “How could Wood have possibly come to such a perverse conclusion? It’s just plain obvious that the hate-filled, enraged Right started this whole anger thing. We Progressives are always stuck playing by the rules, while those ruthless Rovians walk all over us. Now we dare to speak some truth to power and this Wood guy says we are being meanies. Well tough for him. We’re angry for good reason.”

This is my condensation of several hundred comments that run in this vein. The large number of them and their vehemence suggest I touched a nerve — and yet seldom do the critics show any more knowledge of the arguments in the book than can be gleaned from a review. The Bush administration is routinely castigated by the Left for ignoring scientific findings that it finds, in Al Gore’s formulation, “inconvenient.” But the liberal press is every bit as efficient in screening out social science that fails to conform to the preferred script.


Thus I am not very confident that I can make myself heard on this point, but I’ll try again. Public display of anger is a resource that has been used effectively by both the Right and the Left. I think the Right got there first with talk radio, where it continues to dominate. The Left got there first with broadcast and cable TV, although the Right now has a champion in the Fox Network. As to the fuller development of anger as the dominant mode of American political discussion, the Right cast some of the first stones in its attacks on Bill Clinton. By that I don’t mean that we were a nation living in tea-parlor civility until the American Spectator sent a reporter to Little Rock. (Yes, America did have a Civil War; yes, H. L. Mencken did write robustly rude opinion pieces in his day; etc.) But if we go through the angry episodes from 1968 Democratic Convention to the borking of Judge Bork and the attempted borking of Clarence Thomas, none of these succeeded in crystallizing anger as the dominant tone of American politics. They were angry episodes in a rocky marriage, not the marriage entire.

Clinton changed that for many conservatives, who came to revile the man with a passion bordering on obsession. We don’t have to look far to see that passion today. We even have a jocular name for it: Bush Derangement Syndrome. Is there evidence that BDS is more extreme than CDS was? Yes. The evidence is on the Web and it is in the form of political blogging. The Wall Street Journal recently declared the tenth anniversary of the very first blog. Back in 1997, the Clinton Whitehouse had little more to fear than salacious headlines on the Drudge Report. Hillary first discerned “the vast right wing conspiracy” on January 27, 1998, and she was thinking of Richard Mellon Scaife, the Bradley Foundation, and The American Spectator, not Little Green Footballs.

The advent of political blogging along with blog-attached message boards is the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of New Anger, having turned a small flame into a great conflagration. In this medium, people can compete for the most withering insults directed toward a common enemy. They need never face that enemy, since most write behind masks of blogonyms. They need never encounter contradiction or criticism, beyond someone one-upping them in the level of venom. And they surely never need fear that an Aaron Burr is going to call them out for a duel. The blogosphere is seemingly the ideal setting for turning passing grievances and peeves into perfected hatred.

While New Anger may have found its perfected form in the blogosphere, the blogosphere is by no means limited to New Anger. It may indeed provide a setting for the re-emergence of other kinds of publicly engaged emotion. The mass rebellion of ordinary people against the immigration bill was no exercise in preening. Bloggers helped to move millions of people to quick and coordinated action, and it is hard to think of any other way a complex bill, hundreds of pages long and packaged with skillful misrepresentations by both Democrats and Republicans, could have been defeated.

The anger directed at the immigration bill and its political patrons had some New Anger elements. It was often vitriolic and eager to grab attention. It wasn’t the sort of slow-to-rile, I’d-rather-walk-away-but-this-time-you’ve-gone-too-far anger of Cary Cooper’s characters. But what exactly was it? It was, if anything, Ronald Reagan-style, “I paid for this microphone” anger. It was mainstream Americans asserting their ownership of our political system — and it the process, giving voice to a new kind of nationalism. The emotional chord struck by this spontaneous movement is lingering, and we saw a significant instance of it in the Republican walk-out in the House last week.

Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we are all part of a culture that has done away with the old restraints. We can regret the loss, but we can’t simply wish back into place habits that our grandparents and great-grandparents grew into over the course of their whole lives. But all is not lost. If we are now, for better or worse, caught up a culture that endorses emotional expressivity over restraint and that thrusts anger forward as the most vivid and authentic of emotions, we can still choose the better. And I am pleased to see that in the case of the so-called comprehensive immigration bill, we did exactly that. I am less pleased by the Republican walk-out. It served a good purpose in calling attention to political chicanery aimed at easing the way for illegal immigrants. But it may also herald a season of escalating acrimony.

Recognizing the role of “New Anger” in our political disputes won’t magically restore our older forms of emotional restraint. But it can help us avoid destructive excesses as we figure out better ways to disagree.

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


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