Of Roads and Rage

One of the great frustrations of modern life is its sanctions against rage. For instance: how often have you felt compelled to beat back satire, contempt, or disgust for the sake of being polite? Now try to imagine the opposite case. Or have you experienced this: when I was younger I couldn’t complete a job interview without submitting myself to the necessary cliché that ‘I love working with the public.’

In fact there is nothing less loveable than the public. Even to encounter it briefly, as on the subway, is for me intolerable. And yet we are discouraged from admitting this. The public mood, when it involves formal relations, is necessarily fake-friendly. This is not a condemnation of civility, which in any case is to be distinguished from the tedious convention of making everyone out to be a friend. I’ve noticed that waiters, for example, have been instructed by cynical managers to introduce themselves by name to customers. It was only a short step from here to the idle chatter in which cashiers now routinely attempt to engage their customers. No wonder the Europeans find North Americans so tiresome, so unremittingly and artificially nice.

So far I have described mere conventional manners, which may seem irrelevant to a discussion of rage. But the point I wish to establish is that the truth about human affairs is often unpleasant, thus the effort to suppress unpleasantness at any cost is also an effort to suppress the truth. To a degree, the suppression may be wise. I’m certain many of the world’s nice people hate their jobs and the obnoxious people they meet. I am also certain rage is a common emotion, especially concerning the public responses to the acts of politicians. Yet I would scarcely recommend we act on our rage willy-nilly, for instance by indulging in reactionary politics. The case I wish to make on behalf of rage is more complex than this, and perhaps says a good deal about the contemporary public and its discontents.

If you scratch a good number of Canadians today you discover, beneath the conventional niceness, a shirty reactionary. The easy abundance of “send in the army” comments on the CBC website, which accompanies articles on Aboriginal people, is a good example of latent hostilities waiting to be exploited by future politicians. Contemporary public life, meaning electoral politics and media, is characterized by the nourishing, and then manipulation, of base emotions. I have learned, to my great discomfort, that all around there are perfectly nice people who, upon the introduction of certain topics (welfare recipients, capital punishment, the war in Iraq), become quite hostile, as if you’d stabbed a finger into their genitals. They have carried around with them a deep-seated rage, a visceral hostility which is part indignation and part frustration. I have felt these things myself, almost on a daily basis. I have wanted momentarily to murder. I’ve noticed this feeling comes when I read the papers – and again I hasten to add that the media are themselves mostly reactionary, mostly in the business of fomenting and directing discontent. But as the saying goes, it takes two to dance; the public both shapes ‘the system’ and is in turn shaped by it. The whole thing works something like this: media-informed Canadians learn that the country is governed by duplicitous opportunists. Their faces are daily rubbed in the hypocrisy, injustice, violence, and corruption of their ‘betters.’ What do they do? Support the first duplicitous opportunist who has learned how to give voice to their rage. The whole thing is a sham, really, and they know it. But the truth about rage never gets out. All one hears about are the familiar suspects.

Consider ‘road rage.’ Here we have a useful analogy to the current political mood. The growth of the automobile industry is unsustainable. It’s making the cities ugly, crowded, dirty, and uninhabitable. Thanks to the efforts of lobbyists, sane and decent proposals for the organisation of living spaces were long ago defeated. Every year the city planners pave over more green space and further congest the streets with cars and their bad drivers. The arrangement of the world around the automobile now and then strikes the sane person as a species of madness. Everyone knows the problems exist, and yet they are given no practical and immediate forum in which to express usefully their frustration. What expression does exist is arbitrary and meaningless. Nonetheless it is a response to real conditions. The road rage therapist (and there is such a thing) is a sort of pundit who turns the whole matter into a simple failure of manners, clouding the discussion with sociological gas. Road rage, it turns out, is about everything except the road. Wouldn’t it be more healthy though to admit we may hate, for very good reasons, rush hour, crowds, smog, bad driving, traffic jams, concrete jungles, and commuting? At least then our rage would lead us to consider the plain observable facts of our experience, and perhaps to work together toward some decent changes.

This movement from private experience to a public dialogue and collective action would involve a form of human behaviour known as ‘politics.’ In some limited ways, it is true, there is democracy in Canada. Nonetheless I would suggest that the most significant fact of social life at the end of the 20th century is that most people, not only here but elsewhere, are deeply outraged by the public affairs of their country but entirely convinced there is nothing they can do about it. The system is evidently rigged, maybe beyond redemption. So the ordinary folk contain their private, and impotent, rage until a demagogue comes along and opens the bottle.

It is too easy to predict the rise of fascism, or some other such bugaboo. The right wing, currently the source of political momentum in Canada, has tapped into popular discontent; to date however it resembles the fascist right only in some details. Among the social-Darwinist intelligentsia, who promulgate right-wing ideology in the National Post and the Toronto Sun, virulent racism is regarded as déclassé. The acceptable targets of rage are feminists, welfare recipients, unions, and modern liberalism – in short, the advocates of ‘special interests’ generally. One finds among the intellectual right an instinctual deference to traditional authority, and a disgust with anything that suggests collectivist arrangements. This last point perhaps more than any other portends the future direction of Canada, a general withdraw from the public sphere and a return to 19th-century social arrangements. In other words: Leave social problems, and indeed society itself, to voluntary private philanthropy. This is the social background of laissez-faire capitalism, on behalf of which the right-wing has launched its moral crusade. To get there, however, it has been necessary first to turn the public against The Public.

The political left, which abhors individualist talk, underestimates the appeal of the ‘minding one’s own business’ approach. In today’s media-circus culture, the very idea comes as does a breath of fresh air. It is exhilarating. Society, a term which includes political and economic systems, is thought by many to be in a condition every bit as unsustainable as are the roads. Whether or not this perception is warranted is not the present concern; the point is, this notion informs government policy. On the private road of life, one may drive into the sunset, to where there are no feminists, no poor, no welfare sponges, and no teacher unions: in short, no undesirables. The right’s political goal is to rid the individual not only of social obligations, but of society itself – which, as Margaret Thatcher has said, doesn’t exist anyway. The goal has been attracting a good many supporters.

If my intuition, then, is correct, the future may be shaped as much by deep-seated rage as it is by anything else. This may seem to you needlessly dark. That it is perhaps so I concede. And yet there is surely something ‘unnatural’ and disturbing about the average Canadian life – a life under which rage subtends, rarely acknowledged, day after day, until something or someone suddenly brings it to the surface. [-July 1998, revised February 2010]

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