Singing the song of angry men

The Independent newspaper in the UK today has a report about three men from Kentucky who decided they’d launch a personal vigilante program to  “rid the world of evil”. To that end, they kidnapped and murdered a drug dealer, then dismembered his body with a machete. Two of the men were former US Marines and the other a convicted cocaine user, one of the Marines had a dishonorable discharge – these people were not exactly squeaky-clean themselves before they decided to take the law into their own hands and commit a heinious evil – brutal murder – to fight evil.

I can’t help but think that it takes a lot of rage at the core to do something like this, rage about percieved injustices and helplessness – and that reminds me of Bob’s question earlier today: “Why are we so angry?” Why is the U.S.A. as a nation so angry right now? What’s wrong with the country and so many of its populace, because this level of rage cannot be healthy, right? Nor can the level of hypocrisy and self-entitlement be healthy. A Marine with a DD and a convicted felon got murderously self-righteous about other people instead of halting their own path to an evil crime with the thought of their own faults. How does that happen?

We can point to signs that answering both these questions has become urgent all day. Lance Armstrong admits to doping and the main reaction is “Meh, no big deal, everybody does it nowadays“. Folk like Armstrong don’t seem to suffer very much –  he’s still rich, famous and on TV. Ditto banksters and corporate chiefs who lied and cheated on everything from drug laundering to bribing government officials, from fraudulently fixing financial markets to negligence that caused deaths and widespread pollution. These other unpunished crimes are doubtless more serious than Armstrong’s (he’s just a sportsman after all) but the reaction to Armstrong is indicative that Privilege in its old sense of “private law” – one law for thee but not for me – is rife and with it come two inevitable consequences: a deep sense of helplessness and injustice in those who do not get to live under that private law and an equally deep sense of “well if they can get away with it then I should too.” The two are contradictory but humans are complex, well able to believe two conflicting things at once.

Take the current gun control debate as another indicator, if you will. I live in West Texas and I know personally many fervent supporters of free and entirely unfettered gun use. Most will tell you their arguments for their position are primarily twofold: to protect themselves and their dear ones from criminals and to protect from the predations of their own tyrannical government. The criminals they fear are not removed from the streets by the government they fear. To them, the Second Amendment exists because the Founders, in their wisdom, saw the the need for those protections – it has nothing whatsoever to do with a “well regulated militia” to defend from the tyrannical British government the Founders had just fought clear from. “Well regulated militia” doesn’t even merit a mention – an unregulated gun-bearing cadre of them and theirs is what’s important.

Yet when I say I know these people personally, I mean I know their faults and foibles too. Many, a majority even, have an involvement in the grey economy of these West Texan small towns – stuff that “falls off the back of a truck” or cash in hand that the taxman doesn’t need to know about. Many take drugs – weed, meth and prescription painkillers are the favorites around here. Many have done time for some crime themselves. Still, they fear “the other” – people who they may have experiences in common with but are not them or their small clique of good ol’ boys. The hypocrisy is obvious but never mentioned, because that simply makes the tension between their notion of what should be and their notion of what is unbearable. There’s a lot of “exploding white men” in West Texas, what Bruce Jacobs describes as “an emotional breaking point inherent in the late-capitalist tension between the venerable white male expectation of dominant power and the widespread white male reality of pain and loss and rage”. Gun control, crime, religion, race – they’re all part of and stand as proxies to an underlying zeitgeist.

We shouldn’t really be surprised by this. Humans are above all pattern recognisers. We’re obsessive about it, to the point where we’ll recognise patterns that aren’t there at all – optical illusions, shapes in clouds – and it has done the species well over the millenia, from recognising the leopard in the undergrowth to the systemized pattern recognition that is the scientific method. We’ll keep on recognising patterns even when we know they aren’t really there and given enough time our pattern compulsion will smoothe over even the most extreme cognitive dissonance. When we see a pattern we’ll galdly put aside the knowledge it conflicts with reality just to keep seeing the pattern. One of our most compulsive pattern impositions is the separation of the world into “us” and “them”, and we’re so adept at that the notion of which is which can shift based upon circumstance. As an Egyptian adage has it: “Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my brother and my cousins against the world.” We recognise a pattern – injustice and privilege – and construct heirarchies of “us” vs “them”, from the local to the national and beyond. For Americans the adage could easily be “Me against my neighbours who are ‘different’, me and my neighbours against the other States, me and the other States against the federal government, me and my government against the world”.

Yet not being surprised by it doesn’t mean we should ignore it. The Texas AG yesterday invited New York gun lovers to move to Texas – and news comments threads in Texas and on conservative blogs were filled by people saying they wanted no damn Yankees coming here – often in very violent terms. A new West Point study highlights the dangers of extremist rightwing groups. Republicans in Congress are acting like revolutionary zealots. Conspiracy theories that feed the epidemic of dissonance and tribalism are rife.

The question perhaps shouldn’t be “why so angry?”, then – because that’s perfectly understandable – it should be “what can we do about it?” The trouble is that folk who feel the pressures of percieved injustice and priviliege against their “tribe” are going to continue to do so even if it is pointed out how irrational or hypocritical they are being – and that the stress of cognitive dissonance thereby induced is likely simply to drive them further into the embrace of conspiracy theories where those pointing out irrationality are conspiring against them. It seems to me that the situation won’t improve and is liable to boil over – just as the worst of the rightwing threats promise – in the relatively near future.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The Social Narrative, a common view and understanding of the world, is what holds society together. Our world-view is failing because is is based on unrealistic premises. The boom that began in America after WWII is not sustainable in a world of finite resources, yet it it still inculcated via school, Hollywood and MSM. That is still the the expectation of most Americans. The goal is unachievable but we haven’t replaced it with a new, realistic, appropriate world-view and goal. Many people are living in a world they don’t understand, a world they can’t deal with effectively. Deep down, they know this and it scares the hell out of them. Not understanding what’s happening to them and around them, they look for scapegoats. And kill them when possible.

    We need a new Social Narrative, a new American Dream, based on realistic, sustainable living. A new definition of The Good Life should be based on human/humane values instead of money and McMansions. IMHO, that sort of world and worldview is not compatible with our current economic model – capitalism and capitalist-controlled government. The current circumstances are untenable for the vast majority of the human race, but are just fine for the top .4% and that’s where the problem lies, because they control the world.

    “what can we do about it?”

    Take down the top .4%.

    • Hmmm — “anecdotal hogwash about angry white guys with guns who are little more than hopped-up gangsters their ownselves.”

      Certainly not legion, but their hubris (and extensive arsenals) easily compensate for their decidedly marginal status.

      Oklahoma City is a reminder that sometimes that’s more than enough to shock the system [sic].

    • “Take down the top .4%” as a solution? I don’t think so. San Diego is about 50% McMansions and about 99% cars, a good 40% of which are gas guzzling SUV’s. It isn’t the top .4% that are harboring a “world-view based on unrealistic premises,” it is more like 90% plus, and the other 10% aspire to it.

      The old “blame the rich” is comforting, but in the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

      • The Weltanschaung of the entire country needs severe readjustment and my point was that it is the top .4% who will fight hardest against any change in the status quo, since they benefit most from the way things are. The owners of the SUVs may feel differently when fuel becomes so expensive only multi-miliionaires can afford it and when their McMansions run dry as drought becomes more severe.

        The .4% could always afford $100/gallon for gas and fill their swimming pools with Perrier if necessary. And it is the .4% whose money controls the MSM and politics. I really don’t care if we take away their money – let them eat cake for all I care – but until their influence and control over the political and social sphere is removed, we’re just spitting into the wind.

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