“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.
Kimmel 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 violence. 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, 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.
This 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.
After 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.