Author explores white male anger in Middle America
Michael Kimmel knows how angry white men can get. The New York-based sociologist and author shared his knowledge with a Scripps College crowd at the Balch Auditorium on March 23.
Mr. Kimmel is the author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, which explores male anger in Middle America and how some men are dealing with a changing world. Scripps Feminist Center Coordinator Susan Castagnotto introduced Mr. Kimmel, noting that the crowd is one of the largest she’s seen at the auditorium.
“We couldn’t think of a better speaker during Women’s History Month than Michael Kimmel to talk about angry white men,” Ms. Castagnotto joked.
During his speech, Mr. Kimmel focused on one particular subsection of angry white men:?neo-Nazis, white nationalists, white supremacists and other members of the extreme right. The origins of his thinking, he said, began on a TV talk show, where he sat on a panel with white men who bemoaned that they were victims of reverse discrimination. The theme of the show was, “Black women stole my job.”
Mr. Kimmel had one question for them—where did they get “my” from? The key to understanding white male rage, he noted, is entitlement.
“White men in America are beneficiaries of the greatest affirmative action program in the history of the world,” Mr. Kimmel asserted. “It’s called the history of the world.”
Mr. Kimmel took an intersectional approach to his analysis, using gender in the way hate groups interpret race and class. After giving a proper warning, he showed a PowerPoint presentation of propaganda pieces created by various white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, which showed distorted and racist images of African Americans and other marginalized groups.
A common theme emerged within the images—women. Minority groups, these propaganda pieces warned, were taking white women away. Women were often depicted in these pieces as bare-chested trophies that white men are entitled to.
White nationalist propaganda, Mr. Kimmel said, works in three ways: it provides analysis of a situation (your life as a white man is bad), it demonizes the “other” (it’s their fault) and it serves as a recruiting tool for people to join (the only way it can get better is if you join us). Throughout the presentation, every piece of propaganda fit the bill.
Mr. Kimmel also showed the audience a classic piece of American masculine culture: Charles Atlas’ “Hero of the Beach” comic from the 1920s. The comic featured the stereotypical “97-pound weakling” as he’s humiliated and emasculated at the beach by a larger man. He goes home, gains muscle and returns to the shore to exact his revenge and claim a woman.
He then presented the same comic, but “racialized” by a white nationalist group to show a white man getting assaulted at the beach by a black man. The white man bulks up, puts on his boots and suspenders and claims the beach (and the women) from the black man.
That comic, Mr. Kimmel noted, served as a vital recruiting tool for white supremacists.
He dissected the lyrics of “Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen as the penultimate representation of white frustration. The lyrics, in part, read, “Mister, I ain’t a boy, I’m a man and I believe in a promised land.”
“Notice he’s saying it to another man—‘mister, I ain’t a boy.’ Masculinity is a homosocial performance, constantly performed for other men’s evaluation,” Mr. Kimmel said. “And finally, the belief in a ‘promised land,’ this idea that if we retake our masculinity we reclaim our country.”
At the end of his speech, Mr. Kimmel touched on the current campaign and the rise of Donald Trump, an event that seems to fit perfectly within his theories of white male anger. He said many conservative figures, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, have been assuaging fears and drumming up anger for nearly two decades, which allowed for the ascension of Mr. Trump.
“This is exactly the fruition of everything they’ve been stoking for the past 20 years,” Mr. Kimmel said. “So it seems naïve, willfully so, to feign surprise at someone like Donald Trump, how he is now surfing that wave of rage that the entire Republican party helped to stoke for all these years.”
Despite the troubling imagery presented, Mr. Kimmel remains optimistic that these men are a dying group. He interviewed dozens of men in America and across Europe while researching his book, and stresses the need for compassion.
“I’ve listened to them and I’ve said, you know, you have every right to be angry. You have been screwed by this system, absolutely,” Mr. Kimmel said. “But do you think immigrants issued those predatory loans? Do you think feminist women are responsible for climate change? Do you think LGBT people outsourced your job? Of course you should be angry, you’ve been badly done by. But you’re delivering your mail to the wrong address.”
During a question-and-answer session that followed the talk, one man asked what he could do to bring equality “to the promised land.” Mr. Kimmel responded that he is inherently an optimist, and pointed out that even though there is a long way to go to achieve true equality, Americans have made incredible strides to achieve equality.
“The easiest answer is, we don’t give up,” Mr. Kimmel said. “Do you think for a minute we’re going to go backwards? Do you think for a minute American women are going to say, oh, this work thing, voting, driving a car, serving on juries, having orgasms—it’s not going to happen. We’re not going back.”