Tramp the Dirt Down: Notes on the Politics of Anger
I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child's face
In her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
Coming down on that child's lips?
Hypocrisy boils blood.
Rare and pronounced instances of it fuels rage on both the Left and the Right, hastening the good guardians of the liberal torch to a thousand false equivalences. Faithful party hacks, besieged on both sides by what they perceive as a single amorphous mob out to ruin their stale sense of order, resort to hacking furiously at their party’s better half. Death to the future. Long live big money donors, suburban moderates, 90s-era political cynicism. Let the professionals handle this, kids. Don’t dream too big.
Somewhere in Antarctica a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan crashes into the sea. It’s not just blood that’s boiling.
“Purity,” as in the apparent saintliness inherent in advancing the most basic progressive policy positions, is the latest epithet to be wielded against the opposition wing of the would-be opposition party. The term is surprisingly self-incriminating when one considers not only the present stakes but the catastrophically far-reaching failures of liberals’ recent—what to call it if not—impurity. Perhaps focus groups have discovered diminishing returns in the politics of erasure and outright contempt for the enemy within—a phrase with some history—spread far and wide on the wings of prior insults like “Berniebro” and “basement dweller.”
I’ve been thinking about name-calling this past year. Not only on the part of a coldly calculating political establishment, but also among those who let their mouths fly in moments of uncontained acrimony. I’ve been thinking about the limits of political anger, the borderline where righteous indignation slips over into self-betrayal. I’ve been thinking about songs of rage. Josh White and Nina Simone and, yeah, Bob Dylan. I’ve been thinking about the Punk and New Wave rockers who wrote songs about Margaret Thatcher. Who wrote under the darkening skies of Thatcherism: the “attempt,” in Stuart Hall’s words, “to colonise and articulate the contradictory experiences and conditions of the dominated classes in the direction of [what in 1980 could still be called] the radical Right.”
Well I hope that she sleeps well at night,
Isn't haunted by every tiny detail
When she held that lovely face in her hands
All she thought of was betrayal
I’ve been thinking about Elvis Costello. About a song that travelled many miles with me many years ago. And that I had occasion to return to thanks to a YouTube clip I found myself watching at a particularly charged moment during the 2016 Democratic Primary.
27,000 people had crammed into Washington Square Park on a chilly April evening. Many were hopeful first-time voters. Others were old and hardened progressive Democrats, “Obama disappointees.” Stickers that would dot the paving stones well into the summer were on every lapel and breast pocket. Tracy Chaplain had been blasting all afternoon on the PA system, a reminder of how long it had been since words like revolution seemed native to the American political vernacular. Somehow over the preceding months, young people of every color and gender identification and faith had rediscovered in larger numbers than at any recent moment in history that politics is what happens when anger is used as a resource, directed toward possibility, transformed into community; that anger contains within it the seemingly paradoxical potential not only to oppose hatred but to manifest love.
And love was in the air, though there were notes of bitterness too, as there had been throughout the election season. Maybe it had something to do with the bleak polls, a creeping desperation, the worry that this might be the last major stop on the love-train, or apprehensions about what this likely possibility could mean come November, but there were some surprisingly unrestrained tongues at the microphone that evening. The high point came when TWU Local 100 Vice President J.P. Patafio, echoing the cries of striking Verizon employees who had picketed outside NYU’s Bobst Library that afternoon, screamed “Fuck Verizon” to resounding applause. Earlier in the night, “yuge gay” New York State Senator Tom Duane had reprised Barack Obama’s “Annie Oakley” taunt against Hillary Clinton and chastised Kirsten Gillibrand for claiming she slept with “two goddamn guns under her bed.” There was also, of course, Spike Lee asking the crowd if they were “tired of the rooty poops.” But it was a remark made by physician/healthcare activist Paul Song while much of the crowd was still waiting in line outside the park, and The Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend had yet to perform under the marble arch, that made national headlines the next day. “Medicare for all will never happen,” Song declared, “if we continue to elect corporate Democratic whores who are beholden to big pharma and the private insurance industry instead of to us.”
We know that a key element of the Democratic establishment’s primary strategy involved reducing the vibrant, issue-centered popular movement opposing it to a bad case of schoolboy eagerness and misogyny, and Song’s comments were naturally exploited to support that narrative. It remains the case that in his effort to speak truth to power, Dr. Song overstepped the limits of effectual anger, embodying in that moment the self-defeating toxic-masculine tendency to slip into the discourse of the master in moments of fervid righteousness perceived or actual. Even the crowd of CWA strikers and hardcore Berners who had managed to filter into the park early enough to see Song’s speech seemed surprised by his remark.
