Anger is my Meat

by David Ottlinger

I am writing on November 9th. Yesterday, I woke up genuinely happy. Early in the morning, I posted the Doors’ song “The End” on Facebook as a little joke. Come what may, we had reached it. This was the end, and I was happy to be there. My choice was more appropriate than I knew.  The song sounds different now. Its ominous trance forms a good backdrop to our newfound political reality. It captures the mood of my corner of the country just now, which I would describe as one of dazed angst and dread.

As evening turns to night, I feel the odd but familiar mixture of weariness and elation. At the moment, this feeling is being buoyed artificially by gin. But, more deeply, it is the same feeling Alexis Alexandrovich had when confronted with proof of Anna’s affair:

He experienced the sensations of a man who has had a tooth out after suffering long from toothache. After a fearful agony and a sense of something huge, bigger than the head itself, being torn out of his jaw, the sufferer, hardly able to believe in his own good luck, feels all at once that what has so long poisoned his existence and enchained his attention, exists no longer, and that he can live and think again, and take interest in other things besides his tooth. This feeling Alexis Alexandrovitch was experiencing. The agony had been strange and terrible, but now it was over; he felt that he could live again and think of something other than his wife. [1]

Read “election” for wife and we are not far from our own situation. Alexis knows he will have to deal with the affair, but that will come later. At least, it will be a new pain. The old pain — the pain of suspicion, the pain of uncertainty — is gone. And so it is for us. We will have to deal with the horror of a Trump presidency eventually, but the long, dull ache of the election is over. Who can deny the relief? Judging from Facebook I think many of my “millennial” brethren are in the same emotional place. Expressions of rage and disgust are giving way to resignation and gallows humor. We may hate the outcome, but at least, this is the end.

When a man is in distress, he turns to what he knows, and one thing I happen to know is Shakespeare. I felt instinctively sure that he had something to say to me tonight and that what he had to say would be of some comfort. When Shakespeare thought politics, he most often thought of Rome. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the Roman plays are those in which he was most focused on politics and in which his political thoughts were often clearest. So, I began with Julius Caesar, the obvious choice. [2] This, the first play of the tragic period, concerns an angry elite reacting to a demagogue elected by an inconstant and short-sighted people. It was the natural choice. But very soon, it became clear that it was too obvious. I remembered Casca as having said, “Rome has the falling sickness,” but the actual quotation was quite unsatisfying. I kept looking. Later Casca thunders:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?

Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,

But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:

He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

Those that with haste will make a mighty fire

Begin it with weak straws: what trash is Rome,

What rubbish and what offal, when it serves

For the base matter to illuminate

So vile a thing as Caesar!

This is mildly cathartic, but, as Brutus sees immediately, un-profound. Besides, I am not really angry with the American people. I can hardly blame their defiance. Our patricians and senatorial class dared them — mocked, goaded, and taunted them into elevating Trump. They looked down their aquiline noses and condescended to them, until they practically had no choice. I can’t feel what Casca feels. I have none of his dread of the people’s “sweaty night-caps” and “stinking breath.”  He is too much a part of what got us into this ridiculous position in the first place. He fits in too readily at the editorial page of The New York Times.

But, as it happened, I was looking in the right place, and it wasn’t too long before I found what I needed. Epiphany came in the form of Volumnia’s words: “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.” [3] In the past, I often applied these words to myself, but now it suddenly came to me that these words might speak for vast swathes of the country. I will win no prizes for observing that American politics has become the politics of anger and outrage. That fact has been much noted and much analyzed. But the analysis has usually been focused on the root causes and political effects of this state of affairs. I think it is very likely that not enough attention has been paid to how this politics feels. What we need is a psychology of our politics.

I have pled my case against this style of politics before. I think it is bad for those who are silenced by it and bad for those who wish to hear those silenced voices. I think it breeds division and resentment. I think it interferes with the deliberative process that is essential to democracy. But I want to add one more reason — one that I think people may now be more ready to hear, as to why my friends on the Left should put an end to this style of politics — and that is that it is exhausting. If those who practice this kind of politics cannot give it up to profit others, perhaps they can be convinced to give it to profit themselves.

