The Thinker

Stoking toxic white masculinity or why we’re going postal

Go on. Take a look at Mother Jones’s Google sheet showing mass shootings in the United States.

The spreadsheet starts in 1982. Prior to that these were rarely a problem. Since then incidents of mass homicide by gun have increased in general year by year, with the number of fatalities and injured increasing too, often exponentially.

As I have noted before, in most cases the perpetrator was male and white. Of the 91 major incidents noted, a woman carried out only 2. A man and a woman carried one out. There are a scattering of these attacks carried out by Asians and blacks, but 80% or more were perpetrated by white men.

The spreadsheet does not begin to capture the extent of the problem, but does document the worst of the worst. Business Insider notes that through September there have been 273 mass shootings in the United States in 2017, which averages out to about one a day. They are so common they rarely make it beyond the local paper.

Obviously something is going on in our culture, even beyond the looser gun laws that we have now compared with 1982. A postal employee carried one of these first major incidents out. In 1986 postal worker Patrick Sherrill killed 15 and injured 6 others in a post office in Edmond, Oklahoma and then killed himself. Since then workplace shootings have become common, as the spreadsheet attests. There was another “gone postal” incident in 1991 that killed 5 and injured 5, this one from a laid off postal worker. In 2006 a forcibly retired and mentally ill woman killed 8 at her former post office in Goleta, California.

It’s hard to draw causation from correlation. But in general things were okay until around 1980. In 1981 Americans elected Ronald Reagan. He was the first president since Roosevelt to fundamentally change the implicit American “contract”. He quickly demonstrated the change by firing air traffic controllers who went on strike. Prior to Reagan it was generally possible for a man to provide for his family. Since then obviously many more women have entered the workforce. Women are often paid less than men for the same work, an obvious cost savings to employers. The man as family breadwinner slowly went the way of the milkman. This made men, particularly white men, feel disenfranchised. It was like living in a Twilight Zone.

Republicans piled it on in two ways. First, they promoted the idea of rugged individualism. They said men (particularly white men) should all be Marlboro men. We were all cowboys of sorts: loners, independent and self-sufficient. Only loser men couldn’t step up to the plate and provide for their family when necessarily.

Second, Republicans appealed to racists. Until the last election it was rarely overt. Nixon famously won based on a “southern strategy” which amounted to getting support from white Southerners that had previously voted Democratic. Southerners were played for their racist tendencies, just not overtly. Their prejudices were masterfully channeled against the “others” which amounted to people not like them: not white and working class.

At the same time they (often with the help of Democrats like Bill Clinton) unleashed forces that undercut their prosperity. They pushed right to work laws that had the effect of cutting wages by making it hard to collectively organize. They unleashed the forces of the free market that quickly found cheaper places to manufacture stuff, mostly outside the United States, jobs traditionally held mostly by white men. These actions exacerbated the tensions on the white working class, and white men in particular. I have seen these tensions borne out in my own family and among my friends. Many rightly feel shafted by what happened to them, particularly during economic downturns. More often they simply feel ashamed, as if there is some defect in them.

If your economic floor drops out from under you, your social safety net is shredded, you learn that you can’t provide for your family but you feel that you must do so anyhow and thus your status in society is dropping you are going to be severely stressed.

The NRA masterfully harnessed this anxiety by promoting a gun culture, not to emphasize sporting, but to sell the illusion that with a gun at least a man can still be a man. This anxiety is hardly covert. We saw it recently in Charlottesville. White men, self-identified Nazis and white supremacists were chanting, “You will not replace us”. They were asserting their special status as white men and those they saw responsible for their decline (such as Jews) would pay the price, perhaps with the guns they openly carried.

Now Donald Trump promises to make America great again. He rose to power on this very anxiety. Of course since becoming president he’s gone out of his way to not address these problems but to actually make them worse. Just yesterday Congress passed a bill that won’t permit consumers to file class action lawsuits against their banks. Vice President Pence broke the tie vote.

This though is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Trump is undermining Obamacare. It makes health insurance ever more costly and problematic, and if the government won’t subsidize it for middle and lower income Americans it becomes largely unaffordable again. This simply feeds more economic anxieties.

Trump though doesn’t seem too worried. He’s got a great game of distraction going on where he puts the blame on others, like undocumented workers. Even Congress is getting into the game. A tax reform package in Congress proposes to limit deductions into 401K plans. This amounts to a tax increase on the middle and lower class, all to give tax cuts to the richest Americans. Trump and Republicans believe — probably with good justification — that they can keep their base distracted and blame others for their policies that make things worse for their base.

All this really does is make bad much worse. The fundamentals of our economic and social anxiety haven’t changed and Republicans are actively trying to worsen them. The working class will still get fleeced. As for this Mother Jones table of mass shootings, it’s pretty easy to predict the number of incidents and their lethality will continue to increase as our politicians throw ever more wood onto this ever bigger bonfire of anxiety and hate.


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