A classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2005
It’s political, it’s personal — I just wanna clobber the people in charge!
I have an emotional problem. I walk around with a rage inside me that I don’t know how to address. I fantasize about things that, were I to describe them to you, I would be visited by black-suited men at my apartment one night and, if not taken away, at least placed on a list I’d rather not be on.
I don’t know what to do with my rage. I can’t hold it inside me like this, but every time it seems to dissipate, and I’ve forgotten, as I have the luxury of doing, what a sorry, sad, unjust and, yes, despicable state of affairs we’ve galloped merrily into, something dramatically and heart-wrenchingly demands that my rage be acknowledged. And frankly — it’s necessary to be reminded of these things.
My problem is this, I just never felt interested in or comfortable with political action. I can’t stand the excruciatingly slow pace of it. I can’t stand the one-step-forward, two-steps-back inevitability of it. I can’t stand that progress is measured in generations and not years, in shades of brown and not in lives enriched.
I’d rather sing a song than write a letter. I’d rather nuzzle a belly than immunize a child. I’d rather build a tree house than a shelter. But I have to do something with this rage. I can’t walk around wanting to inflict pain and suffering on the people in charge, who seem to have neither brains between their ears nor eyes in their heads nor hearts in their chests.
I don’t like being angry. It’s a pathetic cliché, but I’m a lover, not fighter. Especially when the fight is as heartbreaking and insurmountable as this. Where can I put this energy that is poisoning me?
Lover, Not a Fighter
Dear Lover Not Fighter,
You seem to be describing an overwhelming state of emotion that is linked to politics but not directly tied to one particular act — as though world events had accumulated like snow on the roof and then crashed through, covering you to the chin. Your natural reaction is to struggle mightily against being engulfed. It’s hard to find a target, though. You are immersed.
That makes it difficult, at first, to know what to say to you — aside from “Grab the rope! Grab the rope!”
But I think I know what you are going through. There comes a time when we are so overwhelmed by events that we lose faith in orderly, sequential action toward moderate goals. Our situation seems so desperate that we need to do something right now or we will suffocate. Signing up to man a phone bank just doesn’t cut it.
You are not alone. Your letter reminds me, actually, of the situation prior to last year’s election when readers began saying they felt out of control and anxious; they were thinking of leaving the country. They were feeling apocalyptic. It was unthinkable that George Bush would be elected again. And yet it happened. We staggered out into the night.
I found myself trying to understand how human beings get themselves into these insane situations of mass hysteria, fascism, Nazism and so forth. One of the questions I had was why we in America seemed to be so deeply freaked out, torn, betrayed, as though having internalized some ideal notion of our country, as though it were a father or mother — while those in other, older civilizations would shrug it off, or hunker down, or do something pragmatic like emigrate. And I came across the writing of Jacqueline Rose, who talked about how citizens of a democracy are uniquely vulnerable to feelings of unbearable inner contradiction when their countries act in unconscionable ways.
Anyway, during my investigations into the symptoms of our national disease, I myself fell ill; I had some kind of attack; I collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where they found nothing wrong.
It turned out that to get well I would have to stop taking everything so seriously.
So actually, believe it or not, to counter the effects of today’s political climate, I have begun (again) reading Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” His is a mind so energetic, so engaged and so amusing in its speculations, so wide in its knowledge, that it acts as a tonic for one’s befuddlement and outrage. Also, for the same reason, Terry Eagleton has been helpful. “The Illusions of Postmodernism” can also been taken like a vitamin to correct our deficiencies and relieve some of our symptoms.
Not that I understand what these brilliant men are saying, mind you. It’s more like reading Sartre in junior high: You sense some marvelous energy and intelligence at work, eager to tutor you into being if you can only walk alongside and listen.
And it is helpful for outside voices to diagnose us as well, for we cannot always recognize our own symptoms. Jonathan Raban in the recent New York Review of Books:
“I have been visiting the US for more than thirty years and have lived here for the last fifteen: during the last four of those years, America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day — which wouldn’t be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans … Under Bush’s self-styled ‘wartime presidency,’ the composition of the American landscape is steadily altering. What was once in the foreground is moving into the background, and vice versa. Our world is being continuously rearranged around us in deceptively small increments. Though we like to pretend that the emerging new order is ‘normal,’ that daily life proceeds much as it always did, with a few small novel inconveniences, we keep on bumping uncomfortably into the furniture.”
The sense of disorientation that he describes strikes me as central to what many of us are feeling: It is not so much that we disagree with specific policies as that, as he puts it, someone keeps rearranging the furniture. It would be tempting, if also paranoid, to consider us as the victims of a kind of shock-and-awe campaign, orchestrated not with bombs but with media and a planned concatenation of events, a bombardment from all sides on all our privileges and freedoms, beliefs and assumptions, wholly ideological in its content but military in its precision and its strategic concentration of force. The purpose of such an assault would be not just to win a series of individual battles but to systematically demoralize and disorient the left so that it becomes ineffective for a generation or two to come. After all, a confused and enraged enemy without a plan is a weak enemy indeed. The fact that we increasingly wander alone in the night, dumbly wanting only to club somebody with a stick, is evidence that, intentional or not, such a strategy seems to be working.
It is good to feel crazy about politics. It is a good signal. It means we must act. But act how? If you are feeling crazy and nearly violent with anger, protesting is good for you — and good for the country! We saw this during the period of the Vietnam War: It was possible for a time to believe in the necessity of the war. One by one, though, people began to crack. One by one they sought a cure. It could only be found in action. People of all stripes took to the streets. Once that began to happen, the old regime was finished.
Lastly, a warning: Your symptoms may not be exclusively political; there is the possibility that you may require medical intervention. I am not particularly frightened for you, for I am well acquainted with the extremes to which one can go before one really needs to be checked in somewhere. Still, if the voices begin telling you to do things, harmful things, seek psychiatric help.