I realize now that I have begun to have this thought before but could not articulate it: This politics of outrage is not only bad for democracy and public discourse, it is bad for the people who practice it themselves. Back when I couldn’t say it yet, I remember reading the feminist columnist, Laurie Penny, as she flagellated herself for using gender exclusive language:

In a freezing-cold flat in Berlin, I’m standing under the shower with the water turned up as high and hot as it will go. I’m trying to boil away the shame of having said something stupid on the internet. The shower is the one place it’s still impossible to check Twitter. This is a mercy. For as long as the hot water lasts I won’t be able to read the new accusations of bigotry, racism and unchecked privilege. I didn’t mean it. I don’t understand what I did wrong but I’m trying to understand. I want to be a good person. It turns out that however hard you try to be politically correct, you can still mess up. I am so, so sorry. [4]

This ritual bathing was fascinating. It reminded me of the kind of religious ritual one reads about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and has more than a little of the savor of the self-castigation of medieval monks in their austere search for purity. She was not just showering, the poor thing. She was trying to cleanse her soul.

I run into pieces like this, every so often, regarding the politically correct. There is the lament of never being able to be pure enough, sensitive enough, sufficiently right-thinking. Apparently, Jessica Valenti, the feminist blogger, recounts a similar moment in her book, which I know only from reviews. [5] There, Valenti relates her experience of being the victim of a terrible, emotionally upsetting crime. Obviously, such an experience should earn her all of our sympathy. But her reaction to this ordeal was puzzling. She had difficulty earning sympathy from herself. Instead, she felt shame at not being ashamed. She writes, “It did not destroy me or change who I am in the way I thought something like that is supposed to do.” I was flummoxed. In her reckoning, she was supposed to be destroyed. She felt guilty about not being so.  And she is explicit regarding the ultimate reason for these feelings: “My politics call for it.” While I hate to comment on such personal experiences, I feel compelled for a simple reason. It is an astounding measure of the stringency of this morality that it has standards for how to be abused. I cannot help but pity someone, who at a moment when she most needed self-pity, self-regard and self-indulgence (as well as our pity, regard and indulgence) turned instead to self-castigation. I am troubled just thinking about the contortions she must go through on a daily basis.

Those engaged in this kind of politics should meditate on Coriolanus. Volumnia’s words speak just as well for her son. The anger runs in the family. You can hear something of the social justice warrior set in his fearsome cry, “Make you a sword of me!” [6] None of Shakespeare’s characters are more deceptively inward. Even Olivier was fooled. “Coriolanus doesn’t require a very deep mental faculty, I don’t think,” he once remarked, “It doesn’t require very great cerebral heights in the artist performing him. He is a very straightforward reactionary son of a so-and-so.  And it’s quite easy to get on to him and his thoughts are not deep.” [7] In reality, Coriolanus is what Hamlet would have become if he had all the will and self-mastery he sometimes craved. His pathologies are no less complex. His warrior ethos and mythic sense of himself dictate his every gesture and thought. A good actor will make the audience feel how tight the knot is the pulled. Until, inevitably, it snaps. In their quieter way, many of these warriors for justice must have their own, no less violent battles with themselves.

And no one beats Coriolanus for contempt of the mob. It would turn Casca pale. Remember how he addresses them:

MARCIUS

…What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,

That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,

Make yourselves scabs?

FIRST CITIZEN

We have ever your good word.

MARCIUS

He that will give good words to thee will flatter

Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs..?

