Outrage Is All the Rage

I’ve learned a lot about love, tenderness, sadness and humor from Johnny Mercer, whose lyrics to Summer Wind, One for My BabyBlues in the NightOn the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe and many other songs are among the greatest ever written. But the one time I got to hang out with him, I got a lesson in outrage.

Johnny and my dad, Carl Sigman, were old friends who’d helped each other out when they were neighbors in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Carl, a nimble shortstop, secured the less athletic Johnny a spot on the hot sandlot baseball team. Johnny, already a songwriting star, collaborated with Carl on some songs and then gave him a career-transforming piece of advice: Stick to writing lyrics, because tunesmiths outnumbered wordsmiths 15 to one.

When Dad asked me to meet him and Johnny for drinks, I jumped at the chance.

It was the late ’60s — the height of the Vietnam War and the last time America was as polarized as it is now. And though I opposed the war, my long hair was less a symbol of radical rebellion than a bid to look cool to my college friends. When my dad and I arrived at the elegant Oak Room in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, Johnny was already tipsy. Though I’d dressed in my non-hippie “Clean for Gene” (Democratic Presidential primary candidate Eugene McCarthy) sports jacket and slacks, one contemptuous look at my hair provided all the information he needed to become angry and sarcastic about what he deduced I stood for.

Outrage can be the default reaction when we jump to false conclusions from true but irrelevant facts. Dick Morris’s 2007 book Outrage had a subtitle full of misplaced grievances — e.g. “The United Nations” — that was longer than some short stories. Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and the know-nothings they egg on are furious that our president is a “socialist” and so, therefore, is his health-care policy. It takes too much time — and spoils the narrative — to actually read the new law and understand that there’s a reason private insurers are among its biggest backers: if adding 37 million people to privately run insurance programs is socialism, it’s socialism for the rich.

Of course, outrage can be transparently phony. Remember John McCain’s faux rage at the purported insult to Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign when candidate Obama used the common phrase “lipstick on a pig”? Or just an exaggeration — when Bill Moyers introduced NOW President Terry O’Neill on last week’s Journal, he described her as “outraged” at President Obama’s “betrayal” of women’s rights in the health-care fight. In the event, O’Neill seemed merely disappointed, and determined to fight another day.

It’s often momentarily satisfying to react to outrage with more outrage. For years, I’ve rooted like a sports fan for MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann when he righteously matched and even outstripped the bile of the ignorant Right. But during his recent absence from the airwaves, it’s been a tonic to follow Laurence O’Donnell’s more reasoned approach and Rachel Maddow’s measured, humorous way of skewering the opposition.

Sometimes even when we have a good reason to argue and hate and fight, time may do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Oceanographers recently revealed that an island India and Bangladesh have angrily fought over for years — known as New Moore Island in India and South Talpatti Island in Bangladesh — has literally vanished, swallowed up by the sea — perhaps taking all that pointless rage with it.

After the encounter at the Plaza all those years ago, my dad explained that when Johnny drank too much he could get angry at the world; and besides, my long hair probably triggered his frustration that pop music was passing him by in favor of hirsute rock and rollers. This insight didn’t help much at the time, but looking back, it reminds me to redouble my efforts not to get caught up in the murky realm of other people’s judgments — even (maybe especially) when those judgments come from TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet.

I recently talked to a friend who was getting clobbered by a couple of outraged former employees in an Internet chat room. Like Limbaugh, Beck and company, his accusers were making stuff up, and my friend was outraged at their outrage and itching to fire back. Granted, sometimes you have to respond to lies — think Obama and the birthers. But in most cases, including this one, the more rewarding path is simple, though far from easy: Let it be.

Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.

Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.


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