The value of outrage

The fair is coming to town. In the field behind the Freshtown grocery store, tents and trailers are sprouting up like mushrooms. The Ferris wheel looms over us all, a benevolent orb of bolts and girders.

The Firemen’s Field Days are the high holy days of the Margaretville calendar. From June 28 through July 4, we lay our cares aside to celebrate the traditional festivities of my people: fireworks, fried dough, and a spin in the Gravitron. 

On Saturday, the big fair weekend coincides with a gathering of more sober purpose. Demonstrations are being held across the country to protest the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border with Mexico. 


In local activist circles, there was talk of holding a protest in Margaretville, too — but it quickly fizzled. On the rare occasions that such things happen in this little town, they are generally held on Bridge Street, across from the Freshtown. As fate would have it, that’s also the spot for the firemen’s chicken barbecue on Saturday. 

The local spirit of civil disobedience, never terribly strong to begin with, proved no match for the firemen’s barbecue. The wisdom of causing an inconvenience to the firemen was debated, tempers flared, and that was the end of it. Unless someone steps up to rouse our local activists from their meekness, it looks like Margaretville’s progressive contingent will head to Kingston or Woodstock to do its protesting.

The fight against the jailing of little children, derailed by chicken barbecue. It sounds like something out of a very dark dispatch from Lake Wobegon, but that’s how it is in the smallest of towns. Civility comes first. 

Many commenters, appalled by the rising fervor of our national discourse, have been calling for greater civility in our political disagreements lately. The Washington Post’s editorial board, who recently wrote that Trump administration officials “should be allowed to eat dinner in peace,” would be proud of our small-town decorum. Let them eat chicken. 

I like that we make a habit around here of respecting our neighbors, but I am not at all convinced that civility is a virtue. Truth be told, as this administration slides deeper and deeper into wanton cruelty, I long for incivility. I yearn for it. I am filled with intemperate rage. I want to get into a fistfight at the chicken barbecue. I daydream about opening a restaurant just so that I can throw MAGA-hatted choads out of it. 

Will I do these things? No. Is that kind of anger useful? Arguably not. Is it normal and healthy? You betcha.  

Since the news broke that border officials were deliberately separating children from their families at the border, some small piece of my mind has broken, too. Now, whenever I see a child, any child, I imagine armed guards taking her from her parents, loading her into a van, and taking her to what we used to call an orphanage. It’s like a virtual-reality app I’m powerless to turn off. It hurts. That’s fine. It should hurt.

Confronted with the sheer cruelty of a bureaucracy that deliberately set out to separate more than 2,300 children from their parents, the reasonable mind has only two choices: Deny that it is happening, or feel the sting of anger and pain. 

“Liberals are always outraged about something,” wrote the reliably ulcer-inducing Chuck Pinkey, local opinion writer, in his most recent column for the Oneonta Daily Star. True to form, I was so rankled by the headline that I had a hard time forcing myself to read it. Touché, Chuck.

Like a lot of Trump defenders, Pinkey takes the tack of sneering at the emotions of the opposition. 

“My friend, and her friends of similar ilk, cry and blame President Trump, conservative Republicans, white supremacists, Fascists, the NRA, and Fox News,” he writes. “I guess they spend a lot of time in sickness and pain.”

Between the outright mockery coming from the right, and earnest calls for decorum on the left, anger is really getting it from all sides lately. Is there any place for it in civic life?

The idea that negative emotions bear negative fruit is deeply familiar to me, and probably to a lot of people in my generation. I grew up in a New Age household, reared in a deep and unshakable faith in the power of anger to wreak destruction. The preeminent philosopher of the day, back in the 80s, was that great Stoic, Yoda, who famously said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Indulge in any of them, and you may as well sign up with the Dark Side.

The Jedi master is wise, but these days, I’m inclined to a more Aristotelian view of the emotions. In Aristotle’s worldview — espoused eloquently in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, and in my own time by Pixar’s Inside Out — emotions like anger and sadness are vital not only to our humanity, but to our morality. They help us recognize right action, and carry it out. 

As I write this column, local progressive activists in Margaretville are being spurred on by the goad of their own much-maligned emotions, and looking beyond this weekend’s chicken barbecue to a longer road ahead. They are already laying plans to have a more visible, ongoing protest presence in town, in support of the reunification of separated families. I don’t claim to know what the path of right action is in these benighted times, but I suspect Aristotle would approve.