The anger felt by millions of downwardly-mobile white men is very “real,” insists sociologist Michael Kimmel. But he also insists that rage is not “true.” Instead, it is skillfully manufactured. (More)

Angry White Men, Part I: Manufactured Rage

This week Morning Feature explores Michael Kimmel’s new book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Today we examine Kimmel’s central thesis that many American white men feel a manufactured rage that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.” Tomorrow we’ll see how that fuels the Men’s Rights Movement and attacks on women. Saturday we’ll conclude with workplace rage and the rise of ‘White Wing’ politics.

Michael Kimmel is a distinguished professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, and one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today. The author or editor of more than twenty volumes, his books include Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity (1987), Men Confront Pornography (1990), The Politics of Manhood (1996), The Gender of Desire (2005) and the bestseller Guyland (2008).

“Nobody gives a s–t about us guys anymore”

Dr. Kimmel interviewed Rick at a roadside diner in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. They had met the day before at a gun show, where Rick was manning a table distributing ads for gun dealers, catalogs of survivalist gear, pamphlets from self-styled “Patriot” groups, and photocopied information sheets from David Duke and “today’s Ku Klux Klan.” Dr. Kimmel explained that he wanted to understand how they experienced the changes in their lives and their country.

“Oh, I’ll tell you,” says the guy I eventually come to know as Rick. “We’re going down the f–ing toilet, that’s what. I mean, just look around. There’s illegals everywhere. There’s Wall Street screwing everybody. And now there’s a goddamn….” He pauses anxiously, a grimace on his face. Another second goes by; he’s obviously sizing me up. “Oh f–k it, I don’t care if it is politically incorrect. We got a f–ing n–r in the White House. We’re all screwed. Nobody gives a s–t about us guys anymore. It’s all over.”

Dr. Kimmel has spent years speaking to angry white men online and face-to-face, on campuses, at gun shows, in domestic violence groups, and other settings. Rick is one of many:

men who feel they have been screwed, betrayed by the country they love, discarded like trash on the side of the information superhighway. Theirs are the hands that built this country; theirs is the blood shed to defend it. And now, they feel, no one listens to them; they’ve been all but forgotten. In the great new multicultural American mosaic, they’re the bland white background that no one pays attention to, the store-bought white bread in a culture of bagels, tortillas, wontons, and organic whole-grain designer scones. They’re downwardly mobile, contemptuously pushed aside by fast-talking, fast-driving fat cats and bureaucrats. And they’re mad as hell.

“The single greatest affirmative action program in world history”

Their anger is very real but, as Dr. Kimmel notes, it is not true:

Yet the truth is that white men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called “world history.” White men so stacked the deck that everyone else was pretty much excluded from playing at all. When those others did begin to play, the field was so uneven that white men got a massive head start, and everyone else had to play with massive handicaps. Maybe actually having to play evenly matched, on a level playing field, is too frightening for a gender that stakes its entire identity on making sure it wins every time.

That distinction between “real” and “true” in white male anger is central to his thesis of aggrieved entitlement. It is a sense that the American Dream is theirs, if not exclusively then at least especially. That aggrieved entitlement was evident in the title of a television talk show episode on which Dr. Kimmel was a guest: “A Black Woman Stole My Job.” Not “a Job.” Not “the Job.” “My Job.”

Dr. Kimmel quotes a Wall Street Journal op-ed by political scientist Harvey Mansfield:

The protective element of manliness is endangered by women who have equal access to jobs outside the home. Women who do not consider themselves feminist often seem unaware of what they are doing when they work to support themselves. They think only that people should be hired and promoted on merit, regardless of sex.

This is the anger of men who imagine their rightful place challenged. Consider presidential elections. Until Jimmy Carter in 1976, no candidate had won the White House without winning a majority of the white male vote, and President Carter came very close at 48%. But in five of the past six elections, the candidate who won the white male vote – always a Republican – has lost the popular vote. White men still hold huge majorities in the corridors of power, but most white men no longer feel they control our nation’s destiny, or even their own. Dr. Kimmel writes:

The new American anger is more than defensive; it is reactionary. It seeks to restore, to retrieve, to reclaim something that is perceived to have been lost. Angry White Men look to the past for their imagined and desired future. They believe that the system is stacked against them. Theirs is the anger of the entitled: we are entitled to those jobs, those positions of unchallenged dominance. And when we are told we are not going to get them, we get angry.

It is that sense of entitlement thwarted – what I will call aggrieved entitlement – that I believe characterizes Americans’ new breed of Angry White Men.

“I don’t hear you as whining. I hear you as mad.”

And that aggrieved entitlement is skillfully manufactured. Dr. Kimmel relates an on-air conversation between ‘Tom’ from Wichita and host Rush Limbaugh. Tom has been out of work for months, and his unemployment insurance will soon expire:

“We’re into the red zone,” he explains. “We’re cutting essentials: food, laundry, clothing, shoes.” He’s worried, he says, “scared to death.” Repeatedly, he insists he is “not a whiner.”

What he wants to know, he asks Rush Limbaugh on his nationally syndicated radio show, is what President Obama is doing to turn the economy around. […] Fortunately, he says, his wife has a job that provides health care for the family. But if he doesn’t find something soon, he’s considering reenlisting. He lost his own father in Vietnam, he says, softly, and he’s afraid that at forty-three, he might leave his own children fatherless. “My self-esteem is right now at its lowest that I’ve ever had it,” Tom says. “I’m getting choked up.”

“I know,” replies Limbaugh empathetically. “I’ve been there.” Limbaugh recounts his own history of unemployment. But then, he transforms Tom’s experience. “I don’t hear you as whining,” says Rush. “I hear you as mad.”

In fact, as Dr. Kimmel writes, Tom had not expressed anger. In Tom’s voice, Dr. Kimmel heard “anxiety, vulnerability, and more than just a slight tremor of fear. I heard someone asking for help.” He cites an analysis by gender theorist Jackson Katz:

Consider the conversation with Tom. In one clever rhetorical turn, Limbaugh was able to validate the caller’s manhood (“you’re not a whiner.”), and reinterpret the man’s “soft” feelings of loss and fear into “hard” feelings of anger and resentment. And he offered the caller scapegoats for his problems: the Democrats! The public employee labor unions! All of Obama’s friends who benefited from the hated “porkulus” bill!

A central feature of Limbaugh’s appeal is his over-the-top performance of white masculine certitude. The ditto-heads believe that Rush embodies old-fashioned white male authority, the loss of which, many conservatives believe, lies close to the heart of our cultural decline. To many of his critics, Limbaugh is a cartoonish vaudevillian showman. To conservative true believers, he is an authentic “man’s man,” a cigar-smoking, NFL-watching, red-meat right-winger who’s offended by the “feminization” of American society.

Limbaugh does not work alone, Dr. Kimmel notes. A veritable legion of right-wing radio talk show hosts, Fox News pundits, and online communities exist to turn the real fears of white men – many of whom are watching their jobs disappear, their incomes stagnate, and their dreams evaporate – into a skillfully-manufactured rage against women, people of color, and LGBTs. “The American Dream was yours,” white men are told, “until feminists and bureaucrats stole it and gave it to Those People. And it could be yours again if Those People were put back in their place.”

Tomorrow we’ll see how that carefully-manufactured rage, grounded in aggrieved entitlement, fuels the Men’s Rights Movement and attacks on women.

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Happy Thursday!