Who Mourns Mugabe?

robert_mugabe_in_moscow2c_may_2015The Nation has published an excellent and extremely valuable article by James North, a freelance journalist, about the relationship between the British colonial legacy in Zimbabwe and the recent events culminating in the resignation of President Robert Mugabe. This article is so important because it challenges the dominant narrative in the Western media that treats the present condition of Zimbabwe as singly caused by the policies of Mugabe alone. While it cannot be denied that Mugabe made an indelible impact on the country, helping to bring down its white-minority government and then ruling as president for the last 37 years, intense skepticism should greet the assertion that one man alone, however influential, made Zimbabwe what it is today. Instead of limiting our analysis to the last 40 or so years, we should go further, to a colonial era that began in the 19th century and which only ended less than forty years ago.

180px-cecilrhodesWoefully few people in the West know that Zimbabwe used to be named Rhodesia, and fewer still probably realize that Rhodesia was named after the most infamous agent of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, whose estate still funds the highly-coveted Rhodes Scholarship postgraduate award to study at the University of Oxford. Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC) subjugated the Matabele, Ndebele, and Shona peoples and conquered their homelands. The Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun, first saw “wartime” use when British soldiers utilized them in the First Matabele War (1893-1894), and would become a bloody symbol of cruel imperial conquest during the “Scramble for Africa.” White veterans of the BSAC massacres received land grants, with the native Africans their indentured tenants. The southern regions of Rhodesia, the territory that would become Zimbabwe, contained fertile farmland, as well as rich deposits of chrome, gold, and nickel. The United Kingdom eventually annexed the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923, incorporating it into the British Empire, although it remained the affluent white minority largely ruled itself. It was not until the “winds of change” began blowing in the immediate post-World War II era that the prospect of decolonization became tenable to the imperial powers. It should be stressed, however, that most white settlers in Zimbabwe never considered it a plausible option.

This was partly a result of the colonial context that distinguished Rhodesia from its neighboring British holdings. Kenya, for example, was for settlers belonging to the upper classes: retired elites going on safari and kicking up their feet in social clubs. Rhodesia with its lucrative farms and mines attracted settlers in need of wealth, who had fewer resources to fall back on and thus had more to lose by giving up their racial dominion over the black population. This is not to say that white settlers in Kenya embraced black rule with enthusiasm, but they realized that they could retain their status while co-existing with the native Africans. White Rhodesians could not countenance any such co-existence; their status depended on their political power and their control over the economy. They knew that their privileged position depended on the exploitation and repression of the black majority, and they feared deprivation of their wealth and property or the outbreak of a “race war.” They uttered the rhetoric of Enoch Powell in the United Kingdom and pro-segregation “Jim Crow” politicians in the U.S. They voiced fears of a race war, of retribution killings, because they were intimately aware of the injustices and violence they themselves had inflicted on black Africans.

422px-congo_crisis_collageUnder international pressure due to shifting norms regarding imperialism, the British government of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson grudgingly agreed to a policy of “no independence before majority rule,” meaning that the United Kingdom would not grant Southern Rhodesia independence from its empire unless it created a multiracial political system. To a certain extent, this was because the white ruling class refused to give up its privileges; although they made up only 5 percent of the population, the status quo favored them politically, economically, and culturally. To add to the historical context, however, the slow rate of change following independence in the Belgian Congo had resulted in spontaneous uprisings by the black population. In response to violence against white settlers who had remained, the Belgian government intervened militarily and supported Congolese secessionists. Although the United Nations sent peacekeepers, they refused to aid the black nationalist Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, restore order, so the Soviet Union sent military assistance. Faced with competing Soviet influence in Africa, leading Western governments had Lumumba captured and killed after a coup d’état, leading Western nations eventually rallied behind a stable anti-communist military dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. Most white Rhodesians felt betrayed by a British government that had previously granted them the autonomy and freedom to institute racial segregation an economy centered on the exploitation of native workers was arbitrarily altering the arrangement, and so – in conscious imitation of the United States – declared their own independence. While this led to the introduction of economic sanctions against Rhodesia and its government was formally unrecognized by all Western countries, the U.S. government undermined them through the 1971 Byrd Amendment, which stated that, if the U.S. imported valuable raw materials from communist countries, it had to import them from non-communist ones. This meant that the U.S. had an obligation to import chrome and nickel from Rhodesia, even though this meant financially supporting its illegal white supremacist government. From 1971 to 1977 (when Jimmy Carter finally pushed Congress to repeal the amendment), the U.S. ensured that the sting of sanctions did not harm the white-ruled Rhodesians too much, and its ultimate revocation had to do with an oversupply of foreign ferrochrome that pushed down prices for the U.S. own ferrochrome industry.

