Today, it so happens that rage is all the rage. Yet the problem is more metaphysical than a matter of Americans having meaner emotions in 2011 than they did in the hyper-self-congratulatory mood of the 2008 presidential election. Our civil society’s syntax and logic are awry. The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we’re drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create.
It’s also likely that our exposure to public displays of sentiment inoculates us just a bit and leaves us requiring ever more dramatic displays of real, raw feeling. As with any other discourse, we’ve learned to decode the genre: having watched a stranger grieve and suffer or having been a stranger who grieves and suffers in public, we know what to expect. This pushes us to find really and truly extreme anger, or really and truly blameless victims who can stir an unmodified empathy in our stonier hearts or sharpen our blunted sensibilities. For social conservatives, the most blameless and absolutely inculpable victim today might well be the unborn fetus. For liberals, the most unimpeachably blameless creature on the margins might be the suffering lab animal or the endangered whale. As for sentient humans, who most often suffer under a complex amalgam of social circumstance, inequality, character, injustice, and bad luck, the narrative standards of pure victimhood are higher, the skepticism sharper, and sympathy now harder, not easier, to come by.But I don't mind impressionistic expositions of these claims, especially when they help me to grind my own axes, which in this case is that "our culture's" lionization of victimhood is bad, and that what passes for noble realism in books and movies is political trauma porn. This doesn't grind the thing down to a perfect shine, but maybe, like B. Franklin, I prefer a speckled ax anyway.