Today’s column is about plastic straws, hamburgers and dishwashing detergent. Also Captain Marvel.No, I haven’t lost my mind, or at least I don’t think so. But quite a few other people have — and their rage-filled pettiness is a more important force in modern America than we like to think.My starting point is a weekend tweet from Representative Devin Nunes of California, who headed the House Intelligence Committee until the House changed hands after the midterms. In that role, he basically acted as Donald Trump’s stonewaller in chief, doing everything he could to prevent any real investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin.But his tweet wasn’t about that. It was about a waitress who, citing the “straw police,” asked his dining party if they wanted
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Today’s column is about plastic straws, hamburgers and dishwashing detergent. Also Captain Marvel.
No, I haven’t lost my mind, or at least I don’t think so. But quite a few other people have — and their rage-filled pettiness is a more important force in modern America than we like to think.
My starting point is a weekend tweet from Representative Devin Nunes of California, who headed the House Intelligence Committee until the House changed hands after the midterms. In that role, he basically acted as Donald Trump’s stonewaller in chief, doing everything he could to prevent any real investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin.
But his tweet wasn’t about that. It was about a waitress who, citing the “straw police,” asked his dining party if they wanted straws. “Welcome to Socialism in California!” Nunes thundered.
If this seems like a weird aberration — he wasn’t even denied a straw, just asked if he wanted one — you need to realize that rage explosions over seemingly silly things are extremely common on the right. By all accounts, the biggest applause line at the Conservative Political Action Conference — eliciting chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” — was the claim that Democrats are coming for your hamburgers, just like Stalin. (They aren’t, and for the record, Stalin was a mass murderer, but objectively pro-burger.)
By the way, this isn’t a new phenomenon. I’m sure readers can come up with many examples, but I happen to remember a 2009 blog post by the right-wing activist Erick Erickson that was practically an incitement to violence: “At what point do the people tell the politicians to go to hell? At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp?”
And what was the source of his rage? The observation that dishwasher detergent doesn’t work quite as well without the phosphates.
What do these things have in common? All of them involve cases where individual choices impose costs on other people. Plastic straws really are a source of ocean pollution. While nobody is planning to ban beef, flatulent cows really are an important source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And phosphates contribute to toxic algae blooms.
But the rage seems to come from the suggestion that these costs imposed on others mean that white men — it does seem to always be white men — should consider changing their behavior, even a bit, in the public interest. Which brings me to Captain Marvel.
For those blissfully unaware of the issue, the latest superhero movie features a female protagonist, and the actress who plays her has expressed some mildly feminist views. So?
Well, for a significant number of men all of this is apparently extremely threatening. Mobs swamped internet sites like rottentomatoes.com with negative reviews before the movie opened, i.e., before they could even have seen it; YouTube filled up with attack videos and predictions that the film would be a disastrous failure.
Marvel rage recognizably drew on the same pathological pettiness as straw rage and hamburger rage. As it happens, the movie appears to be a big hit and is receiving favorable audience scores. This shows that the men afflicted with this syndrome are a fairly small minority.
But it’s not a minority without influence. Nunes was, for a time, among the most important politicians in Washington. CPAC sets the agenda for the party that controls the White House and the Senate. The recently revealed radio rants of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson could have come straight out of one of those bizarre anti-Brie Larson screeds.
The point is that demented anger is a significant factor in modern American political life — and overwhelmingly on one side. All that talk about liberal “snowflakes” is projection; if you really want to see people driven wild by tiny perceived slights and insults, you’ll generally find them on the right. Nor is it just about racism and misogyny. Although these are big components of the phenomenon, I don’t see the obvious connection to hamburger paranoia.
Just to be clear: To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I’m not saying that most conservatives are filled with rage over petty things. What I’m saying instead is that most of those filled with such rage are conservatives, and they supply much of the movement’s energy. Not to put too fine a point on it, pathological pettiness almost surely put Donald Trump over the top in the 2016 election.
At this point you probably want to know what I think we should do about it. The truth is that I don’t know. I guess there’s some case for using taxes rather than regulations to control pollution, since you won’t be telling people directly what to do. But one suspects that the people I’m talking about will still find something to be hysterical about.
At the very least, however, we should realize what’s happening. It may be comforting to believe that politics is driven by more or less rational considerations of costs and benefits. But the reality is that a lot of it is driven by unreasoning rage.
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