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Angry White Men
American Masculinity at the End of an Era
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Kimmel locates this increase in anger in the seismic economic, social and political shifts that have so transformed the American landscape. Downward mobility, increased racial and gender equality, and a tenacious clinging to an anachronistic ideology of masculinity has left many men feeling betrayed and bewildered. Raised to expect unparalleled social and economic privilege, white men are suffering today from what Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement”: a sense that those benefits that white men believed were their due have been snatched away from them.
Angry White Men discusses, among others, the sons of small town America, scarred by underemployment and wage stagnation. When America’s white men feel they’ve lived their lives the ‘right’ way – worked hard and stayed out of trouble – and still do not get economic rewards, then they have to blame somebody else. Even more terrifying is the phenomenon of angry young boys. School shootings in the United States are not just the work of “misguided youth” or “troubled teens” — they’re all committed by boys. These alienated young men are transformed into mass murderers by a sense that using violence against others is their right.
The election of Donald Trump proved that angry white men can still change the course of history. Here, Kimmel argues that they should walk openly and honorably alongside those they’ve spent so long trying to exclude, in order to be happier and healthier.
The name Donald Trump does not appear in the index of Angry White Men. Nor does it appear anywhere else in the book, for that matter. This is not a book about Donald Trump. It's a book about his followers.
When I interviewed the white men whose stories formed the basis of the research, I picked up a sentiment among them, a feeling. They told me they felt pushed aside by Washington insiders, ignored by callous bureaucrats, and undone by a parade of others who challenged their previously unfettered access to the American Dream. Theirs were stories of being marginalized, "kicked to the curb by a Washington elite," as one of them put it. In this sense, Angry White Men is a book about Trump's followers, who were waiting for their leader to show up—even if they (and I) didn't know it at the time.
Like many Americans, I didn't see Trump's victory coming. I underestimated the depth of angry white men's rage and how others, including plenty of angry white women, might find it resonant as well. I missed how a steady parade of events and statements that might have easily disqualified anyone else—anti-immigrant stances, confessions of sexual assault, racist statements about Latinos, coded racist remarks about African Americans—barely made a dent in Trump's appeal. Indeed, it only solidified their conviction that this was a guy who felt their pain.
Trump's election underscores the argument of the book: that white men's anger comes from the potent fusion of two sentiments—entitlement and a sense of victimization. The righteous indignation, the anti-Washington populism, is fueled by what I came to call "aggrieved entitlement"—that sense that those benefits to which you believed yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unseen forces larger and more powerful. You feel yourself to be the heir to a great promise, the American Dream, which has turned into an impossible fantasy for the very people who were supposed to inherit it.
As I listened to these men, their anguish and despair turning to righteous rage at their downward trajectory in a country they found increasingly unrecognizable, I felt myself empathic. They were right: they had lost something. As they saw it, they'd lost some words that had real meaning to them: honor, integrity, dignity. They'd lost their autonomy, their sense of themselves as "somebody." And, as I heard them say it, they'd lost their sense of themselves as men. Real men. Men who built this country and who, in their eyes, are this country.
The unifying theme that runs through so many of the chapters of this book is, in fact, this notion of aggrieved entitlement. Whether it's men's rights activists fulminating about how feminist women have inverted the scales of gender justice, or the men who interpret their failures in the dating world to be the fault of gold-digger harpies, inspiring them to mass murder, or, finally, the denizens of the extreme Right, all these men feel furious that they are not getting what they feel they deserve. In every case, it's men who see themselves as having been cheated out of something valuable.
It wasn't my intention in the book to pass judgment on that feeling of aggrieved entitlement, or to try to convince these men that their feelings are somehow "wrong." It's hard to tell anyone that their feelings are wrong. Their feelings are real. They cannot be dismissed with a casual wave of the hand. But at the same time, their feelings may not be true—they may not provide an accurate assessment of their situation. I may feel, based on my perception, that the earth is flat. It is my experience. It just may not be a sound basis for developing navigational technology. With angry white men, we need to understand their feelings and perhaps offer an alternate way to understand their situation.
It is less about being white or male, in that sense, than about being angry. This is an emotional moment, a moment in which logical weighing of qualifications is dispatched by a cascade of outrage and entitlement. The men I spoke with in this book did not share a political position, a worldview, an analysis. They shared sentiments.
