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The Rage of Caliban

by Michael Austin, published
  “The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”—Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

In his famous preface, Oscar Wilde does what Oscar Wilde does best, which is to insult everybody with such amazing cleverness that we all kind of like it. The “Caliban” he refers to (an anagram of “canibal”) is a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest who has long been taken to represent raw human nature. Wilde is not making arguments about realism or romanticism here as much as he is making a point about human beings: that we are always angry about something.

I wish that I did not agree with Wilde as much as I do, but his point seems to hold true pretty much everywhere.  Human beings are an angry lot. Or, at least, we have profound and inexhaustible sources of rage. This is true in our personal lives, in our professional lives, and it is abundantly true in our political lives. Rage, in fact, has been the defining characteristic of American politics during my adult life.

I have often been reduced to jaw-dropping wonder at the naked, reptilian anger that some of my friends and family members exhibit whenever anybody even mentions President Obama’s name. I have seen people start shaking and sputtering and using words like “tyrant,” “traitor,” and a few others that I cannot repeat on a family web site. It all seems so out of proportion for a politician that one disagrees with the way that people have been disagreeing with politicians for hundreds of years. And (before anybody rushes to point it out) it wasn’t any better with my more liberal friends under the last president. Nor are liberals less guilty at the present time of boiling over in paroxysms of incoherent anger.

In the current media environment, there has been a sort of ideological natural selection in favor of rage. Books that discuss controversial issues calmly and respectfully sell poorly if at all, while books with subtitles like “How Obama is Destroying America” and “How Conservatives Eat their Young” fly off the shelves at a staggering rate. Television programs, radio shows, and Internet sites almost always attract more followers—and larger ad revenues—when they shout angrily than when they discuss calmly. Stoking rage, it turns out, is good for business.

And this is a real tragedy. Americans, by and large, have a lot to not be angry about. We have a stable political system that has transferred power peacefully for more than two hundred years. Very few nations can say the same. And we are rich and powerful. Most of us have cable TV and high-speed Internet. We are (mostly) safe and have abundant access to education, recreation, cultural activities, and professional opportunities. And there is bacon in almost every grocery store. Yes, there are people who lack all of these things, but they are not the one’s doing most of the complaining.  Invariably, it is the richest, safest, and most culturally advantaged among us who have the time and treasure to engage in gratuitous displays of irrational rage.

Many people in the world have political and financial interests in stoking our rage.  Perhaps the most common way to do this is to turn every political disagreement into an intolerable threat to our security, our sovereignty, or our way of life. These kinds of arguments work because they appeal to the limbic parts of our brains. They encourage us to see everything in our path as a deadly enemy that we must either fight to the death or run away from. This is an automatic, and, in many ways, a deeply satisfying kind of response, but it is the response of a Caliban. Let us please not confuse it with “thinking.”

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