The repeal of the Byrd Amendment hurt the Rhodesian economy, but the major turning point for white-ruled governments in southern Africa came with the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 1974, when radical leftists among the military overthrew the Caetano government in Lisbon and granted independence to Mozambique and Angola. The Portuguese colonial empire was one of the last to dissolve, but when it did fall, the changes it wrought were immense: Marxist leaders in Mozambique cut off Rhodesia from rail access to ports, meaning its trade and industry had to go through apartheid South Africa. Angola, too, aligned itself with the Soviet bloc after Soviet military assistance and Cuban troops intervened in its civil war. With the balance of power reversed, it was no longer feasible that 274,000 Rhodesian whites could continue to govern over 6.1 million black Africans, with the whites outnumbered 22 to 1.

hector_pietersonThe National Party in South Africa, the stalwart defenders of apartheid, faced a similar reality, and a growing number of its members accepted that, at the least, apartheid needed to be reformed. The collective Western conscious prefers to imagine the anti-apartheid struggle as a largely bloodless affair, a non-violent movement, omitting the hundreds of black protesters (many of them children) murdered in the 1960 Sharpesville massacre and the 1976 Soweto uprising. They also choose to forget the African National Congress’ own violent methods in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the U.S. and British governments classifying it as a terrorist organization. It was only after the economic decline and final collapse of the ANC’s main benefactor – the Soviet Union – in the late 20th century that it took a more conciliatory posture, which coincided with the rise of reformist F.W. de Klerk premiership that saw the writing on the wall.

In Rhodesia, black rule came a decade sooner than it did to its south, thanks in large part to aid from communist states. In addition to Soviet-Cuban assistance, Chinese advisers and weapons went to African liberation movements; Mugabe, as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) independence movement, primarily received support from Beijing rather than Moscow. The Soviets preferred their historical asset in the colony, the trade union leader Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). As Soviet policy was to mobilize industrial workers, ZAPU support lay in the cities, whereas ZANU was much stronger in the much more abundant rural areas. A main reason for this gulf of popularity was the ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), the armed wing of ZANU, were the primary combatants in the guerilla war against the Rhodesian government. They earned the loyalty of their fellow blacks, so much so that being a “war veteran” is still a position of honor in Zimbabwe.

180px-mugabe_1979_aMugabe was deeply involved in the guerilla war. He was a committed Marxist militant, having become radicalized after a decade in prison from 1964 to 1974 (he was originally a teacher before entering politics). While imprisoned, Mugabe was tortured and denied a temporary pardon after his three-year-old died of severe inflammation of the brain. Upon his release, he went to Mozambique and found an ally in that country’s Marxist leader, Samora Machel. It was Machel more than anyone who urged Mugabe to moderate his positions, who induced him to participate in peace negotiations mediated by the British government in 1979. Mugabe believed he could have defeated the Smith regime military and was hesitant to compromise, but Machel argued – quite logically – that an exodus of whites would do damage to a post-colonial economy. Machel helped broker negotiations at Lancaster House in London with the British government mediating, and on his advice, Mugabe agreed to black political power but with most of the arable land in the hands of a small number of white farmers. Mugabe also permitted the politicians of the past white supremacist government to continue to participate in politics, including the unrepentant prime minister, Ian Smith, who had overseen the war against the nationalist freedom fighters. Mugabe, perhaps against his better judgment, agreed to compromise rather than a reckoning, and did not push for land redistribution.

