Thursday, April 1, 2010

Don't Look Back In Anger

Don Hall has a paean of quotations up about anger. I've always been suspicious of anger: it is useful as a wind at your back, but rarely useful if it tries to do the work of change itself. You need to get angry before you change politically, but political change rarely comes from anger. Who brought us more change: Barack Obama or Howard Dean?

Take this one:
"Usually when people are sad, they don't do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change." -- Malcolm X
I mean, far be it from me to criticize Malcolm X (after all, he might get angry). But I do have this little chestnut of wisdom. There's a story that has been told among my people (Jews) that takes place in the times of Shtetls in Russia. It goes like this:

One day the Czar turned to his tax collector and said, "The Jews of our land haven't been paying in their fair share and I'm sick of it. Go to the Jews and tell them that henceforth, they will have to pay double in taxes."

The tax collector went among the Jews and told them that their taxes would be doubled. And they began to cry, and to wail -- "How could you do this to us? How could God let this befall us?" The Rabbi led prayers to God right there on the spot. "We'll starve! Our children won't have enough to eat! Please, tax collector!"

The tax collector was a nice enough man, and he was moved to see the Jews in their moment of need, so he hurried back to the Czar. Gently, he tried to tell the Czar that the Czar had really hurt the Jews. "I think we may be taking too much in taxes now... they are very poor."

The Czar exploded. "How DARE they! You go straight back to those Jews and tell them that you're tripling their taxes!"

The tax collector went among the Jews and told them that their taxes would be tripled. And they grew angry, they began to shout and stamp and throw their pitchforks to the ground -- "How could you do this to us, you bastard? How could God have let this happen?"

The tax collector was afraid their anger would turn towards him (the way it did in places like America), and ran to the Czar. "Please, your Highness, you have to understand -- they're becoming dangerous!"

The Czar raged. "How dare they question my taxes! Go and tell them that their taxes are quadrupled."

With fear in his heart, the tax collector went among the Jews and told them that their taxes would be quadrupled. Much to his surprise, they began to laugh. "Did you hear what he said?" one old Jew told another. "Our taxes are quadrulped!" They fell to the floor, laughing so hard that tears sprang to their eyes.

The tax collector went back to the Czar in wonder. "You must have been right," the tax collector concluded. "They are not angry or sad, they are laughing?"

"The Jews are laughing?" the Czar asked. "Oh no -- we've pushed them too far."

This is actually told as a joke in my family, but very few people who I tell this to actually find the punchline funny. I mean, I laugh, but I can't explain why.

Anyways, the point is is that much as there are stages of grief, there's stages of the revolution process on the inside.
  1. Denial
  2. Bargaining
  3. Depression
  4. Anger
  5. Power
I separate Power from Anger because I feel like it's that state beyond anger that is not so emotional as it is directional, an exercise of will. It has anger shooting out behind it, but it doesn't extend anger out in front of it -- it doesn't just rage and tear into things.

It's true that people who cry don't normally solve their problems. But as we're seeing out in the right-wing fringe, the angriest in our society have not been the change-makers. And it turns out we have enough anger out there today. Even though I think we all love Howard Beale's rant about being "Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," let's not forget where that movie leaves him. I don't deny that often, the change would not have come if they had not come first, but at the end of the day, power is the fuel of history.

... I still like your blog though, Don!