Anger and the Manliness Known as Neoconservatism

If you don’t express your anger it will fester inside you and you’ll get an ulcer, or you’ll descent into black depression – because of your impotence or something.

That’s what they say, but it seems ulcers are actually caused by infection – by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, usually transmitted from person to person through contaminated food and water. Antibiotics are the most effective treatment for Helicobacter pylori peptic ulcers, not tranquillizers to keep you from getting angry and upset. And drinking warm milk doesn’t fix anything. You could look it up.

And clinical depression – major depressive disorder – seems to be a matter of brain chemistry. Most antidepressants increase the levels of monoamines – the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine – in the synaptic cleft between neurons in the brain, and some medications affect the monoamine receptors directly. And fixing those transmission lines seems to work to fix things. It’s all in the serotonin levels – decreased serotonin activity is the Black Dog. You could look up that too. And the Black Dog was Winston Churchill’s name for his experience with major depressive disorder. No, really.

And that’s why that fellow in the Harry Potter novels is named Sirius Black (Sirius is the Dog Star, of course). Bad things happen to people – terrible things – and that drives some to depression. Had they only been able to express their anger and outrage, and not let it fester, or not been forced to swallow their feelings and let them fester, there’d be no depression. Kicking the cat across the room would have helped.

But then terrible things happen to other people, who must just bury their feelings and go on, and they don’t fall into depression. They seem naturally resilient – their brain chemistry may be better balanced – or maybe they’re oblivious, dumb as a post and unaware of what is going on around them. That helps too.

But no treatment regime for either condition recommends kicking the cat across the room or smashing dishes against the wall. Of course Primal Scream Therapy was big in the seventies – John Lennon swore by it – but it didn’t work. Perhaps there are some New Age folks still offering Primal Therapy up in Topanga Canyon high over Malibu – Southern California is like that – but no one could ever produce any outcome studies that prove it ever did anyone any good. It just sounded likely, and you felt quite good for an hour or so. But you cannot scream your way to equanimity and inner peace. And you really don’t want to have to deal with a dead cat and all those broken dishes.

Actually, anger is quite useless. And of course it is useful – express your anger, let it rip, and you will feel an immediate emotional release, and sense you are finally being honest, and then you’ll probably feel a surge of smug self-righteousness, and people will certainly know how you feel, and suddenly fear you. All that is heady stuff. But it passes. And then you realize you’ve fixed no problems and solved nothing. And that will probably make you angrier. Most therapists these days will probably recommend that you recognize your anger – that you acknowledge it, as they say – then, when you’ve been all angry and expressive and even wallowed in it, and let it run its course, you go do something useful.

So why does everyone seem to want Obama to be angry? There are the arguments that he is temperamentally unsuited to it and knows ours is a culture that really cannot deal with the Angry Black Man – discussed in depth here – but in Slate, John Dickerson says no president can get angry in public:

While no one has yet discovered a way to plug the BP oil leak, each day does bring the discovery of yet another fundamental character defect that explains President Obama’s helplessness. He’s not emotional enough. He lacks crisis experience. He is insufficiently creative. With the leak likely to last into the summer, before long it will be blamed on Obama’s bad penmanship or his skinny legs.

The one question we’ll always be able to ask, fortunately, is whether the president is sufficiently angry. In the daily temperature reading that has become the White House press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs once again addressed the president’s temper. “Our point is not to feign, through method acting, anger at what environmental and economic damage has been wrought by this disaster. That wasn’t going to fill a hole. That wasn’t going to put money in the bank account of a shrimper that’s not fishing. That’s not going to help a hotel worker or a hotel owner on a beach in Florida.”

Here’s the thing about presidential anger. It’s never seen in public – not just from our first smooth jazz president, but from any president. If presidents show anger in public, they risk looking out of control, which in moments of crisis is the exact opposite of what people want.

