Anger (Is Not A Good) Management (Style): A Meditation On The American Way Of Rage

July 9, 2010, 1:25 pm

Well, If LeBron James wasn’t sure it was a good idea to leave Ohio, he knows it now, doesn’t he? Historians, what does this picture remind you of?

I started thinking about why Americans feel entitled to their anger early this morning. At around 5:20 I turned right onto a road I normally take to go to my rowing club. As I approached a bridge leading to a major intersection, I saw that my lane was blocked with orange cones, and a sign that said “Road Work” was on the left hand sidewalk. I couldn’t see over the bridge because it was arched, and there was no one there to tell me what to do. Proceeding slowly and with caution, I drove to the peak of the bridge in the oncoming lane (often what one is asked to do, at the direction of a worker designated to help) and saw that the intersection was completely blocked by people resurfacing the road I needed to cross.
At that moment, a DOT worker ran toward me, screaming angrily. When he reached my car, I rolled down my window to ask for instructions as to where I could cross and he yelled: “What’s wrong with you?! Are you stupid? Get the hell out of here! You don’t belong here!”
Frightened, but mainly interested in getting out of there, I raised my voice to interrupt him and said: “How can I get to the other side? Which bridge should I take?” Then followed a torrent of abuse, and no instructions. I asked again, more forcefully, and he replied:
“I don’t care what you do, you c**t,” he yelled. (If I am confusing you with my ampersands, think female body part used as an epithet.) As I began to back slowly down the bridge, hoping that no one would turn the corner and slam into my car, I will admit that almost involuntarily my middle finger separated itself from its betters in the universal gesture of contempt, at which point he screamed “C**T!” repeatedly until I was out of sight.
I mention this story because anger has been in the news a lot lately. It’s something we are all encouraged to have nowadays, as if rage, like Adderall, increases our capacity for civilized problem-solving. Tea Party activists, for example, are united as a national movement by absolutely nothing but their anger, which journalists talk about as if it were a national resource. Some report on it in the midst of their own fits of mindless rage, while the more serious ones discuss Tea Party anger in hushed, admiring tones as if anger were a radical philosophical position rather than — to point to more personal contexts for understanding rage — symptoms of depression and paranoia. As Bob Bennett, the Utah Senator defeated by a Tea Party activist, said on the News Hour Wednesday night, honoring anger alone is like worshipping nihilism. “The concern I have about the anger that we’re seeing that’s being fed by talk show hosts and others,” Bennett said about the anger vote, is that “it will be like a wave that comes in and smashes on the beach and destroys everything there, and then recedes back into the ocean, and leaves nothing behind it but empty sand….Anger is not a sound strategy for governing [and] once you are in office, you have to have some solutions.”
Bennett has a good point here, and it reminds me why I admire some conservatives who I disagree with profoundly. It reminds me that the problem with anger — displayed in the political arena — is that it is often a way of diverting attention from the fact that you don’t know how to solve a problem, and are offering a show of hyper-masculine belligerence in its place.
Take, for example, the DOT worker’s abusive behavior. A better example, to return to the burning jersey picture, is the outrage being expressed over LeBron James as he leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami. Why on God’s green earth should James have stayed in Cleveland longer than seven years? Why should he have had to earn his way out with a championship for a city that hasn’t won a championship of any kind since 1964? I mean no disrespect to the city of Cleveland (I’m from Philadelphia, after all), but the man isn’t actually an industry; and basketball is a mere sideshow to the actual political story of why Cleveland has been on its economic uppers since the 1970s. Although the city estimates that James generates $150 million a year in tourist dollars, I would really love to see where those numbers come from, and know why Cleveland doesn’t have a better plan than basketball for bringing that money in. If LeBron James’ career had been ended by an injury tomorrow, the money would have been gone too: wouldn’t it have been better to invest in a high-tech sector than in a sports star? How much would Cleveland love a LeBron whose career was over? Would Cleveland think that it “owned” a white basketball star in this way, and that he should be so grateful to them that he would put their desires before his own?
And I hate to ask this, but don’t a lot of people leave Ohio (nice as it is) to seek their fortunes elsewhere?
But it’s the anger that seems to be the story here, since apparently LeBron James was responsible for Cleveland and can be justifiably treated as if he had left a wife and six children stranded at an SRO in Toledo. Why? Because the fans have a right to be angry! The Indiana, Pennsylvania Gazette agreed this morning that Cleveland “got played” by James; Cavs fans are publicly defacing LeBron posters and burning their souvenir jerseys in the street. One Cleveland sportscaster announced that James would “enter the hall of shame” along with Art Modell, the football owner who took his team to Baltimore without even announcing it (now it becomes clear why that was not such a bad choice.) The Cav’s majority owner, Dan Gilbert, published an idiotic open letter to fans where, among other things, he calls James’ departure “shameful” and a “cowardly betrayal.” See Paul Harvey’s analysis of the letter at Religion In American History.
You might ask, What about the circus that always overwhelms actual competition in professional sports — isn’t it a silly and unnecessary waste of time and money? The answer is yes. It isn’t bricks and mortar, or high-wage jobs, that are being supported by superstar athletes. It isn’t schools or hospitals. What is supported is a fantasy that the spiritual and economic well-being of working people (as opposed to say, the well-being of Nike, the team owner or the NBA) is related to the success of an athletic franchise. The idea that LeBron James has wronged the entire city of Cleveland belongs in the same category as the misimpression that Tiger Woods betrayed his fans and his sponsors as much as he betrayed his wife and children when he had (what sounds like nasty, impersonal sex) with dozens of women.
Anger is too much with us nowadays: it’s become an easy alternative to thought, planning and the hard work that goes into creating tangible successes around things
that matter. Worse, in a country where there doesn’t seem to be a right to work, to a good education, to health care, to protection from corporate negligence, to family planning services or to food, “our anger” seems to be the only thing to which everyone seems to agree we have a right, and an obligation to perform, as a daily act of citizenship.
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