Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
–Paul Simon, “America”
Americans have become so angry. Television pundits tee off at one another, the moderator, and the audience. Editorialists and commentators grow every day more bellicose. Friendships fissure over politics. Election campaigns embrace and embody JFK’s brilliant, funny, but sad refrain: “the pleasure of having an opinion without the trouble of thought.”
Tea Party diatribes, CPAC harangues, Liberal tirades, red states, blue states, Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Gun control advocates, weaponry foes, pro-life partisans, pro-choice partisans. High school students, college students, dropouts, the elderly, the middle-aged, the young, the rich, the poor, the middleclass, this ethnic group, that ethnic group. Everywhere we look, vast numbers of Americans overtly or obliquely shriek like the players in that fine zany film “Network”: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Our anger has assumed the form of entrenched, obstinate, belligerent intolerance. We blindly manifest the fanaticism and much of the violence we decry in our country’s putative enemies. Few of us converse rationally with anyone who does not already unreservedly agree with our visions and views. Few of us listen, cherish reason, find middle ground, compromise, cohere. We prefer confrontation. We celebrate militancy. We’re becoming a nation of absolutist ideologues.
We’re discarding the capacity to respect, appreciate, and like anyone with whom we do not concur. More and more, we define those with whom we disagree as antagonists devoid of humanity common with our own. We regard every fellow citizen who does not adhere to our opinions as a creature beyond our pale, barbarian and despicable.
We seem to find an ecstasy in anger and its excesses. Raging, isolating, and hating somehow justify our rage, make it appear as though it has meanings and worth. Our anger and its radicalism operate as a kind of moral and political qualification. I must be a worthy man, an enlightened woman, because I pathologically hate every person who does not holistically share my thought and its source fury. Everyone who takes up a side other than mine must be a lout or a demon. People on the Left are scabrous. People on the Right are scrofulous. People in the middle are the worst of all. Sanctity lies here: exclusively and utterly in the angry, shrill me.
This syndrome is not new. In 1964, I heard Senator Barry Goldwater accept his party’s nomination for the presidency with a stentorian rant: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His delegates responded rhapsodically to his coded but clear declamation. I was only 19 years old at the time, naïve beyond description. Yet even I knew enough to say to my Dad: “Uh oh.”
Nearly 50 years later, our nation is close to forfeiting the ability to function democratically. As we divide into ever more extreme, autocratic, and irreconcilable camps, we increasingly regard it as a virtue to refuse dialogue. The minority imposes upon our political and governmental activity nothing more than obstinate obstacle; the majority, nothing more than obdurate insistence. Plurality has become nominal. One party establishes a small momentary margin of legislative or executive power, cannot govern, cedes its powers, and is replaced with its mirror opposite that generates an essentially identical fate.
We are constructing an age of absolutist anger. It is cankering individual and social consciousness, and it is crippling our country.
2. Our Anger
What are we angry about?
Most Americans believe they know. We’re angry about politics, we’re angry about other people’s behaviors, and we’re angry about money.
Some are furious about the government’s intrusions upon their freedom. Some are incensed by the government’s failure to provide sufficient support.
Some scream the national debt is too high, make it shrink, but don’t raise taxes. Others scream the national debt doesn’t matter, give me more, take it from someone else who has more than I. Everybody hates taxes and fees. Income tax, property tax, sales tax, death tax, capital gains tax, tariffs, bank fees, credit card fees, airline fees, state park use fees.
Prices are too high, and it’s somebody else’s fault that they are. Everyone blames insurance companies and one or the other national political party for our spiraling healthcare costs, and the terrifying lack of coverage so many of our fellow citizens confront. Many blame the Arab peoples and behemoth corporations for the high price of our fuels. We’re getting ready to blame China for the disintegration of our economy and currency that we ourselves merrily created. Many blame bankers and the Federal Reserve for the collapse in housing and equity values that we all helped parent. Almost everyone abominates the taxpayer bailouts of the finance system we all need, and we all helped corrupt.
Speaking of corruption. Some socioeconomic classes vilify the rich and powerful for colluding with one another, blockading access to achievement, influence, and wealth, and monstrously abusing their already excessive privilege and authority. The rich and powerful vilify the impoverished for being unmotivated, indolent, often immoral, and always seeking handouts; and the middle classes for spending beyond their means, whimpering and wailing, puling, getting politicians to pander to them, and constantly seeking unearned transfers of wealth.
