A Few Words In Defense of Anger
As children we are taught to be nice. Not to be angry. “Use your inside voice, please!” What our parents and teachers and the police really meant to say was, “Do not express your anger in an unacceptable way.”
“Why did you hit him?” “Because he hit me first!”
Mental illness is sometimes referred to as “madness”.
If I am stopped for a traffic violation and become angry, I will certainly get the ticket, but I’ll also likely go to jail.
In debates, the “gotcha moment” comes when one contender becomes heated, raises his or her voice, or flushes. The advantage goes to the steely cold guy who seems to have no emotions, only a tough, intellectual grasp of the argument.
Feeling anger and expressing it are separate experiences and there is a choice we make between the bodily sensations we feel that we label as “anger” and the shouting, shoving or shooting that can follow.
Those of us involved in contemplative practices learn there is a tiny space between the feeling of anger and the expression of it. In that space we can choose to act, or not, and, if not, then we are left with simply experiencing what “anger” feels like. That tiny space then expands. This is uncommon stuff, to be sure, yet intrinsically human and available to everyone.
If a friend told us a story that included, “That guy said the Broncos were all sissies, so I had to slug him.” we might laugh, we might commiserate, we might have a small judgment, but we’d certainly not think he was “mad”. More than likely we would relate to that experience of an immediate reaction that did not feel optional.
In the recent public debate about the US reacting to Syria’s al-Assad gassing his people, there was decidedly no “gap” that anyone experienced. In fact, there wasn’t even an acknowledgement of “anger” per se. It was widely accepted, whether most citizens supported it or not, that it was a proper reaction to bomb Damascus to express our indignation at al-Assad bombing his people. This was a stupendous leap of logic, one that can explain how we progress to the condition called “the fog of war”, an expression most recently applied to McNamara. Air strikes were spoken of as a perfectly rational choice, a logical reaction to an event, like a law of physics. Deadly gravity. The most vocal opposition was political, from the extreme right wing, who these days oppose the current president promoting most anything.
So this anger topic is slippery, as is the most extreme expression of anger, violence. Americans accept our bombing Nagasaki and Dresden and Baghdad and annihilating entire populations of people. We determined we were in the right. The US backed the mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and taught Osama bin Laden everything he needed later on.
In 1941, we used the CIA to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and installed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who brutally ruled the country until 1979, when the infamous Ayatollah Khomenei took power.
That scared us, so we backed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, supplying him with billions of dollars, weaponry, special ops training and intelligence.
The contras we backed were “freedom fighters”, but Hamas are “terrorists”.
Are we mad, or mad?
The takeaway seems to be that if you have the power, you decide who is righteous and who is evil, when it is proper to get mad and and when to escalate to full-scale violence.
Lately, I have been reading back over sixties political history, focusing on the civil rights and anti-war movements in the US and the surrounding contexts of national liberation struggles in the third world at the time, New Left uprisings in Germany, and how smaller factions of those western revolutionary groups became further radicalized and turned to violence. My particular interest has been SDS/Weatherman, The Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, viewed through the well-regarded histories by Kirkpatrick Sale, Jeremy Varon, and Todd Gitlin and the biographies of Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Larry Gilbert, Susan Rosenberg, Carl Oglesby, David Harris and Jane Alpert. I also re-read some of the early founding documents of SDS such as the Port Huron Statement.
(I realize that even by typing these names, I may set off sinister NSA algorithms and could soon begin receiving phone calls, with only a faint “click” heard on the other end.)
Immersing into these histories carries me back to that time. It is impossible to ever truly convey the sense of any time past, completely or emotionally. Some writers and historians come close, but the taste of the time is always elusive. During the sixties, I was emotionally and politically committed and evolving, but somewhat behind, or on the outskirts due to age and where I grew up. I was never arrested for political activity, though I came close. I doubt the Freedom of Information Act would reveal much in an FBI COINTELPRO file under my birth name.
Immersing into these histories gives me access to how many of us felt then: That the Vietnam war, overt racism and oppression of American black people, unequal treatment of women, environmental degradation, western imperialism and the domination of our government by corrupt and dangerous plutocrats were not passing symptoms, but global threats that needed to be opposed. Urgency and passion were rampant, and though strategy, tactics and methods were debated vigorously, the call to some kind of action was consistent.
Something was indeed happening here, but it’s impossible to convey how that felt for radicalized American kids at the time to someone who was not there.
My interest is to understand when and why educated, ethical, well-meaning people shift from peaceful resistance to becoming angry and “violent”. When is this warranted? Is it happening now? What will it take to trigger us again? What is “terrorism”?
As we said, if a government has the power, some of these questions answer themselves, and yes, this is happening now, and yes, I do believe much of what America has done on the world stage is terrorism.
But when we are the minority, or are dissident actors in the political world, we are held to a higher standard, ironically.
Was the Boston Tea Party a terrorist act? Indeed it was one of our country’s early acts of civil disobedience, aimed squarely at a global, imperialistic corporation, the East India Company. The extreme wing of the current Republican Party has somehow co-opted this history, but as with most things, they have it backwards.
And, more currently, in what twisted, pretzel logic of rationalization and obfuscation can we look at the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith Iraq war and not label it “terrorism”? Why haven’t they been tried in a world court?