One cannot simply transpose notions about the discursive limits of mainstream politics onto art, particularly not onto pop music, aspects of whose origins have rage—boundless blood-curdling rage—bound up with them in essential ways. At the same time, depending on the door through which a piece of songwriting enters the political, it may justifiably be subject to some evaluative parameters of that new arena. If a song is to do more than gratify the petty rancor of the slighted or provide an imaginary bouncy house where teenagers can safely expel their violent tendencies (neither small achievements in themselves); if it’s going to educate or inspire actual concern or spark a form of anger that might be put toward change, it’s probably because the language it makes use of—not the words only, but the whole language of its form—has been coordinated in such a way as to galvanize existing political imperatives. This is as true of “Masters of War” as it is of “Fuck tha Police.” Yet as these songs testify, words put to music can also explode the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, and, indeed, some would insist that this is the measure of music’s political potential. “To make true political music,” Greil Marcus insists, “you have to say what decent people don't want to hear; that’s something that people fit for satellite benefit concerts will never understand.” In song, unlike in politics-as-usual, it may be justified to openly fantasize an oppressor’s demise, even if no series of events, whatever rending fury they evoke in the heart of a young or not-so-young male troubadour, justifies calling a woman a whore. In “Tramp the Dirt Down,” the song that Marcus had in mind when he wrote the words above, Costello does both, almost.
The era of Thatcherism, which Hall perceptively feared would bring about a “permanent shift in the balance of class forces in a 'radical Right' direction,” was one marked by precipitous falls in welfare spending, massive increases in poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality, the largest strikes England had seen in almost 60 years, exacerbations in the conflict with Northern Ireland, including the infamous hunger strikes, the war in the Falkland Islands, which led to the deaths of nearly a thousand Argentine and British soldiers, and, of course, the proliferation of an insidious rhetoric of self-reliance that we Stateside know too well. To paraphrase the Iron Lady herself, it was an era in which society as such ceased to exist. Costello’s response was to envision a day when he and the numberless whose lives Thatcher helped destroy could “stand on [her] grave and tramp the dirt down.”
The turn of phrase, which comes at the end of the song’s chorus, caused controversy from day one, as Costello seems to have anticipated it might. Knowing, perhaps, that it is more inflammatory to direct one’s rage toward an individual than toward a faceless evil, he frames the infamous line far more cautiously than Dylan, in “Masters of War,” frames the death he wishes upon those who “build to destroy.” Costello doesn’t hope that Thatcher’s “death’ll come soon” but rather that she’ll “live long.” He also knows that he needs to check his rage if he wants to do the same. He’s being a “good boy...trying so hard to behave.” But if decorum is necessitated, he’s gonna lay it on thick: “I hope that she sleeps late at night/isn’t haunted by every tiny detail.” And this affectation is used to accentuate the real tenderness reserved for “the desperate father” and the many others who—like the victims of Thatcher’s vicious crackdown on striking miners—might have trouble discerning “the subtle difference between justice and contempt.” He also sings of the younger generation whose dreams have been “poured down the drain” in sundry ways, and of the ones on “both sides” of the conflicts England sends its youth to die for. He rages at the “cynical ones” who claim “it all ends the same in the long run,” and at the gaslighting voices that tell you your discontent is nothing more than “voices in your head,” the stiff-upper-lip establishment telling you to “look proud and pleased.” In the words that Cornel West has adopted from Theodor Adorno and turned into a sort of mantra, this is what it means to “allow suffering to speak.” And it’s as heartrending as most music ever gets. But before giving in to sorrow, before making us all “fold our arms and start to weep,” the singer calls himself back to his anger, and returns to the chorus, which, though sung with the full brutality of his rasping baritone voice, emerges this time not as one man’s angry tirade but as an effort to envision the only justice that is left to the powerless. What the song ends by saying is, know this: your actions, your cynicism, your betrayal, your disgrace will be your legacy; as with all tyrants before you, we will celebrate the occasion of your death.