Populism is not a theory, an ideology; it's an emotion. And the emotion is righteous indignation that the government is screwing "us." There have been populisms of the Left (the anarchists of Spain) and populisms of the Right (Italian fascists). And in 2016, there were two populist movements: the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and the right-wing populism of Donald Trump. It's pretty likely that the standard-bearer of left-wing populism—a seventy-six-year-old Jewish democratic socialist—was not going to get anywhere near the White House in this election. But populism rode a tsunami of righteous entitled rage.
In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes the emotions with a stark image, most applicable to policies about immigration: Imagine you are standing in line. You've been waiting hours, patiently. Then, suddenly, all these people you don't recognize cut in front of you in line. "Hey," you say, "I've been waiting in line like everyone else! Wait your turn!" Then a bunch of politicians show up and tell you to shut up, that these people have been historically shut out of even getting to stand in line, and now they get to cut in front of you.1 That's how these guys feel.
Real feelings, yes. True facts? Not so much. After all, the states in which Trump scored his most lopsided victories—and even the counties in which he won handily—are precisely those states and counties that have the lowest rates of immigration in the nation. Those places that actually have experience with large numbers of immigrants were decidedly more welcoming to them.
That world in which white men grew up believing they would inevitably take their places somewhere on the economic ladder, simply by being themselves, is now passing into history. Yes, it's true they stood in line, played by the rules, and paid their taxes. It is the American Dream, the ideal of meritocracy. But that ideal misses how the deck was stacked in their favor for generations. They feel that anything even remotely approaching equality is a catastrophic loss.
The downwardly mobile lower middle class bought into the American Dream. They are true believers. To hear them tell it, if they worked hard, played by the rules, and paid their taxes, they, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, could buy a home and provide for a family. (Actually, they just needed to show up. They worked, yes, but on an uneven playing field.) But as I learned interviewing many of these men, that dream became a nightmare of downsizing, job loss, outsourcing, plant closings, shutting down the ma-and-pa store when Walmart moved in, losing the family farm. These men feel like they are seen as failures; they are humiliated—and that humiliation is the source of their rage.
This humiliation is deeply gendered, because when I say they wanted to support their families, they wanted to do it by themselves. The downwardly mobile lower middle and working classes are the last guys in our history to believe that they, alone, should support a family and that their wives "should not have to work." Like their moms and grandmothers, women were to be "exempted" from the work world. The core feature of American manhood has always been as "breadwinner."
They can't do it anymore. A generation ago, in 1974, the median income (in 2014 dollars) for a family of four in the United States was $48,497. Forty years later, in 2014, it was $53,057, less than $5,000 more. And what is the difference between that family of four in 1974 and 2014? Mom's working.
Of course, women have always worked. But we're talking ideology here, not history. And that helps explain why so many women ended up voting for Trump. Many of them voted not as "women," but as "moms"—working mothers who didn't want to be working. They were true believers also, and they believed that their role was to raise the kids and keep the home. When I interviewed Tea Party women a few years ago, many spoke of wanting their men to be the traditional heads of households, able to support their families. They wanted to live in a 1950s-era sitcom, a simpler time before zombie apocalypses and games of thrones. That white working women in the suburbs preferred a man who boasted about committing sexual assault, who held women in such contempt, suggests how deeply resonant this fantasy of that bygone Father Knows Best era remains today.
Social scientists often use the theory of "relative deprivation" to explain revolutions. It's rarely the poorest of the poor, those at the lowest rungs of society, who rebel, but rather it's those with something to lose. Middle-level peasants in Mexico, France, China, Cuba, Russia. Artisans, small independent farmers, and highly skilled workers in twentieth-century Russia, seventeenth-century England, and the American colonies. Relative deprivation describes the way that these groups look upward, at those rungs above them on the ladder of mobility, and realize that the ossified system is a permanent barrier to their upward mobility, for their chance at the dream. Their revolutions are, thus, aspirational, optimistic. They want to move up, but can't.
The angry white men I talked with in this book experience that same relative deprivation, but instead of looking upward at the rungs they are yet to climb, they look downward, at those below them, the people to whom these white men have always felt superior, to whom they have been taught to feel superior. It's not that their path upward is blocked; it's that the downward pressure from above is pushing them downward into the ranks of the marginalized. "They" might deserve to be down there, but "we" do not. Their revolt is, therefore, nostalgic, pessimistic, reactionary. They just want to prevent their being pushed down.
Listen to their language: "Make America great again." "Take our country back." And when they speak about manhood—or of identity more generally—they speak about what they must "retrieve," "reclaim," or "restore."
So, where to from here?
