anger in egypt: why not here?

I’m not an Obama basher (quite the contrary), but for me one of the greatest disappointments of his presidency is that he has failed to mobilize or even encourage the anger many Americans to the left of the Tea Party are feeling today. In fact, as a number of observers have pointed out, Obama with his message of “hope” and “change” has served as a safety valve that vents our anger, not as a catalyst that sparks it.

I understand the bind Obama is in as a black president. I know he has to keep his cool. But a cool leader can energize a hot crowd, and Obama has done very little to reach out to his supporters and get us riled up.

Watching the angry people of Egypt this week, I’m reminded of these words of Malcolm X’s:

“When [the people] get angry, they bring about change. When they get angry, they aren’t interested in logic, they aren’t interested in odds, they aren’t interested in consequences. When they get angry, they realize the condition they’re in – that their suffering is unjust, immoral, and illegal, and that anything they do to correct it or eliminate is … justified. When you and I develop that type of anger and speak in that voice, then we’ll get some kind of respect and recognition, and some changes from these people who have been promising us falsely for too long.”

Two of the points Malcolm makes here are subtle. One is that anger itself can cause people to “realize the condition they’re in.” Ordinarily, we’d suppose the opposite – that people first realize their condition and only afterwards get angry about it. But Malcolm says that in fact anger is the prompt: anger  wakes people up, anger gives them the energy to start analyzing their situation, anger produces thought that otherwise might not arise.

Malcolm’s second subtle point is that “respect and recognition” are just as important as things like health care, education, jobs, decent pay, and so on and so forth. What he’s pointing to here is the enormous importance of dignity. Here in the US we talk a lot about freedom and equality, but shouldn’t we be talking just as much about dignity? Do freedom and equality really have much importance to a person whose dignity is constantly denied or insulted?

Putting these points together, we see that the anger Malcolm refers to is really a specific kind of anger: it’s indignation, the indignation that arises when our dignity has been denied or threatened. Notice that the two words share a common root – that the word “dignity” is folded into “indignation.”

(In The Time Is Always Now, I discuss at some length the way black American writers and activists have thought about indignation and the importance of dignity.)

Stephane Hessel’s manifesto, Indignez-vous, is a call to all of us to get angry in this specific sense: get indignant because some people are stepping all over your dignity. You know who I mean, don’t you?

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