It’s a rather simple point, and Robert Gibbs sounds like someone fed up with New Age nonsense about primal scream, but Dickerson points out that when there’s presidential anger it’s hardly ever constructive anger:

Perhaps the most well-known angry president moment was when Bill Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. Yes, that anger was targeted at a specific problem. But it was not exactly helpful. Clinton had other moments. The New York Times’ John Harwood reminds me that Clinton chewed out Brit Hume, then of ABC News, when he asked about a “certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process” of his nomination to the Supreme Court of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had just made a speech. “How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me,” he said.

George W. Bush had moments of real resolve – his speech with a bullhorn at Ground Zero – and he had moments of dime-store resolve – when he said “bring ’em on” and that he wanted Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive.” But the only glimpse we got of his anger was when he told us about it. Do you remember the issue that caused it? In March 2002 Bush said he’d gotten “plenty hot” when he learned that the INS had approved a visa for one of the 9/11 bombers after a seven-month delay.

The trick is to tell us about it, later. You reserve real-time anger for when you’re running for office, when you’re a candidate. It’s expected then. Why else would you be running? You’re angry at how things are being run, or say you are, dramatically. Voters love that. Ask John McCain.

No, don’t – he didn’t understand how sneaky Obama was, suggesting the last thing we needed in the White House was a hot-headed very angry man, by letting McCain just rant on, as he let Hillary Clinton rant on, while being cool and waiting, as voters got a good sense of what four years of that would be like. And now Obama practices discrete anger, for those who seem to want that – Gibbs let it be known that Obama told aides to plug the damn hole – but we were told about that. We didn’t see it.

And Dickerson offers some perspective:

Thomas Jefferson described George Washington as a man who mostly kept a lid on his anger but when he “broke his bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath,” falling “into one of those passions when he cannot command himself.”

Do you really want a president who can’t command himself? It’s complicated:

Nixon, we know from the Watergate tapes, had a deep and abiding anger, but in public he didn’t let it show. “The tougher it gets,” he used to say, “the cooler I get.” But then he was asked about his anger. “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger,” said the president to a reporter during a news conference. “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.” The angriest Obama has gotten in public was when he was asked about (wait for it) why he didn’t get angry enough.

One exception to this rule is John Kennedy’s public fight with American steel companies. In private, Kennedy used a wide range of expletives to describe what the steel companies were doing to the economy (and to him). His power was questioned in the press and he responded by showing his anger in public. Ultimately the steel companies backed down.

But that really was the exception. In dealing with the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Matt Lauer, in his exclusive interview with Obama, suggested to Obama that “this is not the time to meet with experts and advisers” – everyone agreed it was time to “kick some butt.”

And the president shot back – “I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

Horrors! See The Hill:

One of President Barack Obama’s staunchest Republican opponents said Wednesday that his now-famed “kick ass” comment was unpresidential.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that Obama chose his words poorly when he said “[I] don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar – we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick,” in an interview with NBC.

“Right now, I think the president made a mistake in the words that he used in an interview yesterday,” he said in an appearance on KTOK radio. “I think that he lost a lot of credibility there when he used words that were not very presidential.”

And Steve Benen comments:

CNBC’s Becky Quick said the president was wrong because there were “kids sitting around watching this.” Fox News has begun airing the president’s comment with the word “ass” bleeped out. (That Fox News has repeatedly aired the word “ass” without bleeping – it’s been part of Glenn Beck’s broadcasts more than once – apparently doesn’t matter.) I don’t expect much from our political discourse, but this is just depressing.

It’s also rather new. Last year, the president referred to Kanye West as “a jackass,” and no one seemed to mind. When talking about BP officials, suddenly “ass” is off limits for the nation’s virgin ears?

And there’s the history:

Where were these concerns during the Bush era? When Bush decided to launch the war in Iraq, the then-president proclaimed, “F**k Saddam, we’re taking him out.” Two years later, Bush was overheard chatting about Hezbollah with Tony Blair when the U.S. president said, “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t and it’s over.” The quote, which didn’t really make any sense substantively, was broadcast quite a bit. Inhofe wasn’t whining at the time about the president losing “a lot of credibility.”