Mugabe and ZANU did not have to steal power; they easily won elections held after the Lancaster House agreement. Nkomo and ZAPU, by default, became junior partners, but they aspired for greater representation than they received. Division between political parties also evolved into division between ethnic groups; the Ndebele people, based in the Matabeleland region in western Zimbabwe, became associated with ZAPU, while the Shona people became associated with ZANU. Fearing competition for power, Mugabe repressed ZAPU through the early 1980s, including a series of massacres carried out by a North Korean-trained unit called the Fifth Brigades. This pogrom is referred to as “Gukurahundi,” a Shona phrase meaning “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” In many ways, Mugabe was imitating the British Empire when it mowed down the Ndebele a century before with the Maxim gun, as well as the Rhodesian soldiers that slaughtered them in the wilderness. Political violence was learned behavior from imperialism and colonialism. While this does not excuse the Gukurahundi, it does help to understand why Mugabe reacted to dissent with violence rather than a pluralist liberal parliamentarian approach. He also recognized that his proximity to apartheid South Africa put him in a precarious position. In the 1980s, Johannesburg was still committed to white supremacy, and just as Mugabe had raided Rhodesia from Mozambique, the South African military struck into Zimbabwe.

320px-zanu-pf_youth_leagueEconomically, Mugabe pursued an agenda of raising social spending, and in important areas – education, health care, housing – standards improved for the black majority. Western multinational corporations owned monopolies on advanced technology, however, so the more regulatory, government-interventionist policies adopted by Mugabe led to capital flight. Economic growth stalled. In the 1980s, the rise of the neoliberal consensus, protectionism and emphasis on local production was anathema to the industrialized nations. Moreover, because the government could only take land from white farmers if they were willing to sell, the acquisition of farmland and its redistribution to black farmers went slower than Mugabe had promised. The average war veteran resented that he had sacrificed blood and sweat for a revolution. It was Matabeleland where the inequality in land ownership was very acute. Mugabe accepted this until the 1990s, when a Land Acquisition Act granted the government to seize any land it wished, if financial compensation was made. As part of the decolonization process, the British government had promised money to buy out white farmers, but London opposed a policy of mandatory acquisition. When Tony Blair’s Labour Party came to power in 1997, the new international development secretary, Clare Short, denied that the U.K. had any obligation to pay for land purchases, citing her own Irish background as evidence the British government had no connection to the colonizers of the imperial period. In 2000, paramilitaries loyal to Mugabe invaded white farms, and in some instances, killed white farmers and their workers. As it was the war veterans who felt owed the land, and since Mugabe had previously accepted the status quo, it is questionable how much this “fast-track” land reform came from Mugabe, or was him acquiescing to social forces stirring in his power base. As his abrupt downfall shows, his hold on power was dependent on military support; once he lost this, he lost power.

After the “fast-track” land reform started, Mugabe may have mollified the veterans, but he had triggered an implosion of the Zimbabwean economy. Capital flows into the country fell to almost zero, with the government facing cutbacks in social spending as well as falling incomes, rising prices, and accelerating poverty. In the 2000s, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed. In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe, leading to Mugabe accusing Tony Blair of racism. Critically, however, Mugabe enjoyed some support from the ANC government in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki. From the 1990s to the present, South Africa had been the closest thing to an ally that Zimbabwe had. While the Western narrative around Mugabe makes him appear as a universally loathed tyrant, many black South Africans regard Mugabe as a hero of the independence movement. With income inequality itself a persistent problem in South Africa as well, there is also some consideration for violence against white farmers and the appropriation of their property. Understandably, those who themselves remember the brutality of white supremacy in southern Africa are the most compassionate to the fury unleashed against a class of people who, in recent memory, profited from colonialism.

emmerson_mnangagwaAs time went on, Mugabe became emblematic of the mythical African “Big Man” forming in Western popular culture: authoritarian, reliant on violence, clinging to socialist ideals, manipulating ethnic cleavages. In truth, he was very weak. As early as 2000 impeachment proceedings began again him, only to be stopped by the erstwhile Mugabe loyalist and now his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was minister of state security during the massacres in Matabeleland. Mugabe’s replacement with Mnangagwa illustrates that true power lies in the hands of the war veterans, the traditional ruling elite and now the nascent bourgeoisie. There is no reason to believe that the Mnangagwa administration will be anything but another repressive kleptocracy, save that it may warm up to a dependent role in the international economy. Mnangagwa could go the way of Raul Castro in Cuba or his allies in China, and accept liberalization of the economy – as long as his pockets are lined in the process. Even if Mnangagwa wished it otherwise, he would likely have little choice in the matter. To paraphrase Marx, Mnangagwa may be making history, but he is not making it as he pleases.

