Friday, July 09, 2010

Anger (Is Not A Good) Management (Style): A Meditation On The American Way Of Rage

Well, If LeBron James wasn't sure it was a good idea to leave Ohio, he knows it now, doesn't he? Historians, what does this picture remind you of?

I started thinking about why Americans feel entitled to their anger early this morning. At around 5:20 I turned right onto a road I normally take to go to my rowing club. As I approached a bridge leading to a major intersection, I saw that my lane was blocked with orange cones, and a sign that said "Road Work" was on the left hand sidewalk. I couldn't see over the bridge because it was arched, and there was no one there to tell me what to do. Proceeding slowly and with caution, I drove to the peak of the bridge in the oncoming lane (often what one is asked to do, at the direction of a worker designated to help) and saw that the intersection was completely blocked by people resurfacing the road I needed to cross.

At that moment, a DOT worker ran toward me, screaming angrily. When he reached my car, I rolled down my window to ask for instructions as to where I could cross and he yelled: "What's wrong with you?! Are you stupid? Get the hell out of here! You don't belong here!"

Frightened, but mainly interested in getting out of there, I raised my voice to interrupt him and said: "How can I get to the other side? Which bridge should I take?" Then followed a torrent of abuse, and no instructions. I asked again, more forcefully, and he replied:

"I don't care what you do, you c**t," he yelled. (If I am confusing you with my ampersands, think female body part used as an epithet.) As I began to back slowly down the bridge, hoping that no one would turn the corner and slam into my car, I will admit that almost involuntarily my middle finger separated itself from its betters in the universal gesture of contempt, at which point he screamed "C**T!" repeatedly until I was out of sight.

I mention this story because anger has been in the news a lot lately. It's something we are all encouraged to have nowadays, as if rage, like Adderall, increases our capacity for civilized problem-solving. Tea Party activists, for example, are united as a national movement by absolutely nothing but their anger, which journalists talk about as if it were a national resource. Some report on it in the midst of their own fits of mindless rage, while the more serious ones discuss Tea Party anger in hushed, admiring tones as if anger were a radical philosophical position rather than -- to point to more personal contexts for understanding rage -- symptoms of depression and paranoia. As Bob Bennett, the Utah Senator defeated by a Tea Party activist, said on the News Hour Wednesday night, honoring anger alone is like worshipping nihilism. "The concern I have about the anger that we're seeing that's being fed by talk show hosts and others," Bennett said about the anger vote, is that "it will be like a wave that comes in and smashes on the beach and destroys everything there, and then recedes back into the ocean, and leaves nothing behind it but empty sand....Anger is not a sound strategy for governing [and] once you are in office, you have to have some solutions."

Bennett has a good point here, and it reminds me why I admire some conservatives who I disagree with profoundly. It reminds me that the problem with anger -- displayed in the political arena -- is that it is often a way of diverting attention from the fact that you don't know how to solve a problem, and are offering a show of hyper-masculine belligerence in its place.

Take, for example, the DOT worker's abusive behavior. A better example, to return to the burning jersey picture, is the outrage being expressed over LeBron James as he leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami. Why on God's green earth should James have stayed in Cleveland longer than seven years? Why should he have had to earn his way out with a championship for a city that hasn't won a championship of any kind since 1964? I mean no disrespect to the city of Cleveland (I'm from Philadelphia, after all), but the man isn't actually an industry; and basketball is a mere sideshow to the actual political story of why Cleveland has been on its economic uppers since the 1970s. Although the city estimates that James generates $150 million a year in tourist dollars, I would really love to see where those numbers come from, and know why Cleveland doesn't have a better plan than basketball for bringing that money in. If LeBron James' career had been ended by an injury tomorrow, the money would have been gone too: wouldn't it have been better to invest in a high-tech sector than in a sports star? How much would Cleveland love a LeBron whose career was over? Would Cleveland think that it "owned" a white basketball star in this way, and that he should be so grateful to them that he would put their desires before his own?