The New Left, the civil rights movement, the traditional anti-war groups in the sixties that remained committed to non-violence were nonetheless demonized and harassed by Hoover and Nixon and the feds. Bobby Kennedy was even party to harassing Martin Luther King, Jr., and did not object to Hoover’s labeling him a “communist”. It’s in Washington’s wheelhouse to label all the players in the political landscape, truthfully or not. Being “non-violent”, philosophically noble as it was, did not protect us from having our heads bloodied by Richard Daley’s cops.
In so many ways, those in power at the time created the radicalized left movement in America, whether it was Nixon or Hoover, or Ronald Reagan in California, Daley in Chicago, or Clark Kerr at UC Berkeley in 1964 or Grayson Kirk at Columbia in ’68. A lighter hand may have diffused much of that energy.
But to be sure, when activists take more aggressive steps, the state comes down without mercy, even when only property is at risk. Daniel and Philip Berrigan, both Catholic priests and peace activists, experienced this, following their break-in to a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, PA where they damaged nuclear missile nose cones and symbolically poured blood onto files. They did time and felt the full wrath and fury of the system. Likely, the actual topic of their protest was never seriously considered.
FBI and local police murdered numerous Panthers. The government was wildly more fearful of a black man with a gun than a white, middle-class Columbia graduate student with a bomb. On May 15, 1969, in an internal memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote: “The Breakfast for Children Program (Italics mine) represents the best and most influential activity going for the Black Panther Party and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” A breakfast program for poor ghetto kids.
Nowhere outside Quantico, the FBI building or Fox News does anyone familiar with the history refer to Fred Hampton’s death in December, 1969 as anything other than a murder. Fred was doped with secobarbitol by an infiltrator, then assassinated at 4:00 am while he slept by the Illinois State’s Attorney’ office, the Chicago PD and the FBI.
Speaking out angrily had consequences. Acting violently often had fatal repercussions.
By 1975, many of the leading resistance groups had broken apart. The wind was out of our sails. The war was over (for comfortable Americans, at least).
Following Weatherman and the Panthers, many of us turned to meditation, organic gardening, local health clinics, city politics, or softer environmental causes. We moved to the mountains in Colorado, or communes in Vermont or the Sierra Nevada. Why? We were weary. We were scared by what anger and violence really looked and felt like and how harsh the state’s responses can be. We got lazy. We took Stewart Brand’s otherwise elegant focus on “access to tools” to a level he never intended, that of spoiled, hedonistic baby-boomers driving the best cars, having Smith and Hawken garden tools, buying only the purest organic foods, and we became selfish, self-absorbed and uncaring about the world. And we opened the door to a true fascist, Ronald Reagan, who ushered in a period of unrestrained greed and consumption. We defaulted to the safety net that our middle class upbringing always afforded us. Even Weather bombers own homes in Chicago and hold good jobs today.
The Palestinians do not have the same safety net. Nor do the Somalis, or the North Koreans, or the Iranians. For most people in the world, living under fascism, or oppression or violent civil strife, they do not have a choice. Their only choices are to be overwhelmed and killed, or to get angry and fight back, and likely be killed.
In 1968, if you spoke of imperialism or American hegemony, or racism, or plutocracy, or illegal wars, you were labeled a communist or you were a professor of political science at a leading university. You were certainly not invited back for Sunday potluck. Today, those topics are discussed on cable news, in the Times, on progressive talk radio and in a hundred blogs and websites.
But our indignation has gone missing. We look into the mirror we use most, our television sets and our computers, and we see what we want to see and what the state wants us to see. Meanwhile, the lot of most Americans is declining, foreign military incursions continue, and new adventures appear in our mirrors like a fall television premiere: “Sunday, 9:00 Eastern: US Bombs Pyongyang. Check local listings.” Wealth is consolidating. Safety net programs are being gutted. The Voting Rights Act was recently circumcised. Human-caused global warming isn’t even debated within the real scientific community, but somehow cannot be discussed publically. The “People’s House” in DC has become a laughingstock, hijacked by extremists who couldn’t manage to organize a high school homecoming dance. Worst of all, the patriotic “solution” to all this, the voting booth, by way of Citizen’s United, got sold to Wall Street and all the “Big’s”: Pharma, Insurance, Banking, Energy and the like.
Many of us do speak out, but other than feeling good within our own echo chamber, what are we accomplishing? What am I accomplishing right now? We share a consensus that taking physical action is unwise. Occupy got our attention for a while, but was destined to failure due to lack of any philosophical or programmatic underpinnings, or a face. We won the first black president and we can smoke weed and marry one another in a few states, but are those sedatives? Are we getting stoned with people we like on a sinking cruise ship?
When do we get angry?
When do we speak out?
When do we shout or shove?
Indeed, how bad does it have to get before we shoot again?
We got angry and we got violent over two hundred years ago, and we won a nation. We got angry in the 1800’s and in the 1930’s an got clobbered. We got angry and violent in the sixties and possibly stopped an illegal war.
But several equally illegal wars of empire have come and gone in recent years with scarcely a whimper.
Leonard Peltier is still in prison. Dozens are still held illegally at Guantanamo. Poor and minority people are being disenfranchised.
How bad does it have to get before we act again? What will we do when it does?