Thursday Threnodies

Peter Wood


On January 5 Burger King released a new menu item, the Angry Whopper.   I saw it for the first time today and asked the young Latina woman at the counter what made this particular Whopper so angry. She smiled sweetly and asked what size drink I wanted. 

I am, of course, professionally interested in anger. My book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, charts the decline of an older ethic of self-control to the current cultural emphasis on self-expression, in which self-expression typically takes the form of verbal anger. I cover a lot of topics in the book, including anger in politics, sports, entertainment, music, talk radio, blogging, grrrl power, clothing, bumper stickers, self-help, and even automobile design, but I failed to anticipate angry hamburgers. 

So what does make the Angry Whopper so ill-tempered? It isn’t the spicy crispy onions, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, or mayonnaise. It isn’t even the jalapeños and pepper jack cheese. No, it is the Angry Sauce.  Burger King’s promotional campaign for the Angry Whopper includes a website, from which visitors can send Angry-Gram emails to friends and enemies. It is a form letter in which the user gets to fill in the blanks from options on a menu of choices that range from silly to mildly offensive. The recipient receives an email that opens into an Angry Whopper which, in a paroxysm of rage and a gruff male voice, hurls insults.

Insult humor has been around for a long time—think of the comedian Don Rickles—and the Internet of course lends itself to vitriol-at-a-distance. But why would a fast food marketing giant think that there is money to be made is selling anger-themed food?     Food, of course, is a ubiquitous medium for people to express themselves. My Bee in the Mouth thesis is that we are in a cultural epoch in which expressive anger is extolled as empowering, authentic, and entertaining.   Rather than check their angry impulses, people seek to elaborate them and often to turn them into angry performances. I call this narcissistic performed anger “new anger,” to distinguish it from the anger-as-last-resort that was once the cultural ideal. 

Burger King, whose business depends on being tapped into the zeitgeist, has introduced a product perfectly matched to new anger. The angry whopper is presented as a hyper-articulate sneer artist who enjoys his own rage. Presumably the customer who bites into the burger enjoys some of the same zing.



Amherst Anger

            Have faculty members at Amherst College been having too many angry meals at Burger King? No, it couldn’t be that. Angry Sauce hadn’t yet been invented in His Majesty’s kitchens when this happened.

            It seems that back in February 2004 Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was invited to speak at Amherst.   A group of professors urged a boycott of his lecture, and some in the audience wore black armbands to protest. Scalia’s lecture, however, went off smoothly, as recounted a few days later by Ethan Davis at the Claremont Institute. The next evening, after Scalia had left, the pro-boycott professors turned their denunciations up a notch. By Davis’ account, one of the professors offered a novel interpretation of academic freedom: 

Austin Sarat, the professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought who was one of the signers of the faculty boycott letter, delivered a long monologue. "The scope of legitimate debate on a college campus is narrower than in the world at-large," he declared. "Whether homosexuals are covered under the equal protection clause is not a debatable subject on a college campus." Furthermore, Professor Sarat announced, he did not find Antonin Scalia to have an "interesting mind."

The story has a second life thanks to an Amherst alumnus who remembered a letter written by Meg Scalia, the Justice’s daughter, who graduated from Amherst in 2002, and who took exception to the College’s treatment of her father. Peter Robinson quoted from the letter on The Corner on Tuesday. The letter itself is here, but attached to some other students letters that belong in my “Lubriciousness Watch” on the Sunday Blog a few weeks ago. 

            The kinds of professors who stage protests like these seldom seem to be standing up for any principle, however misguided. Rather, they are performing—partly for each other and partly for the approval of an undergraduate audience. There is a kind of imaginary grandeur in attempting to elevate oneself by behaving petulantly towards a prominent public figure, and in a small college community the professors who do this sort of thing can gain some status as courageous or clever—while running no risk and simply rehashing some leftist clichés. 

