We have become a nation of anger junkies. If we’re not mad — no, outraged — at someone or something this minute, wait another minute and we’ll find some cause to stoke the flames of rage. We don’t have reasoned disagreements, well-played debates any more; we go at each other with flamethrowers, and the heck with the collateral wreckage that comes with winning the argument. Except that nobody really wins arguments any more, we just find new causes to shout about.
Health Care. Has any topic spawned more overheated, inflammatory, hyperbolic rhetoric in recent memory? I just finished reading an op-ed column in the New York Times by Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling — “Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power.” In this column, these two long-time women’s rights leaders essentially threaten to tear the Democratic Party apart because they disagree with the decision of the Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives to accept an amendment (Stupak-Pitts) to the Health Care bill that restricts federal funding for abortions. In a fascinating object lesson in the art of political compromise, the party leaders decided that accepting the conservative amendment was necessary in order to gain the ultimate goal of passing the legislation. Michelman and Kissling’s words drip with venom: “If Democrats do not commit themselves to defeating the amendment, then they will face an uncompromising effort by Democratic women to defeat them, regardless of the cost to the party’s precious majority.” Scorched earth tactics usually wind up burning down the entire house. Rush Limbaugh is licking his considerable chops. People who can’t figure out the difference between the public option and Blue Cross go online to pile-on incendiary comments because shouting seems to be the only way we can deal with what we don’t understand about the health care package — or just about anything else that’s more than a tweet long.
Meanwhile, there’s a war on — is anybody paying attention? We are outraged over Mayor Fenty’s use of federal SUVs to transport his bike to races (what was he thinking?) but when we hear the word “Afghanistan” we quickly turn the channel to something we understand and can rant about, like the fate of the Balloon Boy’s parents. Where’s the outrage over the war? We may not even be sure what to be outraged about any more, so we stick to stuff we really understand, like whether Dan Snyder is a “bad man” with a “dark heart” in the words of Riggo. (Ya know, John, “evil” is a good word for Osama bin Laden, but Dan Snyder? Don’t waste a good word on a sad subject!)
I often wonder if the current national culture of anger and recrimination is a symptom of our deeper sense of powerlessness brought on by the endless war that we don’t understand and can’t seem to stop, and the ever-present fear that another deranged person with a gun (or something worse) is going to let loose any minute. David Brooks had an interesting column the other day, “The Rush to Therapy,” in which he contends that the national reaction to Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous rampage at Fort Hood — a reaction that deliberatly tried to reduce anti-Muslim sentiments by making Hasan out to be a disordered person — masks the real narrative of the current war, which Brooks states is the American struggle against Islam, “the central feature of American foreign policy.”
I disagree with Brooks’ statement in that he makes it seem like America’s war efforts are directed against a specific religion, an organization, something akin to a nation-state. In fact, the central problem of America’s war policy for the last decade, since September 11, is that we are still fighting by fairly conventional rules when the “enemy” is asymmetrical — individuals, not nations; ideologies, not ruling parties. The real enemy is the power of the individual fueled by anger and rage, however inchoate, against anyone with whom he or she disagrees. Terrorist leaders exploit that rage quite well, banding like-minded individuals together in small cells, stoking those fires so high that the individuals, themselves, become weapons.
Blind rage, destructive goals are not the characteristics of a good society, a resilient nation, a peaceful civilization. Somewhere along the line, we’ve allowed the culture of recrimination, anger, blame and outrage to overwhelm common sense, enlightened compromise, and self-less solutions for the common good. The fretful, unsettling current reality for so many Americans will not improve until we stop shouting, dial-back on the expressions of rage over every disagreement, and learn to give up some of what we want for ourselves so that the community can enjoy peace.