Tonya Harding Isn't the Only One Who's Angry

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I was driving 75 miles an hour on the interstate, listening to a radio report that said that Tonya Harding beat up her boyfriend and banged him on the head with a hubcap.

A red BMW shot up behind me on the right, going well over 80. The driver paused when he drew abreast. He gave me the finger — not once but repeatedly, stabbing the air in a pantomime of nasty proctological hydraulics. With his other hand, he flicked the steering wheel to the left in a spasm of menace, as if he meant to run me off the road. A complete stranger wanted me dead — or anyway, he played at it for a moment. At 75 mph, I had blocked the left lane. I had made him late for an IPO, I suppose.

If things are going so well in the world (so much late-Clinton gemütlichkeit, so much money, so little war), what accounts for the anger in the air?

Perhaps it's me. Anger is an interesting phenomenon — a highly subjective business if you are the hubcapper, a highly objective matter if you happen to be the hubcappee. Who does what to whom?

The Internet has its version of road rage: impulsive anger expressed from inside a capsule of anonymity, an aggressive connection made from the safety of disconnection. In recent days, a Stanford University study found that the Internet is dangerously atomizing American society. "The more hours people use the Internet," said Norman Nie, a principal investigator for the study, "the less time they spend with real human beings."

But the atoms want to make a connection. A couple of days ago I made a disparaging remark in a web column about Bob Jones University. Almost instantly, out of the upper electronic air, there flew this e-mail: "You are the 'accuser,' better known in the Bible as Satan."

I admit I had thrown the first hubcap, aiming it like a Frisbee in the direction of the Christian right in South Carolina. But does that make me... Satan? (On the other hand, it is true that I was trained in high school by the Jesuits.)

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, I would guess that anger is crowding the age's more obvious greed and lust for cultural primacy. But why? The reasons for greed and lust are self-evident: They come with their rewards. Anger is a dramatic and astringent passion. But what's the payoff? Righteous anger may be ennobling, sometimes, but mostly rage merely disfigures the one who is angry. Anger delights in destruction; it arrives as a blind spasm, even as an orgasmic release, like sex firing off in an evil dimension.

A Unified Field Theory of Today's Anger might bundle these explanations:

  • Change confuses people, and confusion makes people angry. We live in a maelstrom of disorienting change.
  • An atmosphere of gold rush — of 24-year-olds in Gap khakis making billions — creates invidious expectations and a simmering resentment of Why Not Me? The stock market flaps higher and higher, soaring magnificently, but something in us expects the sun to melt its wings and bring it down like Icarus. Free-floating anxiety causes anger.
  • Our gaudy overstimulations are too much for our primitive nervous systems. Hypersensations engendered out of thin air (profuse consumer options, spectacular charades of sex and violence) open floodgates of adrenaline that has no sociobiological object (such as responding to actual danger). Therefore, mere untargeted anger.
  • Or you could argue that we are selfish, and spoiled rotten. We think too much about ourselves, rarely about others, as we ought. Self-obsession has a way of making people angry.

But anger resists unified field theories. It is a mystery. The angriest Harry Truman ever got was the time the music critic of the Washington Post criticized his daughter Margaret's singing. Truman threatened the man with bodily harm.

But Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a crisp dispassion.