Monday, March 19, 2007

Book Review: A Bee in The Mouth

I picked up A Bee In the Mouth: Anger in America Now by Peter Wood after having read Stanley Kurtz's review.

It was a good survey of the pervasiveness of anger in our culture. How anger used to be something that was hidden and considered something to be controlled, and now it considered something to honor and celebrate. Wood points to a number of cultural signposts indicating that anger is much more welcome in today's culture than in previous generations.

Wood argues that this anger finds a more natural home on the political left than the political right, and in my opinion, he weakens his argument by doing so. It makes it seem that Wood is working in service of a particular side in the culture war rather than offering perspective on how the war is being waged. Although Wood does offer a convincing case for why those on the left might be quicker to embrace New Anger than those on the right, I found myself cringing when he did it. I was less interested in which side was to blame for New Anger than I was in how it came to be, how to avoid it, and how to deal with the reality of it. Wood offers little advice on the latter two points.

Part of Wood's argument rests on the idea that people today don't have much more to be angry about than previous generations, and thus today's anger is less a product of circumstances than of cultural acceptance of it. I can see that in day to day life -- most Americans don't have to scrap for their next meal, but even though I voted for Bush twice, I can see how the Administration's policies, style of governing, as well as the manner in which it gained power would be a legitimate source of anger for its political opponents. They lost the popular vote, appealed to people's fears and bigotry, governed by aiming for 51% approval, led us to war for reasons that turned out to be false, and mishandled basic duties like disaster recovery. Dismissing theses concerns as "New Anger" doesn't get us anywhere.

I also think Wood goes a bit off course in his discussion of music. Wood argues that hop hop, rock, and rap are all filled with New Anger, but country music (home of "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue) as not. It's hard to read this and not conclude that Wood is more about scoring points for his side than describing the game.

This is a shame, because I think people need to hear what Wood has to say about anger., If he's correct that anger has found more homes on the left than on the right, then it is odd that he would write his book in a manner such that many on the left could dismiss it.

I recommend the book, but see it as a bit of a missed opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Post, post, post Michael. Cut and paste! HEH HEH HEH

Hey, Michel Le Daunt. UGLY:

Keifus said...

Hi John, if a writer is going to take a tack like that, then he should be careful about choosing signposts and about generalizing. I can read a selection of nineteenth and twentieth century novels and gather that violence, historically, has had a much more popular and common expression than today. Going back further, life appears to have been worth even less, but martial bloodlust has certainly been valued for ages.

What Wood may or may not be meaning is a shift in "manners" more than anything else. And even here, he's going to have to make a distinction between the rich and the poor. Do I have to read it to gather that there'll be a heavy dose of how the aristocracy was just fine before those people showed up?

So for me to get into a book like that, I need something to suggest that he's not doing what it looks like he's doing, which is cherry-picking points to suit an agenda. And I don't have it.


JohnMcG said...


Wood establishes his thesis by comparing how anger is portrayed. Previous genrations portrayed anger as something to be controlled and channelled, and acted upon reluctantly; today it's celebrated onto itself.

Since you mention it, the increase in anger in the culture may have more to do with the democratization of the media than Wood acknowledged. If only those well off have access to the microphone, there's not going to be as much anger coming through the speakers as if it were open to anyone.

I came into this book somewhat sympathetic to his thesis, so it wasn't a terribly difficult task for Wood to convince me of it. But as I mentioned, I think one of the weaknesses of the book is that I don't think it will be terribly convincing to those not previously disposed to his point of view, particularly those on the opposite side of the culture war from the one he seems to be siding with.

JohnMcG said...

I realize my comment did little more than repeat my original post.

I think Wood would have called martial bloodlust "old anger" since it was at least directed to some purpose.

What Wood is writing about is a somewhat constant buzz of irritation and unpleasantness that he finds to be increasingly pervasive.

JohnMcG said...

George Will has posted a review, with some skepticism from Jonah Goldberg.