Like Mugabe before him, Mnangagwa is inheriting a Zimbabwe wherein the only functional framework is one of guards protecting plunder – in other words, the colonial model. It may be more accurate to call it political organized crime. A handful of oligarchs govern through coercion, acting as quasi-law enforcement to safeguard their interests. Formal institutions are empty vessels beside the military. If we in the West complain about this state of affairs, we must also accept some responsibility for it. Western empires created the institutional arrangements and political norms in which political gangsters flourish, as those empires were criminal syndicates par excellence.

2000px-flag_of_the_prime_minister_of_rhodesia_1970-1979-svgWe must also be skeptical of the cottage industry that has emerged around Zimbabwe, such as the writings of the white Zimbabwean Peter Godwin. The same social conservatives of the 1970s who urged white Rhodesians to continue white rule lend support to the narrative that the choices of Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe, rather than the system they benefitted from and its long-term consequences. Rather than speculating what would have happened had the racist Rhodesian regime been utterly defeated and rapid land reform undertaken in 1980, we instead get laments for the breakdown of that regime. The premise underlying this discourse is that Victorian imperialism, while morally wrong, was a civilizing force, and that left to their own devices, black Africans forsake “good governance” (a non-parsimonious development term meaning Western institutions and values) and establish tin-pot dictatorships. This is framed in the context of human suffering, to illicit sympathy for the benevolent oppressor contrasted with the malevolent one. Compare this to the more explicitly racist case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who massacred nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015, and a photo of him wearing a jacket with the Rhodesian flag on it. In this image, the pining for the Rhodesia of yesterday over the Zimbabwe of today takes itself to its logical conclusion: black people are a threat to healthy white-run societies.

There is no denying that many Zimbabweans, black as well as white, greeted news of Mugabe’s resignation with celebration. Taking the position that structural factors matter more than the individual choices of one man does not pardon that man for his crimes. Yet the view that such choices and free will override structural parameters means those same parameters will produce the same outcomes. The role of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwean underdevelopment and the misery of its people is irrelevant next to the injustices perpetrated by the West, both in the past and present, whose shadows still loom large over an entire continent that still supplies more wealth than it takes in.

 

 

 

 

 

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Angry, White, Male and Utterly Insane

320px-portret_van_een_man004“I’ve passed the point of no return. You know when that is? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning than it is to continue to the end. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble when they were going to the moon. Somebody messed up and they had to get them back to Earth but first they had to go around the moon. They were out of contact for hours. Everybody waited breathlessly to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody will have to wait until I pop out.” — Bill Foster, Falling Down


After the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, Drexel University associate professor George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted that his belief that a form of aggrieved entitlement drove the shooter, a well-to-do middle-aged white man, to commit the massacre. “The narrative of white victimization has been gradually built over the past 40 years,” he wrote. As is customary, conservative critics hounded the Drexel administration over the comments, claiming Professor Ciccariello-Maher was blaming Donald Trump or Republicans for the slaughter in Nevada. Unfortunately, the Drexel administration wavered and suspended Professor Ciccariello-Maher, giving in to a chorus of far-right voices, emboldened after Trump’s victory in 2016, to claim that radical academics are promoting “racism against white people” or “cultural Marxism.” While the dominant narrative in U.S. political discourse is that individuals on the left wish to suppress views they disagree with, it is in fact conservatives who are squelching academic analysis.

Professor Ciccariello-Maher is not alone in linking the phenomenon of “angry white men” in the U.S. with acts of violence. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, wrote an entire book (published in 2013) on the aggrieved entitlement of white men. Some causes for white men’s anger have a basis in material conditions, such as the impact of off-shore outsourcing under globalization on working class men, or the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Other times, grievances may stem from evolving social norms and values that threaten the traditional dominance of white men in racial as well as gender relations. White nationalists complain that job-stealing immigrants will eclipse the country’s “white identity,” while “men’s rights activists” blame their “involuntary celibacy” on modern feminism. Whatever the source or reality of the deprivation, many white men in the U.S. present themselves as victims of oppression, even though the historical record clearly illustrates that the U.S was created by white men for white men.