Not that Coriolanus is alone in this contempt. His fellow patricians refer to the common people’s “stinking” breath, their “reechy” necks, “stinking greasy caps”, and grimy teeth. [8] Shakespeare was never better at writing arrogance and contempt. In fact, I don’t doubt Coriolanus, in some measure, spoke for Shakespeare. He was common-born but saw himself, I think, as belonging to the aristocracy. And perhaps he was right. He died a gentleman. He has that in common with many of our writers. They too wish to join the elite by writing. They express disdain to identify with those above themselves. Contempt elevates.

But these would-be patrician writers have failed. None of their screeds — and there were many — was able to stop Trump. Indeed, they didn’t even seem to slow him down. They failed for the same reason Coriolanus failed. They lost all contact with and ability to mobilize the people. Their disparagement and posture of superiority only alienated them. By the time they sounded the alarm, there was no one left to listen. In Coriolanus, the last tragedy of the tragic period, Shakespeare has more empathy for this rabble and sees that they do the hard work necessary to support the patrician’s leisure and are paid for it with scorn and abuse. In our current drama, Trump plays the role of the Praetors, who finally are able to raise the people up. They achieve this by promising two things: grain and the prospect of enraging the patricians. The people may repay all the scorn they received and the result is political chaos. I don’t know what the next act of our drama will bring or how much it will diverge from Shakespeare’s. I am fairly certain, however, that we are not in a comedy.

The worst of it is that there is no end in sight. The familiar voices are already raising the familiar refrains. We are being told Trump’s election is the triumph of racism, misogyny and God knows what else. The same old words and music. The same old mixture of truths, half-truths and glaring omissions. Missing is some examination of what role the liberal elites themselves have played and what they can do to regain their effectiveness. To those now writing these pieces, I have a message. Stop this. Stop this before it is too late. We have, in effect, conducted a massive social experiment. We now know that no amount of mockery, abuse and derision will force half the country to abandon its beliefs, and we know this because we could not have indulged in any more of it. Anyone who continues to behave otherwise deserves to be branded as a fool. If you cannot stop for me or for the country, for God’s sake stop for yourselves. Are you not tired of the same tired chants and ritual self-abuse? Are you not exhausted? Come try politics our way for a little while. It’s a better way. I promise.

[1] http://www.bartleby.com/316/313.html

[2] http://shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/full.html

[3] http://shakespeare.mit.edu/coriolanus/full.html

[4] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/05/we-have-distinguish-between-outrage-and-justified-rage-marginalised

[5] I was looking mainly at this review:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/06/playing-the-victim-card-lindy-west-and-jessica-valenti-s-visions-of-feminism.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/books/review/sex-object-a-memoir-and-shrill-notes-from-a-loud-woman.html

[6] In the script this is a question. Coriolanus is asking if his men will use him as their weapon:

O, me alone! make you a sword of me?

If these shows be not outward, which of you

But is four Volsces?

But actors can and do perform it as an imperative, “Make you a sword of me!

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK6VyA4V47U&t=1415s

[8] Here I am practically quoting from David Bevington’s introduction to the play in his edition. I’m looking at the fifth edition.

14 Comments »

  1. While you seem to be writing in two distinct directions here, I’m ready to go along with both. I’d love to see more of your thoughts, though, on how giving up the politics of outrage will change (amend?) relations between the progressive side of society and the populist side, and how you would induce people whose main power comes from outrage to give it up.

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  2. Hi David, this was definitely an interesting read. I guess I am more low-brow and would never be able to channel my thoughts/reactions about an event (though suitably a tragedy) through Shakespeare.

    It looks like I agree with your conclusions, but then this raises the question if you have changed your position since your previous essay on the moral necessity for voting for Hillary? The argument posed here suggests some degree of incongruity.

    “While I hate to comment on such personal experiences, I feel compelled for a simple reason. It is an astounding measure of the stringency of this morality that it has standards for how to be abused. I cannot help but pity someone, who at a moment when she most needed self-pity, self-regard and self-indulgence (as well as our pity, regard and indulgence) turned instead to self-castigation. I am troubled just thinking about the contortions she must go through on a daily basis.”

