Anger Is Missing Ingredient in Making Unions Strong Again

We Have Lost Ability To Be Incensed About Injustice

Fight the Power: Where is the emotion that once carried social movements forward?
Getty Images
Fight the Power: Where is the emotion that once carried social movements forward?

By Leonard Fein

Published May 11, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

The AFL-CIO posts the following question on it Web site: “The sustained war on workers from the right has left unions trying to prevent rights from being weakened rather than setting the agenda. Where are the opportunities to play some offense?”

The answers are all over the lot; no coherent agenda is evident. But that does not mean that a coherent agenda cannot be imagined.

The first and essential element of such an agenda is anger. During the heyday of the union movement, the more so in its early years, anger was manifest, directed at “the bosses.” But the anger was and is constricted by four contextual conditions: First, the system developed a brilliant capacity for diverting attention from issues that might have provoked anger by offering, instead, bread and circuses — bread and circuses, football and baseball and basketball [pace, ice hockey and soccer fans] and a lottery culture.

The rich and super-rich were less reviled than they were regarded as lucky. The life styles of the rich and famous were seductions; intended to or not, they channeled what might have developed into anger into more pacific responses. Not lust but envy was the principal response.

Second: To propose anger is to invite attention to class, and class is a taboo concept (save for the middle class) in America. We take pride in our classnessness, or did, and to introduce class into the conversation is to be accused or promoting class warfare.

Third: The union movement is not what it was. The system not all that long ago offered suitable villains. But wonder of wonders, the war against unions — think, for example, Wisconsin — even a naked assault on unions, and especially on unions representing public workers, proceeds with only minor bumps along the way.

Fourth, the standard paradigm “back then” was employers vs. employees. In an economy heavily rooted in production, that was an easy and readily available call. But the economy has changed. In the place of producers, we now have money managers. It is harder, much harder, to penetrate the arcane and in many ways abstract world of finance than it was to know the factory on the other side of town. (As a child, I toured the great Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan, watched as cars were built from scratch. What is there to see in the world of finance? Computer screens.)

Comes the perennial question: Can there be anger that is amorphous, anger not directed at an identifiable opponent but as a habit of mind and heart? The very thought of that, let alone its practice, is exhausting. And what, in any case, would be the point of it? A fraternity for the disaffected, the resentful, the aggrieved?

The Occupy movement gave us an appetizer, a tiny taste of what confrontation would feel like. By and large, it was allowed to happen, but in the end it was more reminiscent of Woodstock then of the march on the Pentagon as immortalized by Norman Mailer. America is dazzlingly talented at absorbing such anger as is — rarely — expressed against its policies and practices, featuring it on the cover of Time magazine and then going stoically about its business. George W. Bush nominates Samuel Alito to take the place of Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, thereby changing American history, and a largely pro forma fight over Alito’s confirmation only scratches the nominee.

Well, surely the voters will punish the obstreperous Tea Party members of the House of Representatives, no?

A weak, very weak, “maybe.” For before the general election there is the primary, and the primary is where the Tea Party shines, offering fool’s gold to those in search of glitter.

No, I fear that anger — or, to use a better word, “indignation” — is not, at least not these days, a resource on which we can easily draw. The most telling example may well be our growing reliance on drones, superficially impersonal engines of death, detonation from thousands of miles away, death at a distance. It is altogether too easy to ignore the damage they do in our name. Or, for that matter, to make peace with it, since we can pretend that we have no relationship to this new form of targeted assassination (along with its inevitable “collateral” damage). Once, it was possible to pray that lightning would strike our enemies; now, we need not await nature’s intervention: We can and do ourselves manufacture the lightning.

If our use of drones can proceed, as it does, with minimal scrutiny and with minimal debate, let alone with minimal anger, then perhaps that is the new archetype for our time. (I am reminded of Jung’s definition of archetype: “A primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, ever present in our collective unconscious.”)

Am I alone in seeing irony here — a spectacular technological achievement that draws on our inherited primitive collective unconscious?

Anger? Why bother? Why infuse the dramatically impersonal with the baggage of anger, so personal a stance? We are, for worse, innocents at anger. And everything we experience reinforces that innocence.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.