Is there hope that the ugly, hateful era of the angry white male might come to an end in the United States?
Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, believes that the incendiary rage of many resentful white males will ultimately succumb to an altered cultural context.
“Angry white men rage for our attention, yes, but that era of assumed male entitlement to all the positions of power and wealth is coming to an end.” Kimmel told Truthout. “Men can be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future, or we can accept it and ask what it means for us.”
Truthout recently interviewed Kimmel, who is a sociology professor and executive director at the Center of the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York.
Mark Karlin: What is the demographic you refer to as angry white males in the US. The stereotypes are that they are generally Southern, or rural, or less educated or residents of exurbia? What is your breakdown?
Michael Kimmel: Angry white men are everywhere geographically! I look at some groups, like the extreme right wing, who might tend to be more small-town, exurban. Many are suburban, from those sprawling suburbs that extend far into what used to be “rural America.” But many of the men I discuss – say men’s rights activists or fathers’ rights activists, or the men who are violent against women, or guys who go postal – come from all over the country.
You talk about the transition from anxiety to explosive emotional anger among the actual and perceived growing loss of entitlement and privilege among white males. You use the phrase, “the cultural construction of aggrieved entitlement.” Does that translate to, “white males are mad as hell that women and minorities aren’t kept in their place anymore by white men, and the white men are losing their jobs and patriarchal status as a result”?
Nicely put! Some white males are mad as hell not that minorities or gays or women aren’t “kept in their place” anymore, but more that they feel that “they” are taking places that were “rightfully ours.” Race (being white) and gender (being men) are the frameworks they use to describe what I think is actually a phenomenon that has more to do with class.
You dissect “The Rage of the American Working Man” in Chapter Six. Of course, the inevitable question is why is so much of that rage aimed at minorities instead of upward at primarily other white males who are exploiting them?
Good question, I ask myself this all the time. Sometimes, in my interviews, I felt like I was listening to a gendered version of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? as I listened to men blame those below them on the socioeconomic ladder for problems that were caused by those far above them. Such misdirection is massaged and manipulated. Men’s anger is real – in the sense that they have often been badly done by. But just to say that it’s a real feeling doesn’t make it “true” – that is, it is not an accurate analysis of what caused their situation. Just remember that the anger of men who feel (or who actually have been) dispossessed can go to the right or the left. Timothy McVeigh or Tom Joad.
Given that factories and blue-collar jobs continue to be sent overseas to low-wage sweat shops, combined with stagnating wages for hourly workers, isn’t the tinderbox of anger more likely to explode among the lower working-class white male?
Well, yes and no. There are lots of middle- and upper-middle-class men who are angry that “their” positions have been stolen from them, as well. And the ranks of the extreme right are populated less by lower-working-class guys than downwardly mobile lower-middle-class guys. They are sons, literally, of independent farmers, small shopkeepers of the Ma and Pa variety, well-paid, union-protected manufacturing workers, independent contractors. When we focus on those white men who are angry because of economic displacement, they feel entitled to the lives their fathers and grandfathers had. They look back nostalgically at a world now lost.
You write about many white men perceiving themselves as victims? A lot of people, on the other hand, find that incomprehensible coming from a group of angry white men who deride minorities for allegedly perceiving themselves as victims? When it comes to emotions, it appears reality doesn’t have a chance.
I try very hard to be empathic and compassionate towards these guys, in part because I think they are right to be angry, but the targets of their rage are manipulated. I think we get nowhere just telling them to “get over it.” Some of these guys have bought into the system, and now feel they’ve been screwed by the system they passionately believed in. I honor that feeling, but I don’t think the cause of their miseries is the enormous strides made by women, or gays or people of color.
You write a chapter on angry white men targeting women, often violently. Yet, you have at least 40 percent of the Tea Party composed of women – and many women supporters of the angry white male social agenda. How do you explain this phenomenon?
The Tea Party is an outlier among my groups of angry white men. There are some good analyses of Tea Party women that suggest that they are motivated not as “women” – to advance their position as women in the marketplace, let’s say – but as “mothers” and especially as “stay-at-home mothers,” which is what they wanted to be. They resent having to work, they resent losing their ability to be homemakers and wives. They believe, as do the men in the movement, that what they call “big Government” or the “Nanny State” has feminized their men and kept the men from being the responsible breadwinners and providers to which they, as women, also felt entitled. The other thing is that the Tea Party is well financed and choreographed from above by financial elites who used the rage of the rank-and-file to further dispossess them.
What is the connection between the angry white male and guns. As you point out, all school shootings are by males, whatever their age – and almost every mass shooting is carried out by a male. Guns appear to be a welded emotional appendage to the angry white male. Is that likely to change in the foreseeable future?
Well, you know that gun-lobby phrase “guns don’t kill people, people kill people? Well, what’s more true is that “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.” Surely guns play a role, but not the only one. But men’s love of their guns is, as you say visceral. They symbolize the last ability of many men to be providers and protectors of their family, for one thing. They are about autonomy, power, and they are “great equalizers” in a world that feels suddenly unequal. This is unlikely to change as long as that deep emotional connection of masculinity and guns is maintained. There was a brief moment, after Sandy Hook. But that passed quickly.
Can you describe what you call the “White Wing”?
The “White Wing” consists of somewhere around 200,000 members of extreme right-wing organizations: white supremacists, neo-Nazis, skinheads. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks active hate groups and estimates about 1,200 such groups nationwide, a 400 percent increase since President Obama was elected. They’re the most obviously racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and often anti-Semitic guys I discuss in the book. Yet they are also “true believers” in the system – fiercely patriotic (although they hate the government) and passionately pro-capitalist (though they don’t much like big corporations).
Some of Truthout’s readers might be surprised to read your chapter on the so-called men’s rights movement. It appears, angry white males are more concerned about taking rights away, particularly from women and minorities.
I don’t know that they’d agree with taking rights away from women necessarily. I think they believe that a switch has been thrown and that women now run the show – control corporations, courts or government policy initiatives. They don’t want to take rights away from women as much as to “restore” the rights to which they believe themselves entitled. They see evidence of reverse discrimination everywhere they look, from “Ladies’ Nights” at bars and clubs, to custody decisions in divorce proceedings, to hiring and promotion at work. They do believe that women are in power now, and that they are suffering because of it.
You refer to the current outbursts of white entitlement as being “the end of an era.” But how can you be so hopeful when you emphasize that we are dealing with emotion not reason here?
I tend to be hopeful because I listen to the voices of younger men – yes, younger white men too. Most men are gradually accommodating themselves to greater gender equality in their personal relationships and in their working lives – and finding that they actually like it. They like having better relationships with their friends, colleagues, children, wives and partners. As a nation, we are more gender equal and more racially equal and more sexually equal than we have ever been in our history (this is not to say that we are “there” yet, just that we are unlikely to move backwards). We are, not coincidentally, more class unequal than we have been in about a century.
Angry White Men rage for our attention, yes, but that era of assumed male entitlement to all the positions of power and wealth is coming to an end. Men can be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future, or we can accept it and ask what it means for us. And I’m optimistic because if you take a long-term historical perspective, angry white men may be very loud now, but as men live these more equal lives, they will find that they are healthier and happier for it.
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