    Uhm… or perhaps the point is she didn’t need self-pity, etc. I thought this was the weakest point of your essay and a detraction from the overall message since it basically does not bother to examine its own self-righteous position. It seems to argue if people didn’t demand such things she could obtain them (as if she need them). The point might be that people shouldn’t demand such things because some people just don’t (need to) feel them and so it adds a totally new and unnecessary layer of social stigma to deal with.

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  3. Since one of the issues you bring up, as example of SJW reactions to this election, let me make a remark that will disturb some, but supports what you write here, and derives from my experiences with avowed feminist literaturists at SUNY Albany.

    There are now several flavors of Feminism on the intellectual marketplace; but in the ’70s and ’80s, there were principally two: a traditional liberal Feminism that moved to support equal rights, equal representation, equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity, and equal authority over one’s own body and destiny. All pretty Enlightenment era ‘natural rights’ stuff, that had been argued for by such as Wollstonecraft, Mill, Anthony, and Dewey. But another Feminism arose out of the ashes of the ’60s’ Cultural Revolution, predicated on the assumption that none of such equality was achievable except maneuvering women into positions of *power* – especially in business, in politics, and in the academy. This form of Feminism saw itself as subversive, in the service of a coming global Revolution (inspired by Marx), and dialectically competitive, not only with men per se (any man, regardless of his sympathies), but with the older form of Feminism itself, since to achieve power, one has to forego equality and assume an oppressed superiority. What was once a politics becomes an intrigue.

    The continuing effort to achieve an inclusive equality for women goes on, because it is reasonable and just, and actually increases the quality of relationships between men and women. But the newer forms of revolutionary or subversive or power-oriented Feminism has caused this effort considerable difficulties, since it assumes that all men necessarily oppose it, and women who are not in the program suffer from a ‘false consciousness’ and cannot be trusted.

    Such an unnecessary complication!

    I remember making a comment on some blog as the primaries were winding down, that Clinton could not afford running *as* a Feminist. It is one thing to run on a general policy agenda that includes attention to women’s rights. It is another to campaign on a platform of women’s rights, and, ‘oh by the way, health care (etc.). ‘ And as we slogged through the convention, Clinton seemed headed in the former direction, not the latter. Unfortunately, her opponent openly flaunted his profound sexism and disrespect for women, and Clinton, and the Democratic elite supporting her, failed to recognize it as the trap it was. In the final weeks of the campaign Clinton was flat out Feminist, as were some of her surrogates, and many of the female pundits pre-emptively assuming her victory.

    But the social fact, between the coasts, is that the battle for an Inclusive Feminism is still being argued from one community to the next, literally door to door; while Revolutionary Feminism is nationally known through the internet and largely held suspect outside the Academy. As I’ve said elsewhere, elections are not about breaking glass ceilings, they’re about winning. And one has to walk the wide platform including as many voters as possible, and not just a couple planks of it. In the end, Clinton, expected to win above 70% of the votes of women, won less than half.

    What kind of Feminist is Hillary Clinton herself? That’s a different question for another analysis. And the story noted here is not the whole story of this election, only a one chapter in it, and perhaps even the most important. But I hope it helps deepen some of the points raised in this article.

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  4. ejwinner, that’s a good point. The feminist rhetoric around Hillary was truly offensive to some of us Bernie supporters, as well. People called us sexist for not supporting Hillary, when we would have voted for Elizabeth Warren in a heartbeat. Her commandeering feminism thus managed to alienate some real feminists, as well as people who had yet to be convinced.

