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.
The love of violence is so fundamental to the American psyche that we can easily trace it all the way back to the beginning. In 1636, a generation after landing in the New World and the same year that they founded Harvard College, New England Puritans massacred and burned 500-700 Native Americans known as the Pequots. As Bob Dylan would write 328 years later, they had “God on their side.” One of the perpetrators expressed no remorse, only praise for this God:
...It was a fearfull sight to see them (the natives) thus frying in the fryer, and the streams of blood...horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them...
The British were not unique in their God-driven savagery. Seven years later and a bit to the south the Dutch massacred 120 Lanape Indians at Communipaw (in today's Jersey City), according to this witness:
Infants were torn from their mother's breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small [cradle]boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown...
Hatred – and joy – of this intensity expresses a privileged world view that begins in abstraction and alienation from the body and drapes itself in innocence. Ritual sacrifice – fire and blood – gives its practitioners a consistent moral self-image. It enabled the My Lai massacre and dozens like it in Viet Nam. It lies behind the communal celebration of whiteness known as the lynch mob, and it enables us to casually dismiss the torture of suspected terrorists in Iraq and Israeli massacres in Gaza. But it does not completely insulate us from guilt. For that to occur, one more step is required: the erasure of memory. After the Pequot massacre, the Puritans passed a law making it a crime to utter the word “Pequot.”
We’ve all heard the statistics by now: 40% of American adults own 260 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms. We suffer 15,000 gun murders, 18,000 gun suicides and 1,500 “accidental” gun deaths per year. America’s adult murder rate is seven times higher and its teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours. Glen Slater concludes that gun violence “keeps the national psyche in a holding pattern, preventing it from a more conscious encounter with more soul-wrenching issues.”
Some of this is about availability and the gun lobby. But we’re talking about rage, and the privilege of acting upon that rage (or ignoring it when others perpetrate it). Rage is about psychology, but belief systems are about mythology. Twenty-four percent of us – a far higher rate than in most countries – believe that “it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want.”
Of course, to maintain such complacency – and complicity – among the general population requires massive and continual government and media propaganda, which typically ensures huge support in the early stages of each foreign intervention. Eventually, our deeper impulse toward human solidarity arises, and our wars lose their popularity. The fact that the public predictably falls for the next set of lies about the next set of designated evildoers (told, as they are now, by the same pundits) seems to indicate a repetitive national pattern that we can only call addiction.
Meanwhile, constant, massive, fictional death in film and TV reduces the emotional impact of actual death. By age eighteen, an American will have seen 18,000 virtual murders. “Harmless violence where no one gets hurt,” writes James Hillman, “breeds innocence…the innocent American is the violent American.”
And although the idea of American innocence should always bring us back to race, our mythic blinders can prevent us from seeing the obvious. Many writers have recently addressed the pathology behind the fact that men commit most murders. But surprisingly few make the necessary leap to the deeper issue: the fact that white men commit the vast majority of mass murders, whether on school campuses or in the 170 countries where the U.S. empire stations troops.
We can’t achieve any real insight without taking this background into account. We can’t speak of school shootings without also speaking of Rambo. We can’t speak about the money behind the NRA without speaking about depleted uranium bombs in Yemen. We can’t discuss the prisons that house – and breed – our killers without discussing the two million Palestinians housed in the outdoor prison known as Gaza.
Once we acknowledge the broader historical, religious and racial contexts, then we can bring in issues such as the firearms industry, the police (who actually do a shockingly large percentage the killing), the question of mental health, and the collapsing economy, with its parallel collapse of possibilities for the white, male working class.
Studies indicate that the likelihood of advancing in social class – the core fantasy of the American Dream – has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But to understand the mythic roots of the current epidemic of rage, it’s really useful to look back to 2003 and note that 56 % of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George W. Bush’s tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them.
The myth of the self-made man – the hero who succeeds without any community support, or who violently saves the innocent community and then leaves it – is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism and our ignorance of the facts. As late as the year 2000, 19 % of Americans believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19 % thought they already were. Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent did, even before the recent tax bill that has drastically reduced even that tiny number).
Sooner or later, the individual, non-political behaviors prove to be either unavailable or (though addictive) ultimately unsatisfying. And when our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim / loser – within himself, and we become what we really are (except for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history. American crime is a natural by-product of our values, an alternative means of social mobility in a society where “anything goes” in the pursuit of success.
“America,” says Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” When we realize that such movement is blocked, we go ballistic. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.”
White people in America may well have had permission to dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. The gap between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – is also far higher here than anywhere else. When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, white, mass killer is an expression of social mobility gone bad.
Students of myth do not look at motivation – we don’t really care why Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. We look first at the facts of the story itself: this is what happened. Only after accepting the facts themselves do we ask why. So we ask, is mass violence culturally approved? And we have to answer, yes, it must be, since in this story, society insists on doing nothing to prevent it.
Or at least when whites, especially the police, are doing it. But when armed Black Panthers marched on Sacramento in 1967, it took only a few weeks for Governor Ronald Reagan to enact a strong gun control law.
As I wrote above, there is something about the hatred – and joy – of this intensity of violence that is characteristically American. Here is something like a corollary, a sub-rule of the myth of innocence: in this story, only white people are allowed to enact their rage without consequences.
All Others are forewarned: the display of your anger at anyone other than your own people will be severely punished. Senator Orrin Hatch explains, apparently without irony, how we perpetuate our sense of innocence: “Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life.”