            What passed for high humor in February 2004 was coming to Scalia’s lecture wearing duck feathers and behaving like ducks, to poke fun at him for duck hunting with Vice President Cheney. Scalia was game. His reply to the protesters consisted of two words, “Quack, quack.” 

            Stunt anger falls flat if it fails to rouse real anger in response.

            The Amherst story is old news, but it seems to have passed a certain test of time. Austin Sarat still teaches there as the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, who, despite his august title, deserves best to be remembered as a man too small to be gracious to a visiting justice of the Supreme Court, and as someone who views "The scope of legitimate debate on a college campus [to be] narrower than in the world at-large." Quack, Quack.


Medical School Match Day

            Today is the day on which the National Resident Matching Program announces where the doctors about to graduate from medical school will go for their residencies. NRMP has been presiding over this since 1952. Listen to a podcast of NRMP Executive Director Mona Signor discuss this year’s Match Day results. According to Signor, this was the largest year ever for the Match. Some 37,000 registrants competed for 25,000 residencies. The 130 allopathic medical schools contributed over 15,600 registered—up 400 from last year. 

            Students who register for Match Day list the hospitals in rank order where they would like to serve their residencies. It is a happy medical school student who learned today that he got his first choice. Congratulations to all the Matchees! 



            Over at National Review Online today, Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, East Bay, and long time NAS contributor, reviews Donald Johanson’s account of his discovery of Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus.   Glynn provocatively segues from the Great Rift Valley to Washington State, where the 10,000-year-old Kennewick Man skeleton was recovered in 1996, and was preserved for science over the efforts of both President Clinton and Senator John McCain, both of whom saw more advantage to playing identity politics with contemporary Native Americans than in allowing scientific archaeology to take its course.  

            In the last week, we posted a variety of responses to President Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on stem cell research. The President said his new policy, “is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."  It is helpful to be reminded just how seldom such transparency about scientific data has been practiced by either Republicans or Democrats. 


Critical Play

            Mary Flanagan, a “digital humanities professor” (!) at Dartmouth has designed a video game designed to advance “humanistic principles.” So reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her game is called Layoff, and the humanistic values in question appear to be the resentment we need to cultivate towards self-serving managers who lay off innocent workers to preserve their own privileges. The game, according to its website, is designed for “social change.” Its logo is a socialist-workers-style fist holding a hammer-like game controller. The mission of “The Tiltfactor Laboratory” which makes the game is to focus on “critical play.” 

            Here at NAS we are serious about critical play. Hence Ashley Thorne has been busy this afternoon testing the site. She laid off hundreds of workers and saved over $4.97 billion. She laid off:

Mani, 22, is a mechanic and gets to work each day by public transportation very early in the morning. Hoping to bring family from abroad to live with him in the next two years, Mani is strictly saving every penny, with the exception of apartment rent that is shared with 5 other friends. Mani is paid the minimum wage.

She also sent Jaz to the recycle bin unemployment office:

Jaz (45) is a disciplined and organized accountant. Jaz takes classes to upgrade work knowledge, and while Jaz has not said anything yet, she would like to get promoted and receive better pay and benefits. 

Too bad Jaz. We had to make some adjustments. 

            The fun here is that you are not laying off anonymous nobodies. Each little character has a back story and you can anticipate the misery and hardship you are about to cause. The bankers and businessmen, however, don’t have names or back stories, but they do have arrogant little thoughts such as:

“The housing market is in a slump, but this only helps me as I have received a $625,000 down payment alone this year. Whee! Discounted lofts!”

“Wall Street executives like myself enjoy lavish salaries and huge bonuses because we work hard. Thanks to the generosity of the American people, our company is relatively unaffected at the top. This year I received $800,000. Not too bad. Thank you.”

You can move these executives around, but they never disappear. You can also do a “bank bailout” to rearrange the board if you find yourself stuck in a liquidity crisis. 

            It is heartwarming that Professor Flanagan and her colleagues have thought this through. Where would our humanistic principles be without opportunities to revel in anti-capitalist fantasies? 

            Higher education has its own recipes for angry sauce.

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