Early on, in the bridge that unexpectedly follows the first chorus, the following lyrics also appear: “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam.” They’re carried to us on the most delicate of melodies, and they seem formulated precisely to avoid saying what a misbehaving boy would actually say. And yet they’re the one moment in which the singer allows himself to speak from a place of gendered privilege, undermining in the process—in a way that the chorus, for all its controversy, ends up carefully avoiding—the role he has assumed as a voice speaking to, not from, the position of abusive power.
In the 1989 BBC2 Late Show interview I found myself returning to more than once last year, Costello picks out this line, and owns it fully as an expression of his feelings at the time. When asked how he feels about being “reduced” to the sentiment expressed in the song’s chorus his rage boils over into an indictment of Thatcher’s smiling villainy: “she’s a middle-aged woman with hair like candy floss, but she does some of the most monstrous things.” The banal sexism in this moment is perhaps least concentrated in the place one would most expect to find it. “I’m not some little kid,” he continues, “where they can say, there, there, now, you’re just these young little teenagers who are having your moment of protest...I’m a man, I’m 35 years old. And I’m fucking sick of it, you know, of what’s going on in this country.” Chest-thumping as it sounds, what’s articulated here is not masculine resentment but the demand not to be dismissed as childish merely for insisting that, in fact, Madam, there is such a thing as society.
In an earlier section of the interview Costello reflects on the “sadder more contemplative treatment” he eventually settled upon in the track’s album version. He describes how the softer instrumentation helped to melt his “contempt” and how performing the song with tenderness allows for a form of emotional transfer that might not otherwise be possible. Like the song, the interview reveals itself as a subtle exploration of the tangled feelings that constitute any instance of anger, and of anger’s limits as a mode of address. What ultimately comes across, even, if not especially, in his most problematic moments of self-betrayal, is that Costello’s anger is rooted, like the word anger itself, in anguish, an anguish that the leaders of the nominally free world, the masters of war, and those who support them, are able to prevent their iron hearts from feeling.
Well I hope you live long now,
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
I think I'll be going before
We fold our arms and start to weep
I never thought for a moment
That human life could be so cheap
There are few things from the long year behind us that more clearly indicated a rift in the Democratic Party than the anger expressed from the Left at Hillary Clinton’s record on Iraq and Libya, her hawkish speech at AIPAC, her brag about having Kissinger’s approval, or her sudden willingness, in the wake of Orlando, to use the term “radical Islamism.” There are few things amid the tensions that have yet to dissipate more cheapening of human life than establishment liberals’ consistent and ongoing reduction of an anger based in anguish—in a feeling of heartache and torment at the destruction and injustice our leaders implicate us in—to one of mere animus. Confronted with this repeated collapse of the far-from-subtle difference between a sense of “justice” party loyalists are unwilling or unable to feel and a petty “contempt” they are all too capable of nurturing in themselves, contempt of a different order begins to seem like an appropriate response.
In this respect, “dirtbag” political speech has served as a fertile ground for a blend of casual and serious commentary, and as a necessary release valve for a young anti-establishment whose heads might otherwise explode amid the onslaught of undignified condescension. At its best, this dirty and often very funny discourse resembles less the nihilism it has been described as than a sort of Nietzschean contempt: a hostility born not of ressentiment but of an affirmative joy and playfulness and sense of superior dignity in relation to which the professional political class appears, for lack of a better term, basic. When they go low, we laugh at their pitiable attempts at using twitter.
Over the past year and a half, this is effectively how many on the Left have taken to managing their exasperation and disbelief at Democrats’ suicidal attachment to manifestly failed politics. And yet, owing to the unpredictability of anger, particularly when lodged in the hearts of white heterosexual men reared in a broken society built on iniquity, owing also to the unpredictable range of support populist movements like the one that surged into relevance in 2016 inevitably cultivate, it’s true that centrist surrogates have too frequently found justification for their attacks. When, throughout the campaign, righteous anger was met with calls from fearful party stalwarts to “tone down” the rhetoric, the only dignified response was to “Pump it Up.” But there were times when the dirt could have used some tramping down.
A cautionary tale may be found in the life of Costello, whose legendarily seething, and occasionally toxic, lyrics are not the only places in which he’s undermined his best efforts to allow suffering to speak. Look, “it’s hard to be a saint in the city,” some other songwriter—the kind friendlier to “satellite benefit concerts”—once sang. But it’s a notable fact that Costello’s participation in the Rock Against Racism campaign in 1978 has been remembered far less well than an evening the following year when the young songsmith, in a drunken argument with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills’s entourage, allowed himself to string together a pair of racist insults that have since cast an air of suspicion over his authority on matters of justice. Understanding the usefulness of anger means understanding how venomous it can quickly become when it coincides with not only testosterone but whiteness.
