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Wood, Peter. A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. Encounter Books: New York, NY, 2006.
“Sophrosyne” was the word that David Tidmarsh spelled correctly to win the National Spelling Bee Championship of 2004. It’s an old-fashioned word meaning: “Temperance, self-control and prudence.” If you think it is hard to spell, try practicing it.
Your grandparents may not have used the word “sophrosyne,” but they lived in a culture that valued its qualities. In his book about anger in America, Peter Wood claims that such qualities have given way to a rising “New Anger.”
A Bee in the Mouth, is not about spelling bees or honey bees. It’s about anger and American culture. The author knows that anger is not new, but he sees a self-approval in today’s expressions of anger that is new. Peter Wood, provost and academic vice-president at King’s College, identifies two categories of anger: Old Anger and New Anger. The differences between them can be subtle.
Previous generations had more inhibitions to break through before anger could find full expression. Permission to be outraged was not so easily granted to our forebears. They expected hardship and valued restraint.
Homer, the ancient Greek poet, wrote of Achilles’ sulking anger, but emphasized how costly it was to himself and others. Homer was building a stoic resistance to anger in his readers, not celebrating it.
George Washington’s biographers claim he had a temper, but was famous for holding it down. He did not see anger as a leadership quality. He believed in self-government, personally and nationally.
Jackie Robinson achieved greatness by holding anger back. He broke the color line to play major league baseball under strict orders to let all the racist nonsense that came his way (and it did) roll off his strong back. It was not easy, but his self-control paved the way for profound progress without triggering a race war.
New Anger, Wood generalizes, is anger that congratulates itself. With old inhibitions fading, today we tend to glorify unrestrained expressions of our grievances. We wear our anger as a “badge of authenticity” in today’s culture, or we celebrate it as raw entertainment.
Contemporary action movies tend to feature rage or violence early and often, and in vivid detail and color. Old and new anger can both be portrayed as heroic and just. However, in recent times, the screen hero or heroine tends to lose all reservations against violence early in the plot.
The working presumption in movies, music and the visual arts today is that if you avoid vulgarity, violence and anger, you are not being “real.” For too many modern rappers, “keeping it real” means that the angry lifestyle celebrated in their songs gets fleshed out in the real life (and often, death) of the rapper.
The old protest songs of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were angry, but their style covered it up enough to make their tunes popular around many a campfire. That’s Old Anger. When rock stars randomly threw fits and burned their guitars on stage, that was New Anger. The Sex Pistols celebrated “Anarchy in the UK” using lyrics like “Get pissed, destroy!” If you listened, you knew what the old folk singers were angry about, but what on earth was bugging those furious rock stars?
Stanley Kurtz (quoted from National Review, Oct. 14, 2002) observed that many rock stars were not so angry when you would expect them to be (like, after 9/11). Kurtz noted that in the year after 9/11, there were very few songs on M-TV that dealt with the terrorist attack on the USA. But on Country Music Television (CMT), “the war was omnipresent”:
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” by Alan Jackson.
“Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly,” by Aaron Tippen.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” by Toby Keith.
Music sometimes provides the soundtrack for the culture wars. Kurtz noticed that M-TV had plenty of “primal screams of anger, lust and alienation.” The anger in country music, however, tended to flow out of a real-life story or event. Kurtz heard the whole age-range of life from childhood to old-age featured in the lyrics of country songs. However, the themes on M-TV dwelled exclusively on adolescence and the early twenties. When country songs got angry (righteous or not), you knew why. And the emotional range was wide enough to also embrace a profoundly calm gratitude for family life, personal faith, patriotic pride and daily routines.
Johnny Paycheck sang, “Take This Job and Shove It” and CMT even canceled a Charlie Daniels’ appearance because his song, “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” was too much for a Salvation Army benefit. But nothing in country can compare with the random mayhem in rapper Eminem’s tantrums. I will spare you the lyrics with severe profanity and vitriol in the rap music world except to say that too much of it appears to be about adolescent ego, bitter resentment, angry insults, demeaning women, celebrating criminality, doing drugs and intimidating rivals. In any case, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are long gone.
Hip-hop is now America’s premier anger music, having displaced grunge, punk, heavy metal and alternative rock. Gone also are Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”). In the fifties, the shakin’ seemed new. We still shake today, but often out of some sort of primal anger, not just out of love or lust. Hip-hop music says, “Look at me; I’m angry!”
Let’s face it, in the 21st century, our lives are probably less crossed by adversity and struggle than in previous generations. Yet, in contrast with our forebears, we seem more likely to rail against life‘s annoyances and injustices.
- The news media has become an anger industry with its blood-splattered highlights and constant cynicism over injustice. If it bleeds, it leads. Grievance politics dominate. Every story has some angle pertaining to race, gender, class or violence (or it isn’t a story). The media played a huge role in fomenting the 1992 Rodney King riots, showing the video of his beating constantly for a year in Los Angeles and featuring only the segment that put the police in the worst light. Do the media hate the police? Perhaps not, but they do know how anger sells.
- Fund-raisers, left and right, apply advanced techniques to keep their donors mad enough at the other side for perceived injustices to keep writing checks.
- Major political candidates are now known to use Nazi references to discredit their opponents (remember Al Gore’s reference to Republican “rapid response digital Brown Shirts”).
- A survey of self-help books targeting women found that they are often encouraged to revel in anger; claim it, flaunt it, and dream with it! Women’s magazines once exalted patience and self-sacrifice as virtues. After the 70s, the prevailing presumption was that anger empowers women!
The author also dealt with road rage, street riots after sports championships, talk radio and grrrl power. Today, a self-righteous and theatrical sort of anger is often presumed to empower the one who expresses it. To show your anger is supposed to be somehow liberating.
Wood concluded; “We have moved from a society that generally disapproved of anger to a society in which anger is freely displayed and socially rewarded.” We often justify our anger by presuming (sometimes correctly) we are victims of injustice and we have a right to carry grudges and grievances wherever we go. But they get heavy. Anger and injustice are as old as the hills, but what Wood sees as new is our culture learning to fall in love with its own outrage.
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The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.