We’re also angry about individuals’ attitudes and actions, even though no one can agree anymore about what constitutes our sanctified norm. Notions once consecrated and unexamined about gender identity, human unions, family architecture are splitting asunder. So, too, are notions that once prevailed about racial, ethnic, gender, and generational identity.
Probably these notions never worked in reality. However, it angers us that so many notions are loosening boundaries, severing our previous persuasions and codes. Well, this makes some people mad. It makes others glad. But the glad ones are mad at the angry ones, and the angry ones are mad at the glad ones. We don’t converse about this unnecessarily fissuring problem. We just shriek at one another, demonize, and despise.
We’re angry about immigration, too. Some maintain with utmost truculence that we ought to expel at once, instantly, every single undocumented immigrant residing in our nation and somehow slam shut our borders firmly and forever. This is called patriotic. Others pillory those who hold these beliefs, and demand the United States of America somehow renew and expand our proud (if maybe mythical) heritage of indiscriminate welcome to all who would migrate to our shores. This, too, is called patriotic.
These are our minor leagues. We’re working up our major league brouhaha about abortion. Responsible polling repeatedly concludes our nation is divided approximately evenly, and with approximately equal anguish on both sides, about whether our government should allow or forbid abortion, and under what circumstances. As if our government should or can control human behaviors. In a more sane surround, this agonized impasse would seem to cry out for a middle way.
Across the loud spectrums of our infuriated opinion, we Americans believe we know what we’re mad about. We’re mad about this, we’re mad about that, very mad, righteously mad, irreversibly mad.
3. Our Wounds
In truth, though, the reason we feel so angry has little to do with politics and its poetics, wealth and its distribution, or other people’s outlooks and actions. I believe we feel so irate and frightened because:
- Our ideals are vanishing. We no longer possess our previously unifying faith systems and standards of excellence. In their place, we have summoned consumerism and opportunism. Many among us have almost abandoned spiritual ways of knowing and living. Certainly our popular culture and media have deserted the belief in and forsaken the criteria of the transcendent. We traffic excessively with the mechanical and the temporal.
- Our communities are vanishing. We reside with one another in adjacency, but rarely in connection. We less and less regard ourselves as a communal body of interacting individuals with a common history and deeply shared social, economic, and political interests. We are becoming merely contiguous with one another. We occasionally recognize and assist each other. Normally we ignore one another. Or, worse, we exploit one another.
- Our concords with nature are vanishing. We mine, fence, and pave the land. We soil the waters. We injure the air. Most of us scarcely experience the outdoors. We have barely any consciousness of the sea, the sky, the mountains, the forests, the rocks, the rills, the plains, or the multitude of miraculous life forms who flourish among us. We have little sustained, morally coherent association with nature’s processes, gifts, teachings, or sheer majesty and beauty. We are growing progressively more artificial, uninfluenced by our minds and emotions, horribly isolated from the true roots and most profound contexts of our existence.
Human beings need uniting ideals, heartfelt congruence with one another, and passionate, persisting placement in the natural world. More and more in America, we lack these primal fundaments of identity, meaning, and fulfillment. So, like the character in Paul Simon’s luminous song, “America,” we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why.
We’ve attempted anthropomorphizing the universe, worshipping greed, and indulging consumption. For decades we’ve tried. But our capitalism, our commodities, and our voracious, orgiastic squandering never fulfill our spiritual needs. We manufacture products and consume them like crazy, but we cannot sate the hungers in our mind, our spirit, and our soul. We construct cities, suburbs, malls, and emporia of entertainment, but we grow ever more homeless, alien, alone, and afraid.
Let us look more closely at what we are losing, and why our losses wound us.
Americans once did share and exalt several canonical beliefs that functioned for us as a defining creed. We knew, or at least we thought we knew:
- Life has been willed and ordained by a Creator, and consequently is purposive and principled.
- We do not need to name the Creator overmuch. We do not need to proclaim anything overmuch, for we dislike displays and prefer not to impose individual beliefs, judgments, or dictates on anyone else.
