Part I: From Road Rage to God Rage
“It’s too late to turn back; ours is now an anger-based economy. I see a glorious tomorrow where hybrid vehicles run half on gasoline, and half on ‘seething hate.’ I call it rageohol. Join me in the future: for the future belongs to the furious.”
- The Daily Show’s Steven Colbert on US election night, November 2, 2004.
Air rage. Road rage. Work rage. It seems like everyone is raging about something these days. An acquaintance recently told me of a time-consuming headache that resulted when he forgot to bring his membership card to a large supermarket chain. In response, he threw his shopping basket to the side and stomped out of the supermarket. “Store rage!” I laughed, half tongue in cheek. Yet I wonder how long it will be before “store rage” joins other the other niche fits defining our overcomplicated, overworked, overextended lifestyles.
These stress-related hissy-fits are the minor meltdowns of modern life. At a more macro scale, the new millennium has seen an explosion of conflicts and wars, as the “people of the book” – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – experience what you might call “God rage.” In holy texts from the first two creeds, Jehovah is forever raining fire and brimstone on unbelievers, or otherwise smiting the enemies of Israel. Even with his own “chosen people,” the Creator demonstrates what looks suspiciously like a bipolar streak. A pop cultural riff on this cosmic indignation was captured perfectly in the film Pulp Fiction, in which Samuel L. Jackson’s character dispatched his enemies with a handgun and a few lines from the Book of Ezekiel. “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers! And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!”
From Judaic literature we read that “God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries and he reserveth wrath for his enemies.” Islamic texts, which draw from the same historical DNA as the Judaic and Christian texts (the three religions share Abraham, Moses, and others as prophets), have similarly dubious material about cosmic tantrums. Is it any wonder the world today is such a mess, when the CEO of Smite has branch plants of rage across the East and West?
Pope Gregory listed anger among the seven deadly sins, recognizing its destructive qualities both within and without the community. There are also rabbinical Talmudic dicta to the same effect: “At first anger is like a transient lodger, then a guest, but after a while it becomes the host.” Islamic mysticism rejects hatred and embraces love. Clearly, organized religion has had an ambivalent relationship with the emotion of anger. That hasn’t changed greatly in the past two millennia. What has changed is that anger, like the other so-called deadly sins, has been profitably spun by the mass market into one of the Deadly Spins. Anger moves product – and more than just the weaponry of international arms merchants.
Examples litter the pop culture landscape. Violent imagery for children, once limited to anvils dropping on Saturday morning cartoon characters, has morphed into today’s technically accomplished overkill. From the stylized violence of celebrity wrestlers to the digitized destruction of characters in video games, there’s a whole lot of smitin’ goin’ on. Sociologists and pundits argue over statistics linking teen violence to violent imagery, and whether the media is merely a mirror to culture at large, or a force unto itself.
In spring of 2001, two Vermont teenagers charged with the knifing murder of two Dartmouth College professors went on trial. Ron Powers summed up the crime in The Atlantic Monthly: “The case offers entry into a disturbing subject: acts of lethal violence committed by ‘ordinary’ teenagers from ‘ordinary’ communities, teenagers who have become detached from civic life, saturated by the mythic violent imagery of popular culture, and consumed by the dictates of some private murderous fantasy.”
The kids didn’t fit into any popularly imagined demographic of inner city gang-bangers, or white-trash troublemakers. Neither did the mass-murdering “trenchcoat mafia” from Columbine high school, who preferred the byways of cyberspace to high school hallways. The role of pop-culture in this kind of criminal behaviour is a complex issue. We have to factor in the phenomenon of a declining middle class, and all its baggage: retreating social services and public spaces, the emergence of two-income families, the loss of community, and the rise of latchkey kids. “School’s burned down forever,” Alice Cooper sang 30 years ago – yet the rocker inspired no known outbreaks of high school pyromania. The lyrics of Judas Priest and other heavy metal bands failed to set pimpled pupils off on killing sprees. So a one-to-one correspondence between pop culture and teen terror isn’t likely – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask if youthful anger has been spun into a salable commodity by today’s massive machinery of hype.
Part II: A CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
“A psychiatrist testified…he (the 19-year-old who firebombed a Jewish school in Montreal last April) committed the internationally denounced hate crime just to be cool.”
“Late in the twentieth century, these are our household deities,” writes Dery.
We love our pop-culture monsters. One reason is that it’s fun to be scared vicariously. Another reason could be that these murderous misanthropes are seen as more in tune with the times than the few remaining culture heroes who command our admiration (many of whom hail from the world of big money sports).
Of course, adults have been going on about media contamination of children since the era of vinyl records and rabbit-ear antennae. Yet our media environment has been with us long enough that solid research on its influence can now be conducted. In 1994 George Gerbner, dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s school for communications, conducted a study of the social impact of violence on television. He concluded that “heavy viewers are more likely than comparable groups of lighter viewers to overestimate one’s chances of involvement in violence; to believe that one’s neighbourhood is unsafe; to state that fear of crime is a very serious personal problem; and to assume that crime is rising, regardless of the facts of the case...other results show the viewers are also more likely to have bought new locks and watchdogs, for protection.”
In this climate of fear (and fear is anger’s fraternal twin), the charismatic sociopath from Blue Velvet isn’t just some weirdo in a movie; he’s imagined into being as the guy living next door.
