Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Being Angry

The hullaballoo over Michelle Obama's alleged anger points to an American problem no one ever wants to acknowledge: our society's inability to deal with anger. As a reformed "angry" person who has acknowledged personal problems with anger, I still believe that becoming angry doesn't make anyone wrong.

Yet that's the way society decrees life must be. It's even a trick some extremely malicious people use: drive someone to distraction until they "lose it," so everything they say or do can be disregarded as words and deeds of a lunatic.

Let's be clear that I am not talking about irrational, unmeasured, violent anger of the kind that suppressed anger will sometimes become. I am talking about what the Bible calls "wrath." This is something that can even be divine. Jesus was enraged at the vendors at the Temple.

Granted, we all like to think we are Jesus and Isaiah. Our anger is righteous. But the true prophet is not merely someone who points at others but someone who includes himself and all those dear to him in the condemnation. That said, there is something far more evil and pervasive than raising one's voice in indignation or frustration at not being heard. It is the smugness of a modulated, uncaring voice.

In U.S. society, this is one of the chief legacies of Britain, the conceit that all reasonable and true discourse is subtle and indirect, all of its conclusions carefully balanced compromises. Never show pain or rage; don't give your adversary the pleasure.

This may be fine for a culture of fat dogs and scrawny children, such as England's, in which a shy people from a dim clime has always lived so uncertain of its own worth as to need the boost of calling some others -- the wogs of every stipe and color -- its lessers.

Is it suitable, however, in a land in which the Anglo-Saxon, himself a mongrel of uncertain pedigree, is a minority in a sea immigrants from as far back as 10,000 years ago across the Behring Strait or barely yesterday across the Rio Grande?

Timbre and gesture are, after all, the language of culture.

There is nothing as culturally relative as the difference in demeanor between legendary Baghdad bazaar rug merchants and the equally paradigmatic thin-lipped New England bankers. Why should one be deemed coarse and the other refined, when in the end both go at their customers' wallets with equal zeal and trickery?

As Woody Guthrie sang, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen." Similarly, a mystery writer once remarked that there are two kinds of murder.

There's the murder in a manor in the English Midlands, in which the disinherited younger son gives his rich uncle drink laden with poison that cumulatively does its work. Then there's the Sunday dinner in Naples where a soccer argument heats to the point that an enraged young man seizes the carving knife and plunges it 18 times into his cousin's chest.

It took me years to realize that women's tears are shed more often in rage than in sorrow or joy.

Often, as with Michelle Obama's reputed anger at injustice in U.S. past and contemporary history, it is anger that should be heard, not dismissed.
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