Who are the angry white males?
Sociologists tell us that the populations from which most reactionary activism arises are those who think they may be overtaken economically by groups below them in social class. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have always been comprised mainly of lower-middle class men, not the poor. Similarly, most anti-abortion activists have been baby boomers who make less money than their parents.
But economics is only part of the picture. Myth – the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, and especially the stories about whom we are not – typically overrides the facts and provides the connection to the emotional energy, the rage, that often drives us.
For their entire lives, white Americans have received mythic instruction through the gatekeepers of the media, schools and churches that regularly, daily and continuously re-affirm two main aspects of their identity:
1 – The Hero: the potency and competency of the free, lone individual (disconnected from relationship and feminine values) and his capacity for achievement, creativity, control, productivity and perpetual growth towards a future that will be better than the past. He creates his own reality because all options are available to him as an American. I discuss the Hero at great length in Chapter Nine of my book.
2 – The Other is the shadow of the Hero, and he has several incarnations. As the villain who is dedicated to defeating the hero, he is willing to utilize unethical and unfair means to achieve his aims. He represents evil, and he hates both the hero and his innocent community simply because of who they are.
As the outsider, he is all that they are not: dirty, lazy, impulsive, impure, sexual and untrustworthy; he is dangerous because he is highly contagious and always threatens to corrupt the community and infect it with his unchristian, even animalistic values. And as the Loser, he reminds the potential hero that – in this mythology – failure is also a choice.
This is how the sense of a solid self is formed in America. To identify in terms of what he thinks he is not is to claim the privilege of being accepted as a member of the innocent, well-meaning, Christian, masculine, upwardly-mobile, and most importantly, white citizenry. This means to know that one is not black, brown, yellow, red, gay, female or poor. Beginning in the late 17th century, Americans uniquely confused social class with race. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book:
This new allegiance to whiteness eliminated class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion…America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes (Theodore) Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”
And it provided the historical foundation for the American love affair with guns.
Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to the Puritan) and black equaled poor (to the Opportunist), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin…scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did almost everywhere else. Characteristically, they rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Other: no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies…
No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. Often, Americans have had nothing to call their own except white privilege, yet they cling to it and support those whose coded rhetoric promises to maintain it.
Similarly, and despite the easy availability of guns (recall that Canadians have as many guns per capita as we do but don’t use them on each other), we cannot understand our unique willingness to go ballistic, to let loose the dogs of war, without fully contemplating why we are so angry all the time.
Most Americans have also been subject to three other subtle messages:
1 – For three to five generations, we have been bombarded with unrelenting, sexualized commercialism that has pre-determined both the nature of our goals and desires and also their essential unavailability. We feel constantly deprived because capitalism creates demand. Artificial scarcity of gratification assures the surplus energy that drives the fevers of production and conquest. To generate scarcity, it attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent, or irrelevant objects.
Thus, writes Phillip Slater, “…making his most plentiful resource scarce, (man) managed…to make most of his scarce ones plentiful.” Because of their valuation of radical individualism, Americans in particular have been tantalized by the carrot and stick temptations of the media that keep them striving for more symbols of success, at the expense of traditional social relationships.
This is part of a complex cultural experience of the sheer insanity of modern life that almost all of us share, yet rarely acknowledge. I make a much more detailed case of it here.
2 – Recently, the media has commonly speculated about the end of the American dream. But this is not anything new. Since the mid-1970s, in socio-economic terms, the efforts of most Americans, especially “millenials,” to achieve the material proof and evidence of both their potency and their membership in the in-group of the middle class have been failing.
The minority of families that have not fallen backward in the rat race have done so for two reasons. The first is two-income households. Indeed, the fact that women working in middle class service jobs now often make more money than their husbands contributes to falling male self-esteem (remember our Hero myth), which often converts into rage and substance abuse.
And, for the past forty years those same families have survived primarily by borrowing. The average household that carries credit card debt has a balance of $16,000. If we include mortgages, car payments and student loans, that household is paying up to $8,000 in interest each year.
And to make matters relatively worse for white people, the economy (not the economy sold to you by the media, but the actual world of meaningful work and satisfying consumption) has been shrinking at the same time that the Others – blacks, browns, gays, the disabled and especially women – have attempted to claim their places in the mainstream.
3 – Americans are deathly afraid of failure, because in economic terms our mythology offers only one alternative to the victorious Hero: the loser, or victim. In this world of radical individualism, those same gatekeepers have instructed us that failure – at any level – is our own fault. This is an unacknowledged but profoundly powerful aspect of our Puritan heritage. To fail economically is not simple failure but – in America – it is moral failure. Jerry Falwell,
for a time, our best-known preacher, actually said, “This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault.”
Surveys show that a large majority of Americans deeply believe that losers are bad and morally corrupt. We have internalized the shaming messages of many generations of white, Protestant Euro-Americans. Our mythology is intertwined with our religion, and they are both qualified by our profound ignorance. Seventy-five percent of us believe that Benjamin Franklin’s proverb “God helps those who help themselves” can be found in the Bible.
In Kindergarten everyone gets a sticker just for trying. But soon afterwards, most of us learn that under our unique form of religio-capitalism, it is a zero-sum world of very few winners and large swarms of losers, because in this mythic dead-end, one can only be a hero or a victim / loser. And the self-perceived loser will generally find only one of two ways out of this uniquely painful condition:
1 – A solution to his pain through collective, politically progressive action. But Americans, as I’ve shown, do this far less than in other nations. Union membership has fallen from 33% in 1945 to 11% now. This is a very complex story, but one factor is that trade unions in America have an extremely racist heritage. Another is the corruption of the ideals of the Democratic Party and the subsequent and severe drop in voting participation. Another is the attraction of fundamentalist religion. And we should not forget that the primary objectives of the corporate media and other mythic instructors is to distract Americans from identifying both the true spiritual and economic sources of their pain, and the actual social opportunities for addressing them.
2 – A solution to his pain through (more or less) culturally-approved individual behavior. For many of us, especially since the 1970s, such behaviors have included everything from substance abuse, consumer addictions, celebrity worship and extreme sports to the self-help movement and committed spiritual disciplines.
To be honest, however, we must admit that violence, especially righteous gun violence, has always been approved behavior when it is directed at the Other. For a minority, this has meant actual, personal violent behavior. For vastly far more, it has meant vicariously experiencing and approving violence perpetrated by the state, from a safe distance.