I am one well-acquainted with rage. Personal rage, political rage, and the free-fire zone where those rages overlap. My father taught me to box when I was 5, emphasizing constant footwork and the importance of doubling up on the jab, but I’m sure my education in rage began much earlier. This was what it meant to be a man at the heart of “The American Century”: winning is everything, and if you lose…well, seppuku is for sissies—what, just one quick disemboweling, and that’s it?—no, much better to make a few discreet cuts and keep them propped open, so that you can bleed out forever. I made a bad throw from shortstop to first base in a meaningless Little League game in 1962 and it occasionally bothers me to this day. Multiply that by 68 years of living on the planet, and…Thanks a lot, spirit of mid-century American machismo!
Anyhow, given this rich history of anger, I should be well-suited to the political war-games of the day, where points are awarded for the nastiest putdown, for getting in the last word, for packing the most visceral insults into the fewest Twitter characters—for the purest distillation of rage. And God knows I feel rage all day long; it usually starts within ten minutes of opening my eyes in the morning. And not just a single rage; multiple rages, towards dozens of targets.
Today, for example, I found myself raging against war profiteers—the ones in government, the ones in business, and all the well-barbered Christians who float joyfully between the two worlds.
In the early 1990s I spent some time in Thailand “interviewing” a variety of shady “ex”-CIA characters; I put “interviewing” in quotes because it mainly consisted of watching them get drunk among throngs of teenage prostitutes, and I put “ex” in quotes because…who knows? I met my main informant in a bar in the northern city of Udon Thani, about an hour’s drive from the Laotian border. A five-piece Thai string band was sawing away at a slow and faintly atonal tune, one that kept creeping in and out of my consciousness, at first seeming exotic and Asian and then feeling oddly familiar; eventually I realized they were playing a grim Thai version of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. We were sitting outside in the sweltering dark, drinking the nightmarish Mekong Whiskey, which tastes nothing like whiskey and more like peach brandy that’s had a nervous breakdown. My severely alcoholic “ex”-CIA acquaintance, in-between trying to sell me cut-rate rubies that were supposedly just smuggled out of Burma, was schooling me on the “realties” of war—specifically, the so-called “secret war” in Laos. (If you are old enough to remember watching the Viet Nam war unfold on TV, you may subliminally recall Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather talking about American planes taking off from “Udorn Air Force Base” to drop gigantic bombs on straw-hut villages: this teeming airbase in Udon Thani was also the main staging area for the CIA’s Air America, then the biggest airline in the world.)
At one point, as he knocked back another shot of Mekong with one hand and caressed the bare thigh of a 16-year-old Thai bargirl with the other, my informant seemed to refer to the secret bombardment of Laos an “arty” war. “What the hell was so ‘arty’ about it?” I asked, and he roared with laughter, spewing whiskey fumes into my face. “It wasn’t an ‘arty’ war, man—it was an R and D war!” I still didn’t get it. He rolled his eyes at my idiocy and spelled it all out slowly, as if to a child. “Ever heard the phrase ‘research and development’? Lockheed, Boeing, all those companies were developing tons of new products–weapons and planes that weren’t street-legal yet. But where are you gonna test the fuckin’ things, y’know? They needed a real-life laboratory, man, and Laos was the laboratory.”
I was still reeling from that observation when he made another one—more obvious and yet even more sickening. “Look, man, you can manufacture all the bombs and guns you want, but it’s like any other business—you need to turn over your inventory. Those bombs and guns have to be consumed. You want constant turnover, right? Supply, turnover, re-supply. It aint complicated, man!”
No; it’s not complicated. And he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, on an abstract level; but for the first time I was forced to see what William Burroughs called the “naked lunch” of it—the reality that burning Asian children to ashes was simply American business as usual; that in fact those murdered Asian kids were just the byproducts of a military-industrial complex that no one seems to question any more. Back then we did good business slaughtering Asians; today our tax dollars are hard at work murdering innocents in Yemen, among other places.
And, to paraphrase TS Eliot, the MSNBCs and CNNs come and go, speaking of Andrew McCabe.
Meanwhile, the war profiteers chew up thousands of innocent lives like so many bloodstained Fritos. They devour poor young Americans by the thousands, and dark-skinned foreigners by the hundreds of thousands. Lockheed. Boeing. The Republican Party. General Electric. The Democratic Party. These entities are monsters, but their minions take human form; sometimes—like Chuck Schumer—they can appear “incredibly lifelike.” Immaculately groomed, their wrists tricked out in garish Rolexes, these hideous minions—some prefer to be called “consultants,” some to be called “government officials”–buy $85 steaks for each other, and toast one another after dinner with anisette and espresso. Some call themselves liberals; some conservatives. But they are united in murder. By day, they burn entire families to charcoal–or, even worse, leave one lone parent, eyelids burned off, alive to scream for the lost. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit: these people are the worst kind of carnival geeks–chicken-head-biters, with blood running down their chins–but at night they sit down to dine on plates of fine china with the Wolf Blitzers and Maggie Habermans of the world.
And that’s one of maybe twenty paroxysms of anger that shook me today as I sat at my desk.
How can we live with all this rage?
Nowadays, every time you venture out the cabin door and step into the public conversation about politics, you’re forced to compete in a daily Olympics of competitive loathing. On websites, on social media, even sometimes in talking to friends, it’s this non-stop decathlon of ugliness, “libtards” versus “rethuglicans,” “treason-weasels” clawing at the “sheeple,” the stupidity of the terms themselves symptomatic of the whole dumb battle, with the corporate media all too eager to broadcast every sucker-punch and ear-bite in slow-motion. But somehow it all seems fake. It’s always directed at individuals, not at these lethal institutions.
Just as Chomsky has written about “the manufacture of consent,” we can now see how—and why–the American political establishment works around the clock to “manufacture rage:” because the powers-that-be know that fostering this endless anger is a perfect way to keep their critics tangled up in the ropes and snares of their own hateful rhetoric. As long as Americans are training their anger at each other, they won’t do any damage to those actual powers-that-be.
So I have two suggestions. One, that we remember how to focus our anger; and two, that we take daily vacations from it. Towards that end, I’ve composed for myself a list of antidotes to an overdose of rage:
–99 ½ (Just Won’t Do) by Wilson Pickett
–A beautifully-turned infield double-play
–The poems of Tomas Transtromer
–The first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album
–Mid-period Martin Scorsese
–Arriving in a foreign town at 6 AM and seeing how it wakes up
–“Compared to What” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris
–William Burroughs and Terry Southern
–The faint smell of gasoline on a highway in midsummer
–Catching a perfectly-thrown spiral pass on the dead run
–The Innocence Project
–Jimmy Martin singing “Freeborn Man”
–Jamming with good musicians
–Johnny Carson’s dry takes
–The novels of Charles Portis
–Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano
–Toots and the Maytals; The Melodians; The Skatalites
My recommendation to myself: take one or more, as needed, per day. Your dosage, of your own anti-rage medications, may vary.
And yet, when all else fails—as it so often does—and I find myself choking on my own anger at the latest political outrage, there’s one other thing I always try to remember, and it’s quote from Che Guevara: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”