Peter Wood, the brilliant anthropologist and author of the new book A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Today, has contributed a very astute analysis of "The Liberalitarian Dustup" in National Review Online. I recommmend it highly.
Analyzing the disagreement between libertarians and liberals as to whether the two sides have much in common and might make good political bedfellows, and concentrating on leftist Jonathan Chait’s furious rejection of libertarian Brink Lindsey’s overture suggesting an alliance, Wood uses the exchange to exemplify the absurd amount of anger in political discourse today, and the amount of it that seems so thorougly unjustified by the intellectual or political differences at hand.
We know all of that already, of course, but Wood adds something of value to the discussion. He succinctly and correctly identifies the sociological and cultural origins of the great unleashing of anger in contemporary political discourse:
The Newly Angry are moved by a sense that they are most authentic, most transcendently themselves, when they are unleashing their anger. New Anger is the narcissistic self in high dudgeon.
Wood points out that modern-day, extreme expressions of anger in political discourse are actually attempts to characterize oneself as authentic and one’s cause as just. This, he astutely observes, is an outgrowth of our transition "from a culture that prized self-control to a culture that prizes self-expression" (a phenomenon which I identified in NRO in 2003). Wood notes that although polictical anger has existed for a long time (ever since people have had any influence over their governments, I would note) the big change is the movement away from an ideal of self-control to one of self-expression:
Anger at political adversaries, of course, is nothing new. Reflecting on the intensification of political anger in the last few years, some commentators have pointed to the extraordinary acrimony between partisans of Jefferson and Adams in the 1800 election as proof that the nation has seen worse. But that comparison misses something. Go back and read the vitriolic diatribes of 1800 and you will find numerous attacks on Jefferson as a would-be tyrant and a man of low morals; and numerous attacks on Adams as a scoundrel who would sell the nation back to the British. But you will nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”
Why not? Americans in 1800 certainly knew what political anger was but they faced powerful restraints. George Washington, who was completing his second term, was a living reproof to those who couldn’t control their anger. He was known to be a man of quick temper who, by dint of hard effort, smothered it. That was the ideal. Children were taught from a young age that they had to master their anger, and that to fail at this was to own a morally serious flaw. Politics, being inherently oppositional, is bound to test such a principle. The newspapers and pamphlets of 1800 are full of Jeremiads, hard-hitting satire, and libelous personal attacks, and the writers give the impression (usually behind the mask of a pseudonym) of enjoying the rollicking pleasure of their verbal extravagance.
I should observe that the period leading up to the War Between the States included expressions of anger similar to those we see today, in which people routinely characterized one another as demons and in which reason was regularly tossed out the window. I think that this observation actually brings up a point that should be crucial in understanding the current situation:
Slavery was important.
It was a central moral issue. It went to our very definition of ourselves and what is human.
And there could be no compromise on it.
Today, by contrast, political discourse has become absurdly impassioned over issues such as when to turn Iraq over to its elected government, what if anything to do about climate variation, how much more money to waste on propping up the welfare state, and other such issues which, however important they may be in making our comfortable lives even cushier, have not one one-hundredth of the importance of the issue of whether people should be viewed as property.
Antebellum Americans had a demmed good reason to be angry at one another. There is nothing like that in play today, with the possible exception of stem cell research and related issues—and on that issue there hasn’t been much discussion at all in comparison with the issues mentioned above.
As life has become easier for Americans, the arguments have become more ferocious.
The biggest difference between America then and now, and between today and all other times in the history of the United States, is this: We were vulnerable to attack.
When Jefferson and Adams were arguing and their followers fuming, the British were a severe, present danger, and in fact would attack the United States just a few years later. In that regard, both Jefferson and Adams were on the same side. There could be no doubt that they were allies of the heart on the fundamental level.
Today it is our very sense of post-Cold War, sole superpower invincibility that allows us to fight each other so furiously.
The hostilities, so evident during the Clinton administration and after the 2000 elections, died down temporarily when we perceived ourselves as threatened after the 9/11 attacks. But as the threat receded, there being no terror attacks on American soil after our intitiation of the War on Iraq, the furor over every little thing arose again, even greater than before.
Everything happens in the Omniculture, and without a central set of accepted premises to guide us in our search for solutions to our social problems (which are endemic to mankind and will always exist), our political discourse becomes increasingly disturbed and pornographically violent.
That is unlikely to change until we are either confronted by a real, undeniable, and imminent danger to our very existence, or we come once again to share a set of general values widely across society.
The first is, of course, a consummation for which no sensible person would wish, and the second is something that, alas, appears to have become very unlikely indeed.