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A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now by Peter Wood

Glenn C. Altschuler
The Philadelphia Inquirer

"New Anger" traced to those '60s liberals in A Bee in the Mouth.

A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now

Publisher: Encounter
ISBN: 1594030537
Author: Peter Wood
Price: $25.95
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-01

One of the captions on the "Happy Bunny" air fresheners sold by C&D Visionary Inc. reads: "Your anger makes me happy." The cute little rabbit also adorns a "Give Me Your Lunch Money" lunch box and "I Hate You So Bad" footwear.

C&D is capitalizing on America's "angri-culture," according to Peter Wood, provost and professor of anthropology at King's College in New York City. The "New Anger," Wood suggests, was born in the 1960s, with the dissolution "of the ideal of an adult as measured, self-controlled, wary of expressing too much, too soon, and respectful of authority."

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary were the New Anger's avatars. Apostles of an unbounded, uninhibited, secular self, they taught that unbridled rage was a legitimate -- and potentially powerful -- response to the repressive features of American life.

Now "part of the establishment," the New Anger manifests itself in "attitude" even more than behavior. Sometimes -- when a worker "goes postal," a driver releases "road rage," or John McEnroe "disses" an umpire -- the New Anger is directed at real people. But since angri-culture originates in narcissistic self-absorption, claims of personal authenticity, and the illusion of freedom, it often manifests itself in "an imaginary war perpetually fought against a faceless enemy who is everywhere because he is nowhere."

Important elements of the argument are not new. The shadows of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind fall on many pages of A Bee in the Mouth. Nonetheless, Wood has identified a troubling cultural phenomenon. Satisfying a thirst for the attention of others, albeit temporarily, the New Anger -- as flamboyant, self-righteous, public performance -- permeates popular culture and politics: in hip-hop and rap music; in the trash talk, taunts and tirades on TV, radio, the blogosphere, basketball courts, and end zones of football stadiums; in negative campaign ads and the politics of personal destruction.

Unfortunately, Wood's partisan preoccupations mar his ability to understand the origins, nature, and significance of the New Anger. His right-wing prism imprisons. He does not follow the evidence wherever it takes him. And so, A Bee in the Mouth deserves to be derided as a cri de Coors that Scaife-goats the 1960s and Bush-whacks ideological adversaries.

Wood insists that the "New Anger tends more to the political left than the political right." He believes that once-angry conservative white males have turned their attention "to Home Depot and bass fishing." For Americans now, "the primary image of anger" is Howard Dean, Al Gore, or a millionaire rapper. And the "leftist anger group" But not Tom DeLay, Pat Robertson or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Those who believe that anger is caused by secularists, proponents of identity politics, and taboos against the politically incorrect "offer genuine insights." Wood seems rather unconcerned about angry racists, homophobes, violent opponents of abortion, and civil-liberties-suppressing "super-patriots."

In popular culture, Wood deems Bob Dylan's protest songs "a kind of memo" to angri-culture, dividing the world into "weak good guys and powerful creeps." But country music's anger at a cultural elite that "proclaims its open-mindedness while simultaneously expressing contempt for traditional values" is "warranted." Wood acknowledges, grudgingly, that right-wing anger dominates talk radio. But he focuses on Howard Stern and Don Imus, who are not conservatives, proclaims Rush Limbaugh a master of "comic tone and timing" who is not himself angry, and says nothing at all about Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Neal Boortz.

The New Anger deserves a deeper and more dispassionate analysis. So, knock on Wood, let's hope someone with fewer axioms to grind will explain why so many Americans act as if they have a bee in the mouth.


Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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