A respected journalist begins an article about the president with a statement of undiluted hatred. A prestigious Christian essayist takes every opportunity to rail publicly against Christians more conservative than she is. A famous conservative columnist uses a sexual epithet to describe a presidential candidate at a national conference.
Are these isolated incidents? Or do we have what Peter Wood calls a "national epidemic of anger"?
Wood, the provost and academic vice-president at King's College, thinks that such an epidemic is indeed raging. In his new book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, Wood explores the roots of that anger and the way it manifests itself in our culture—which, he says, has turned itself into an "angri-culture."
Now, anger is nothing new in American culture and especially in American politics. We have all lived through periods of partisan rage, name-calling, and spite. In that respect, Jonathan Chait, Anne Lamott, and Ann Coulter, whose cases I just described, were following an established tradition. Yet Wood senses something different about this "New Anger" that these people and others are practicing—and I think he may be on to something.
New Anger, the book explains, is not just a by-product of the political process. It has become central to it. The discourse of our time has become about anger, with pundits, politicians, and their supporters acting as if their anger and hatred were virtues in themselves. Political and journalistic careers are built on being angry. It's a nationwide case of "I-hate-therefore-I-am," says Wood. As traditional virtues like self-control have eroded, replaced by new "virtues" like self-expression, anger and hatred have become celebrated, even cherished.
If you doubt it, look around. Read a bumper sticker or a comic strip. Pick up a newspaper or a magazine. Although Wood cites prominent cases of New Anger on both the right and the left, he sees a September 2003 article in the New Republic as "pivotal." That was the article that Jonathan Chait began with these words: "I hate President George W. Bush."
Wood comments, "Chait is a serious political commentator, not a barroom drunk." But Chait and others like him have legitimized a new way of talking about culture and politics that once would have seemed more at home in the barroom.
They have demonstrated "that people who were eager to maintain a view of themselves as 'serious' and 'thoughtful' could, without risk to self-image or reputation, indulge in public vituperation" of the president or any other politician that they happen to hate. And many have followed their lead, with the result that true seriousness and thought have gone out the window. If you get angry enough, you prove your viewpoint worthy of respect—and that no one else's viewpoint is even worth considering.
Tomorrow, I'll talk about how Christians can offer a positive alternative to this culture of anger. But in the meantime, we should all do some serious thinking about just how pervasive the culture of anger has become, and examining our own hearts to find out just how deeply we have let it affect us. A person who cherishes anger is not just unpleasant to be around, he or she can be downright dangerous—as dangerous as "a bee in the mouth."
This commentary first appeared on April 16, 2007. It is part one in a two-part series.
From BreakPoint®, August 20, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship