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Guerrillas in Our Midst

Passive aggression is spreading like a drug-resistant strain of civic anger

By Lance Morrow

(TIME, March 18) -- Sometimes the course of history is dictated by obscure forces at work beneath the surface. One theory, for example, suggests that Rome declined and fell because the lead content in the wine cups of the bibulous power elite made them weak and stupid. In that spirit, it may be time to appreciate the role of passive aggression in turn-of-the-millennium America.

Applied to mere sullen neurotics who attack others by withholding themselves, passive aggression is an item of banal psychological jargon. But down at its universal level, the term describes an unseen and mischievous jujitsu of history. It suggests the potent emotional antimatter that begins to glow like a dark crystal when people become disconnected from, and learn to mistrust or hate, the powers that control them (government, political process, corporation, parent, spouse).

The fierce energy of passive aggression drives--and explains--adolescence; in its grandiose moments it pulverizes empires. In the Soviet Union hundreds of millions of passive aggressives created a vast, vodka-soaked culture of subversive inefficiency, sly refusal and covert nonproduction that ultimately brought down the stolid slab of Marxism-Leninism.

A culture gets the kind of passive aggression that it needs. In the gaudier U.S., passive aggression is the ideal style of a television culture, of an overstimulated but vicarious race: postindustrial sofa-spuds whose contradictory cultural life swoops between hypothetical freedom and commercial manipulation. TV is the Great Satan of passive aggression: sedentary overhype.

Passive aggression has its triumphs. Sometimes it is the only civilized way to get things done: it was a passive aggressive's masterstroke--shrewd disruption elevated to the moral prestige of "passive resistance"--that Gandhi used to drive the British out of India.

But the U.S. had better watch itself.

The passive-aggressive way of (not) doing things, perfected by clerks of the U.S. Postal Service, has spread like a drug-resistant strain of civic anger. A real insecurity and confused apprehension that something has gone basically wrong mutate by stages into free-floating sullen grievance and ballistic self-pity, a boll-weevil mentality of busy stealth, the victim/employee/citizen as secret guerrilla. Alienation.

Examine the politics of disconnection. The 1996 campaign has only hinted at the number of Americans who, disgruntled and disillusioned (even if self-pityingly so), have withdrawn into a passive-aggressive political mode: protest for its own sake. "We're gonna fight until hell freezes over," bellows Pat Buchanan, "and then we're gonna fight on the ice!" Disenchantment, whether idealistic or merely snarling, has produced a permanent American political out group (Buchananites, Perot voters and a much larger constituency of nonvoters) whose unhappiness erupts in periodic aneurysms and whose message to the political process is the passive aggressive's succinct "Screw you."

Buchanan has jury-rigged a power line to the vast passive aggression operating in the American workplace, especially in large corporations. Mass layoffs and the replacement of workers by electronics devastate traditional loyalties and employee motivation. Workers have become resentful and as unproductive as they dare to be without risking their jobs. Where once they identified themselves and their fates with the company, they now rejoice, secretly, in its travails, even as they fear, for their own sake, that it might go under. This unwholesome dependence-resentment pattern looks like a cat scan of the passive-aggressive brain.

So does the American racial paradigm, which on both sides, black and white, has settled into a permanent passive-aggressive dynamic of restive coexistence, reluctant interdependence and violently internalized resentments--a regular Strindberg marriage in which each party seems to need, and seems to hate, and seems unable to escape, the other.

Passive aggression in its most vigorous, classic form, of course, is showcased in the relations between men and women, wherein the terrible masterpieces of the form are to be found.

In their ideal self-image, Americans have always thought of themselves as active and aggressively activist. Some of them still do. But the passive aggressive's angry disconnection has something to do with "the society of half-adults, built on technology and affluence" that the poet Robert Bly discusses in an upcoming book called The Sibling Society. Bly sees an ominous general slide: "Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents--seeing that--have no desire to become adults." A society of surly teenage siblings in a home without a father. Or, put another way, a kingdom from which King Lear has departed, in which the only remaining political choice is between Goneril and Regan.

Passive aggression is not a grownup's way of dealing with the world, but a technique of the resentful and powerless. It is an index of the political fix that Americans are in that the most prominent grownup on the stage, Bob Dole, may be a little too old for the role, and even seems himself a sort of premonition of Lear.



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