320px-peinture_murale_de_lachilleion_28corfou29_28327885976029Kimmel directly links aggrieved entitlement to violence, citing a 1994 study by Richard Felson that found if a culture promotes retaliatory violence as acceptable, even praiseworthy, then men of all ages would be more likely to engage in violent behavior. In other words, regardless of why white men are angry, or who they are angry about, there is also the issue of what to do about it. Voting for Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump may be one outlet, but so are mass shootings and spree killings. In popular culture, the customary plot arc of a masculine hero seeking and attaining vengeance for an injustice, imposing his will and cleansing himself through destroying his enemy, reflects this. The quintessential example of this in Western literature is Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, who slays Hector after the Trojan prince kills Achilles’ beloved companion, Patroclus. Hector himself exhibits a traditional masculine virtue, seeking a valiant death even when it becomes clear that he is going to die. Many readers, including ancient ones, read hubris into the actions of Achilles and Hector, flaunting their warrior prowess, but it is also possible to see in their characters the embodiments of masculine pride. Achilles kills Hector not out of mere bloodlust, but as a requital of an injury. Hector, seeing the consequences of his actions, chooses to die courageously than to concede and be humbled. In these actions we see the template of the murder-suicide that has become the foundation for all mass shootings, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree to the November 2017 First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.


“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? … That’s me.” — Walt Kowalski, Gran Torino


It is important to note that men do not possess a genetic disposition to retaliatory 122px-visconti-sforza-11-fortitudeviolence. Men do not exit the womb with aggression coded into our DNA. It is not a “biological truth” that we must dominate others. Instead, this is learned behavior. Just as the ancient Greeks listened to the epics, boys today grow up with fathers, many of whom in the U.S. own at least one gun, that is it better to stand your ground (and your property, and your family, and your honor…) than to retreat. Boys become engrossed in contact sports, where the athletes who hit the hardest and show the most competitive spirit are the ones to emulate. They find leisurely gratification in gratuitously violent TV shows, movies, video games, and pornography. At the same time, many young white men find their behavior policed. Rather than receiving instant support from authority figures, young white men encounter challenges they are unprepared to face. They must confront a future where they may not be better off than their parents, where student loans and stagnant wage growth means they likely be working until they die. They must also confront elite institutions like corporations and political parties where even white men, unless they belong to a narrow 1% band of the upper crust, have less and less influence. In the meantime, they find themselves asked to confront their conscious and unconscious prejudices, to not only admit that white men have profited off the exploitation of women and people of color, but also to examine how they contribute to the ongoing racism and sexism of today. None of this is to say that white men are the most put-upon group in society; obviously, police officers are not shooting unarmed white boys in the back, and men do not face the same rate of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault as women do. While growing economic inequality among the white population in the U.S. is a failing of the system, it must be stressed that for much of the postwar period – from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s – the “Golden Age of Capitalism” was so named by white men because the prime benefactors were white men. After all, under Jim Crow and without equal rights, it was not a “Golden Age” for many people in the U.S. Tellingly, it was with the civil rights movement and the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment that the “angry white man” phenomenon first began.

herbert_marcuse_in_newton2c_massachusetts_1955Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist of the Frankfurt School, analyzed Western society during the postwar years in his 1947 work One-Dimensional Man, wherein he deconstructed the state-managed capitalism of his time through a Marxist as well as Freudian lens. The Western proletariat, he argued, had become integrated into the status quo, invested in the maintenance of the welfare state as well as culturally identifying with the owners of the means of production. To paraphrase Steinbeck, Americans did not conceive of themselves as poor, but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Although the West had obtained the wealth and technology to abolish work and to enable individuals to pursue their own creative potential, the exploitation of workers and other vulnerable social groups proceeded through the manipulation of what Freud called the death drive, our inherent impulse toward self-destruction. By playing on humanity’s instinctive aggression and competitiveness, modern society produces the energy needed to fuel the high levels of productivity and economic expansion it needs.

