Whether it’s a JetBlue pilot losing it on a flight, an Army sergeant on a killing spree, or Newt Gingrich erupting in mid-debate, the examples all tell the same story: rage is the defining emotion of our time.
It’s the rage, stupid, not the economy that will decide this presidential election. Cultural road rage is everywhere. Everyone is going off on someone else, and the candidate who most effectively addresses all that anger—controlling it, expressing it, or embodying it—will win the game.
How far we’ve come since 1976, when Peter Finch belted out his immortal scream in Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” That was principled, public rage. Twenty-three years later, Paul Thomas Anderson updated it into personal rage in Magnolia, when he had Julianne Moore dazzlingly explode against a pharmacist who didn’t have the prescription that she had come to pick up. (When Romney said he liked to fire people who did not provide satisfactory service, he was channeling that exemplary American moment.) By now, American rage has refined itself—like wine mixed with bile—into various categories and degrees.
Psychotic rage. The JetBlue pilot who flipped out midflight, running through the cabin crying out about al Qaeda is one end of the spectrum. At the other, tragic end, is Army sergeant Robert Bales, who snapped and murdered those 16 Afghan villagers in a moment of pure, unadulterated fury.
Calculated rage. Newt Gingrich going off on John King in one of the interminable GOP debates was an attempt to revive Finch’s cri de coeur and fire up the masses against the infuriating liberal elites. Rick Santorum’s mini-tantrum directed at a New York Times reporter was his effort at recovering some sparks from Gingrich’s short-lived fire. They both failed, probably because we have moved irreversibly from the public, Finch-phase of rage to the private, Moore-phase. People are too immediately pissed off to share their rage with a cause bigger than themselves.
Pendular rage. Limbaugh performs his rage-shtick and calls Sandra Fluke a slut, and Fluke’s supporters explode against Limbaugh. The result is a collective-rage moment, one of those profoundly gratifying and regularly recurring Super Bowls of rage where everyone is furious, happy, and contented all at once—sort of like enjoying the spectacle of gladiatorial combat and participating in a Roman orgy, both at the same time.
Indignant rage. Greg Smith’s sensational op-ed essay in the New York Times denouncing his former employer, Goldman Sachs, for exploiting its clients and treating them with contempt did seem rooted in principle, even if it was obviously—and perhaps necessarily—provoked by personal grievance. Nobody cared, though, except for a few of Smith’s more thin-skinned former colleagues. The news that investment bankers are assholes does not exactly come as a surprise to people who are not investment bankers.
Shifting rage. One minute people were enraged at Steve Jobs and Apple for running those factories with inhuman conditions in China, the next minute the same people were enraged at Mike Daisey for fictionalizing some of his theatrical indictment of Jobs in his performance piece at New York’s Public Theater. The temptations were irresistible, though antithetical: On one side, the all-powerful Jobs and his all-powerful corporation; on the other, the vulnerable, eccentric Daisey who had shot from nowhere into sudden fame. Who to angrily take down first?
Conflicting rages. George Zimmerman, when he murdered Trayvon Martin, seems to have gotten what he had been wishing for in his simmering depths for a long time. Why go patrolling with a nine-millimeter pistol if you are not angrily hankering to use it? And perhaps Trayvon Martin did break Zimmerman’s nose and slam his head to the ground after Zimmerman had been stalking him. Perhaps he simply could not take one more instance of being tormented by the same type of coward and bully who had been stalking him throughout his life. The two rages are not morally equivalent—armed rage and unarmed rage are two absolutely different species of anger. But together they are fatal.
Why are we so angry? If you are an evolutionary biologist or a behavioral psychologist, please don’t tell me your theories. I totally fucking hate evolutionary biology and behavioral psychology. I think I can figure it out for myself.
Half of us are medicated, and the other half are not. There is nothing more enraging than someone who responds to your anger and frustration with a bright smile. Of course there is also the growing divide in wealth, but most maddening of all, there is the fact that we read and hear, day after day, about growing inequity and injustice all around us, in the most precise and thorough analyses, yet nothing changes. The age of instant, ubiquitous information and exposure has created a feeling of prolonged stasis and impotence.
The outlets for our rage don’t work, and so our rage festers and grows inside us. For liberals enraged during eight years of Bush, neither Obama nor Occupy Wall Street did the trick. Imagine: all that passion now about to come to an end before nine black-clad figures at the Supreme Court. For conservatives, neither Bush nor the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were successful catharses. And everyone is plagued by the agonizing gulf between the more and more sophisticated instant gratifications of the Internet and our iGadgets, and the routine delays and setbacks of real life. Why can’t life just be as simple, easily controlled, and satisfying as 10 minutes of online shopping or porn?
No, it’s not the economy. It’s the fact that you’re in my face and I’m in yours, and there is no social movement or politics or legislation on earth that can do a damn thing about it.