Maybe first a glance backward. In the late nineteenth century, a populist movement spread across the Midwest and the South, in areas that are now called "red states." Fueled by rural outrage at callous banks foreclosing on farms, on bankers and railroads destroying the small town as the center of the American landscape, populism nearly captured the presidency in 1896. Unable to make common cause with urban workers, however, the movement fragmented, and one leader, Thomas Watson, spiraled into racist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic nativism. Only the Minnesota Farmer-Worker Party tried to bridge this gap.
Today those farmers and workers vote as reliably red as a fire truck. But if the rural population is unreachable, white urban workers in the Rust Belt may still come around—if they can attend to their economic distress without condescension. Few recall today that one of President Obama's first proposals (instantly shot down by obstructionist Republicans) was to make community college tuition free, to help these guys, among others, retrain for the sorts of jobs that will be populating the economy of the twenty-first century.
Populisms of the Right always fail. Nostalgic longing for a lost Eden cannot restore what has been forever lost. Populisms of the Left may go too far, sweeping out the entirety of the regime that preceded it, often with cataclysmic violence. But they can triumph because they look to the future.
And that future is already here. The demographic trends that have been set in motion will not end. The year 2042 remains on the horizon as the time we become a majority-minority nation. The generation that will be majority nonwhite in America has already been born. Here, in America. They cannot be sent anywhere. They're here. They're ours. They're us.
The subtitle of this book is "American Masculinity at the End of an Era." When I wrote it, I predicted that the legions of angry white men would soon decline, though they'd become increasingly voluble—on the Internet. I did not expect this last stand, this valedictory lap around the field. I discounted the sentiments of their wives, for whom the traditional patriarchal bargain—he works and supports the family, she stays home and raises the children—was still a desire, if no longer a safe bet.
The end of that era of assumed entitlement will take a little longer to arrive. But the arc of history—and the teeming energy of demography—still points toward greater justice. It's just going to take a little longer, and we're going to have to fight a little harder to protect those who are now vulnerable.
Angry white men are hurt and angry and bewildered. They're right to be angry. They've been screwed. Heck, I'm angry too. But in the countless interviews I've given since the election, I'm always asking the same questions: Was it immigrants who issued those predatory loans that lost them their homes? Was it feminist women who outsourced their jobs and created deals that let billionaires pay no taxes? Did LGBT people embark on ruinous trade deals? Of course not. America's angry white men are right to be angry, but they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. That mail is now a letter bomb, and it will take a nation to defuse it.
Angry White Men concludes by recalling a 1932 speech by President Franklin Roosevelt, as he announced the New Deal. He spoke of "the forgotten man," who was suffering in the Depression, losing his farm, his livelihood, and his way. Donald Trump uses the same phrase and evokes the same forgotten man. FDR promised "to build from the bottom up and not from the top down," as he implemented a massive government spending effort to put people back to work. Trump, by contrast, offers only the same failed trickle-down policies that enriched the few and impoverished the many.
Long after the smoke and mirrors of Trump's promised economic policies, and after this mass hallucination that has many believing that rolling back environmental regulations and imposing draconian immigration policies will somehow restore America to its former glory, there will still be a future to build and, I believe, a large number of white men who will roll up their sleeves, alongside their neighbors, and, once again, put their massive shoulders to the wheel.
| AUTHOR'S NOTE
American Masculinity at the End of an Era
That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood, And still revolt when truth would set them free.License they mean when they cry liberty…
—JOHN MILTON, SONNET XII (1645)
Whenever people have asked me about the subject of my new book, I've barely managed to tell them the three words of the title before they've regaled me with stories of blind rage being directed at them, daily incivility witnessed or experienced, outrage they've felt, heard, or expressed. I've heard so many recountings of the shouting across the aisles of Congress, the TV talking heads, or the radio ragers. They've talked of being enraged at demonstrations, confronted by equally enraged counterdemonstrators. I've heard of people behaving murderously on freeways, of my friends being frightened to sit in the stands at their children's hockey games or on the sidelines of their soccer matches. And nearly everyone has complained about Internet trolls who lurk on news websites and blogs ready to pounce viciously on anyone with whom they might disagree.
And they've told me that they've found themselves angrier than they'd been. Some were concerned that they're far angrier than they remember their parents being. Others have tried to maintain a boundary between political anger and raging against their families, though even there the boundary seems, to some, elusive. "The national blood pressure is elevated," said my friend Dan, a doctor given toward physiological metaphors. "It's at a frighteningly high level. Cultural beta blockers are in order."
