In 2002, the word “bitter” or a variation of it appeared in more than 2200 New York Times articles—suggesting either a cultural trend or the triumph of a new cliché. September 11 may not have triggered the death of irony, but it was the dawning of the age of bitterness, both here and abroad. For example, the Times reported last month that “bitterness is common currency” in Halabja, Iraq, a Kurdish village Saddam Hussein gassed in 1988, leaving residents disfigured and diseased. But Americans are bitter, too. You might call it our national emotion.
In the Times last year, people “complained bitterly” as events became “increasingly,” “especially,” “unusually,” and “exceedingly” bitter. Times readers encountered bitter medicine and bitter pills, bitter rivals and bitter foes, bitter accusations and bitter sneers. Competitions were often “bitterly contested,” resulting in bitter elections, redistricting battles, proxy fights, takeover battles, lawsuits, and divorces. Here in the land of plenty, we were plagued by bitter memories and disappointments, bitter harvests, bitter ironies . . . and always, bitter cold.
Last year, Times writers used “bitter” to describe the literal taste of things, such as broccoli rabe, Malpeque oysters, and peyote buttons. Meanwhile, editors made hay with the emotional sense of the word, producing edgy headlines like “For Child of an Affair, Bitterness Lingers,” “In Place of Glitter, Lots of Bitterness,” “A Harvard Lecturer, Too Busy for Bitterness,” and the classic “Ovitz Bitterly Bares Soul . . . ” Variations of the word appeared as many as 21 times in a single edition.
Perhaps the drumbeat reflects a celebrity trend. In 2002, the pope expressed what the Times called his “bitterness with American secularism,” Ariel Sharon called Yasir Arafat a “bitter enemy of Israel,” and singer Randy Newman told the Times, “I am a bitter old crock”—because the scores he writes for movies sell better than the songs he writes for himself. Last month in Baghdad, Sean Penn reflected on the “bitter experience” of his father, who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s. And only a hermit could have missed the “bitter breakup of Tony and Carmela” in the Sopranos finale.
For every celebrity who milks a trend, another will buck it. Thus, in the past year, Bob Kerrey declared he was “not bitter” about the revelation that he had killed civilians in Vietnam, while Jon Bon Jovi “revealed no bitterness” even though his eponymous band “has never been taken seriously by rock intelligentsia.” A recent Times editorial praised Al Gore for deciding not to run in 2004, “without a show of bitterness.”
A paranoid might accuse the Times of conducting a secret bitterness watch. For example, the raison d’être of the Following Up column seems to be hunting down well-known losers to ask, “Are you bitter?” One subject told the Times he felt “a little bitter,” while others insisted they were not (too righteous! too busy!). Meanwhile, the Ethicist columnist explained away one advice-seeker’s anger as “the understandable bitterness of the downsized,” and a fashion writer duly recorded her husband’s reaction when she threw out his prized green nubuck loafers. ” ‘I loved those loafers,’ he said bitterly.”
The B-word now penetrates Times book reviews and obits. For example, in his review of the new H.L. Mencken bio, Christopher Hitchens attributed Mencken’s “lifelong bitterness” to the anti-German prejudice precipitated by World War I. Another recent review described the “sharp and tangy” bitterness of a Hollywood hairdresser who thought he deserved more credit for inspiring Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. A Times obit of Ann Landers described the “bitter rivalry” that ensued when Landers’s twin sister, “Dear Abby,” got her own syndicated column, and an obit of Queen Elizabeth recalled how, after an unapproved romance, the duke and duchess of Windsor “spent the rest of their lives in glamorous if bitter exile.”
Even Times letter-writers are now using the word, perhaps in hopes it will increase their odds of publication. One attentive reader called the appointment of Henry Kissinger to head the September 11 commission “bitterly ironic,” given that the man had devoted his public career to protecting the secrets of the executive branch. Another complained that singer Alicia Keys is overrated. “I’m a baby boomer and I’m bitter and I’m spoiled,” he wrote. “I grew up listening to the Beatles . . . Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson. That was music.”
Some institutions just seem prone to bitterness. Last year a satirist told the Times he quit daily journalism after concluding that “newspaper people are interesting and fun, but they can get bitter.” Meanwhile, the vagaries of the media business set off a “bitter feud” between Fox and CNN and a “bitter donnybrook” between Disney and ABC News. At the Supreme Court last spring, justices remained as “bitterly divided as ever” over states’ rights, and some death penalty opinions carried a “bitter edge.” Revelations of sex abuse left a “trail of bitterness” in certain dioceses of the Catholic Church. The Times detected a cloud of “bitterness enveloping figure skating” at the Olympics, not to mention the “extreme bitterness now enveloping the SEC.”
Post-September 11, some folks have good reason to be bitter. For example, New York City firefighters are “pretty bitter” about proposed budget cuts. An anthrax victim has gone from “Mr. Nice Guy” to “Mr. Bitter,” and is now seeing a shrink.
Globally, the Times has unearthed what might be called bitter zones. Thus in Colombia, citizens are “bitter after three years of fruitless peace talks,” and Venezuela is the home of “increasingly bitter and violent conflict.” After a car bomb killed a group of Kenyans and Israeli tourists, the former president of Kenya said, “We are very bitter.” Jerusalem has become a “bitter psychological battleground” and the Mideast a place where peace is rarely discussed “without bitterness, or even irony.” Saudis “are bitter at Americans,” who are bitter at the Saudis, and so on. In Pakistan, Islamic militants have become “bitter, nasty and organized.” And let’s not forget the “four million bitter and disenchanted Muslim immigrants” from North Africa who live in Parisian slums.
Finally there is Afghanistan, where some villagers dismissed with “bitter mockery” the idea that a tall man mowed down by a U.S. missile was an Al Qaeda operative, and others have been known to eat a “hideously bitter” meal of wild spinach and grass. But as bitterness goes, Iraq is the new ground zero. The Kurds are “deeply bitter” at Bush the first, because he encouraged an uprising after the Gulf War but didn’t support it until 1 million Kurds had fled to Turkey. And in a recent speech, Saddam Hussein reached into the “grab bag of bitter invective” he regularly uses to dis the U.S.
Did the Times impose this bitter jest on us, or was it there to begin with? Either way, 2002 was especially unbuttered. Let’s hope next year gets better.