Similarly, when Dick Cheney ran into Pat Leahy on the Senate floor for a friendly gathering in 2004, the then-VP said, “Go f**k yourself.” John McCain is known for constantly cursing out his colleagues, and in 2008, discussing immigration policy, McCain screamed at Sen. John Cornyn, saying “F**k you! This is chickens**t stuff.”

Something curious is going on here. It’s clearly not the word, given that history, and with Glenn Beck us the same word twenty times a show. It’s something else, and the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, founding member of the Project for the New American Century and the voice of all things neoconservative, knows just what that something else is:

Guess the criticism of him as a professor and seminar leader has gotten to him. But his pseudo-macho defense of “talking to experts” is itself professorial: He talks to experts so he’ll “know whose ass to kick.”

Real men don’t need experts to tell them whose asses to kick.

See Jonathan Chait – “Real men don’t need experts to tell them whose asses to kick… as the unmitigated success of George W. Bush’s foreign policy demonstrates.” Chait calls this Neoconservatism In A Nutshell. Chait doesn’t seem to realize how he’s playing with the words Nut and Shell.

And Adam Serwer offers this assessment – “There’s so much stupid in this sentence you could freebase it.”

And Sewer looks at this logically:

If real men don’t need “experts” to know whose ass to kick, then why does Bill Kristol – or any other warmongering Republican “expert” for that matter – have a job? All these guys do is sit around all day telling politicians which countries need to bombed to make America feel manly asses need kicking.

It’s not often you see someone make an argument to which their ongoing existence is proof of the opposite point. Unless of course, Kristol is arguing that Republicans aren’t actually real men.

And Steve Benen offers this:

As a rule, when chickenhawk neocons start beating their chests and talking about “real men,” it’s time to reach for the Maalox. But Kristol’s nonsense is especially nauseating because it reinforces his most disturbing qualities.

To hear Kristol explain it, “real men” should just “kick ass,” regardless of guidance from those who know what they’re talking about. This is, to be sure, anti-intellectualism taken to a pathetic level, but it also points to a fundamental recklessness that permeates far-right thought.

Of course anti-intellectualism and fundamental recklessness are the hallmarks of white-hot anger. But Benen takes this in another direction:

In Kristol’s vision, one imagines President Obama would head down to the Gulf Coast with a baseball bat, swinging it wildly in a variety of directions, like a blindfolded child aiming for a piñata. Obama could presumably ask someone what direction to swing the bat in, but that would be a sign of weakness – if the president is a “real man” he’ll just know intuitively who deserves a beating.

Remember, Bill Kristol is one of the most influential voices in Republican politics. When I lament the intellectual bankruptcy of the right in the 21st century, this is what I’m talking about.

But it’s not just the right. Everyone seems to want Obama to get angry – so we all don’t develop peptic ulcers and have to swig Maalox by the gallon, or so we all don’t fall into some sort of collective major depressive disorder, feeling nothing can been done, and have to meet Churchill’s Black Dog.

But Maalox doesn’t fix the one problem, and the treatment suggested for the other – a symbolic primal scream from our leader, in a manly and thoughtless surrogate rage – has been discredited.

Maybe Obama should just work with the experts and lead the effort to solve the problem, as best as it can be solved, and settle for being a one-term president. And then we’ll elect someone who we know will quite often just lose it in blind rage and just do stuff – any old stuff. Palin will do nicely. And then we’ll once again find anger is useless and toss her out on her ear. And the following president will be another cool-under-pressure sort who doesn’t seem to get angry but just does his best to fix things as much as they can be fixed.

But one day we’ll know how to deal with this. And you can imagine the dialog. I’m really, really angry (and amazingly manly). Yep, you are – so what’s your point?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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