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Transmuting My Righteous Anger Into Understanding

The fiftieth (or was it the hundredth?) time I saw it, I knew what I had to do. This year, I resolved the other day, I will give up anger for Lent.

“It” was a photograph on a news website of the president of the United States speaking in public, his features contorted in anger: mouth scornfully atwist, eyes narrowed vindictively, right index finger self-righteously upraised. To see that image is to see anger at its least attractive.

Naturally, I have other reasons for giving up anger: family, physical stress, a general biblical sense that it is something we all could use a little less of. But the sight of that presidential perma-anger sealed it. By giving up anger — by becoming less angry — I could be less like him.

So I’ll try to give up anger for Lent. OK, but what might giving up anger mean? Personal anger, vented in one’s own life, is one thing. But what about social anger — the anger we feel in our communities over the rigged economy, the divided country, the broken world, the unfairness of existence?

Does our anger make us stalwart opponents, principled and committed to a long fight for what is right? Or does it make us prisoners of anger, co-dependents of the angry people we set ourselves against?

Is it wise to give up such anger, and if so, what is there to replace it with?

In a new book, Pankaj Mishra suggests that ours is an “age of anger”: the anger of young people around the world who are educated, ambitious, worldly, yearning to claim the freedom and opportunity promised by a global commercial society, but lacking actual freedom and opportunity in their own countries. In Britain, France, India, and Turkey, angry politicians have channeled that anger and ridden it to electoral victory. Now it is the rest of us — the prosperous, privileged elite — who are angry.

Mishra, born in northwest India in 1969, lives in London and reports for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books from points worldwide. In several books, culminating in From the Ruins of Empire — an account of the intellectual roots of modern Asia — he has explored the “temptations of the West,” the limits of globalization, and the hopes and fears of people whose awareness of human possibility runs up against the limits of their poor, broken, corrupt societies.

Every angry populace is angry in its own way, but Mishra argues convincingly that much of this anger has a common source: the ressentiment identified by Rousseau and named by Nietzsche. This anger is rooted in the resentment of “young provincials . . . who seethed with resentment against a largely metropolitan civilization of slick movers and shakers that seemed to deny them an authentic and rooted existence.”

Again and again in modern Europe, this resentful anger formed the backbone of “neo-traditionalist backlashes to the smug bourgeoisie.” It is the free-range envy Kierkegaard observed. It is the “mimetic desire” (in Rene Girard’s term) of the people V.S. Naipaul called “the mimic men”: people who want what other people have because it promises to give them the “being” that they feel those people have and they themselves lack.

Age of Anger — subtitled A History of the Present — is a rangy, brilliant, penetrating analysis of the long run-up to the age we are now in. It is intellectual history to the third power. Mishra shows globalization and its counter-reaction as an amplified echo of industrialization and its counter-reaction. He brings huge tracts of Western philosophy and social history to bear on the rest of the world (as in From the Ruins of Empire he brought the intellectual history of the “East” to bear on the West). By doing so, he makes globalization freshly intelligible and so explodes the idea that it is a new thing in the world, a phenomenon without precedent.

Early in the book, Mishra cites Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Today’s individuals are directly exposed to [the shocks of globalization] in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel there is no such thing as either society or the state, there is only the war of all against all… The result is, as Arendt feared, ‘a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody’…”

The passage is suggestive on several levels. On one level it suggests, ominously, that we could be on the threshold of a new age of totalitarianism akin to the one Arendt addressed in the middle of the last century, except this time on a global scale. On another, it suggests that any narrative of mounting social calamity doesn’t easily apply, because such anger is sufficiently common across time and space as to be universal — and will always be with us as a byproduct of modern developed society.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 16: Audience members listen to Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton give an address at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on February 16, 2016 in New York City. Clinton is hoping to win the upcoming South Carolina and Nevada primaries. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images) Image by Andrew Burton/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.

What, then, to do with our anger? In an “age of anger,” is it really prudent to try to put away one’s own anger, leaving anger to the demagogues and the dispossessed people who form their political base?

Should their anger be met with a turned cheek, with forbearance, or with temperate action, as the New Testament, at different points, would suggest? Or should anger be met with anger — the righteous anger that builds movements and fuels opposition?

It can be argued, from recent history, that progressive anger left untransformed into structures is fissiparous and ineffectual. The Occupy Wall Street movement of the fall of 2011 dissipated after its ouster from Zuccotti Park, and by the next May Day it resembled the post-New Left left, a too-big tent of causes and interests. The movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign was unable to press even a single lever of power and convince Hillary Clinton to name Senator Sanders — or Elizabeth Warren, another voice of progressive anger — as her running mate.

It can be argued that anger was useful in itself and that the cessation of anger was the problem — that the left let down its guard. Sanders was a candidate of anger, and some people have observed that for this reason alone he would have been a better Democratic presidential nominee than Hillary Clinton — because he expressed the anger of the electorate. Andrew Sullivan was a blogger of anger — albeit anger that Sullivan often regretted later, wishing he could be more like no-drama Obama. Jon Stewart was an entertainer of anger — of anger at once leavened and spiced by comedy. One way or another, their anger kept the unrighteous anger of the hard right in check. And when their anger was withdrawn — Stewart went off the air, Sullivan went offline, Sanders stepped aside — unrighteous anger prevailed.

Now it sometimes seems that anger is all the left has left. This anger has a certain purifying quality. Sure, CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, freshly set against “truthiness,” is better than it was as a 21st-century chat show. Sure, it’s satisfying to turn to an article in The New York Times and to know that the president is so obviously in error (his claim that the Russia story is “fake news,” for example) that the article is a Listerine shot of hard facts. Sure, there’s a certain clarity in knowing that these are dangerous times and the country is up for grabs. But such anger is practically unsustainable, unless you are Michael Moore or Bill Maher; and even if it were, such anger, it seems to me, is morally unsustainable. The angry person fixated on the mote in his enemy’s eye, so to speak, will miss the beam in his own.

Mishra, concluding his long book, offers no simple prescription about what is to be done. Nor does he fan the flames of apocalypse, claiming that the massed anger of thwarted young men worldwide will lead to violent revolution. Rather, he suggests that the situation is perilous, not calamitous. And he suggests we must begin to lower the temperature, as it were, by recognizing the situation we are in and understanding it.

This is where Lent comes in — and where Mishra’s argument comes to resemble that of Pope Francis, whom he calls “the  most convincing and influential public intellectual today.”

Traditionally, Christian believers “give up” something for Lent in order to detach ourselves from it personally — and, at a deeper level, to gain a better understanding of the structures of need and want, sustenance and pleasure, gain and deprivation and exploitation, that shape our desires.

For those of us in the prosperous pockets of our societies, Mishra proposes, recognizing the situation we are in means recognizing that the majority of the world’s people regard present global society as founded on illegitimate premises: the heedless pursuit of profit, the concentration of power, the enrichment of the elites, and the exhaustion of the earth’s resources.

This state of things should make us angry, yes; but at the same time, it should make us penitent. Mishra explains:

“…it is no longer sufficient to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ or blame political turpitude, financial malfeasance, and the media. The global civil war is also a deeply intimate event; its Maginot lines run through individual hearts and souls.

We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism. We not only need to interpret, in order to make the future less grim, a world bereft of moral certitudes and metaphysical guarantees. Above all, we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in increasingly everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering.”

In this strong, nuanced, wise book, Pankaj Mishra has transmuted anger into understanding. I am still angry, but I hope, soon enough, to set aside anger for a few weeks, hard as it may be, and go and do likewise.

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