And I hate to ask this, but don't a lot of people leave Ohio (nice as it is) to seek their fortunes elsewhere?

But it's the anger that seems to be the story here, since apparently LeBron James was responsible for Cleveland and can be justifiably treated as if he had left a wife and six children stranded at an SRO in Toledo. Why? Because the fans have a right to be angry! The Indiana, Pennsylvania Gazette agreed this morning that Cleveland "got played" by James; Cavs fans are publicly defacing LeBron posters and burning their souvenir jerseys in the street. One Cleveland sportscaster announced that James would "enter the hall of shame" along with Art Modell, the football owner who took his team to Baltimore without even announcing it (now it becomes clear why that was not such a bad choice.) The Cav's majority owner, Dan Gilbert, published an idiotic open letter to fans where, among other things, he calls James' departure "shameful" and a "cowardly betrayal." See Paul Harvey's analysis of the letter at Religion In American History.

You might ask, What about the circus that always overwhelms actual competition in professional sports -- isn't it a silly and unnecessary waste of time and money? The answer is yes. It isn't bricks and mortar, or high-wage jobs, that are being supported by superstar athletes. It isn't schools or hospitals. What is supported is a fantasy that the spiritual and economic well-being of working people (as opposed to say, the well-being of Nike, the team owner or the NBA) is related to the success of an athletic franchise. The idea that LeBron James has wronged the entire city of Cleveland belongs in the same category as the misimpression that Tiger Woods betrayed his fans and his sponsors as much as he betrayed his wife and children when he had (what sounds like nasty, impersonal sex) with dozens of women.

Anger is too much with us nowadays: it's become an easy alternative to thought, planning and the hard work that goes into creating tangible successes around things that matter. Worse, in a country where there doesn't seem to be a right to work, to a good education, to health care, to protection from corporate negligence, to family planning services or to food, "our anger" seems to be the only thing to which everyone seems to agree we have a right, and an obligation to perform, as a daily act of citizenship.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for this, TR. I, too, am disturbed by the rising levels of anger -- a specific kind of anger that substitutes for actual action. And those of us who try to avoid anger (unsuccessfully as often as not) face criticism for -- what? If the anger were the first step in solving various problems (or, in the LeBron James example, the second in stages of grief that we could actually work through), that would be one thing. But just Walking Around Pissed Off has evolved into a virtue in many quarters, and it's making me increasingly uncomfortable in my own skin.

Crap. I need to meditate more.

Some Guy on Bridge Avenue said...

"The man is not an industry."

Actually, TR, the argument is being made (not very convincingly) that he is an industry. But the local media are eating this stuff up because it's a lot easier than boring things like industrial policy, education, and natural resources.

Katrina said...

I had never even heard of LeBron James til this week, when his name was mentioned all over twitter (amazing how much you can avoid by not owning a television!).
But holy cow - if that picture you posted is representative, my question is not "why is he leaving Cleveland?" but "why did he stay as long as he did?".
Sounds like to a lot of (white?) fans, he was their pet negro, who has DARED to make a choice of his own.

As for the obnoxious pr*** (male anatomy used as an insult) at the roadworks, you should write to the DOT and have him fired.

For some people, it seems not so much that they react unreasonably with anger, as that they are angry ALREADY, and just looking for opportunities to demonstrate that.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

On the other hand, what about the rage in Oakland yesterday? Are there perhaps situations in which violent rage is the only recourse of those who feel they have been let down by the institutions that were supposed to be looking out for them?

Dr. Crazy said...

Not the overall point of your post so much, but to answer these questions you ask about LeBron James (I'm a native Clevelander):

"How much would Cleveland love a LeBron whose career was over? Would Cleveland think that it "owned" a white basketball star in this way, and that he should be so grateful to them that he would put their desires before his own?
And I hate to ask this, but don't a lot of people leave Ohio (nice as it is) to seek their fortunes elsewhere?"

