Wrath: America Enraged, by Peter W. Wood (Encounter Books, 231 pp., $28.99)
That anger increasingly drives American politics has become a routine observation. For Peter Wood, it’s too little, too late. Politics is merely channeling an anger that already existed: “we made ourselves susceptible to the lure of anger before it was recruited as the dominant idiom in our politics.” And the anger that Wood argues came to dominate the nation’s temperament after World War II has lately tipped into wrath, a special degree of anger that “aims at obliterating its foe.” Wrath, Wood contends, is the driving emotion behind phenomena such as, on the one hand, the January 6 Capitol riot and, on the other, the anti-Trump mobs whipped up by California representative Maxine Waters. “Anger,” Wood writes “now dominates American politics.”
Wood is a former college provost and anthropology professor—two jobs unlikelier than ever to be held by a conservative these days. This unique vantage point gives him credibility in claiming that “almost all the really terrible ideas that blight contemporary America started on campus.” He is currently president of the National Association of Scholars, where he edits the journal Academic Questions and advocates for academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and free speech on college campuses. His most recent book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, offered an erudite rejoinder to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times series.
Wood’s Wrath revisits the argument of his 2006 book A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. At the core of the new book lies the argument that the emotions we feel, both individually and as a society, aren’t merely the product of our natural temperaments but are also molded by our culture—“culturally patterned,” as he puts it.
Wood expresses nostalgia for the decades leading up to the 1950s, but not for the usual economic reasons, such as full employment, growth, and the possibility of maintaining a middle-class standard of living on a single-family income. Instead, Wood’s nostalgia focuses on an ethic of self-restraint that once governed society but has since collapsed. “Children were taught to restrain their feelings, and adults were counseled to bear their disappointments.” That emotional equilibrium of yore, he argues, has given way to an ethic of self-expressive individualism, in which displays of anger are encouraged, celebrated, and considered authentic. “The symbolic representation of anger has, in fact, become ubiquitous in American life and, like other stuff we see every day, has ceased to be especially noticeable.” Politics is the domain where this breakdown of emotional order is most apparent, but it is by no means the only one. Movies, literature, and even sports are increasingly subject to wrath, too.
At the root of this “generational shift that has made open displays of anger stylish” lies the importation of ideas from two distinct European schools of thought: Freudian psychoanalysis and French existentialism. Freudian psychoanalysis taught that repressing anger yielded neuroses. In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Sigmund Freud differentiates depression—termed melancholia—from grief, arguing that in the first anger is directed toward the self in the form of self-reproach or self-attack, while in the second anger is directed toward lost love. French existentialism called for the individual to achieve meaning by living an authentic life. Kierkegaard famously proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for endowing life with meaning by living passionately, sincerely, and authentically. These two imported schools, per Wood’s argument, together corroded established American ways of thinking about anger that saw it as an ugly emotional secretion, not something to be celebrated.
Scholars at the intersection of political science and psychology have produced extensive research attempting to explain America’s growing polarization. In several ways, Wood’s book echoes them. But the “new anger” that he diagnoses is, in his own words, “by no means exclusively or even primarily a political concoction. It is rather the expression of a new cultural ideal that emphasizes the importance of individual authenticity achieved through the projection of power over others.” Unlike other authors, Wood does not think that our culture—our “angriculture,” as he calls it—lies downstream from politics, as the product of an abnormally adversarial party system and a ratings-conscious broadcast mediascape. Instead, wrath was “preening itself in many contexts before it ran for office or auditioned for prime time.” Anger is thus immanent in our collective subconscious, waiting to be triggered at the first provocation.
Wood is at his most provocative when examining the political ends toward which we might direct all this wrath. Wood fits the definition of a populist—someone who hopes to “inspire confidence,” as he writes in the preface, “in those who are determined to wrest their nation back from the elites who have taken it away.” The exact point at which wrath exhausts its political justification, however, is a question that haunts his book. “My conflict,” he confides, “is whether to endorse the wrath that has been summoned by the vile behavior of our political, social and economic elites or to caution Americans to hold that wrath in check in order to avoid still greater pain and destruction.” Some level of unleashed wrath, arguably, is warranted in Wood’s view. Was the January 6 Capitol riot one such instance? “Rejection of illegitimate authority in the form of widespread civil disobedience,” he writes, “is the better path for the wrath that many Americans now feel.” Readers might wish for a less cryptic answer.
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