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January 04, 2007

More On "The New Anger"

Wood continues diagnosing the liberal distemper.

Anger at political adversaries, of course, is nothing new. Reflecting on the intensification of political anger in the last few years, some commentators have pointed to the extraordinary acrimony between partisans of Jefferson and Adams in the 1800 election as proof that the nation has seen worse. But that comparison misses something. Go back and read the vitriolic diatribes of 1800 and you will find numerous attacks on Jefferson as a would-be tyrant and a man of low morals; and numerous attacks on Adams as a scoundrel who would sell the nation back to the British. But you will nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

Why not? Americans in 1800 certainly knew what political anger was but they faced powerful restraints. George Washington, who was completing his second term, was a living reproof to those who couldn’t control their anger. He was known to be a man of quick temper who, by dint of hard effort, smothered it. That was the ideal. Children were taught from a young age that they had to master their anger, and that to fail at this was to own a morally serious flaw. Politics, being inherently oppositional, is bound to test such a principle. The newspapers and pamphlets of 1800 are full of Jeremiads, hard-hitting satire, and libelous personal attacks, and the writers give the impression (usually behind the mask of a pseudonym) of enjoying the rollicking pleasure of their verbal extravagance.

But there it stops. As far as I can tell, the partisan writings of 1800 never venture into the logic of, “Listen to me because I am really, really angry,” or, “The extremity of my anger proves the righteousness of my cause,” or, “Behold my disdain! It is a thing of wonder.” Those are some of the ways to tell the difference between the traditional forms of political anger and New Anger in its political manifestations. New Anger is about flaunting one’s anger as a kind of credential. It is a way of asserting one’s authenticity and, according to its own cultural logic, moving from authenticity to authority. Its essential message is, “I am to be believed and reckoned with because I am angry.”

A lot of it is about Jonathan Chait's 2003 article announcing he "hate[s]" George Bush, and how that represented a shift in the MSM's comfort level with its own seething anger. Before that, Wood argues, they felt the need to hide it beneath what he terms "the conventional civility." After that, more and more in the MSM (and public generally) began to view raw hatred as proof of one's essential righteousness.


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