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America Enraged

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 256 pages
ISBN: 9781641772198
AVAILABLE: 10/12/2021

America Enraged

Anger now dominates American politics. It wasn’t always so. “Happy Days Are Here Again” was FDR’s campaign song in 1932. By contrast, candidate Kamala Harris’s 2020 campaign song was Mary J. Blige’s “Work That” (“Let ’em get mad / They gonna hate anyway”). Both the left and right now summon anger as the main way to motivate their supporters. After the election, both sides became even more indignant. The left accuses the right of insurrection. The right accuses the left of fraud. This is a book about how we got here—about how America changed from a nation that could be roused to anger but preferred self-control, to a nation permanently dialed to eleven.

Peter W. Wood, an anthropologist, has rewritten his 2006 book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, which predicted the new era of political wrath. In his new book, he explains how American culture beginning in the 1950s made a performance art out of anger; how and why we brought anger into our music, movies, and personal lives; and how, having step by step relinquished our old inhibitions around feeling and expressing anger, we turned anger into a way of wielding political power. But the “angri-culture,” as he calls it, doesn’t promise happy days again. It promises revenge… and a crisis that could destroy our republic.

About the Author

Peter W. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. A former professor of anthropology and college provost, he is the author of several books about American culture, including Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003) and Wrath: America Enraged (2021).

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Wrath. The crack of the whip across the sneering face of your foe? A burning coal gripped tight in your hand? Wrath aims to punish the enemy but, notoriously, takes its toll on the punisher as well. Still, when wrath seizes us, we are elated at the prospect of triumph over the wretches who have provoked us. The cost to ourselves comes later. Not always a great deal later.

As I write this in February 2021, a news report (with video!) tells of a quarrel between a Pennsylvania couple, James and Lisa Goy, and a neighbor, over where to shovel snow from their parking spaces. Vulgar insults were traded back and forth until the neighbor, Jeffrey Allen Spaide, went into his house and returned with a gun. The insults flew again; Spaide displayed the gun, only to be mocked by Lisa. He then shot both the Goys to death, pumping extra bullets into Lisa as she lay on the ground. Having given wrath its due, Spaide returned to his house and shot himself to death.

America right now has plenty of wrath. It is not limited to snow-shoveling madness. Nor is this the first time America as a whole, not just individual Americans, has descended into the warm embrace of righteous antipathies. We have a national song about it.

“He is trampling out the vintage / Where the grapes of wrath are stored,” proclaimed Julia Ward Howe in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her lyrics were a substitute for an anthem already popular with Union soldiers in the Civil War, the antislavery song “John Brown’s Body.” Howe’s version invokes the wrath of God against the defenders of slavery. Howe was drawing on a verse from the book of Revelation (14:19): “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.”

In her version of God’s wrath, “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,” and

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

But “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” stirred more than battle-hardened White Union soldiers. Black Union soldiers adapted it to express their own wrath.

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