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  5. db

    “The point might be that people shouldn’t demand such things because some people just don’t (need to) feel them and so it adds a totally new and unnecessary layer of social stigma to deal with.”
    But as far as I can tell that was my point. I was not saying people *must* be kind to themselves as some kind of moral injunction, I just thought it would be the natural thing for a person who has had a terrible experience. At any rate my mainpoint was that no morality that dictates that a person must be devastated by some experience on top of already having that experience can be legitimate.

    ej,

    You said some things in there that I think are true and quite a bit that I think does more to distort than clarify. This isn’t a post about feminist theory but I will make a few quick points. I do think the most important divide in current feminism is between the basically Enlightenment informed approach and the anti-Enlightenment approaches. In the latter camp are very different styles of thought ranging from Marxists to post-modernists. I do think PC stuff is usually indebited to the latter camp, often unconsciously so.

    bowneps,

    “how giving up the politics of outrage will change (amend?) relations between the progressive side of society and the populist side”
    I think some people will feel more respected and that they have a voice. It will also make it possible to negotiate compromise.

    “how you would induce people whose main power comes from outrage to give it up.”
    Well today I appealed to their sense of exhaustion. Before I have done other things. Tomorrow I hope I think of everything else. The struggle continues.

    “The feminist rhetoric around Hillary was truly offensive to some of us Bernie supporters, as well. People called us sexist for not supporting Hillary, when we would have voted for Elizabeth Warren in a heartbeat.”
    Yup. The bernie-bro was phenomenon was a little fable of internet discourse. The author published this really weird sorry-not-sorry:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/berniebro-revisited/460212/

    I wrote about this kind of thing even before it happened. If you should be interested:
    https://theelectricagora.com/2016/01/04/privelobliviousness/

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  6. If anyone is wondering what Laurie Penny has written since the election:

    “I’m not going to give you any fluff about hope at this point in history. Hope is possible, and necessary, and remarkably tenacious, but in the meantime there is always spite. We can carry on living, carry on looking after one another, carry on working towards a world beyond this trash fire to spite those who would see everyone who looks and thinks differently from them cowed and silent. We can carry on to spite them, and in spite of them.”

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  7. David,
    Well, I was painting with broad strokes in considering one issue raised here. (And I notice this appeared in my comment: “and perhaps even the most important” – when I intended “and perhaps *not* even the most important”.)

    Every aspect of this campaign contributing to Clinton’s loss will need far more careful analysis than I could give in a comment here. But one glaring fact is that Clinton did not win the overwhelming women’s vote that was expected, and a reasonable assumption is that Feminism as a project remains suspect in heartland America, among women as well as men, and it was a mistake to frame the election with talk of glass ceilings instead of jobs, in terms of divisions Trump seemed to exploit, instead of an agenda for economic growth and stability, with which heartland American voters are principally concerned.

    As for my characterization of Radical Feminists, I’m afraid that derived from personal experience with them in the ’80s. it was was not pleasant. But I remain committed to egalitarian feminism, since I still think this benefits all.

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  8. I’m going to add my little two cents here in response to both David and Dan.

    My most important takeaways are in alignment with the underlying theme. We cannot continue to escalate the politics of anger, outrage, and contempt mashing together huge sections of country under simple stereotypes that elevate our own sense of superiority while blinding us our commonalities.

    Trumpism is fueled by this culture of outrage – the outrage of his supporters is fueled by outrage on the left and both sides are sapped of the ability to extend any charity or understanding out side the walls of their own echo chambers. It’s a perfect insidious fit and Trump is nothing if not a superficial wall builder & a profiteer exploiting our worst impulses.

    Although I think Dan over states Obamas role in pushing to far and fast on social and climate issues ( I think the SJWs pushed way to far and in the wrong way). I am gennerally with DB in his evaluation of Obama so I am not a fanboy at all. I also thought however the three options near the end of Dan’s essay are crucial to keep in mind. I agree with him that option (3) overwhelming those with different values ) is a non-starter.

    I think we need to try our best to take option (1) and find common ground. In this political climate it feels near impossible, but I will try my best. I think it is possible to do this without seceding our own integrity. I think there is a way to stand against racism and bigotry, and for respect of the science behind climate change without demeaning those in rural area’s and those without college degrees. I read recently that young evangelicals actually are much more supportive environmental issues. Maybe I am hopelessly naive, but I don’t feel I have ever compromised my values yet I feel as though I can speak with portions of the Trump electorate with talking down to them.