- Each of us ought to be good, truthful, ethical; honest, forthright, just; open, responsible, and kind.
- We should be fair with one another.
- Because there is evil, there should be justice, clear in its requirements and content, swiftly delivered.
- Each of us must work hard.
- Each of us must be self-reliant.
- Yet, we should share a sense of citizenry. We should feel in unspoken interrelation with our neighbors. Without explanation or fuss, we quietly should help one another raise our barns, harvest our crops, lead our children, manage our emergencies, and protect our communities.
- There ought to be heroes who accomplish fine deeds, proffer excellent example, and impart leadership.
- We should live in close harmonious relationship with nature, and venerate her.
These convictions find their classic and most continuous expression in our mythos of the Old West. One of our most important indigenous art forms, the western, tells always the socializing saga of our once unifying set of values. The enduring appeal of this narrative – “Avatar” is but the most recent statement of our defining chronicle – demonstrates how endemic and vital the design has been for our coherence and comfort as a collective and as individuals. [In fact, the allure of the classic American mythos is global. “Avatar,” after all, is commanding by far the largest and most universal audience any cinematic story ever has been able to attract.]
The needs the tacit American belief system recognized, shaped, and satisfied have not disappeared. Only the beliefs themselves are disappearing. And with them, inevitably, are eroding also the responsibility structures and social cohesion they mandated and made meaningful.
It ought to have been harder in America’s earlier eras to form, preserve, and cherish communities. Our cities were forever recreating themselves as waves of new peoples entered, emigrated from foreign environs, propelled by persecutions, animated by surges of hope, energy, and ingenuity. Our cities perpetually reformulated themselves without plan, without governmental concords, managed only by raw human yearnings and anarchic actions. Our plains, shaped tragically by genocide, were vast. Folk lived in remote homesteads, mammoth ranches, tiny, fragile, barely functional towns. Order did not precede and regulate habitation. It followed.
All the more reason why the American consciousness of community through common ideals flourished, conferred safety, aided survival, and in time achieved sanctity. Our consciousness evolved as our nation did. By experiment. By the gradual evolution of actual human needs.
Now the communities our forebears worked so hard to found and preserve are dissolving into mere nexuses.
Our cities are miracles of intricacy, but now they function primarily as aggregations of assembly. People live alongside or atop one another, chockablock yet anonymous, unknown to one another, utterly disunited focal points for commerce primarily, rarely for intimacy.
Our suburbs operate principally to house during nights and weekends workers who labor in cities throughout each weekday; and to permit escapist families to live as refugees from the modern urban experience.
We preserve ever fewer villages and towns of human scale. We reside in complex, costly urban or suburban artifices that inadvertently disconnect us from our kin, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Like our ideals, our communities are collapsing. Our homesteads are becoming almost entirely happenstance.
Our reworking of the world not only is isolating us from one another. We also are growing ever more isolated from the creative energies and controlling forces in the universe.
The vast majority of Americans now gain their living by means that have nothing to do with anything organic, animate, integral, or whole. In the procedures of our labors, few of us interact powerfully with any of the phenomena, processes, and cycles of the natural world. This is equally the case with many of our recreations, which increasing are vicarious, electronic, or in other respects synthetic.
Some families still own and operate farms, or fish. For the most part, though, we conduct agriculture, husbandry, and all other of our elemental interactivities with nature through large shareholder corporations or industrial combines.
Many of us do not associate with nature at all. We work in factories, offices, or cubicles. Many of us soullessly perform activities and transact tasks menial or mental that we cannot feel to be in any respect related to natural life or in any regard essential to its rhythms and manifest sanctity.
For most of us, the sole nexus of our pursuit is cash transaction. We are paid money for what we do. We pay money for what we desire and obtain. We purchase, and we are purchased. We less and less frequently act in associative harmony with our instincts, or in gratuitous generosity. We have become absolute, accomplished capitalists.
Our humanity remains, however. Our emotional and social imperatives endure. These constructs are mighty and magnificent. But we increasingly fail to recognize them, and everyday they grow more unfulfilled. We feel ever more empty and aching, and we don’t know why.
4. Our Recourse
So what do we do?
We do what human beings invariably do when we feel baffled and hurt.
