WASHINGTON -- During the divisive War of 1812, a livid woman famous for her long hair rode to the White House, stood in her carriage, let down her tresses and proclaimed that she would gladly be shorn of them if they would be used to hang President James Madison. That anecdote, from Catherine Allgor's biography of Dolley Madison, shows that today's theatrical anger is not without precedent. But now there is a new style in anger -- fury as a fashion accessory, indignation as evidence of good character.
Under the headline "San Franciscans Hurl Their Rage at Parking Patrol," The New York Times recently described the verbal abuse and physical violence -- there were 28 attacks in 2006 -- inflicted on parking enforcement officers in a city that has a surplus of liberalism and a shortage of parking places. Parking is so difficult that George Anderson, a mental health expert, has stopped holding lectures there because his audiences arrive seething about their parking frustrations. Anderson represents the American Association of Anger Management Providers.
Of course. San Francisco, a showcase for expressive individualism, is full of people bristling with rights and eager to rebel against oppressive authority, but having a hard time finding any. The only rules concern parking.
No wonder Americans are infatuated with anger: It is democratic. Anyone can express it, and it is one of the seven deadly sins, which means it is a universal susceptibility. So in this age that is proud of having achieved "the repeal of reticence," anger exhibitionism is pandemic.
There are the tantrums -- sometimes both theatrical and perfunctory -- of talking heads on television or commentators writing in vitriol (Paul Krugman's incessant contempt, Ann Coulter's equally constant loathing). There is road rage (and parking lot rage when the Whole Foods Market parking lot is congested with expressive individualists driving Volvos and Priuses). The blogosphere often is, as one blogger joyfully says, "an electronic primal scream." And everywhere there is the histrionic fury of ordinary people venting in everyday conversations.
Many people who loathe George W. Bush have adopted what Peter Wood describes as "ecstatic anger as a mode of political action." Anger often is, Wood says, "a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted."