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From the November, 2005 issue of Touchstone


Mastery's Anger by Wilfred M. McClay

Mastery’s Anger

Wilfred M. McClay on the Dogmatic Assurance That Someone Is to Blame

Here is a portion of an interview with Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, conducted by Anderson Cooper of the Cable News Network on September 1, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Cooper begins by telling the senator that “for the last four days, I have been seeing dead bodies here in the streets of Mississippi and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other—I have to tell you, there are people here who are very upset and angry.” He continued:

When they hear politicians thanking one another, it just, you know, it cuts them the wrong way right now, because there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman has been laying in the street for 48 hours, and there is not enough facilities to get her up. Do you understand that anger?

Landrieu: I have the anger inside of me. Most of the homes in my family have been destroyed. I understand that, and I know all the details, and the President—

Cooper: Well, who are you angry at?

Yes, that surely was the question of the hour. Surrounded by dead bodies and immense devastation and suffering, the star reporter wants to know: Who are you angry at? And he was applauded universally for having whacked the hapless senator with such a tough-minded question. Indeed, one cannot help but be struck by the intensity of the Blame Game that erupted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Rather than debate those issues, though, I would like to suggest that what is going on in such disputations is a matter of far deeper social and moral significance than one might think at first glance.

Unspoken Morals

Much of the commotion, of course, is partisan in intent, and directed at President Bush for political purposes. Some or all of the criticisms may have some truth in them, and it is entirely probable that Republicans would have leveled the same kind of partisan criticisms at Bill Clinton. All of which I say to make clear that I am not talking about the good or evil of any particular political party.

What seems worthy of note here is not the storm of political debate, for political storms nearly always follow in the wake of great natural disasters. Instead, what one notices are the unspoken moral and metaphysical premises carried in the impassioned search for villains. Someone Is To Blame. There is, and must be, a guilty party. Someone, some person or persons, some sinister congeries, some identifiable and vested interests, can and must be held accountable. The stones and waters cry out for vengeance.

A widely shared assumption is gradually becoming a part of our era’s unstated desiderata: Simply put, we seem increasingly to assume that everything untoward happening in the world can and should ultimately be attributed to the malfeasance of some human being or human agency. If most educated Americans now find ridiculous the idea of supernatural intervention, they find it equally difficult to accept the possibility that there can be any inherent limits on human agency. Nothing, so to speak, is ever reliably left to chance.

Curious, though, the extent to which bastardized forms of Christianity find their way to the elite culture’s back door and structure its moral responses. When the New York Times implied that Hurricane Katrina was somehow Nature’s punishment for President Bush’s failure to sign the Kyoto accords, one couldn’t help but smile, thinking of how much their response resembles—and does not resemble—those of the New England Puritans, who saw crop failures and sea storms as signs of God’s displeasure with them. The same moral machinery is recognizably present. But the moral seriousness of the old days is now largely absent.

These phenomena offer potent confirmation of something that I have argued in the pages of Touchstone before: that the increase in our rational mastery over the physical terms of our existence will not make us happier or more content, and may even lead us into a very unpleasant world of chronic political instability and social unease, precisely because of the perpetually unrealistic and unsatisfiable expectations of human mastery that our successes have generated.

Controlling Conspiracies

It has often been argued that an individual’s attraction to conspiracy theories, far from being a sign of irrationality, is a sign of hyper-rationality, of an insistence that great events in the world cannot ever proceed by chance or without intelligible human direction.

The historian Gordon Wood wrote a brilliant essay on this subject in 1982, arguing that the conspiracy-mindedness that has been glibly labeled “the paranoid style” in American politics was partly a product of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, with their insistence upon the rational intelligibility and orderliness of events, and upon the human ability to exercise control over them. He confirmed what one can observe every day, that the conspiracy-minded are often very intelligent, even as they are remarkably foolish.

Of course, one might also argue that conspiracy-mindedness stands in a continuum with the practice of magic and other pre-rational antecedents, including most pagan and animistic religions, which are similarly aimed at controlling events and circumstances. It is quite natural for us humans to wish to control our world—and natural enough for us to posit that, if we are not in control, someone else is.

As the scholar René Girard famously observed in his study of the scapegoat mechanism, the displacement of responsibility onto particular individuals or groups within a society can be a key transaction in those societies’ moral economy, restoring the health of the social order by displacing the sins of the community onto a sacrificial head—a crude and violent dynamic that is itself a savage parody of the Christian gospel. But it is a dynamic that seemingly cannot be suppressed.

Consider how often Washington’s scandal dramas go on and on, and cannot end until someone, anyone, is conspicuously sacrificed. In the post-Katrina furor, for example, it quickly became clear that the head of FEMA was a head that had to roll.

Yet interestingly, and paradoxically, such behavior occurs in a world in which, as many observers have noted, the moral status of victimization has never been higher. How does one account for that? The merest beginning of an answer would be to point out that the unlimited extension of our power inevitably means an unlimited extension of our potential responsibility, and of our moral culpability. This is a great moral burden, one most people would rather not have to bear, and really cannot bear, since we so often choose wrongly and exercise our power foolishly.

The mere fact that our society has become increasingly post-Christian in its operating beliefs does not mean that human beings have ceased to need one of the chief benefits the Christian gospel offers: a way to cope with the burden of one’s real and inevitable guilt. But one post-Christian way to cope, at least partly, is to become a certifiable victim, since a victim is, by definition, one who is not guilty of the misuse of his power. A victim is innocent.

Or made innocent—justification by victimization, so to speak. Hence the feverish competition in our culture to claim victim status, and to transfer culpability to other people. Those who cannot claim the status of victim—white male Republicans, for example—are the only ones who can safely be blamed. If every evil must be someone’s fault, every evil must be their fault.

Our Pretensions

Again, I make no particular judgments about who, if anyone, bears responsibility for the various disastrous effects of Katrina. We will have a clearer picture eventually, once the passions of the moment have subsided, and careful investigators are able to trace lines of causation. But many people will not care about the specifics; the important thing for them will be the dogmatic assurance that Someone Is To Blame.

This points, I believe, to an increasingly familiar pattern of expectation, which will grow as our pretensions to unlimited scientific knowledge and technological wizardry grow, and as our effective faith in Divine Providence decreases (a decrease that is perfectly compatible with continuing high levels of religious observance and commitment). We expect perfection, and are angry when we do not get it.

Our medical system has been remarkably skillful, and grows more skillful in each passing year, in addressing a range of diseases and conditions that were formerly thought to be untreatable. But modern medicine cannot banish the risk of suffering and the certainty of death, which is why the medical system is all too often a casualty of the very expectations it raises (think, for example, of the costs of malpractice insurance and its effects on the practice of medicine), and why the pharmaceutical industry is being sued to within an inch of its life.

The principle can be extended to other realms. There is a sense in which, the more things become mastered, the more intolerable are those things in which our mastery is not yet complete. This parallels very neatly the observation made by Tocqueville that times of revolutionary upheaval occur when social expectations are rising, and that the growth of social equality in America would exacerbate, rather than relieve, Americans’ sense of class injury and class resentment.

This is less of a paradox than it seems at first glance. And it will only add to our sense of grievance when we find that the areas eluding our mastery (particularly, I think, in the realms of medicine and public health) are likely to proliferate in years to come. Storms and earthquakes will continue, as will plagues and epidemics and accidents and other things beyond our control, including the appearance of drug-resistant strains of disease (such as tuberculosis) that we thought we had conquered.

Illusive Mastery

The illusion of mastery makes it very hard for us to absorb the blow of such events in a mature way: to move beyond them, learn from them, and be deepened and made wiser by them, after the pattern of Romans 8:28. Instead, we would-be masters will perpetually ask ourselves, “Who are we angry at?” And, in our preoccupation with that arid question, we will never wonder why we are becoming such an embittered and wary people, lacking the capacity for simple joy, or grief, or gratitude, or peace.

We would do well, then, to recognize how much of the intense, free-floating anger and unhappiness that pervade so much of our prosperous world may derive precisely from the false or inflated expectations that our successes in mastering our physical environment have generated. The effects of a hurricane would be much easier to live with, were we not so intent upon convincing ourselves that some human culprits caused it. In the interest of both truth and sanity, we might want to pause and reflect upon how little mastery we really have—least of all, of ourselves.

McClay’s “Mastery’s Shadow,” published in the March 2002 issue, can be found at

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina) and A Student?s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

“Mastery's Anger” first appeared in the November 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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