The Intersection of Ambition, Anger and Fear

In my book Two Cheers for Democracy, the correlation between anger and disgust (versus happiness) and being a totalitarian leader was clear-cut. China’s Xi Jinping fits the mold, leaving Betsy DeVos a wanna-be dictator.
Don’t let Xi Jinping’s smile or Betsy DeVos’s fear fool you; they’re both determined as can be.

Lately, I’ve been obsessing over how anger and fear are often two sides of the very same coin: fight-or-flight responses to danger. I got there, first, due to the three-headed monster of Covid-19, the resulting economic tailspin, and the justified civil unrest ignited by the murder of George Floyd. In every case people feel uncertainty, a sense of circumstances beyond their control. Where things get emotionally complex is that fear can turn into anger. That’s because the anxiety that comes with uncertainty can—in an emotional sleight-of-hand maneuver—be “resolved” by anger that offers relief from danger by compelling us forward to take charge of our destiny. (See my earlier blog, Anger Management: Emojis Cloud the Picture)

So I started my obsession by seeing how fear and anger intertwine around the issue of control. Then I started looking more broadly at another intersection: between ambition and a desire for control. That step brings me today to China’s leader Xi Jinping and to the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

I can’t think of anybody more ambitious on the world stage right now than Xi. From the crackdown in Hong Kong, to almost daily military incursions into the waterways and air space of Taiwan, to suppressing the birthrate in the Muslim province of Xinjiang, China is on the march. And that’s just a part of Xi’s goal of overturning the previous century of Western domination. Look at Xi’s facial expressions and the one constant is low-grade smiles tightened by the presence of anger. And yet underlying that anger is concern about whether China’s Communist Party can maintain its control over its vast population. 

Turning to America’s home front, DeVos’s facial expressions on national TV this past weekend were a study in fear. How to justify sending students and teachers back into the classroom this fall with a pandemic raging and no meaningful federal government response? From Fox News to CNN, DeVos dutifully made the media rounds: angerly supporting Donald Trump’s threat to cut off funds to school districts that don’t comply by opening up again soon. At the same time, however, that DeVos’s words ran hot her face betrayed anxiety whenever she was challenged by a news anchor to explain how this will all work. Open-eyed looks and rising eyebrows did nothing to convey assurance that this will all work out as not-planned. What didn’t waver was DeVos’s long-cherished goal of challenging the validity of public schools, given her faith- and class-based preference for “saving America” with more private, parochial schools.

This week’s new podcast is also to no small degree about fear, anger and ambition. My interview of novelist Siri Hustvedt concerns the character of S.H., who moves to New York City to become a writer and must cope with isolation, self-doubt and slights, large and small, from various men –culminating in a guy attempting to rape her. That scene falls at literally the midpoint of the novel, with half its pages still to follow. And there at the heart of the book occurs a change of heart, as S.H.’s greater assertiveness is manifested most clearly in the pocketknife that she begins to carry around with her for self-protection.

Now, not everyone carries a knife (or a gun). But in every case, anger can become a virtual weapon—perpetuating harm—or a benign source of self-empowerment. The choice of how we utilize anger lies at least somewhat within our conscious powers of control. Stay tuned: anger and fear aren’t going anywhere. Those two emotions will undergird almost every major news story you read for the rest of 2020. Of that much, I can assure you.  

Coping with Danger: How to Build Up Your Resiliency

Mysteries of Time & Memory

Released today: episode 10 of Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight podcast, featuring Siri Hustvedt, the author of the novel Memories of the Future. Listen to the clip below and click on the image to get to the new episode.

Esteemed novelist Siri Hustvedt foreshadowed the #metoo movement with her novel about a young women who fights against male condescension.
The novelist investigates the vagaries of memory as recollection changes every narrative.

How Do We Write Our Personal History at the Same Time That It’s Written for Us?

The Literary Review (UK) has called Hustvedt “a twenty-first-century Virginia Woolf.” She’s the author of seven novels, four collections of essays, and two works of nonfiction. Hustvedt has a PhD in English literature from Columbia University and lectures in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the European Essay Prize.

Topics covered in this episode include:

  • What it can mean to be a heroine instead of a hero, including in regards to which emotions might conventionally be considered “off-limits.”
  • The role that the author’s over-a-dozen drawings play in this novel.
  • Musings on what the roots of ambition might be, and how ambition and shame, as well as memory and imagination are often intertwined.

Dan Hill, PhD, is the president of Sensory Logic, Inc.

Roger Ailes: The Maestro of Shock & Rage

Who and what killed Roger Ailes? In a USA Today tribute to his long-time mentor, Bill O’Reilly writes that the “hatred” now “almost celebrated in some quarters” is what “killed him.” Loyal to the end, O’Reilly doesn’t name names. Instead, he writes of Ailes being “convicted of bad behavior in the court of public opinion” and “stunned” by a sudden exile from which Ailes “never really recovered.”