While the arguments of One-Dimensional Man offer an insightful indictment of the postwar era, its Keynesian consensus, and the atmosphere of conformity that captured Western life in the 1950s and early 1960s, the “modernity” described in its pages does not reflect present conditions. Marcuse himself became “the Father of the New Left” that arose in the late 1960s and 1970s, a broad intellectual movement that began on college campuses. While the labor movement remained important on the New Left, the movement really distinguished itself by its emphasis on identity issues: civil rights, gay rights, and equal rights for women. Whereas radical left-wingers had historically converged around labor issues, touting the proletariat as potentially revolutionary, the New Left idealized young intellectuals belonging to the countercultural Zeitgeist opposed to the Establishment. The 1960s-1970s counterculture era, however, while seeing important strides in areas such as civil rights and feminism, did not produce the promised social revolution. In contrast to Freudian death drives, Marcuse hitched his philosophical optimism to our will to live, the positive life-affirming instinct in humanity. What Marcuse did not anticipate was how consumerism could hijack the counterculture. Whereas society once offered a bland, one-size-fits-all life to the population (a suburban home, a picket fence, a Plymouth in the garage), it came to embrace rebellions and subversion (or, at least, the superficial substitute). The policy-driven collective action of the past became more about individual expression and a lifestyle choice. Instead of bettering society in concrete terms, the individual demonstrates their dissent by wearing a Che Guevara shirt, taking illegal recreational drugs, patronizing art deemed transgressive and seditious, and so on. A person could accrue the coolness of the rebel without the risk associated with the organization and agitation required in an effective social movement. The counterculture sold out.

320px-jessicaThis is not to say, however, that the New Left did nothing for social justice, just that it fell short of its more ambitious goals. It would be daunting to provide an itemized list of the contributions the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the gay liberation movement, and so on. Suffice to say that enough actual change took place (imperfect as it was) that from the nucleus of the “angry white man” took shape. It was they who gave Richard Nixon a mandate in 1968 and even more so in 1972 to annihilate the Black Panthers, to crack down on the students burning bras and draft cards on campuses, to reverse the trend of “moral decay” in the once most sacred of U.S. institutions. In this agenda we see many parallels to the aspirations of conservatives today: the reigning in of the Black Lives Matter movement, denigrated as terrorists; the condemnation of predominately African-American athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem; the policing of speech and behavior labeled “un-American” in higher education; the reversal of protections offered for women or marginalized groups, be it the weakening of Title IX, the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, and on and on. “A conservative,” said the conservative public intellectual William F. Buckley, “is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” And so, from the counterculture period of the late 20th century to the present, the angry white man has stood in opposition to every modicum of social progress made in the preceding decades. He is not just yelling, however. He is bullying women anonymously on social media. He is posting incitements to violence against women on message boards devoted to complaints about “femi-Nazis.” He is listening to talk radio and watching Fox News and learning who to hate. He is calling the cops on the “suspicious” African-American boy in his neighborhood. He is touching his female co-workers inappropriately. He consistently told that he is in danger, targeted by terrorists, impoverished by globalists, emasculated by women. He is afraid, embarrassed, frustrated that the transgressions and trespasses that once so easily forgiven and ignored are, to his inconvenience, bringing unfavorable effects. He finds himself in the uncharted territory of working for a woman, or losing a job to someone who is an outsider, foreign, whose patriotism is suspect. Finding no respite, confused, the angry white man lashes out. Betrayed by an Establishment he no longer perceives as responsive to him, he imposes himself instead on those around him who are weak. The mass murderer who carried out the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, Stephan Paddock, had a history of publicly berating his wife. The gunman responsible for the Sutherland Springs church shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic abuse and is believed to have targeted the church in an effort to kill his estranged second wife and her relatives.


“The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” — Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver


Connecting the “angry white man” as understood in a political context to the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and elsewhere is provocative because there seems nothing political about those massacres. Neither Paddock nor Kelley left behind manifestos like that of right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who perpetuated the 2011 Norway attacks as part of a crusade against Islam and “cultural Marxism.” In our highly partisan political climate, making such a connection triggers an automatic dismissal on the presumption that is mere mud-slinging. It might be less controversial to say that recent mass shootings by angry white men are not about politics but power (even though the difference is a matter of semantics). The “angry white man,” political pundits agree, is angered because of a seeming deprivation of power, which is manifest in all aspects of life: politically, economically, culturally, even in his personal relationships. He makes his own lack of a voice be heard by hurting others, which usually means those who are vulnerable to him in some way. When he makes the choice to embark on the ultimate display of power – to remove his fellow human beings from the face of the Earth – he ensures he will receive the attention he feels entitled to, even if it means lasts if the next media cycle. He also, like Hector, resolves to choose death – a self-inflicted gunshot wound or suicide by cop – as the price-tag attached to his doomed exhibition of destructive power. Thomas Frank once famously pointed out how people in Kansas were voting against their own economic self-interest by voting for a Republican Party bent on lowering corporate taxes and promoting deregulation. So too, in a much more extreme and existential sense, are the angry white men who carry out mass shootings taking an action that goes against their fundamental biological self-interest – their literal survival – by doing what used to be unimaginable and unthinkable and what now occurs almost daily. Rather than study this, however, the Establishment institutions – itself largely controlled by white men – encourages the absurd notion that these men are “lone wolves,” a collection of bad apples, mentally ill outliers. We cannot handle that their violent behavior might be associated with our systems and society.

240px-circle-a_red-svgAfter eight years of President Barack Obama and moderate progress in some social areas (same sex marriage, repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), we are seeing the latest resurgence of the “angry white man.” Yet why is the “angry white man” of today so much more violent than in previous decades? The answer might be gleamed in the counterculture movement that came after the hippies: the punks. Whereas the hippies envisioned better worlds, the punks of the 1970s and 1980s looked with clearer eyes at the world as it was and responded with an intense nihilism that fed intensely off the Freudian death drives. A rejection of the status quo ran through the punk subculture, but while the hippies had failed to propose a convincing alternative arrangement of society, the punks did not bother, or if they could be bothered, supported anarchy. At its best, this anarchy expressed itself as the individual having absolute freedom, but at its cynical worst, it meant entropy and chaos. From this sprang not idealism but apathy, giving rise to the slacker ethos of the 1990s, the grunge movement, and to the intense irony that throbs like a heartbeat through radical subcultures today. It is often very difficult to separate sincerity from satire among radical voices in the present moment. This is just as true for the former Bernie Sanders supporters gravitating toward resurgent left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as it is for the so-called “alt-right.” Is the neckbearded white man in his 20s holding a Pepe sign consorting with neo-Nazis because of actual shared racist convictions, or a rejection of conforming to the standards and opportunities offered to them by a society that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as uncaring and even hostile to them and those like them?

None of this is to absolve any “angry white man,” mass shooter or Trump voter, from their choices. Firstly, whatever the structural parameters of our environment, individuals possess agency, and whatever expectations or obstacles individuals face, how they choose to react to them – whether through literal or figurative violence – is a choice. More importantly, however, the hindrances and problems faced by white men are still minimal in comparison to the huge, deeply institutionalized impediments women and people of color face throughout the U.S. White men have never been a persecuted group in this country, always the prosecutors. If some white men are angry that social forces in the U.S. are dragging them, kicking and screaming, to a more diverse and inclusive world, we should no more sympathize with them than we would commiserate with the Neanderthals driven extinct by evolution. In fact, it behooves us a society to see the ways in which we are actively encouraging mass shooters. This goes beyond the glorification and aestheticizaton of violence or the sensationalism of the mass media, and requires us to ask hard questions about race and gender relations. Why do African-American communities live in virtual police states, where they are routinely targeted and harassed by law enforcement, but white men face few deterrents in engaging in incredibly violent crime? Why might a Muslim man who commits mass murder face being tortured in a cell in Guantanamo, while a white man who commits mass murder will likely be taken alive, enjoy a trial, and then imprisonment? How might we better protect victims of domestic abuse and ensure their abusers do not get easy access to firearms? Finally, how might we raise white men in our society so that they do feel the compulsion to act with retaliatory violence when distressed, to see the benefits of a truly egalitarian social order rather than just the reduction of their privilege?


“People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else.” – James Baldwin


Discussing such questions is a tall order for the U.S., where white supremacy is still deeply ingrained but also fiercely and willfully overlooked. It is far easier and less introspective to silence people like Professor Ciccariello-Maher and to perpetuate the myth of the looney lefty academic than it is to admit that the cracks and contradictions in our society might be generating, through real alienation and exploitation along with false narratives and outdated ideas, the death and destruction we see around us.