Confusion and suffering make us angry. Anger needs targets. We’re not willing to blame ourselves. We don’t want to fault our own flaws. We refuse to recognize and censure our own unwise choices. So we blame others. Like heat-seeking missiles we define external targets, program them as villains, light them up with invective, and explode our rage upon them.
We can’t blame the communists anymore. We did that for decades, and now most of them are gone. It’s hard to get worked up about the North Koreans. We can’t loathe Fidel Castro any longer.
What if we turn against ourselves?
Ah, we can find plenty of butts within our own polity. We can discover a countless number of large or small – usually we select small – differences to decry in one another: our faith traditions, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, economic circumstances. Easiest of all, we can denounce minute differences in each other’s politics.
This is the recourse we have chosen. We pillory the distinctions that exist among us, rather than honor them as fascinating aspects of our shared humanity. We impugn our diversities, rather than love them as elements for wonder, admiration, and joy. We convert our perplexity and fright about all we have lost into righteous rage, and we divert it onto other persons’ differences of opinion, style, and behavior.
This diversion is ingenious, and it functions. It does not succeed, though. It relieves none of our emptiness, alleviates none of our aching, and leads us nowhere near the comprehension of pain and relief from fear we so desperately want. We have wandered far from the territory we need and unconsciously crave.
Unfortunately, we are growing day more extreme in this error and its execution. Our politics are becoming daily more fractious, our nation more polarized, our economy more paralyzed, and our governing system more dysfunctional and impaired.
Our situation would be comic, were it not wreaking such havoc and generating so tragic and potentially unmendable an increase in our suffering.
5. Mad As Hell
Anger of this nature and magnitude is madness, and it is a hell. It is what the Greeks called chthonic.
The anger that has been afflicting America is madness and a hell because it has neither genuine objects nor an exit. It is merely corrosive. In time it will destroy all it targets, and it will annihilate all who empower and convey it.
Or maybe not. Not necessarily. We can learn. We can grow.
A wise adage from Alcoholics Anonymous states that people always will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the fear of changing. Although unaware of its true sources, Americans are in great pain. Perhaps our pain is good. Perhaps it can become a force purgative and purifying. Perhaps we will let it teach us why our way of life has been hurting us, and why we need to create changes.
6. The Changes We Need
We know what we need to change. All of us know this very well.
We need to depend on ourselves once again, not the government. We need to get back to work. We need to dream, dare, drive – not bleat, whine, and collect entitlements no one can pay for.
We need to cease this ruinous distancing of ourselves from nature, and our wanton desecration of her planet.
We need to stop our terrible quantifying of other people, our dumb, hurtful rejecting of other persons’ preferences and personalities. We need to stop shouting at one another. We need to quit tormenting and savaging one another. Quit it cold turkey.
We must transform our corporations, and reconstruct our government. We must make the entities and institutions we support conduct themselves more responsibly, with a modicum of humility and love. Or else we should shut them down, and do without them.
We should recover what we have forgotten from our frontier heritage. We should rely on our own selves, take proper care of each other, and give respectful, grateful reverence to our mother nature.
We can begin with our own selves. We can renounce consuming more than we need, buying what we don’t want, grasping after more possession than makes sense, craving powers and grandeurs we neither want nor can use.
We should give this all up, simplify our existence, root our lives in what truly matters and confers authentic, abiding joys. We should tear down the mess we’ve built and naturalize ourselves again, as we more nearly did during our pioneer eras.
7. Our Power
At one or another level of awareness, all of us realize what we must do. We must lay down our anger, put aside our madness, end this awful distraction of our best selves. If we will but behave ourselves, the universe freely will provide us with everything we legitimately desire.
It took us more than 200 years to choose and construct the discontented culture we inhabit now. It may take us 200 more to comprehend that it does not work, renounce its errors, deconstruct its excesses, and build a new order more natural and fulfilling.
It is the fullest measure of our freedom that we can make this choice, and that we possess this immense power. We can free our power anytime we want to.
This is our power, America. We can exercise our freedom, and make the exhilarating choice gradually to create a civilization more wise, natural, and nurturing. Or, like the confounded character in Paul Simon’s stunning poem, we can continue to ride our present bumpy bus, crying to souls whom we know to be fast asleep that we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike as they hurtle endlessly and aimlessly by.