The American band Rage Against The Machine, categorized as “rap metal” or “alternative metal,” is notable for, among other things, an overt political agenda in their songwriting. Unlike many or even most musicians who dabble in politics by leveraging their fame, Rage puts political statements front-and-center. There was a bit of a to-do when Congressman Paul Ryan made mention that he was a fan of the band, a few years ago, a to-do that, after all sorts of face-saving posturing, faded away into obscurity.

I’m a fan of the band’s music – I like the energy and intensity, and they’ve got some great hooks – but not the band’s politics. I can and have interpreted their lyrics in a fashion that fits my libertarian tendencies, which would probably upset them, but that would be their problem, not mine. I mention the band here because of one particular lyric, which I’ve quoted as the title of this essay. Drawn from the song Freedom, a song about Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier and a shootout with FBI agents for which he was convicted in 1977. In the song, it is spoken in sotto-voce, during a break in what’s otherwise a hard-driving song. Lest anyone be confused, the question mark is my own addition, as a challenge to the assertion.

Anger has forever been a powerful tool in the political realm. It is fanned and fed by activist leaders and rabble rousers and it is leveraged by politicians. Anger gets politicians elected, it guides their actions, and it motivates legislation. Certainly, anger is a gift to politicians, especially when it is directed or can be pointed at their opponents.

Anger is also motivating at the personal level. Human thought is driven by chemical reactions to stimuli that present as emotions, despite the dream that the rational mind elevates itself above the lizard brain and its instinctual tendencies. Anger is only one of many emotional drivers we have, but it’s a powerful one that prompts people to immediate action.

The first Avengers movie, released in 2012 and grossing over $1.5B in global box office receipts, was widely praised, and earned a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie was very satisfying for this comic book fan, and blended in many story elements into a successful whole. However, it suffers from numerous plot holes (no surprise – this is popcorn fare, not The Godfather). One of them relates to The Hulk, who is prompted into uncontrollable, destructive rage against his allies by the bad guy at the mid-point of the movie, but then manages to control and channel that rage in defense of his allies later on. This disconnect, somehow explained away by the character asserting that his secret is “I’m always angry,” gives us some insight into the most visible players on the political scene today.

We have two different Hulks smashing their way around politics these days. We have the blind-rage Hulk that riots in its own neighborhood, goes after both foe and ally, and destroys stuff simply because it can. Among these are people destroying Confederate statues in the middle of the night, protestors blocking highways, and the holier-than-thou social justice types who will leap down the throat of anyone who doesn’t rise to their level of perfection. In an ironic twist, Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays Bruce Banner/The Hulk is a hard-core social justice type who nevertheless got excoriated by his own ilk for the transgression (pun not really intended) of casting a non-trans person in a trans film role.

We also have the channeled-rage Hulk that uses anger and the intimidation it generates to advance an agenda without having to defend it rationally. This form of anger has institutionalized: we all self-filter lest we cross those who’ve demonstrated that they’re ready to flick the anger switch at the slightest provocation. Provocation determined by them, of course, not by us.

One political friend suggested the sequence:

1 – Perceive injustice.
2 – Get angry/turn green.
3 – Smash stuff until you eventually destroy the source of the injustice.

This sequence fits the first of the two Hulks. The other swaps points 1 and 2. There are those who go Hulk, Smash! when riled up enough. Then there are those who are perpetually seething in anger, and merely looking for an excuse – any excuse – to unleash it.

We find the former in mobs and riots. We find the latter in the social justice scene, where Hulk, Smash! protesting is a vocation unto itself, where we find what George Will dubbed synthetic outrage and the indignation industry, where Hulk, Smash! is usually of a less overtly violent but no less intimidating form (you may not fear as much for your physical safety, but your career, your public reputation, and your future are in in peril).

Why anger, rather than persuasion? Why rage, rather than reason? Why hate, rather than conciliation? To answer this, we can consider the old lawyer’s adage:

When you don’t have the facts, pound the law. When you don’t have the law, pound the facts. When you have neither, pound the table.

With a caveat: sometimes, the Hulk, Smash! crowd isn’t wrong. Sometimes, that which has made them angry is legitimate. The problem lies in the immediacy of the violence, in the direct leap to Green Monster, in anger as a first response. Yes, this conflates anger and violence, but that conflation is the crux of the problem with anger. If properly channeled, anger can be incredibly motivating. But, today’s political scene doesn’t reinforce proper channeling. Instead, it tolerates the extreme and the violent if they are on the “good” side of a political debate. And, to reiterate, the violence I refer to is not limited to immediate physical attacks and destruction, it includes the threat of life- and career-destruction.

Behavior that is tolerated is behavior that is rewarded and reinforced. If we accept anger as a first form of response to a provocation, we invite more of it. If we, for example, accept (or look away from) the violence of some in the Antifa movement because they’re standing in opposition to Nazi-wannabes, we legitimize violence as a first-order political response. Yes, some within the movement denounce the violence, but their voices are washed out in the cacophony. Yes, some media outlets do step out of their cocoons from time to time. But, the frequency of such tends to follow the crowd. If the rank-and-file don’t police their own, above all else, voices of reason will not be heard or remembered.

Even during a period of enormous tragedy, in this case the Hurricane Harvey devastation in Houston, Hulk, Smash! anger produces results that can cause us to weep for the future. People with political axes to grind are expressing happiness that a state that voted for Trump is getting its just deserts (ironically-ignorantly, they missed that Houston voted for Clinton). Global warming alarmists are trying to tie the storm to Man’s sin of emitting carbon. Race-baiters are asserting, without anything other than their own anecdotal observation, that the media is only covering white people’s plights. Big-government fanatics are blaming insufficient zoning laws. And the beat goes on. Angry people, the type that seem to be always angry, are, in their rush to be first with an attention-drawing declaration, ignoring the suffering of their fellow humans and the fact that a root motivator of human civilization is to keep Mother Nature from killing us all.

It bears repeating: anger, properly channeled, can be an incredible motivator and agent of social change. But, it is demonstrably the proverbial double-edged sword. When we give excuse the violent, those who don’t properly channel their anger and instead go green and Hulk, Smash! hijack the conversation, undermine the goals, and change the outcome.

What’s the lesson? How do we deal with anger-turned-violence? Putting principle ahead of partisan gain is the only way. Unfortunately, too few are inclined to do so.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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