Cleveland would love him if he had a career-ending injury. The point here is not so much his playing ability or even the Cavs generally but rather the "betrayal." When Bernie Kosar left the Browns or when Jim Thome left the Indians (both white players)? The same anger. When the Browns themselves relocated to Baltimore? The same anger. Just say the name "Art Modell" anywhere in Cleveland to this day and see how people respond. So this isn't about owning James because of race, nor is it about James as a player, really. It's that Cleveland *is* a place that has been bleeding talent for years - whether we're talking about sports stars or educated citizenry or big business. The downtown is dead (not one major department store remains, to give some indication) and the unemployment rate in Cuyahoga county in May was hovering around 10%. The anger over LeBron James isn't about LeBron James. It's about the economy, about feeling like Cleveland is always the loser and never the winner, and about the dying of the rust belt.

(Actually, for a really interesting take on Cleveland and masculinity and sports, see Susan Faludi's chapter in her book Stiffed about when the Browns relocated in the 90s.)

sburris said...

Rage is one thing, and a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. But turning his decision to leave Cleveland--which Lebron is free to do--into a Divalicious, reality-TV event is over the top and guaranteed to instigate Cleveland's ire. His media stunt lacked what the Buddhists call 'skillful means.' Although Kevin Durant didn't leave the Oklahoma Thunder, his re-signing was an under-the-radar event, but is still a major signing of a major player. That's the model, but then Durant would never refer to himself as King of anything.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I find it important to distinguish anger and rage.

Except in cases of actual fight-or-flight life-and-death physical danger, rage is a counterproductive frittering of mental energy. (I parody this kind of thing all the time in the blogosphere.) Anger, on the other hand, can serve as a channeling of mental energy in service of a desired goal.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there is way too much anger in this country. I thought that the anger displayed toward George Bush and (in his time) Richard Nixon was way over the top. But some folks only get concerned if the anger is on the right.

Not quite sure I correctly envision the maneuver you made on the bridge, TR, but it sounded a little dangerous--especially if a car were coming the other direction.


Eve Proper said...

I think most of the anger over LeBron James isn't that he's leaving, it's the way that he's leaving. I lived in Cleveland when we all woke up one morning and found the Browns gone, and most of the ire was about them "sneaking out" in the night.

That doesn't mean I defend some of the more elaborate displays of anger - I prefer refined disappointment myself.

AYY said...

Why the jab at the Tea Party? Much of what I've read about Tea Party anger has either been debunked or at least hasn't been corroborated, The Tea Pary supporters that I konw are motivated by principle.

As for Lebron, just wait. Once he realizes he has to live in Miami in the summer and during hurricane season, he'll be plenty sorry he ever thought of leaving Cleveland. Just wait. He'll want to go back to Cleveland for the weather.

Tenured Radical said...

Notorious: The roots of anger are often so deep and complex. I am an avoider too, and of course discovered far too late in life that explosions that were inexplicable to others drew on the anger I had just stored away and not processed in some more productive way.

Some Guy; I get the industry thing -- I think it;s a real question for communities (not to mention universities) whether you invest in boring s**t that actually builds your economic base, or entertainment. I mean, one part of the economic base LeBron contributed to is people who couldn't afford it buying LeBron jerseys at $90 a pop so that they could have fantasies about being part of something bigger. Used to be that thing was Ford, or the UAW, or whatnot. Akron used to sell tires: now it "sells" LeBron. Which one benefitted more people?

Katrina: Called DOT & registered a complaint -- the woman who answered the phone was spontaneously shocked by the c**t thing. Also said that I live in a mixed neighborhood where sometimes people express anger with a middle finger, and sometimes with a weapon, and that the worker needed to be talked to for his own good lest he pull a stunt like that with a woman who has, us, Family.

Crazy; Definitely get it. And yet Cleveland has been betrayed by business and the politicians who siphoned jobs out of there, no? By bad city government, and the retraction of federal programs that kept a floor under workers until they got back on their feet. Methinks the sports thing, much as I am a fan, is false consciousness.

sburris: Many people have had this response to the TV special and I don't disagree. It was tacky as all get out from what I hear. But why isn't this consistent with the medium nowadays? American Idol, the Biggest Loser, Wife Swap -- reality TV is *about* narcissism. Why is LeBron's so horrible?

