“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.”
President Roosevelt, Madison Square Garden, October 31, 1936
There is an astonishing lack of anger among liberals, progressives and radicals who have abandoned emotion to the right. Our role model continues to be not FDR, still less Malcolm X, but our “bipartisan” and apparently tone-deaf President Obama. In this second or third year of a devastating depression, not just recession, that has inflicted an epidemic of suffering on the lower half of the American nation, Obama is very busy being fluent and civil while being essentially untouched by the rage felt by so many of us. Our world, as we have known it, is being annihilated, and nobody in power shows signs of giving a damn.
The real anger is all on the right, kidnapped – or authentically voiced – by the all-white Tea Partiers, Palinites, Oath Keepers and “armed and dangerous” patriot groups, some but not all of whom are native-fascistic but also include pissed-off libertarians and the disappointed and dispossessed at the bottom of the pile.
Look at the mess. Evictions – I’m a child of Great Depression furniture-thrown-on-the-street – are skyrocketing. Mortgage holders are in a feeding frenzy on their hapless fellow citizens. Michelle Obama lectures us on obesity while one in eight Americans (and one in four children) are on federal food stamps. The human toll of long term, more-or-less permanent unemployment is yet to be counted as millions of Americans are pushed out of the middle class and become the “new poor” queueing up at food banks for the first time in their lives.
Those who do vent and get angry are put down as crackpots, which they sometimes are. But the so-called left seems to have joined the mainstream (and even the radical) media in under- or mis- or never-reporting what’s actually happening in the lives of so many of us. Like Obama, Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic party establishment we’ve forfeited real gut language in favor of policy abstractions, the “issues” syndrome, that so easily hide an open wound. Joe Stack, who rammed his Piper Cherokee into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, murdering an IRS worker and injuring many, was one maladjusted injustice collector. But his online 3000-word suicide note, a long-repressed scream of protest, has the virtue of unminced words we are never likely to hear from anyone in Washington or a state capitol. “When the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die.”
Where and when did we lefties lose this vital part of our social language? Was it in pre-school where we’re urged as toddlers to use sweet reasonableness to resolve disputes? Or have we grown so stiffly respectable that we’re afraid of being loud and vulgar? Or that – horrors! – we’ll get too closely identified with the Great Unwashed like Joe Stack, Amy Bishop (the professor who shot her Alabama colleagues), crazy bikers, teenage gangs and “poor white trash” who tend to express their anger mainly against each other? Whatever the reason, the suppression of sane, liberal anger has been around at least half a century, certainly since the sociologist C Wright Mills in his influential book The Power Elite deplored the loss of capacity by the public to experience outrage as contrasted with earlier periods in American history.
The last time I remember collective anger as legitimate was in the 1960s. Ever since there’s been a gradual slide into sterile politeness. Recently, I attended a meeting of my local school board where a mild, hardly-above-a-whisper grumble from a parent prompted his expulsion enforced by armed police. Who knows what might have happened if any of us in the audience had stood up and actually spoken out as in that famous Norman Rockwell painting of a town hall meeting?
Why should full-throated emotion be the monopoly of the so-called “populists” who seem to be the only people around unafraid to shout, yell, stomp and scream?
I grew up in a boisterous, immigrant, loud neighborhood where everyone had an opinion and voiced it full throttle. Somewhere along the line, maybe when I shifted from working class to middle class, I lost my rough, grating, empowered, assertive voice – and maybe the anger that had fuelled it. If so, that’s a pity.
We need liberal anger now more than ever.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org