In countless Hollywood versions of the “good war,” the American Hero, dedicated to his democratic ideals, dies fighting to the last man. Isn’t he always the last one to die – just as one of his mirror opposites, the evil genius, equally dedicated to his criminal goals, also dies at the very end? Don’t they each choose death over the alternative of being captured?
And what about the gunman (whether in old gangster films or on school campuses) dying in a blaze of police gunfire after he has committed his crimes, or the mass killer in Toronto in April, 2018 who dared the police to “Shoot me in the head”? This phenomenon is so widespread that analysts have called it “suicide by police.”
The broader subject of suicide brings us back to the “mental illness” issue that gun rights supporters use to deflect the question away from gun availability.
I am no psychologist, but any plumber can see that the rage, like leaking water, must go somewhere – either outwards, often as literal violence directed at others, or inwards, as depression or suicide. Or as rape.
Although we can never tell how much happens through suicide by cop or through deliberately unsafe driving, or deliberate but unconscious substance and medication abuse (especially among white, middle-aged men), at least 45,000 Americans commit suicide annually. Half are by firearms. Men kill themselves 3 ½ times more often than women, and white males account for 7 of 10 suicides. Suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide by teenagers are reported to have doubled between 2008 and 2015.
Our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life-experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”
Depression is the shadow of our heroic, successful, progressive, American stance. It has doubled since World War Two, with each generation showing higher rates than the last. Indeed, major depression diagnoses increased 33% between 2013 and 2016.Ten percent of us (6% of children) take antidepressants. Forty-one percent of young adults experience major depression, and nearly a third of them exhibit alcohol dependence by age thirty-two. Eighteen percent of college students take prescription psychological medications, and suicide is their second leading cause of death.
Most suicides, we can assume, take their own lives out of depression, despair, loneliness or internalized rage. But this is not an “either-or” world but a “both-and.” When we bring the mythological into the conversation, we have to acknowledge the broad topic of initiation and our demythologized world in which traditional communities and rituals, especially those of initiation, have long been lost.
At some level, we all really do know that the Hero must die so that an elder may be born. In some African tribes, adolescents were expected to demonstrate their sincerity by dancing at great length before the hut of the elders, pleading for initiation. They knew the consequences of not being admitted: remaining boys in the eyes of the community.
In a post-modern world that has elevated the productive, achieving, radically individualistic male to the status of demi-god who lords it over all the “losers,” such consequences, if inchoate, are even greater. Twenty-first century capitalism produces a vast surplus of un- and under-employable people, especially men, who understand very well that they have been permanently excluded from the initiatory group of the upwardly-mobile.
In 2004, four million American eighteen to thirty-four-year old men were unemployed, were not in school and lacked a degree beyond high school. Fourteen years later, in a culture that identifies boys as men only when they have disengaged from family and established independent households, fully one-third of them still live with their parents.
Not only are these young and not-so-young men unable to function productively anymore, they can also see that most job growth is now in areas (health care, food services, housekeeping, etc.) that either have been served traditionally by women or require high-tech educations.
Politically, it gets much worse: for at least two generations they have been deluged with right-wing talk radio and internet noise telling them that the source of their joblessness – and their pain – is affirmative action programs instituted by those same bi-coastal elites. It’s a very old story, and the personae have changed over the years. But its essence remains: you have been victimized by the Other.
Chapter Five of my book discusses the vast array of means by which we try to achieve the initiation into manhood that we desperately, if often unconsciously, desire:
As initiation rites have disappeared, so have the clear distinctions between life’s developmental stages. Consequently, adolescence in America seems to continue indefinitely. This is not to say that there are no initiations in modern life. The dizzying pace of change evokes liminality in everyone, and the psyche reacts to separation and loss as if initiations were underway. But we endure these transitions alone and unprotected by ritual and community. From childhood trauma to divorce and war, no one puts our suffering into a larger context or welcomes us home. This drains our capacity to express our purpose, and we live lifetimes of incomplete initiations.
Those unconscious means include fraternity initiations, substance abuse, tattooing and body piercing, midlife crises, fast cars, extreme sports and the pseudo-initiations of fundamentalism, hate groups, gangs and the military. What they all have in common is the desire to die to an old, no-longer-satisfying identity and be reborn into a new one.
Below the incapacitation of the alienated, depressed and increasingly angry white male lies that same desire. But with no real community of elders and no ability to experience his plight in symbolic terms, his only way out may be the literal, internalized expression of that rage as suicide.
Otherwise, the victim who cannot be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats. Some will do so with energy derived from their thwarted desire to play the hero, so they will organize collectively as victims, but with truly “heroic” enthusiasm.
This is right-wing activism: deeply committed, emotionally intense, sustained effort under the identification as victim – despite their unacknowledged white privilege – with their targets being precisely those categories (race, gender, immigration) whom they have been educated to perceive as questioning or contesting that privilege.
Hence, we have, and certainly not for the first time in our history, groups of relatively well-off people who actually perceive themselves to be the victims of people who have far less than they do. Only in America do millions of economically insecure white people serve the interests of the rich because to do so is to feel accepted among the elect and not "the Other."
This is the history of American politics, from Bacon’s Rebellion in the late 17th century to the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Populism, all the way to Ronald Reagan and Trump. As Lyndon Johnson said:
If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.