A Mass Outbreak of American Rage

As “The Apprentice” hobbled into its sixth season last week, TV spots ran the following tantalizing exchange from the show:

Contender A: “I need you to calm down.”

Contender B: “I need you to shut up.”

I wasn’t compelled to tune in, but this piece of grist for Donald Trump’s ego mill stuck with me because of its eerie resemblance to public life in Obama’s America. Today, the guy saying “calm down” gets shut down. Discussion is not an option. Rage rules.

My favorite recent example is Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Church in Gainesville, Florida, who scheduled a Quran burning for the ninth anniversary of 9/11 as “a message of warning to the radical element of Islam.” When General David Petraeus expressed concerns that the Quran burning would put American soldiers in the Middle East in harm’s way, the pastor responded with words that surely eased Petraeus’s mind: “We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it.”

A week earlier, a scarier scene unfolded when James Lee, creator of the website SaveThePlanetProtest.com, entered the Discovery Channel headquarters with explosives strapped to his body, took three hostages at gunpoint, and demanded that, for the sake of the environment, “All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions.” Moments like this make me yearn for the stoned but happy tree-huggers that I used to imagine when I heard the phrase “radical environmentalists.”

Despite each scene’s peaceful ending—Lee’s hostages were rescued and Jones didn’t burn any Qurans—Americans flipping on CNN for fifteen minutes at the end of a long day might be excused for shaking their heads and wondering if we’re headed into the insanity vortex. Both sides of the political aisle certainly think so. Conservatives called Lee a “liberal eco-terrorist” inspired by a “green climate of hate.” As for liberals, the Jones incident played into their “right wing hate crusade,” which predicts that these incidents will culminate in Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin staging a coup and taking over Washington D.C.. For the record, I don’t think Americans are crazy, but sadly, partisans on the left and the right have a point. More Terry Jones’s and James Lee’s are coming out of the woodwork even as non-activists have migrated toward the ideological fringes. Given that 32 percent of Democrats blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis and more than a third of conservative Republicans think Barack Obama is Muslim, it’s worth examining what’s behind the shift.

One inescapable fact is that American life post-9/11 and post-financial collapse has become profoundly unsettled. Ordinary people, distrustful of Washington, D.C. and Wall Street, are trying to regain some sense of control over their lives. To this end, they are forming organizations of believers focused on particular issues (“Lower the deficit!”; “Leave Afghanistan!”). What other choice do they have? Mass democratic societies give people plenty of room to pursue their own visions of “the good life” in private, but when it comes to the public sphere, we’re all just social security numbers.

The clear antidote to this profound alienation is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the art of association,” a uniquely American tendency expressed in the formation of groups ranging from the Save the Spotted Owl Society to the Tea Party movement. It’s an art Americans have been practicing since at least 1800 and, with the notable exception of the temperance movement, it’s produced mostly good results. What’s upsetting to those flipping on the TV, of course, is the anger and shrillness of those choosing to form associations. Is the man in the tricorn with the Obama-as-Mao print really a father and a neighbor? He seems more like an alien creature from a planet controlled by an Ayn Rand cult where they recite passages from Atlas Shrugged three hours a day.

Suspicion and shrillness are actually natural parts—though not necessary ones— of what it means to associate in America. In a country of 300 million people, you can’t know everyone’s life story, so how do you tell your friend from your enemy? The guy standing next to you at the Reduce the Deficit rally is a stranger; you’re from Tucson and he says he’s from Springfield, Massachusetts, but how do you know if that’s true? An obvious method for protecting yourself, short of tracking down birth certificates, is to impose aggressive ideological purity tests.

As for shrillness—well, how else can you be heard if not by screaming? The president and the House minority leader really couldn’t care less about what you think—though they care a whole lot about how you vote—and neither does anyone else. If you keep silent or talk quietly, no one will pay any attention to you or they’ll assume that you generally support the status quo. Pollsters won’t notice if you “disagree with Barack Obama’s policies,” but they’ll look twice if you accuse him of being a closet Muslim.

Structural problems implicit in a mass democratic society are tough to fix, so people who are hoping that the extravagant anger subsides quickly will have to wait for a more settled time. But our political elites could help the process by acknowledging that most Americans are sane, rather than continuing to appear slightly afraid of the people they’re governing. They actually might want to start worrying less about the actions of the unwashed masses and think more about their own. After all, one reason Americans are taking to the streets is that the officials they’ve elected seem incapable of exercising power responsibly. Any solution to our rage epidemic, it seems, should start at the top.

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