This rise in American anger has been widely—and angrily!—noticed. Pundits lay the blame on greedy corporations, gridlocked legislatures, cruel and angry local and state governments, demographic shifts that infuriate the native born, and special interest groups promoting their special interest agendas. Mostly, they blame "them"—some group, organization, or institution that has acted so egregiously that outrage feels justified, righteous. The groups or individuals change; the scapegoating has become a national pastime.
And I admit, I've been angry too. I'm outraged by the arrogant religious sanctimoniousness of churches shielding pedophiles. I get impatient waiting on the telephone talking to yet another "menu of options," righteously indignant when crazed drivers swerve across three lanes of traffic to gain one car length, and aggravated by political gridlock and smarmy politicians. I'm easily ired when receptionists in offices or hosts in restaurants sigh loudly at my innocent request that they actually do their jobs and call the person I'm meeting or find me a table at which to eat. I'm generally not a grumpy person, but sometimes it feels that every other person is either smug, arrogant, infuriating, incompetent, or politically inane—sometimes all of the above.
Often I get angry about politics. How can I not? I'm incensed by intransigent, obstructionist Republicans in Congress who won't admit the mandate that the president received in his trouncing of Mitt Romney and irritated by a feckless and spineless Democratic majority that can't seem to seize that mandate. I fume about the inordinate influence a bunch of highly organized gun advocates have over public policy, even when popular opinion swings the other way.
There are other emotions besides anger, of course: anguish when I read of young black boys shot by the police; heartsick for gays and lesbians still targeted for violence by hateful neighbors for loving whom they love; torn apart at stories of women raped, beaten, and murdered, often by the very men who say they love them; horrified when people are blown up simply for running in a race or children are massacred simply for being at school.
On the other hand, I'm also aware that despite all, it's probably never been better to be a person of color, a woman, or LGBT in the United States. Yes, old habits die hard, and assumptions may die harder. But it's a pretty easy case to make that whether by race, gender, or sexuality, America has never been more equal. (Class is another story—and one I will tell in this book.) So I'm also thrilled that I've lived long enough to see a black man in the White House, women heading national governments and major corporations, lesbians and gay men proclaiming their love for the world to see.
Let me be clear: I am in no way saying we have "arrived" at some postracial, postfeminist, post–civil rights utopia; and even less am I saying that some switch has been thrown and now men or white people or straight people are the new victims of some topsy-turvy "agenda." I'm simply saying that women are safer today than they have ever been in our society, that LGBT are more accepted and freer to love whom they love, and that racial and ethnic minorities confront fewer obstacles in their efforts to fully integrate into American society.
To be sure, I'm temperamentally an optimist. As both an academic and an activist, I often think of optimism as part of my job description. As an activist, I believe that through constant struggle, our society can, and will, be shaped into a society that better lives up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. And as an academic, I believe that if I can inspire my students to engage more critically with their world, and help them develop the tools with which they can do that, their lives, however they choose to live them, and with whatever political and ethical orientations they may have, will be better as a result.
Surely, the arc of history points toward greater equality. Slowly, yes, and fitfully. But definitely.
And that comment leads me to a discussion not of the book's title, but of the book's subtitle. If this is a book that is about American masculinity "at the end of an era," what era, exactly, is it that is ending? And why is it ending? And is ending a good thing or a bad thing?
In a sense, these latter questions are too late. I am not chronicling a change that is coming. I'm describing a change that has, in most respects, already happened. It's a done deal. The era of unquestioned and unchallenged male entitlement is over. This is a book about those men who either don't yet know it or sense the change in the wind and are determined to stem the tide.
The end of that era leaves those of us who have benefited from the dramatic social inequality that has characterized American society for so many years—we straight white men—with a choice to make. We know what the future will look like twenty years from now: same-sex marriage will be a national policy (and neither heterosexual marriage nor the traditional nuclear family will have evaporated), at least one-quarter of all corporate board members will be women, universities and even the military will have figured out how to adjudicate sexual assault, formerly illegal immigrants will have a path to citizenship, and all racial and ethnic minorities (except perhaps Muslims, who will still, sadly, be subject to vitriolic hatred) will be more fully integrated.
So our choice is simple: we can either be dragged kicking and screaming into that future of greater equality and therefore greater freedom for all, or go with the tide, finding out, along the way, that the future is actually brighter for us as well. (Data here are plentiful that the greater the level of gender equality in a society—whether in a relationship or marriage—the lower the rates of depression and the higher the rates of happiness.)