The day after the 45th U.S. president was elected, I left my students with a single quote from an essay by Audre Lorde, which we had been reading earlier in the term: “Focused with precision [anger] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” I had hoped it might resonate with those whose shock and horror had already begun to co-mingle with rage, to stew and coalesce in the cauldron of pre-political affect. But having removed the remark from its context—the struggles of women, particularly black women, in a racist patriarchal society—and aware that not every eighteen-year-old East Coast college student sees progress moving in the same direction, I also had the strange thought that the quote could have been read very differently. A perversion of the kind Bannonites seem to excel at, for example, might cast the words not as a prescription for confronting the struggles to come but as an allusion to white nationalist rage and to the network of operatives who—with a focus and precision we ignore at our own peril—dog-whistled their way into the White House in 2016.
Of course my students know, I reassure myself, that Lorde’s vocabulary is strict in its denial of the word anger to those who seek profit from systems of oppression. Her word for that is hatred. “This hatred and our anger are very different,” she writes in the same essay, “[h]atred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction.” If the line between anger and hatred appears harder to discern in the work of the many who have tried to interrogate the structure of feeling, not exclusive to white nationalists, that is now threatening democracy worldwide, “the sense,” in Pankaj Mishra’s words, “of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites,” this is not a cause for scorn, whatever limitations individual works may possess. The effort not only to condemn movements like Trumpism but to understand the factors that condition them so as to better oppose them is in keeping with the legacy of emancipatory politics. Punch all the tweedy white-supremacist fucks you like. A little poetic justice can feel like survival in the face of a long winter of discontent, which is what lies ahead. But don’t imagine that this is helping to rid society of hatred. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assaulted at the podium by an actual member of the Nazi party, he refused to strike back or press charges. "This system that we live under creates people such as this youth,” he said, “I'm interested in changing the kind of system that produces this kind of man."
The system King is talking about here cannot be changed by the Democratic Party as it currently exists. We don’t need the wealthy Clintonites who initiated an Islamophobic smear campaign against Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC Chair to confirm this to us. What Stuart Hall knew to be true of Thatcherism is true today of the right wing ideology that has grown out of the Reagan-Thatcher era: “Nothing short of a counter-hegemonic strategy of resistance is capable of matching it.”
A would-be opposition party is by definition implicated within the system it nominally opposes. Here, Lorde’s most famous statement is apt: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” To their credit, some members of the senate not named Bernie Sanders have begun to give tentative affirmation to this fact. Still, half the electorate thrills at reducing itself to a clickfarm for the liberal corporate media, wrapped in piety and at the same time fretting those damn purists. The tendency of white, well-off coastal liberals, the beneficiaries of vampire capitalism, to recoil at the slightest glimpse beneath the mental safety blanket encapsulated by the term “deplorables,” speaks to the accusatory conditions they vaguely descry somewhere out there among the deserted auto plants of Wisconsin, a state that hadn’t gone red since Mondale, or among the startling number of traditionally Democratic counties in Ohio that swung 20 points or more between Obama’s victory there in 2012 and Trump’s in 2016. But change isn’t only about acknowledging mistakes, and it undoubtedly remains the prerogative of Lorde and of those most immediately imperiled by right-wing nationalism today to refuse the work of disentangling racial animus from the humiliation of economic misery.
What matters for an opposition seeking to confront the global neoliberal crisis from the Left is that it be all the more precise in honing a politics of anger that excludes hateful ambiguities. Lorde observes how women of color, for the sake of their very survival, have had to learn to “orchestrate” their fury, to transform what might have been a “cacophony” of grief and indignation into a “symphony” of rage. For those who, by virtue of their bodies’ appearances, are not endangered at every moment by the system of hatred that permeates our lives in unequal ways, but who nevertheless wish to ally themselves effectively with those who are, orchestration, learning to rage in key, is likewise a crucial goal. Not only because it’s shameful to parade the license to come unhinged with relative impunity; or because waiting in the wings are political operatives handsomely paid by the less evil partners of injustice to exploit ugly instances of unexamined privilege; but because the greater evils before us are manifold and braided together in complex ways, and because a lack of vigilance on any one front constitutes a failure to face what is no less urgent today than it was when King turned his attention to the “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation, and war in the months before his death: “the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”