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December 22, 2013 6:36 pm
Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel (Nation Books, RRP£18, RRP$20)
On the night Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, it seemed a new era of progressive politics was at hand in the US. His photogenic family at his side, the first African-American to win a White House race bounded on to the stage at Chicago’s Grant Park and proclaimed: “This is our time.”
More than five years on, it has not exactly worked out that way, and this outcome has led to considerable debate over whether the US left’s difficulties reflect the faults of the people in the White House, the ferocity of their well-funded rightwing opposition, or some combination of the two.
I would suggest that a third group also needs to be factored into the equation – Mr Obama’s allies. US presidents who have implemented progressive agendas in the past have received help from outsiders. Activists and public intellectuals have provided a push from below – and from the bookstores. But Mr Obama has received relatively little assistance of this kind (Occupy Wall Street came and went, kids). There has been no Martin Luther King to his Lyndon Johnson, no John Maynard Keynes to his Franklin Roosevelt.
Nor is it easy to imagine such folks materialising. People who should be getting their acts – or their thoughts – together are more likely to be found these days tweeting, blogging, gabbing on talk shows or producing half-baked books such as Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.
A professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University in New York, Kimmel has delivered a work that is very well timed – given all the angry white men in our American midst. It is also clearly well intentioned. Kimmel seems to have taken considerable personal risks to meet the angriest white guys out there so he can tell their stories to the public.
Yet this book is another missed opportunity of the era. It feels rushed. It is plagued by repetition. Kimmel quotes the same two lines of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” – “I’ve done my best to live the right way. I get up every morning and go to work every day” – in his introduction and in a later chapter on his way to referencing the song more than half a dozen times. And unlike Springsteen – who got his “facts learned real good” – Kimmel can be shaky with his own.
“Remember Jim Sasser?” he writes. “This Republican senator from Tennessee, a reasonable ‘moderate’ in the Senate . . . was targeted by Far Right proto-Tea Party extremists within his own party.” But it is Kimmel who doesn’t remember Mr Sasser very well. Mr Sasser served in the Senate from 1977 to 1995 as a Democrat.
Kimmel’s starting point is a familiar one on the left. He believes that many downwardly mobile white men are rightfully angry but blame the wrong kinds of people (blacks, Jews, women and homosexuals) for their problems. To this, he adds a gender studies spin: Much of the white male anger stems from a failure to appreciate that feminism liberates men as well as women – this is what Kimmel means by “the end of an era” – and many of its manifestations represent an attempt to act like a man or go down trying.
But Kimmel’s intellectual trajectory has an unfortunate tendency. The angrier the white man, the more fascinated Kimmel tends to be. As a result, he pays far less attention to the white male followers of the Tea Party – who are playing a central role in US politics today – than to fringe figures ranging from tattooed racial supremacists to “rampage school shooters”.
Moreover, the deeper Kimmel goes into these hearts of darkness, the more likely he is to get lost. In a paragraph suggesting that both campus cultures and global media play a role in school shootings by angry boys, Kimmel’s sentences twist and turn so relentlessly that the reader is left bobbing in the stream of his consciousness, struggling for breath.
He begins with a complication: “The narrative may be global,” he says of the school shootings, “but it is still an utterly gendered narrative as well, and that suicidal explosion remains a distinctly masculine trope.”
After that mouthful, he spoons out another: “It may be necessary to shift our frame slightly, to implicate the more local cultures of schools, regions, the political economy of psychological intervention, the institutional complicity with bullying and harassment (as long as it’s ‘our guys’ who are doing it).”
He then winds up where he began: “Yet alongside these local iterations lies the possibility of an overarching global master narrative to which an increasing number of young boys might find murderous solace.”
There is much to be said about angry white men in the US – and probably more to be done to help them calm down. Kimmel might have been a bigger help if his book had gone to an angrier editor.
The writer is the FT’s US national editor
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