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All the rage

Ostentatious anger once seemed a distinctively American style,  but now it’s taking over the world

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

New York
The western world seems not just unhappy, but intoxicated with anger. It is the kind of anger that feeds on itself. Offence is not just taken but relished, and multiplied as in a hall of mirrors.

I have a name for this kind of anger. A few years ago, in a book about how Americans had learned to brush aside their old ethic of self-control and plunge into the delights of sneering and rage, I christened it the ‘new anger’. It was as if the snarling John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981 had become the embodiment of national ideals.

Of course, it wasn’t entirely new. The emotionally flamboyant have always attracted notice, and a certain type has always wanted to out-Herod Herod. The difference is that we used to think that habitual and unbridled choler was a fault. A man without self-control was pathetic, and in situations that counted — such as battle — a danger. A woman without self-control might be indulged if she had the voice to sing Verdi, but shrews were either for taming or domiciling in the attic.

But now we have licensed everyman to be his own spigot of hot steam, and a woman without a screw-you attitude is treated as a quaint relic of a bygone age. I exaggerate, of course. Precisely because displays of anger have become a form of entertainment and because it is often more a performance than an emotional reality, most people know how to turn it on and off. We just prefer the on tap a lot more than generations past.

When I wrote about the emergence of new anger in America, I considered then put aside the idea of commenting on anger elsewhere. That’s because every nation has its own emotional habits, its tacit rules for when to weep and when to keep a dry eye — or when to give a Clint Eastwood stare and when to bring forth one’s inner Jeremiah.

But since then I’ve noticed that something very much like the American rage-on-demand syndrome has spread to a lot of other places.

Anger itself is certainly nothing new in Europe. Old Europe was full of national rivalries and class resentments, occasional revolutionary fever, and all manner of personal antipathies. But for a while we heard that the whole continent (and its outliers as far away as Iceland) had turned the rage page. A new Europe, we were told, had emerged, grounded not only in sturdy financial institutions and a measure of common governance but also in emotional maturity. Soft power, quiet diplomacy, open borders, and a new spirit of multicultural relaxation had settled like a late dusting of spring snow over the meadows and calmed all the vexations of centuries.

It was a pleasant thought while it lasted, but it never had much to do with reality. Europeans took at most a short pause and a refreshing breath before diving back into acrimony at the first sign of financial distress. The endless summits to fix the debt crisis seem destined only to fail, and sow yet more resentment. This week’s ‘ten-year plan’ to unite and strengthen the eurozone probably won’t last the week.


It’s not all to do with money. I see a dozen or so distinguishable waves in this surf, some more obvious than others. Ethnic hostility went underground for a while. The second world war gave racial and ethnic resentment a bad name, and Germans in particular have a guilty conscience that still lingers. But Bosnia and Kosovo showed that, at least in the states that were frozen in the glacier of communism, ethnic hatred had only been in suspended animation, waiting like Ötzi for a little global warming. It’s back and, from this side of the Atlantic, it looks as if low-level ethnic resentments are endemic in new Europe and ready to break out into open enmity any time. Greece vs Germany is primarily played as an economic divide, but the mutual ethnic hostility is clear to everyone. And Germany’s victory over Greece in the Euro 2012 football tournament gave opportunity for headlines that voiced the otherwise unvoiceable: ‘Germany kicks Greece out of Euro’ and so on.

We are witnessing a resurgence of national character. The pretence that Europeans could be Europeans first and something else (French, Italian, English) second has vanished like the scent on yesterday’s soap bubble. National character may be elusive but it is plenty real and it is being vigorously reasserted across Europe, as we see from the success of far-right parties in elections across the continent, from Hungary to Holland.

Far be it from me, a Yankee, to tell my Anglo readers about the foibles of their neighbours, but let’s note that the differing and characteristic forms of pride and vanity among the nations most quickly reassert themselves as angry disdain at the other guys. And Britain, having kept itself outside the eurozone, is a favourite target. Nicolas Sarkozy, desperate to be re-elected, tried to exploit the mood by repeatedly attacking the British. He failed, but perhaps because the French were more angry at him than anyone else.

I mentioned by way of metaphor global warming, but it also deserves another kind of mention. The green movement has become Europe’s chief channel of self-loathing and anger towards prosperity everywhere else. It has also given rise to the enormously wasteful schemes for alternative energy sources which are helping to impoverish the continent. If one goes looking for the existential version of new anger, the precincts of advocacy around ‘climate change’ are its Left Bank. Here Eurocrats huddle with radical environmentalists angrily to condemn the success of western civilisation.

As for European multiculturalism, it isn’t quite dead. It has a hold on the imagination of professors and clerics, and a generation of schoolchildren who have grown up hearing nothing but the glory of living in a society where every subculture trumps the common heritage really have no easy path out of this cul-de-sac.

