Our rage-soaked world

Sometimes a pattern runs through the seemingly disconnected events reported in the news every day. Sometimes a human quality possessing the force of nature is revealed as the engine driving the world, every bit as much as the emotions of the Greek gods ruled the mortals below.

Lee Siegel,

16 de setembro de 2012 | 01h00

Rage. It is the human equivalent of global warming. Day by day, it eats away at the moral atmosphere. Artistotle considered anger a weak emotion, along with pleasure, but he also believed that there was a place for anger. There were occasions that demanded a small amount of anger, and there were occasions that demanded a great amount of anger. At its best, Aristotle believed, anger could be a form of hasty reasoning. He had no doubt how gratifying it was to be angry. He quotes from the Iliad: "Sweeter it is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness, and spreads through the hearts of men." Indeed, "wrath" is the first word of the Iliad-Homer attributes the Trojan war to Achilles' wrath over having his slave girl taken from him by Agamemnon, his king. Yet although Aristotle never says so, Achilles in the Iliad is an example of the man whose anger not only exceeds, but devours reason. His anger is not anger at all, in fact. It is wrath, rage, blinding in its intensity, dazzling in its brief omnipotence, intoxicating in its fleeting promise to control the world. Achilles' wrath is the ancestor of our contemporary rage.

If I had the time, I would write a genealogy of wrath as it weaves its way through contemporary events. Wrath against America led to the attacks on September 11. Wrath against the attacks on September 11 led to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq---or, at least, to the American public's acceptance of those disastrous military decisions. Wrath against the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have led to countless violent events, from terrorist attacks against Americans, to American drone attacks in Pakistan that take innocent civilians' lives as "collateral damage," to the recent attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the murder of four Americans there, including the American ambassador to Libya.

These are macro-events, but they have their origin in the micro-catalyst known as the human heart. Consider the shootings that occurred at the Empire State Building a few weeks ago. They had an archetypal power. A man named Jeffrey T. Johnson, an artist turned fashion designer, shot to death his boss, Steven Ercolino-a salesman-right outside their office, which housed a company that sold handbags and belts. A grudge had been festering between them for years. An enraged Johnson felt that Ercolino was continually insulting him by making him rush his work. (Aristotle: "Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself…") An enraged Ercolino felt that Johnson, as Ercolino's employee, did not show his boss sufficient respect. (Aristotle: "One sort of insolence is to rob people of the honor due to them… So Achilles says in anger, 'Like an alien honored by none.'") The world is old, and nothing changes. Evolving technology amplifies some human emotions and diminishes others, that's all.

As I write, striking schoolteachers in Chicago demonstrate in rage against officials who want to make their tenure dependent on students' test scores. The officials are responding to enraged parents who live amid rising rates of crime and general hopelessness, and who are demanding that the schools do more to help their children stay and flourish in school. But the finest education available did nothing to stop the enraged "Dark Knight"gunman, a failed Ph.D. student, from opening fire in that Colorado movie theater.

An Obama seemingly incapable of showing anger, or perhaps of even becoming angry, recently performed his version of rightly proportioned Aristotelian anger upon hearing the news of the destroyed American embassy and the murdered Americans. A Romney seemingly incapable of showing, or perhaps of even possessing, any type of emotion recently performed his version of moderate, reasonable anger at the Obama administration for apologizing for an American film mocking the prophet Mohammed-an angry film that allegedly set off the enraged riots in Benghazi. Enraged Democrates, and some Republicans, angrily denounced Romney for what they believed was a cold, politically calculated attack on Obama.

I look at the news headlines now. The choice of black actress Zoe Saldana to play the black singer Nina Simone in a forthcoming movie about Simone's life has enraged people because, unlike the dark-skinned Simone, Saldana has light skin, and the feeling is that Hollywood is pandering to white audiences. American farmers are enraged at Congress because legislators refuse to help them recover from the drought that has destroyed their crops. Ultra-orthodox Jews are enraged because the New York Board of Health is trying to regulate a certain type of circumcision among the Orthodox in order to protect against herpes. A professor at American University in Washington D.C. enraged her students when she decided to breastfeed her newborn baby in class…

If there are sentient beings elsewhere in the universe, they must have, as we do, highly sophisticated machines that can pick up ultra-sonic signals from faraway places. Our rage-soaked world must sound to them like a perpetual clang and roar. Here on earth, all we can do is wait for a messianic irony: for people to get so angry that they cannot take the general wrath anymore.

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