CPP: Excellent distinction, dude.

Jack: It *was* dangerous, i grant you -- but so would backing up in traffic have been. Would have been less so if Dick the DOT-man had been doing his job, and the bridge had actually been closed with proper detour signs put up.

terducken: We Phillies fans are all about refined disappointment. And yes, I get it. Strangely, people in CT felt that way when the Hartford Whalers left, even though they were unexciting and had horrible uniforms.

AYY: No jab at the Tea Party: I find them fascinating, though not very deep. However, it is well documented that Tea Parties from different reasons are highly inconsistent with each other except expressions of anger at the federal government, and that journalists talk about it all the time (my real point.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The Tea Pary [sic] supporters that I konw [sic] are motivated by principle.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yeah, the "principle" that wearing funny hats and shrieking about socialism and fascism is totally what old tyme revolutionary d00ds would have done if they were here to see the "destruction of Our Country of Real Americans".

AYY said...

"However, it is well documented that Tea Parties from different reasons are highly inconsistent with each other except expressions of anger at the federal government, and that journalists talk about it all the time (my real point.)"

Liberals and leftists can also be highly inconsistent. It just means that the party has a big tent.

As for the journalist who talk about it all the time, they're mostly leftists with an agenda. They made specific claims that have been debunked, so now, since the journalists see their mission as doing PR for the Obama administration, all they can talk about is anger, which is something amorphous that can't be verified or disproved. I've seen much more anger at Kos's website or Democratic Underground or in the comments of other liberal blogs, than from Tea Party members.

Tenured Radical said...

AYY: I could dispute both of these points, but here's another question. Since none of your criticisms ever address the main point of any given post, only some small and imferred slight of "conservatives," have you ever wondered why you argue with me?

I'm just curious what you think about that.

AYY said...

Actually I think I have addressed the main points of some of your posts.

I don't argue with you just to argue. When I think you're right or when I don't know enough about the issue to agree or disagree, or when I don't feel the matter is worth arguing about, I don't comment or don't criticize.

On the same token I assume you would like to give conservatives a fair shake, but you don't always do so. Since Zenith University to all outward appearances at least, has no conservatives in the faculty, adminstration and student body, there may be an ambiance there that fosters a caricature of conservatives and conservative ideas. When you post and open it to comments, the I assume you're open to comments that are both favorable and critical.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, that's an answer I suppose AYY. Your arguments here do seem somewhat tangential or based on big generalizations. But if in fact you only comment when you are critical, that might have something to do with my (perhaps mistaken) impression that you are a nattering nabob of negativity who is looking for liberal windmills against which to tilt. As would your assumption that Zenith had no conservatives among any of its populations, and fosters disrespect for conservatives.

How exactly do you think you *know* that? BTW: I can name several people in my department who call themselves conservatives, and I don't think they are identifying in a casual way; and several others who are conservative, but have the grace not to turn every intellectual argument into a political issue of left and right all the time.

Tenured Radical said...

To the anonymous commenter I just deleted:

Please check my comments policy (in the sidebar) before commenting again.

AYY said...

A "nattering nabob of negativity?" Because I speak up for conservatives when I believe they are being unfairly trashed?

As for Zenith University, it's political orientation is well known. There may still be a few closet conservatives there, but I'm sure they are few and far between, and that they don't dare try to cause a fuss.

As for the main point of your post, I agree that anger as it is displayed in the public sphere is often counterproductive, and that you shouldn't have been subjected to the incident you related in the post.

But I don't see the connection between that incident and the actions of Tea Party activists. Nor do I have any insights to offer on the incident or generic anger so that's why I didn't address those aspects of your post.

I often don't comment when I agree because there are usually other commenters who have already agreed with you, so there's no point in repeating what someone else might have said.

What it comes down to is whether the purpose of enabling comments is just to have a cheering section or whether you are open to having your statements critically evaluated. .