Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Politics of Anger Management

DENVER – Shortly after John Roberts, the conservative United States Supreme Court Chief Justice, sided with the Court’s four liberal justices to uphold President Barack Obama’s major health-care reform, he joked that he was leaving the country for the “impregnable island fortress” of Malta. Roberts was referring not so much to the mainstream media’s speculation about the reasons for his surprise vote, but rather to the fury and thirst for retribution among conservative bloggers and pundits.

Indeed, “traitor” was one of their common epithets, as were “coward” and “sellout.” Real-estate mogul Donald Trump, with his customary charm, thought it appropriate to refer to the brilliant and scholarly Roberts as a “dummy.”

The apoplectic rage that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on Obama’s health-care legislation is becoming routine in America’s public discourse, and it is a bipartisan malady. Though it may have started on the left – in response to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush – it has become increasingly a right-wing phenomenon. Radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (who recently signed a $100 million deal to spew more hatred on the airwaves) dwarf liberal commentators in audience size. The age of information and communications has given way to an age of anger.

Of course, this is not the first time that anger and fear have ruled US public discourse: Father Charles Coughlin’s toxic radio broadcasts in the 1930’s paved the way for today’s stars, who would feel similarly at home during the Red Scare of the 1920’s or the McCarthy era in the early 1950’s. But this contemporary ugly mood, unlike those times, seems to be independent of the real threats that America faces in the world: a weak global economy, terrorism, failed states, and protracted wars, to name a few. Americans have been angry for some time now, and their ire shows no sign of abating.

This sentiment is perhaps most obvious – and damaging – in foreign policy, where the choices facing officials are seldom obvious or risk-free. For example, the bloody conflict in Syria is fraught with challenges and unforeseen consequences. But such realities are lost on bloggers who blithely hold forth on what they claim are patently obvious solutions – and on the stupidity, cynicism, or insanity of leaders who fail to implement them.

Officials have an obligation to look beyond the current news cycle, and especially to understand that policy aimed at Syria, for example, engages policy toward Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel. As a result, it is profoundly difficult to develop policies that enjoy support at every excruciating phase of their implementation. Wise policy is not always popular (a cliché that happens to be true).

Instant access to information does not mean instant access to knowledge, much less wisdom. One aspect of knowledge, as we know from nineteenth-century philosophy (and who studies that anymore?), reflects the integration of information with experience. Today, information is integrated with emotion – and with suspicion, sometimes bordering on paranoia, about the underlying motives of the leadership classes.

Compare this behavior to that of people who have truly suffered at the hands of political leaders – for example, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, or Poland’s Adam Michnik – and who managed to conduct respectful dialogue with their tormentors. Their tolerance, one suspects, would not have been diminished had they had access to the Internet during their incarceration.

Nevertheless, technology does seem to be playing a central role in facilitating anger. Establishing a blog, downloading photos, and creating catchy, sarcasm-drenched captions is not a particularly challenging activity. (Fortunately, making a living from it is another matter!) Mainstream media (whatever that expression means anymore) woo viewers by enabling them to “sound off” at the press of a button. As anyone who has read a thoughtful article or news story can attest, bitter, vituperative responses usually follow. Have these unhappy legions somehow always been there, waiting only for a button to push to register their views?

Clearly, there is something more going on than just an increase in clickable menu options. One fundamental issue seems to be dwindling respect for established institutions, many of which are drowning in the noise of opinion. The editorial of the local newspaper used to carry weight. Now it is just another view among many (and, worse, it relies on a platform whose business model is in trouble).

Digital technology has played another important role in fostering this atmosphere of bad manners, vicious personal attacks, intolerance, disrespect, and general rudeness. Sitting in one’s basement in pajamas, spewing out venom on a keyboard like a Batman movie villain who was poorly treated in a past life, one is at a safe distance from one’s target. Bullying has gone virtual.

Indeed, perhaps the most damaging aspect of all of our wonderful technology is that it enables us to live blissfully apart from those with whom we disagree. Our access to news can be tailored to our preconceived opinions. Even where people live seems to be having an effect. The proliferation of gated communities across America has increased the odds that people will live only with those who vote the same way.

The age of anger will end when Americans decide that they have had enough. For starters, they could make a mid-summer resolution to buck the trend. They might, for example, resist the Internet algorithm that suggests which book to buy or film to rent, based on what they read or watched previously. And they might begin to re-learn the useful democratic art of respectful debate with those who happen to hold views different from their own.

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  1. CommentedMark Whitmire

    Father Coughlin was a left winger. And the other commentators you cite don't care to silence the left, it is far too much fun mocking their illogical, irrational, and anti-constitutional remarks.

  2. CommentedJim Breckenridge

    Your assignment, Dean, is to write about criticisms you disagree with, without using the word "spew". Paper is due before class next week.

  3. CommentedJohn Bragg

    "Indeed, perhaps the most damaging aspect of all of our wonderful technology is that it enables us to live blissfully apart from those with whom we disagree"

    This isn't new at all, ask Pauline Kael. According to the legend, after Nixon's landslide reelection, she said “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

    It is no longer possible to control the discussion by controlling a handful of prestige institutions--three TV networks, a half dozen newspapers and a dozen Ivy and Ivy-class faculties. Everyone gets their say, and not everyone is smart or thoughtful.