Meanwhile, detractors may vengefully rejoice over the death of Ailes. And in doing so, note the irony that Ailes’ fatal, head-banging fall at home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed on the heels of his fall from power at the Fox News channel he founded with Rupert Murdoch’s money. If so, those detractors will still have to come face-to-face with Ailes’ success and legacy.

The easy way out would be to regard Ailes as more or less the equivalent of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. Certainly, the aging, ever more corpulent Ailes looked the part.  Forget the top hat, the tuxedo, the white gloves, the cigarette holder, and even the umbrella. The key to the Penguin’s hold on our imaginations is that he’s wickedly smart and flush with belief in himself.

Might Ailes really be The Penguin, however? The answer is no, twice over. First, the Penguin is from an aristocratic family and Ailes hailed from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, and even when wealthy still saw himself as a working-class bruiser. Second, Ailes was no comic book character. His impact on America may be as profound as anybody in this country over the past half-century, and for many, many years to come.

The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours.

Let’s start with family values. Vice President Dan Quayle made the term famous in 1992, seeking votes. But leave it to Roger Ailes to make money from it by launching Fox in 1996. Now I for one have no issues with the term family values in theory. The support of a nurturing family while growing up is as emotionally healthy as enjoying a good, solid marriage or partnership in adulthood. The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours. When family values devolves into divisiveness – an issue of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and compassion – that’s when darkness descends.

Under Ailes, Fox was diabolically clever. While CNN aimed for the head, Fox went for the heart and the wallet and purse and cleaned up, big-time. In barely half a decade, the upstart Fox surpassed CNN, becoming the most-watched cable news network and staying No. 1 with a simple, grizzly emotional formula: anger compels. Once upon a time psychologists believed that venting enables the rage to pass. Now they know that stoking anger tends instead to keep it burning red hot. Ailes didn’t need professors and scientific research to uncover that fundamental truth about human nature.

Ailes was no fool. Yes, he displayed anger to a degree that exceeds what’s normal. Yes, he apparently once put his fist through a control room wall at Fox. (Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”) But Ailes’ signature expression was crouched, lowering-the-boom eyebrows: a look of concentration and focus. In short, Ailes had the pulse of how TV can be exploited as a medium and was for the longest time a man on a mission.

In 1968, Ailes was at age 28 the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” when Richard Nixon put in an appearance. In an off-camera conversation, Nixon mocked the medium as a “gimmick,” provoking Ailes to tell the candidate: “Television is not a gimmick and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Soon, Ailes was producing Nixon’s presidential campaign commercials, leading to The White House and Nixon’s own opportunity to invoke family values in an exchange with gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Told that Thompson’s mother, son and himself all hated Nixon, and that “this hatred has brought us together,” Nixon laughs and replies, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege.

From Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes helped to orchestrate Republican campaigns with the knowledge that the twigs of the bonfire you’re stoking are the latest incidences in the daily news cycle. The logs come in two forms: personalities caught or showcased on camera, and the beliefs or value systems of news anchors and especially the audience at home viewing the show.

Ailes once described his audience as TV “for people from 55 to dead,” putting on its ear the conventional wisdom that you strive for a viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 or some such demographic slice of America. A recently deceased aunt of mine fit Ailes’ model perfectly. Everyday my retired aunt would turn on the TV to learn about the latest indignities heaped on her sense of how the world should be and, transfixed by smoldering resentment, she would keep the TV on Fox all the way from breakfast to bedtime. Ailes gave her sunset years structure and meaning: witness more enemies and threats to be indignant about.

Ailes had only a passing resemblance to The Penguin. How about instead Alfred Hitchcock? As the maestro of shock and anger, wasn’t Ailes Fox’s equivalent to the famous director known as the master of suspense? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of Ailes as the antithesis of Walt Disney. While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege. Think in terms of Main Street, U.S.A. with its storefronts figuratively lapped by flames.

O’Reilly was the perfect vehicle for Ailes’ version of current events. As angry as Ailes but more expressive of surprise than the sadness Ailes revealed when not angry, O’Reilly beat the drums for years and was equally, phenomenally successful. Ultimately, sex scandals involving Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and others would force out both the mentor and his signature on-air talent, exposing the reality that “fair and balanced” didn’t extend to gender issues within the newsroom. It’s a new era now at Fox, and in O’Reilly’s place is Tucker Carlson. He’s the stepson of an heiress and somebody given to the smiles and smirks that put him closer, temperamentally, to The Penguin than to Ailes.

A new era it may be, but Ailes’ legacy will linger for some time to come. Perhaps it’s because tomorrow I leave on vacation to visit parts of disembodied Yugoslavia that the Balkans, namely the Balkanization, the fragmentation of America into ever fiercer, nonstop partisan bickering, so worries me.

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and re-reading Rebeccca West’s older classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, with its take on the former Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties: “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.” There, people write memoirs with titles like Land Without Justice. Here at home, those who cast opposing votes now see each new White House administration not as victor but conqueror, without merit. And for that hard-nosed viewpoint, we have to thank Ailes in no small part.