July 11, 2010
Look Ahead in Anger
Hyperbolic rhetoric threatens to swamp our politics
Five months ago, Andrew Joseph Stack III, a middle-aged man who had a long-running dispute over taxes with the federal government, flew a kamikaze mission into the IRS building in Austin, Tex. On the Internet, numerous bloggers immediately declared Stack a hero, a martyr in the war against Big Government.
At about the same time, with health-care reform seemingly stalled, left-leaning activists grew increasingly shrill in their denunciations of President Obama. He was, many opined, a false messiah, a cheat, a Manchurian candidate for the right who had promised change and instead delivered more of the same old cronyism and corruption. Unemployment was nearing double digits; partisanship was as omnipresent as ever; government had bailed out the banks and allowed their executives to pocket obscene bonuses. When Obama announced that he would send more troops to Afghanistan—a priority he had reiterated time and again during the election campaign—the filmmaker Michael Moore wrote a public letter to the president accusing him of undermining the hopes and dreams of millions of young Americans. When Obama made compromises with Congressional figures to forge a viable coalition around health-care reform, his left flank immediately declared that he had been bought off by corporate America.
After Congress finally passed health-care reform, the rage axis tilted again. Their expectations scaled back by the upset victory of a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, progressives were a bit quieter, and it was a scarred conservative movement that was again, literally, up in arms. Scores of Democratic politicians started receiving death threats; many were so worried that they asked the FBI for extra protection. Around the country, Tea Party candidates, frequently representing little more than an inchoate rage against the zeitgeist, mounted strong primary challenges to entrenched, long-serving Republican politicians, and some sober GOP'ers, hoping to stave off defeat by the insurgents, remade themselves as rage-filled harbingers of imminent doom. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, of Ohio, repeatedly declared that passing the health-care bill was not just politically wrong but apocalyptic. As the primary season progressed, incumbent Democrats, too, began to feel the sting. Alan B. Mollohan, of West Virginia, became the first House Democrat to lose his seat. The confrontations continued, with a biker and his son, angered at government, in a shootout with the police in Arkansas.
In many ways, whether our political leanings are left, right, or middle of the road, rage is our shared experience these days. One way of looking at what is happening is that it is an expression of our anxiety over what increasingly looks to be Pax Americana's departing hegemony.
During the Bush presidency, furious books by liberal commentators—Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, for example, topped best-seller lists. Today, with a liberal president, one is more likely to see conservative jeremiads dominating the list: Glenn Beck's Arguing With Idiots; Sarah Palin's Going Rogue; Michelle Malkin's The Culture of Corruption. Liberal or conservative, they tend to be books long on hyperbolic rhetoric and short on facts.
Over the past year, that rhetoric has threatened to swamp our political culture. Increasingly, a language of bitterness, frustration, and fury has become our default response to the unraveling of illusion. It is no accident that the most rageful moment in modern American history has emerged barely a year after one of the most utopian moments—the movement that swept Obama into the White House and brought millions onto the streets of America's cities to celebrate his victory. "In addition to resignation and a cynical turning away from yesterday's illusions," the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes, in his book Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation (originally published in Der Zeit, recently brought out in English translation by Columbia University Press), "these waves often lead to momentous formations of rage."