Peter Wood, Provost of The King's College, Writes New Book-- A Bee in the Mouth
New York-- Has America lost its cool? Peter Wood thinks so. In his new book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, Wood traces the rise of an America love affair with anger. He says that over the last half century, American culture bit by bit dismantled its old cultural restraints on anger and began instead to see anger as “authentic” and “empowering.” Today, says Wood, we have an “angri-culture” that celebrates public displays of anger and often encourages anger in personal relationships as well.
Wood is the Provost of The King’s College in New York City, where he is also a professor of anthropology and the humanities. He is the author of a previous book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003) that traces how American ideas about group identity have shifted from the nineteenth century to the present.
“My interest in anger grew out of my study of diversity,” explains Wood. “In writing that book I found that many Americans today have declared themselves, in effect, permanently angry. They are angry because they define themselves as members of groups that have historic grievances; or they angry on behalf of groups with historic grievances; or sometimes they are angry because other people are blaming them for their historic grievances. And some seem angry for no reason at all—or because being angry is in fashion.”
Wood says that when he tried to get at the bottom of this anger, he discovered that social scientists and historians had paid little attention to it. “The subject of anger has been ignored,” says Wood, “because it seems so hard to pin down. Emotions can’t be measured directly. We cannot objectively say that Americans at the outset of the Civil War were angrier than Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s. We can’t judge the emotion by the outcome.”
But, according to Wood, we can study anger by the ways in which a society tries to control it. “For centuries,” he says, “Americans counseled each other about the dangers of giving in to anger. We know this from books and letters giving advice to newlyweds, from schoolbooks, sermons, diaries, letters, memoirs, and novels. George Washington won the respect of his contemporaries by mastering his quick temper. The ideal, expressed over and over again, was for both men and women to resist the provocation to anger. The person who frequently rose to such provocations was seen as weak, or even pathetic. If anger had a legitimate place, it was only in exceptional circumstances where it was anger on behalf of a public cause, such as the abolition of slavery.”
This older view of anger, says Wood, has been in cultural retreat for several decades. Wood explains, “We have replaced our older ethic of self-restraint with a new ethic of self-expression.” In Wood’s account, this change did not happen overnight. He traces it back to the post World War II arrival of Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States, with its emphasis on “repression being bad for you.” He also points to novels such as the 1951 classic by J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, that emphasized “honesty” and “authenticity” over what the 16 year old narrator of the novel derides as the “phoniness” of American life. The 1950s, in Wood’s view, saw the rise of an artistic avant-garde that celebrated angry self-expression, as in Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl. The 1950s also saw the beginnings of a form of angry feminism that characterized the traditional family as “oppressive.”
Wood traces these developments through the 1960s, including the career of the angry militant atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the rise of the counterculture, and the climax of that movement in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. According to Wood, after the Democratic Convention, the first phase of America’s love affair with anger came to a close. But what followed was a slow diffusion of the angry form of self-expression from the old counterculture into all of American culture. In his book, Wood traces this diffusion in popular music, angry sports stars, novels that celebrate angry heroes, and movies that extol anger.
Wood’s book also provides an up-to-the-moment account of how this new self-satisfied form of anger, which he calls New Anger, has entered American politics. “New Anger is primarily cultural, not political,” Wood says, “but it has found its way into politics, on both the right and the left.” In his book he examines both Clinton-haters and Bush-haters as symptomatic of New Anger. He also explores how the media, including talk radio, T.V. and internet blogs have helped turn anger into a form of mass entertainment.
Asked about how his book has been received, Wood explains, “Some angry bloggers are angry that I have suggested that their anger is excessive. They seem locked in a hall of mirrors, where everything reflects and intensifies their anger. But I have also witnessed some extraordinary moments. One TV interviewer in the midst of an interview suddenly realized that his long-practiced routine of getting angry on camera was really drawing attention to his performance, not the ideas he hoped to get across. On another occasion, an angry blogger suddenly realized that he had been imprisoning himself in pointless wrath. In those cases, A Bee in the Mouth has helped to open up a previously un-glimpsed possibility. Anger isn’t really empowering. As our ancestors knew all along, anger offers only the illusion of power. In the end, unchecked anger is enfeebling.”
To read more, please click on the following links:
National Review Online
Los Angeles Times
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