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  9. I went and read the article Dan linked to as well as Laurie Penny’s article which David quoted from (www.newstatesman.com/world/north-america/2016/11/election-donald-j-trump-4).

    1) The washington post piece was interesting and largely accurate in its analysis, though I think they forgot one thing. You can try to market what you want by keying in to certain demographics and trying to play to their desires. But you should also be running the other direction and figuring out if your product is at all appealing in itself (that is the thing itself is desired) by that demographic. They could hit all the buzzwords and cast Trump as anti- the demographics they were pandering to all they want (to make Clinton seem attractive). But at the end of the day Clinton was a known brand which had built in problems with all of those demographics. And seeing her personal victory as something appealing in and of itself (and that is what she was selling… “I’m with Her”) was not a viable product in this market.

    So basically the DNC were looking for ways to sell Clinton to what they thought were important demographics, instead of figuring out what those important demographics might really want. That is find the candidate (not the advertisements) that best fit them.

    The RNC had it easier in that people in general wanted an outsider. That included important portions of those demographics the DNC wanted to capture. Disregarding third parties, Trump was the only outsider placed “on the shelf” for the election.

    2) Laurie Penny really learned nothing from this election. At least not yet. Clearly she has yet to read David and Dan’s essays 🙂

    Seriously though, there is only one part when she contemplates the failure of the DNC strategy (and candidate). The rest is what I can only consider a racist rant. If Clinton had won and Trump supporters blamed blacks like she did whites throughout her article, it seems clear she would have been able to see how bigoted it was. The irony being she herself is white.

    Strangely she seems to discount that whites did vote for Clinton (ahem and other non-Trump candidates) so really… what the? And that is without addressing the erroneous idea a vote for Trump by a white person was a vote against non-whites (many non-whites voted for him as well). Sure, my guess is Trump locked up the racist, sexist, and homophobic demographics… but it is not possible to say that covered all Trump voters, even all white Trump voters.

    She openly questions what the “white working class” is. Maybe she should try to figure it out, rather than intellectually dismissing it. They exist in the swing states, some of which Hillary ignored claiming that she was so far ahead in the polls she didn’t need to think about Trump. Hm. Maybe she didn’t need to think about Trump, but by not going to those states she made a rather clear point she didn’t need to think about them either. Well, they vote. And in crucial areas where one needs to win for an electoral victory.

    Live for spite of the “white working class”. Yeah that’s a great idea.

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  10. I forgot to add… about the Laurie Penny article… it didn’t help me that she was was pushing the “fascist” label on Trump and his supporters. I’m not sure why we need to rush to hyperbolic terms to make our point when the reality is good enough.

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  11. ej,

    I know you were touching on more than you could deal with exhaustively. No judgment.

    “a reasonable assumption is that Feminism as a project remains suspect in heartland America,”
    Indeed.

    “As for my characterization of Radical Feminists, I’m afraid that derived from personal experience with them in the ’80s. it was was not pleasant.”
    I can well imagine.

    db,
    “Laurie Penny really learned nothing from this election. ”
    Alas….

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  12. “… I can’t feel what Casca feels. I have none of his dread of the people’s “sweaty night-caps” and “stinking breath.” He is too much a part of what got us into this ridiculous position in the first place. He fits in too readily at the editorial page of The New York Times.”

    I agree with you that scorn and contempt from groups who have privileged positions has contributed to social divisions. I suspect no politician could heal these divisions – there’s a power struggle going on, and the losers are going to be bitter about the results. I hope Trump continues to make conciliatory noises however.

    Regarding Laurie Penny et al… Personally I don’t have the patience to read those people on the left who moralize everything in such a self-indulgent and self-promoting and (as you point out) sometimes psychologically contorted way. There is a preciousness in so much of this politically-correct talk and writing which repels me.

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