- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006


By Peter Wood

Encounter Books, $25.95, 304 pages


Having a bee in one’s mouth is an old-timer’s way of saying that one is talking too vociferously and too heatedly. Peter Wood, provost of King’s College in New York City, likes the phrase so much that he uses it for the title of his latest book describing anger and its uses in modern America.

In classical times anger was recognized as part of the human makeup but if not controlled, disastrous to the holder. Aristotle wrote that anger undermines our ability to choose wisely. The Romans always preached control and noted that while the barbarian might run amok, a true Roman never took leave of his senses. The thinking man would always dominate the emotional man.

Stoicism has been part of the Western tradition for over two millennia and has been preached, practiced and admired throughout American history; that is up until now.

In “A Bee in the Mouth,” Mr. Wood examines popular culture in detail and notes what you might call the philosophical changes that have taken place during the last two generations. At one time the cowboy movie was the quintessential representation of America. In “High Noon,” Gary Cooper was the prototypical American hero, a soft-spoken man, not given to boasting or flamboyance, but of extraordinary competence. He was modest enough to ask for assistance, but when it was not forthcoming — and he was clearly worried about what lay ahead — he was able, nevertheless, to perform superbly.

In today’s America, however, Gary Cooper would not quite fit in. He does not protest enough, he does not wear his heart or his anger on his sleeve. He keeps it to himself, rather than letting it all hang out.

Mr. Wood feels that we now live in an age of what he calls angri-culture. Stemming from the anti-intellectualism of the 1960s, when accepted norms of behavior were rejected because they had been established by “dead white men” and everyone over 30 was an enemy to progress, it became “cool” to be angry. It established one’s persona as an activist who cared deeply, and in many cases replaced the need for thought. Being angry felt good, and often made one, if only briefly, the center of attention.

The author spends some time comparing current popular music with what has gone before. Hip-hop is particularly instructive because its singers are always angry; they call all women including their close relatives whores, and continually threaten violence. What are they so angry about? The social order, presumably; the world does not give them the respect and opportunities they deserve and accordingly they threaten mayhem. Hip-hop, fortunately, will eventually die but one wonders whether its replacement will not be equally angry, if perhaps a bit more musical.

We see how anger has become a criterion of success in almost every modern endeavor. In tennis John McEnroe achieved celebrity status despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he seemed perpetually angry. Pete Sampras, who replaced him as national champion and was a far better player, was criticized because he lacked color, meaning he didn’t provide copy for tired sports writers by arguing with the umpire or screaming at the fans.

It is in politics, however, that the new anger has become most prominent. The author states that it is evident in both the left and the right, but the left has the most practitioners, those who have abandoned Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” for “I am angry, therefore I am important.” They avoid discussing issues by sneering at the lack of intellectual sophistication of Reagan, the two Bushes or whomever they are attacking, because what is important is not the matter under discussion but the character of the person talking.

On the right there are such masters of the verbal put-down as Ann Coulter. Each side has its star performers who are enjoyed more for their partisanship than their wit.

Not too many years ago a television show called “Crossfire” became very popular. It consisted of a conservative and a liberal arguing current affairs, two literate and obviously angry men. The producers wanted noise and anger, rather than consensus and solutions. In time the show began to resemble mud wrestling, and eventually disappeared.

As happens in dynamic societies changes in cultural modes bring about new industries. We now have squadrons of Ph.D.s in psychology giving lessons in anger management; publishers churn out books on when to be angry and when not, and how to make that anger useful for you. Anger, as the author points out, is now embedded in our national culture and we are all learning how to deal with it.

But what of the future? There are a few straws in the wind that might give one hope. “Crossfire” died a deserved death, and every year equally shallow TV programs die. Unfortunately, they are all replaced.

In sports, however, old standards are still maintained. While in professional football it is perfectly legal to break your opponent’s arms, legs or ribs, one has to do it in a sportsmanlike manner. Unsportsmanlike conduct is heavily penalized.

When the gifted quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, Michael Vick, made an obscene gesture to the fans who were booing him, he was fined and required to make a public apology. Since his gesture was no different from gestures commonly seen on our streets during heavy traffic, one realizes there are still boundaries in American life one cannot cross.

Football cannot be sneered at or demeaned. It may well be that the professional athlete may assume the model role that our educators and elected government leaders have abandoned. If so, more power to him, and to the commissioners and referees who decree sportsmanlike conduct.

Sol Schindler writes from Bethesda, Md.

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