Ironically, according to statistics, violent crime has declined over the past 10 years across North America, yet new forms of violence are emerging among the young. Girl-on-girl beatings are increasingly commonplace. Shootings by teens at high schools, a phenomenon unheard of only a decade ago, have resulted in increased security presence in many US schools. Many of them are now the educational equivalents of correctional facilities.
Is the sitcom mentality, where every problem has a half-hour solution, melding with private fantasies of computer-gamer violence? Isolated from others in an educational setting that increasingly pushes on-line learning and studying alone – and using much of their free time to navigate on the web and chat online – the young are being removed from the face-to-face influence of family and community.
Decades ago, Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan saw the social fallout from technology’s acceleration of daily living. “In the eighties, as we transfer our whole being to the data bank, privacy will become a ghost or echo of its former self and what remains of community will disappear.”
What was only a nascent phenomenon toward the end of McLuhan’s life has taken on sharper outlines in the past decade. We’re in a better position now to understand what he was talking about. In a letter to a friend in 1975, the University of Toronto professor explained the psychological fallout from the individual’s immersion in the electronic collective. “I first began to explain...that pornography and violence are by-products of societies in which private identity has been scrubbed or destroyed by sudden environmental change, or unexpected confrontations that disrupt the image the individual or the group entertains of itself. Any loss of identity prompts people to seek reassurance and rediscovery of themselves by testing, and even by violence. Today, the electric revolution, the wired planet, and the information environment involve everybody in everybody to the point of individual extinction.”
In 1976, McLuhan wrote that “the loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.”
In an alienated milieu, with children and adults electronically connected but communally adrift, the human soul becomes a petri dish for the virus of violent nihilism. The web-surfing Columbine killers, bullied by school jocks, had as their cultural DNA the revenge motifs from action films and computer games. Like many other anonymous types who have sought out identity through ammo, they were the products of an electronic age where private achievement and communal good works has shrunk into irrelevance before the glittering promise of television celebrity. And when celebrity of most compelling kind – global infamy – can be bought for the price of a handgun, there will always be those few whose fear of the consequences will be overcome by private fantasies of violent retribution and the attendant 15 minutes of fame.
Once in the sights of the media eye, the killer is no longer immersed in the electronic collective like all the others, but singled out for attention. In a 1974 interview, McLuhan said that the electric media “has extended man in a colossal, superhuman way, but it has not made individuals feel important...Electrically, the corporate human scale has become vast even as private identity shrinks to the pitiable. The ordinary man can feel so pitiably weak that, like a skyjacker, he’ll reach for a superhuman dimension of world coverage in a wild, desperate effort for fulfillment...The media tend to make everybody puny, while offering them the opportunity to be supermen.”
With the so-called “war on terror” – a vast and rubbery term indeed – the opportunity for bored young men to become supermen has shifted focus recently. In 2001, US military recruitment began to appear in skateboarding and computer gaming magazines, as part of a teen-targeting campaign going by the slogan “An Army of One.” The advertisements trafficked in the imagery of Schwarzenegger films. One image from a skateboarding magazine was described in The Globe and Mail newspaper as “of a soldier in a black-visored motorcycle helmet, cartridge-studded black body armor, black gloves and a big black weapon.” Behind the soldier are lines suggesting the noisy pixels of a fuzzy TV or computer screen. The copy boasts of the “soldier system that gives me 360-degree vision in pitch black.”
The copy continues: “Makes me invisible to the naked eye. Let’s me walk up a mountainside. And run in a desert. You’ve never seen anything like me. But don’t worry. They haven’t either. I Am an Army of One. And you can see my strength.”
Old recruitment ads traded on the sentimental appeal to public service or patriotic duty. In contrast, the Army of One campaign deftly capitalizes on the pop-culture imagery of hi-tech violence to sell the young on the opportunity to carry private dreams of violent retribution into the nightmare world of international conflict. Of course, it’s a ruse: teamwork is the order of the day in the military, not some Robocop/Terminator mission direct from Donald Rumsfeld. But advertisers know that reasoned deconstruction of their ads aren’t likely from bored young man in the ‘burbs with a talent at Halo 2.
The appeal to anger, and violent revenge, features powerfully in the jihads of fundamentalist terrorists. The hi-tech western variant, drawing on the vast subterranean imagery of secular vengeance from US media, undoubtedly can only aid the “full spectrum dominance” cited by Vice-President Dick Cheney for US global control. And in a battle for hearts and minds, the West is engineering a combustible mix of righteousness and rock n’ roll. In a November 2004 report on the second assault on Fallujah, Agence France-Press described how “35 marines swayed to Christian rock music and asked Jesus Christ to protect them” prior to the biggest battle since US troops invaded Iraq last year.
The troops, with “buzzcuts and clad in their camouflage waved their hands in the air, M-16 assault rifles laying beside them…chanted heavy-metal-flavoured lyrics in praise of Christ late Friday in a yellow-brick chapel. ‘Victory belongs to the Lord,’ another young marine read...The marines then lined up and their chaplain blessed them with holy oil to protect them.”
We may be seeing the outlines of a new kind of western culture of rage, meant to match the culture of rage in the East. Whereas the latter makes an appeal to defending Islam, its western doppelganger makes an appeal to freedom under our own alternately wrathful and merciful God. Is the “war on terror” morphing into a high-tech Children’s Crusade, with Christian rock radio as the Pied Paper, and PlayStation, X-box and the Good Book as user guides?