How do I contain my RAGE at all these REGRESSIVE PATRIARCHAL JACKASSES who are KILLING MY BUZZ on the DAILY?
—Mad as Hell
Dear Mad as Hell,
DON’T! Rage gets a bad rap in bourgeois thought. In June, after a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen during their baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, pundits cluckingly deplored all the anger out there, as if it were weird that Americans would be mad at the GOP for trying to take away our health care. When he was first running for president, Barack Obama, discussing the anger of black Americans over racism, lamented, “That anger…distracts attention from solving real problems.” In a recent book, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees anger as inherently vengeful and argues that it inhibits a society’s progress. As University of Texas professor William Sokoloff notes in an insightful 2014 New Political Science paper, “Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Rage,” mainstream political theorists have tended to share this view, seeing rage as “anathema to democratic citizenship” and equating it with insanity and chaos. But what about rage that is rational and justified, like that of young Frederick Douglass as he came to understand his condition as an enslaved person? Or your own, Mad? Why not rage at patriarchal jackasses?
Feminists, especially black feminists, have often welcomed such rage and celebrated its political possibilities; for bell hooks, for example, it’s a sign that the “space inside oneself where resistance is possible remains.” (Documentaries, including She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry and A Place of Rage, about 1960s women’s activism, have also placed great emphasis on this anger.) Young black writers, including Mina Ezikpe—and, in these pages, Mychal Denzel Smith—have noted the central role of rage in the Black Lives Matter protests. Sokoloff, for his part, acknowledges some of these voices and argues that anger is critical to democratic agency, exploring how Douglass was able to channel his rage to become one of American history’s most effective revolutionaries. (Hey, I hear he’s being “recognized more and more” in some surprising quarters.) If we let rage drive us completely, of course, we can end up like the Alexandria shooter. Instead, Douglass learned to discipline his rage: rhetorically deploying it to show how inhuman slavery was, while thinking coldly and soberly about political remedies and tactics. His writings and speeches were infused with anger and were more powerful for it: “Your republicanism is a sham, your humanity a base pretense, and your Christianity is a lie.” Yet he tempered this fury with practicality: While he defended John Brown’s rebellion, he declined to help organize it, because he thought it would fail (as it did). He engaged in the political process. He became, Sokoloff writes, “a threatening democratic individual who would not go away.”
Whatever you do, don’t contain your rage. That’s how we end up hurting and sabotaging ourselves. As Dr. Melfi, Tony Soprano’s wise shrink, observed, “Depression is anger turned inward.” Suppressed rage can also lead to physical ills, like high blood pressure and heart attacks. Even worse, it leaves the world’s depravity untouched.
Can a union organizer date one of the members and still represent everyone in the unit fairly? I’m a dedicated union member (female) and quite fond of our organizer (male). The crush is mutual (yay!), but we are both wondering about this.
It’s very common for organizers and members to date one another. This happens not only in unions, but in any member-based organization with staff organizers (lots of community and environmental organizations follow this model.) What’s less usual, and commendable, according to Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, is that you’re both stopping to ask this question. Often, she says, male organizers fail to consider the way that such romances can affect the dynamics of a campaign. If it’s a new fight—to gain union recognition or win specific contract gains—then “knock it off until victory,” McAlevey says. If the relationship is worth pursuing, it can wait.
Even then, McAlevey adds, “have fun but be sensitive. Don’t show your love in meetings.” The pitfalls can include romantic jealousy from other members. “In a hot campaign, the organizer has a lot of cachet,” McAlevey points out. “I’ve witnessed dynamics where 30 hearts were broken when it turned out he really liked X person.” Some organizers exploit this status. McAlevey worked on a nurses’ union campaign with a guy she describes as a “wrecking ball.” To get someone to sign a union card, she recalls in amazement, “he would sleep with them!” Perhaps even worse, this labor-movement Casanova would “put his dick into every nurse-leader all over the country,” then, being married, would leave town, claiming that he’d been recalled by the national organization, thus igniting fury and resentment at anyone representing headquarters.
Of course, it’s unlikely your would-be paramour is anything like that guy. But even if the organizer isn’t exploiting anyone and even if you’re pretty sure only one member is crushing on the organizer, any obvious love affair risks annoying other workers, especially if they perceive that this one member is getting special treatment. It’s crucial, as you suggest, that workers feel that the union belongs to everyone. So the organizer must attend to that, and you need to remember that when he doesn’t treat you in a special way in front of others, it’s not because his feelings have changed; he’s just trying to be fair to everyone.
Then again, the desire to impress—and spend time with the adored person—can serve us well. Organizing is hard; love can move us to actually do that work, and enjoy it a lot more, too. That’s why it’s easy to imagine the rom-com version of your situation: After a few hitches, misunderstandings, and madcap scenarios, your dalliance transforms you both into ridiculously successful unionists. Together, you mobilize the workers, bring the bosses to their knees, and find love.
Someone please make this movie, with a Nora Ephron–inspired script. The world needs it more than ever.
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