The Anger Industry

WHY DO WE KEEP BUYING WHAT THEY'RE SELLING?

Mine was not one of those Catholic families that kept a photo of John F. Kennedy right next to the image of the Sacred Heart. In fact, family lore has it that my Republican grandmother, who died days after JFK was assassinated, declared on her deathbed that she was going to be seeing that young man soon and intended to set him straight on several matters. (And let's just say I don't think she wanted to tell him we should have stayed out of Vietnam.)

Yet I'm more surprised than I guess I ought to have been at the ferocity, durability, and sheer volume of the conservative anger aimed at Ted Kennedy in the weeks since his death-an outpouring I fully expect to continue as we dissect his 532-page, posthumously published memoir, True Compass. (As I write, we are still twenty-four hours away from the scheduled delivery of my pre-ordered copy. But who's counting?)

Based on reader comments in response to Kennedy's obit in the online magazine I edit, Politics Daily (politicsdaily.com), I can attest that an astounding number of my fellow Christians are (1) quite confident that the senator is in the hot place and (2) unconcerned about how this judgment might affect their own standing with the Big Guy. The cleaned-up version of a typical comment was along the lines of “Burn, baby, burn.''

How could so many adherents of a belief system in which the possibility of redemption figures so prominently claim that nothing that happened in the forty years since Chappaquiddick counts for anything? No matter, apparently, that Kennedy says in his book, “Atonement is a process that never ends.” Even if you did not see his efforts on behalf of worker's rights, civil rights, immigrant rights, and health care for children as answering Christ's call-or making up for his prochoice politics-what about all the personal stories of small but important kindnesses nobody even knew about until now? He seems to have visited every friend of a friend who had ever been hospitalized. (And are we really only as good as our worst moment? What kind of a God would use that yardstick?)

The answer, I think, is that the manufacture of Kennedy hatred was a profitable industry for decades; he raised millions of dollars for Republican campaigns against opponents liberally branded as “Ted Kennedy liberals.'' So why should they close the shop now? On August 27, just two days after the death, Rush Limbaugh said on his show, “Senator Kennedy screwed up everything he touched.... And now for conservatives who are in the wilderness, Ted Kennedy is a model for us to find the best in our tradition and to follow it? I mean, this is puke city.” At least we can agree on that.

If I had been the Republican recipient of endless stacks of fundraising letters decrying this supposedly evil man, it might have struck me as puzzling, even outrageous, to see my party's leaders so stricken by his death, proclaiming lifelong love and respect. And of course, it's not only Kennedy who has been targeted for fun and profit in this way, and it's not only Republicans doing the slamming. Remember Hillary's campaign ad on how Barack Obama couldn't be trusted to answer the red phone at 3 a.m.? Now she works for him, and it's all good; on NBC's Meet the Press recently, she laughed at the idea that she might have meant what she said during last year's primary season: “During a campaign you're going to magnify differences,” she told host David Gregory. But—now it can be told—“I always had a very healthy respect for his intelligence, for his worldview, for his understanding of the complexity that we face in the twenty-first century.''

It's the anger industry, in both politics and the media, that I blame for a lot of the anger we've seen at these health-care town halls—where protesters, when interviewed, almost invariably either name something completely unrelated to health care as their true irritant, or say they actually want what the president they oppose is selling. Blair Bielick, for example, who traveled from Idaho to Washington, D.C., for a recent protest of the president's reform plan, told one of Politics Daily's reporters, “I want tort reform, and more competition so that I can choose a plan to buy”—both goals Obama has endorsed. Heather Hodges, who had come from Texas, said she'd made the trip for another reason: “Why haven't we seen [the president's] birth certificate?” When pressed, Hodges said she does think Obama is an American citizen. “But, still, I think he should produce it,” she said, shrugging.

The older direct-mail and TV-ad arms of American anger production will get an enormous—and, to me, terrifying—boost if the Supreme Court decides to loosen restrictions on corporate political donations under the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law, as many court-watchers seem to feel is likely. And media anger factories on conservative radio and cable and in the liberal blogosphere continue to be rewarded in the marketplace. Many of these are outlets for performance artists or vendors who sell outrage the way others hawk weight-loss pills or clear skin. The only obvious solution is for consumers to refuse to carry on being suckered in this way. Which would, alas, require us to assume personal responsibility—something the president recently recommended, in a speech that was decried before he delivered it as a scary socialist indoctrination of schoolkids.

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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