But if multiculturalism isn’t dead, it is surely in advanced dementia. The doctrine of love-your-neighbour-because-of-his-­differences masked rather than undid the age-old predilection to fear your neighbour as someone who probably doesn’t share your basic values. The fear has proven well-grounded, especially in respect to some Muslim neighbours. European leaders have lately grown bolder about repudiating the multiculturalist doctrine. Only a few extremists actually want to license the kind of nationalism that would oppress minorities, but this leaves a gap that is increasingly filled with sheer frustration.

There’s no denying that Europe has a problem with unassimilable Muslims. That’s not all European Muslims, to be sure, but it is a substantial number who hate their adopted homes body and soul. What is hated learns to hate back. This is new anger in the ostentatious way it promotes itself, both among Muslim extremists and right-wing outliers like Norway’s mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik. What kind of workable social plurality will emerge after the crack-up of multiculturalism? A good guess in light of, say, the politics of the Netherlands, is a growing anger at the minorities who cannot or will not assimilate.

My list of the logs that are burning in Europe’s new anger bonfire is a few cords larger than I can tell here. It includes the livid anger between Europe’s have and have-not nations. The division between the thrifty European north and the spendthrift European south has dissolved whatever mystic chords were suppose to emanate from the cathedral of common identity. Everybody is angry at everybody else. This has been aggravated by the stresses of internal labour migration. The Polish plumbers are cheap and skilful but not especially welcome where the local youth have about as much chance of full-time employment as they have of being struck by meteorites. Unemployed young people are angry young people, and schools and colleges have in recent years turned much of their
attention to cultivating their sense of entitled rage under the banner of intergenerational fairness. But ‘You owe us’ isn’t a very good starting point for a civil society.

In mentioning global warming, I alluded to what amounts to Europe’s new class divide. The elite centred on Brussels and engaged in transnational bureaucracy is effectively accountable to no one. All those ‘no ones’ are taking notice of their political disfranchisement and are getting increasingly uppity about it.

In an era of globalisation, the same process is occurring in the rest of the world. The Arab Spring was clearly an angry movement. Whether it could fit into the category of new anger is hard to say. It was surely in some respect anger performed on stage for the cameras of the BBC and CNN, but those were real bullets and there was a measure of courage mixed in with the euphoria of speaking ‘We won’t take it any more’ to corrupt and oppressive overlords. We don’t know how angry the Chinese are, though it seems telling that the West’s best hope for checking the rise of the China super-state is that its rights-starved subjects will eventually turn against their masters.

New anger is not, however, just a matter of politics. It is part of everyday life, reflected in how people treat each other, how marriages fracture, and how children learn or fail to learn self-control. And it is reflected in the venues in which we act out our imagined lives: on stage and screen and in sport. The latter was invented — by the English no less — as a benign substitute for violent hostility, and has within the last generation or two devolved into the actual thing, at least among football fans. As for theatre, one example will have to suffice. I have the New York Times in front of me open to a page celebrating the return to the London stage of the ‘Angry Young Man’, in the form of a revival of John McGrath’s Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. ‘Mad as Hell, And Onstage Once Again,’ croons the Times.

Let me add this: new anger didn’t come out of nowhere in America. It arrived on these shores after the second world war, and pretty much in the Port of New York. It came on the wings of European psychoanalytic theory and French existentialism. The former taught us that repressing anger is unhealthy and will come back at you as neurosis. The latter taught us that authenticity could be reached only by anguished rage. We took these themes to heart.

So it is not entirely a surprise that Europe is discovering its own tantrum-throwing inner child. You guys taught us everything we know about unleashing our demons. As that great American prophet, preacher and spiritual counsellor to a president, the Revd God-damn-America Jeremiah Wright, puts it, the ‘chickens are coming home to roost’.

The trouble is that anger can become a way of life. That’s a trouble that differs from place to place. In Europe, there is a close-quarters problem. Like it or not, people have to live together and a style of angry-all-the-time, quick-offence-at-everything is hazardous. You can get away with it in Montana, maybe, not so much in London, though Londoners appear to be giving it a try, as we saw in last summer’s riots.

The internationalised new anger — prideful, ostentatious, performed anger — is a kind of self-medication in which those who feel powerless try to inflate themselves. When you find the world fractured or senseless or beyond the reach of reasoned ways to set things right, anger may seem the right tool: the hammer that knocks down all the nails. Not so long ago we possessed a collective wisdom that counselled us against promiscuously swinging that hammer around. Civilisation in the best sense calls for restraint. But we’ve found the satisfactions of hammer-swinging are irresistible.


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