We saw Ben Affleck's "Argo" last night. It's a compelling movie, a bit slow in starting, I thought, but edge-of-the-seat stuff for much of the time once it gets going. It does a particularly fine job of capturing both the rage of the Iranian street in response to America's refusal to extradite the Shah back to Iran for trial and, more than likely, execution at the hands of the new regime of mullahs led by the Ayatollah Khomeini; and the atmosphere of ubiquitous fear and suspicion in a state governed by iron rule and brutal response to dissent. Hard, for us here in America, to imagine what it might be like to live in a world where everyday life is dominated by the Gestapo-like enforcement of arbitrary laws put out by a dictatorial regime.
The rage of the street mobs was overpowering, as the film re-enacted it. In the Arab world, I believe, as elsewhere, it's largely a male thing--even though Affleck introduced a few screaming female faces for what I took to be reasons of obligatory, homespun gender equality. I have experienced such expressions of concentrated mob fury twice. The first time was in Berlin, in the early 1990s. Ellie and I were returning on foot to our hotel, eerily after a visit to the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, where we had been assailed by the ghosts of the tortured and the dead, and sickened by the reminder of those days of inhuman abuse. Now we found our way blocked off by what felt like an endless freight train of chanting, shoving, onward-rushing humanity, a giant, unstoppable serpent of seething and insatiable male rage. The women followed, segregated, ululating in unison with a comparable ferocity. We later discovered that this was an organized demonstration of Palestinians in exile, protesting--if I recall correctly--the then still current Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip. No matter the cause, I had never encountered such palpable, immeasurable, concretized rage, and I shall never forget it.
The second occasion was in Cairo, some ten years ago. We had arrived there as tourists, to visit the ancient sites and had been immediately astonished by the ubiquitous presence of a heavily armed militia, evident already on the surrounding rooftops as we drove in from the airport. The Egyptian authorities made no bones about their concern to protect the tourist trade from terrorist attack. During our stay, our group was accompanied everywhere we went by armed guards on the buses and, on some main routes, in military vehicles posted ahead of us, and behind. Even so, in Cairo, not even our escorts could disguise the presence of angry protests on the streets, nor the feelings of suppressed fear and intimidation that kept a tight lid on roiling popular frustration.
My experience is admittedly limited. But the Berlin episode, particularly, gave me a sense of the dangerous power of collective male rage. I was reminded, uncomfortably, in the movie "Argo," that I personally find this power so fearsomely compelling precisely because I identify with it. I know rage. Intimately. It's a feeling that arises unbidden from the gut, from the depths of my own ancestral, pre-civilized origins, a wildness within that centuries of domestication have managed to contain at only the superficial level. Indeed, I see it as an instinctive revolt against that domestication, a rage against whatever impinges on my freedom to act out as I please.
Past and present history teach us that, unchecked, this vast reservoir of rage can inflict great harm upon our species. It continues to manifest, and--let's admit it--not only on the Arab street but in our own society, in forms that range from incidents of murderous domestic violence and senseless mass shootings to the excesses of political discourse, as witnessed sadly all too often in the blogosphere. Fortunately, we also know that the same basic, instinctive energy, with the benefit of consciousness and personal integrity, can be channeled into the kind of passion that motivates a man's mission of service to humanity.
Rage, to paraphrase an infamously familiar saying, is good. Or, more properly, it can be good. In its elemental form it is pure energy and, like all energy, can be put to either creative or destructive purposes. Ben Affleck's movie is in part a powerful reminder of its baneful potential. It's also a reminder of how urgently we all--particularly, I must say, we men--need to learn to process this power in such a way that it brings, not harm, but benefit to our species.