This is a book about those men who refuse to even be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future. They are white men who aren't at all happy about the way the tides have turned. They see a small set of swells as one gigantic tsunami about to wash over them.
It's about how feeling entitled by race or gender distorts one's vision.
Racial and gender entitlement knows no class system: working-class white men may experience that sense of entitlement differently from upper-class white men, but there are also many commonalities, many points of contact. White men of all classes benefit from a system based on racial and gender inequality. Whether we are working-class plumbers or corporate financiers, we're raised to expect the world to be fair—that hard honest work and discipline will bring about prosperity and stability. It's hard for us to realize that we've actually been benefiting from dramatic inequality.
Think of it as if you were running in a race. You'd expect that everyone plays by the same rules—start at the starting line, and run as best you can, and that the fastest runners win the race. You'd bristle if some groups had a different starting point, were allowed to enter where they pleased, or were allowed to tie others' feet together—or if some people ran in one direction with the wind at their backs, while the rest of us had to run into a strong headwind.
It may be hard for white men to realize that, irrespective of other factors, we have been running with the wind at our backs all these years and that what we think of as "fairness" to us has been built on the backs of others, who don't harbor such illusions as "meritocracy" and "fairness," who have known since birth that the system is stacked against them. The level playing field has been anything but level—and we've been the ones running downhill, with the wind, in both directions.
Efforts to level the playing field may feel like water is rushing uphill, like it's reverse discrimination against us. Meritocracy sucks when you are suddenly one of the losers and not one of the winners. In fact, it doesn't feel like a meritocracy at all.
We didn't just inherit privilege as an unexamined birthright. It's less about the "having" and more about a posture, a relationship to it. Even if we didn't think of ourselves as privileged, we thought of ourselves as entitled to privilege, entitled to occupy the leadership positions.
Just because those in power are straight and white and male doesn't mean that every straight white man feels powerful. That's a logical fallacy as well as politically inaccurate. (The compositional fallacy holds that if all As are Bs, it is not necessarily the case that all Bs are As. The classic example: all members of the Mafia are Italian; all Italians are not members of the Mafia.) But just because straight white men don't feel powerful doesn't make it any less true that compared to other groups, they benefit from inequality and are, indeed, privileged.
That is the era that is coming to an end, the "end of an era" to which the subtitle of this book refers. It's not the end of the era of "men"—as in the misframed debate recently over "the end of men." It's the end of the era of men's entitlement, the era in which a young man could assume, without question, it was not only "a man's world" but a straight white man's world. It is less of a man's world, today, that's true—white men have to share some space with others. But it is no longer a world of unquestioned male privilege. Men may still be "in power," and many men may not feel powerful, but it is the sense of entitlement—that sense that although I may not be in power at the moment, I deserve to be, and if I'm not, something is definitely wrong—that is coming to an end. It is a world of diminished expectations for all white men, who have benefited from an unequal system for so long.
There are still many in this generation of men who feel cheated by the end of entitlement. They still feel entitled, and thus they identify socially and politically with those above them, even as they have economically joined the ranks of those who have historically been below them.
This is a book about those angry white men, men who experience a sense of what I here call "aggrieved entitlement"—that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled. It's about rear guard actions, of bitterness and rage, about fingers shoved in the crumbling dikes, trying, futilely, to hold back the surging tide of greater equality and greater justice.
But if this is the end of one era, the era of men's sense of unquestioned entitlement, it is the beginning of another, the beginning of the end of patriarchy, the unquestioned assumption men have felt to access, to positions of power, to corner offices, to women's bodies, that casual assumption that all positions of power, wealth, and influence are reserved for us and that women's presence is to be resisted if possible, and tolerated if not.
There is a way out for white men, I believe, a way for us to turn down the volume, redirect our anger at more appropriate targets, and find our way to happier and healthier lives. The data are persuasive that most American men have quietly, and without much ideological fanfare, accommodated themselves to greater gender equality in both their personal and their workplace relationships than any generation before them. And those who have done so are actually happier about it—happier about their lives as fathers, partners, and friends. It turns out that gender and racial equality is not only good for people of color and women, but also good for white people and men—and, most of all, for our children.
Perhaps that's what the Greenwich Village writer Floyd Dell was thinking as he sat at his desk on the eve of one of the great woman suffrage demonstrations in New York City in 1916. A well-known bohemian writer, Dell was also one of the founders of the Men's League for Woman Suffrage, who marched with women in support of their right to vote. In an article published in the Masses,
- On Sale
- Apr 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Bold Type Books