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.”