There was news this week of yet another angry citizen pushing back against airport security measures. Protesting the Transportation Security Administration's violation of his privacy during the security screening, John E. Brennan abandoned all privacy and stripped himself naked in preparation for his pat down at Portland International Airport. The man was mad as all get out, and he wasn't going to take it anymore. He was jailed for indecent exposure and disorderly conduct.
Political anger seems to be on the rise these days, whether it is Tea Party rallies, Occupy squattings, this naked traveler, or the campaign rhetoric we can expect from now until November. It's like we have a collective bee in the mouth. But we should not let it discourage us. As Finley Peter Dunne put it, "Politics ain't beanbag."
In politics, the stakes are high. While there is a common good we all share, there is also my good, or what I think is my good, that needs defending against my neighbors. People steal from each other not only with guns and crowbars and with shady business practices, but also with political power. They can take your property as well as what you treasure about our life together. Maybe it's a development project that's robbing you, or same-sex marriage. That's when what Merle Haggard calls "the fightin' side of me" comes out, and angry citizens get political. Harvey Mansfield, in his brilliant article about politics and political passions, said, "Politics is about what makes you angry. … People go into politics to pick a fight, not to avoid one."
The Greeks had a name for this political anger: thumos! It is the most characteristically political passion, the spirited defense of one's own, but intimately connected with a claim to what one believes is right. It joins what is most particular ("me") with what is most universal ("right"). It's what gives engagement to the citizen, courage to the soldier, and ambition to the statesman. It's what fires up the patriot to cling to his liberties, and bark warnings about his cold, dead hands. The spirit of liberty and thus the defense of one's dignity is that thumotic spirit that bristles under the banner, "Don't Tread On Me." C.S. Lewis said that thumos, the seat of moral seriousness, is what makes us human.
So, in the months leading up to the election, if you find yourself shocked that political debate is not like a living room conversation or an academic discussion, remember that these political combatants are taking themselves and justice seriously, even if they're not always right. That's politics.