      CommentedJohn Swain

      John, I fail to see how a single quotation (which you yourself admit is legend) negates Hill's point that people can now live blissfully apart? Some people might choose to engage each other (as we are doing), but how many Glenn Beck fans do you think watch Jon Stewart? Sure, everyone has their say, but the vast majority of people who hear "their say" will be people who already agree with the message.

  4. CommentedRay Bo

    Christopher Hill's bio reveals he is just another Clintonian political hack who had no problem working for a sex pervert and his lying wife who used anger and fear to demonize their opposotion and regularly evaded the rule of law. No wonder then he views conservative views as "hate". Naturally all opposition "haters" must be eliminated for the good of the future New World Order, run by open minded liberals like himself. It's hilarious that Hill has no memory of the Obama Administration and the liberal media hate mongers pre-emptively demonizing the Roberts court before Roberts sided with the 4 liberal judges. Now we must silently respect the court decisions because they agree with the far left kook world view.

  5. CommentedMark Jansen

    Dean Hill writes: "One fundamental issue seems to be dwindling respect for established institutions, many of which are drowning in the noise of opinion. The editorial of the local newspaper used to carry weight. Now it is just another view among many ..."

    And how is that a bad thing?

    Dean Hill pines for the days past when the collective opinions of three, four or five liberal journalists, employed by a media potentate or corporate conglomerate, enjoyed disproportionate influence.

  6. CommentedJohn Primm

    Paul, you miss my point.
    By using the discredited analogy, "pajamas in the basement", Dean Hill negates his argument. That is invective not based on clear sighted investigation, rather a simplified code word for 'right wing nuts'.
    If you think my first post was an attack, you are incorrect--I was attempting to use humor (good catch) to make the point that if you start from a false premise, you will not find truth. Hill's attempt to link historic idiots (Coughlin and the Big Kahuna, Tail-Gunner Joe) to today's commentators relies on a narrow focus on Beck and Limbaugh and brushes past any other commentators--for instance, try reading Glenn Harlan Reynolds at You may be surprised.
    Once again, I was attempting to make the point that there are far more thoughtful comments than the easy ones of the Left's bugaboos.
    I do agree with Dean Hill about the near total lack of attention to Syria, anti-Semitic outbursts worldwide and North Korea--to name a few issues. These are not of importance to the chattering classes because they do not fit easily into a meme, nor can they easily be spun into pro-Obama stories. Lest you think that is a whiny right wing comment, it comes from my experience in the crucible of DC media.
    Your comment about my using the 'former Dem' phrase is a weak attempt to cast me as a light weight not to be listened to. I used that to show, and I could also talk about my media background...but you would probably use that to denigrate my point of let you know that I know journalists, I know how stories are spun and spiked and I am very unhappy with what passes for journalism today. Too many in the media are cheerleaders for the administration and ignore facts that don't easily fit. For instance, are you concerned at all about the use of Drones domestically? If not you should about Big Brother. Does it disturb you--as it does me--that Drones are used to kill indiscriminately in the Sandbox? That such strikes are approved in the Oval Office? Shades of LBJ in 'Vitnam.
    Innocent, I am sorry you see this as merely a baseball game...this is no game and thoughtful people such as you should not take yourselves out of the discussion.

  7. CommentedJohn Primm

    Dean Hill, how delightfully droll. It must be interesting to be able to classify those who do not share your worldview as,"pajamas in the basement spewing venom". How 2008, how dis-credited an analogy! No one uses that analogy any longer...I could recommend at least two websites that would engage your mind in positive discussion but then you would have to leave your comfort zone and face opposing ideas that do not 'spew from pajama clad basements', rather from individuals who care quietly and deeply about the Amercian Experiment and our Exceptionalism.
    As a student of media and politics for over 40 years, and someone who was once a Democrat, I can assure you that the coarsening of American dialog comes from both sides. Civility is used by the left to stifle their opponents nowadays. ...And by the by, rigorous debate is nothing new in American politics--Adams v. Jefferson, slavery debates prior to the Civil War, Lincoln v. anybody and FDR v. anybody. We have done pretty well so far with the active exchange of ideas, wouldn't you say?
    Your commentary does not help what your last sentence says, rather it demonizes its opponents and makes it easier to dismiss real concerns about the direction of our Nation.
    John Primm

      CommentedInnocent Ndubuisi-Obi Jr

      Those were rigorous debates, but the politiking we see now produce nothing comparable to history's greats. Your right about the freedom of expression and the vigor in american politics through conversation, but recently all that has changed. If you can't debate an issue, it seems like politicians resort to personal attacks and irrelevant issues to spur resentment in the public.
      You see, "Obama might be right, but who cares... he's a terrorist, he's un-american" are examples of vitriolic propaganda espoused by those who can not defeat him in the political sphere.
      So cut the crap, and just accept the fact that our political system is comparable the crowd scene at a White Soxs vs. Cubs game

      CommentedPaul Ross

      I see the humor of your response, or at least hope I do.

      Going on the attack to show that going on the attack is not the way to intellectually respond to a well reasoned point of view. And tehn throwing in the former Democrat comment. Brilliant.

  8. CommentedInnocent Ndubuisi-Obi Jr

    The sad truth is that there aren't enough of these articles printed to attest to the vehemently malign nature of present day politics. The idea of bi-partisan ideals has been looked down upon and termed as indecisiveness. Why do we need constant reitteration from academia on the subject of political mores. Our politians need to tear down the political schisms to enervate the creation of useful, robust reform (that of which affects millions of American lives).
    The whining must cease!! Americas are tired of it!!