Politics & Policy

Rage Makes You Stupid

Rage on display at an anti-Kavanaugh protest near Trump Tower in New York City, October 4, 2018 (Reuters/Stephen Yang)
People have the strongest feelings about the things they know the least about.

What are we supposed to think about political rage?

Before and after the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, the suspect in the recent string of bombs sent to prominent Democrats and media figures, we were treated to any number of homilies about “rage” and its origins in “toxic” political rhetoric. Many of these homilies were pointed directly or indirectly at President Donald Trump and his immoderate Twitter habits. That political rage is necessarily linked to political violence was assumed, and sometimes asserted, but rarely argued.

Five minutes before that, rage was all the rage. Rebecca Traister, an editor for New York magazine, has just published a book celebrating the “revolutionary power” of anger, which was celebrated at The Atlantic on October 4 under a headline noting the “seismic power” of “rage.” On September 21 , the Washington Post affirmed that “rage is healthy, rational, and necessary for America.” On Friday, NBC news praised a television show for depicting “anger as righteous and necessary.” Before that, it ran a segment encouraging certain political partisans to “embrace their rage.”

Earlier in the year, Leslie Jamison wrote a very interesting and intelligent essay for The New York Times Magazine exploring anger as a “tool to be used, part of a well-stocked arsenal.” Right as the bombing suspect was being arrested in Florida, Rewire shared “All the Rage That’s Fit To Print,” its assessment of four books on “fury.”

I’ve omitted the word “women” in several instances above, on the theory that we’re all adults here, and that we would recognize the obvious hypocrisy and illogic of any “my rage good, your rage bad, bad, bad” construct.

Except . . .

On September 28, the admirable Max Boot published a lamentation of “Republican rage” in the Washington Post, arguing that Howard Beale, Network’s embodiment of outrage, “would feel right at home in the Republican party.” On the same day, The Week, which may be the least intelligent non-pornographic publication in these United States, was also in a the mood for lamentation, anguished over “the rage of Brett Kavanaugh.” The day before, Esquire moaned that “This Was the Hour of White Male Rage.” On Thursday, the Washington Post tied incendiary devices to “incendiary rhetoric,” while Philippe Reines, who used to work for that weird lady who recently disavowed civility in quite specific terms, went on MSNBC to insist that “Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Can’t Be Ignored in Wake of Bombs.” Eugene Robinson encouraged Democrats to “get mad” and “get even” — “harness your rage,” as the headline in the Chicago Tribune put it — even though he blasted Brett Kavanaugh for being “rage-filled.” Ta-Nehisi Coates has written “in defense of political anger,” and Darryl Pinckney, writing in The New York Review of Books, gave readers 4,000 words on “The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

And then there are the Subarus, legions of them, with bumper-stickers reading: “If You Aren’t Outraged, You Aren’t Paying Attention.”

The signals, then, are decidedly mixed.

Put me in the anti-rage camp. Rage makes you stupid.

(Rage and Wild Turkey . . . . Well, enough said.)

I’m sometimes described as an angry writer, which always surprises me. I am much, much more frequently bored by American politics than outraged by it. (More than one cable-news producer has suggested to me that I should present with more outrage.) Senator Feinstein does not fill me with rage; she has the exact aspect of a woman who is very, very sad that the bingo game didn’t break her way this time, and it is difficult to be angry at that. I do not think she should be in the Senate, but I do hope that wherever she ends up, there’s someone there to make her a nice cup of hot tea.

Our politics is full of performative outrage, histrionics that are designed to imbue unserious people with an air of moral seriousness and to keep the rubes emotionally invested long enough to get them to a commercial break. It almost inevitably is the case that people have the strongest feelings about the things they know the least about; people who actually know about any subject of genuine interest understand that such subjects tend to be complicated, and that expressions of outrage, however cathartic, do not render them any less recondite. Compare Paul Krugman on economics to Paul Krugman on politics and you’ll see what I mean.

I would suggest that we make a concerted effort to abolish cheap outrage from our political discourse, but that proposal would be stillborn: There’s just too much money in outrage. Instead, I would suggest taking a different attitude toward those histrionics, understanding that what people such as Sean Hannity and Chris Hayes are engaged in is not really political discourse at all, but something much more like sports commentary or The Real Housewives of Wherever: The emotional frisson is the point, and the political content is just a McGuffin, the ball in this cynical game of for-profit fetch.

At the very least, we do ourselves the favor of understanding that political rhetoric, however rage-filled or — dread cliché — “toxic,” belongs to an entirely separate category of human endeavor than sending people bombs in the mail, that exhortations to vote are a different thing from exhortations to violence, that Ann Coulter speaking on a college campus is a different thing from firebombing the building in which she is scheduled to speak. There are many voices in our politics that do in fact countenance violence, from Slavoj Žižek (“for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate”) to every dimwit who has promised to “Punch a Nazi.”

Sorting all that out sometimes requires careful thinking, which is difficult to manage when you are high on rage.

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