First things first: If you feel the compulsion to respond to this with “not all men,” then fuck off right now.
Without discounting or downplaying the racist motivations behind the monstrous attack on the Emanuel AME Church yesterday, it’s important to consider that the pathology of the murderer and other of his ilk transcends any single ideology. Their deeds are symptomatic of an associated problem known as the “Angry White Young Dude.”
The mindset is rooted in an overwhelming sense of privilege, inculcated and reinforced across centuries of history. In terms of America’s social stratification, white malehood is to be “to the manor born.” All the perks and open doors, with little if any of the systemic oppression inflicted upon those who don’t fall into that elect category. (Unless you count class oppression, but good luck finding any white American who thinks such a thing is a real issue, and even then the burden falls lightest on the lighter-skinned males among us.)
Yet so much of that privilege is unnoticed by those who most benefit from it. Not getting sexually or racially harassed or exploited is presumed default mode, making it easy to contrive excuses for why it seems so commonplace (providing one cares to pay attention) for so many other people. They’re substantial perks, but they’ve been taken for granted for so long that they tend to be ignored in favor of other perceived grievances — namely, “why doesn’t the universe acknowledge my greatness?”
It’s no coincidence that these Angry Young White Dudes tend to be around the age when Young White Dudes in general have a rock-solid certitude about how the world really “works.” It’s particularly pronounced in those of the tribe who exhibit a shade more “intelligence” (relatively speaking by cultural values of the same) which often resolves as a form of self-pitying megalomania.
Hey, I was there once, and if you fit the gender/racial combo, you probably were too. (Honestly I hate using the word “racial” because it is a bullshit construct, but it’s a bullshit construct that governs way too much of socio-political-cultural life, so I’m using it in that context.)
“But I didn’t turn into a mass murderer…” Most Young White Dudes — and most people in general — don’t, but it’s crucial to realize how deeply ingrained these impulses of slighted entitlement truly are, especially before we start projecting imagined and context-free dysfunctions upon everyone who is Not Us.
The soil matters as much as the seed. A quirk of neurochemistry, a random trigger, peer pressure, a chance opportunity — any and all of these can combine to produce a difference between “grew out of that bullshit” to “acted upon it with force,” be it online rape threats or a mass shooting.
It doesn’t help that the ground for such actions has grown increasingly fertile. Semi-veiled (if even) exterminationist rhetoric has been a core component of political life since the mid-1960s, when reactionary forces realized they could overturn the faltering narrative of post-WW2 liberalism (which was shaky to begin with) and create an enduring power base by pandering to anxieties. Nixon’s Southern Strategy was the most well-known of these, but only because the South’s racial polarization had been so historically overt. It took place everywhere — in cities and suburbs, liberal bastions and populist strongholds alike.
It was an easy sell, especially in a country with a long, sorry tradition of racist behavior and facing a time of economic uncertainty. It wasn’t about the long-term viability of consumer capitalism, nope. It was about the Other cheating you in society’s zero-sum game, making gains at your expense. Race was the traditional go-to for defining said Other, but cultural shifts provided a full fight card for the Culture Wars — men against women, straight against queer, young against old, white against everyone who wasn’t white. Every community has its fault lines, and there was something tailor made for profitable exploitation no matter where one looked.
“Some of us have a rightful place in this society. Others do not.” Imagine this mantra, recited over and over again with increasing virulence for half a century or even longer. It’s the stuff that shifts suburban swing voters and rural poor into the arms of false consciousness. It creeps into our civic and cultural institutions, fueling biases and shaping policy. It has found itself a prominent place into public discourse, where it can continue to spread itself like a memetic virus.
And it gets in to the head of an Angry Young White Dude, meshing perfectly with his aggrieved attitude of privilege thwarted and lingering resentment. “But you’ll show them all.”
It’s always theatrical, in keeping with the adolescent (actual or developmental) psyche, and full of appropriated flourishes that border on cliche. For all their delusions of Galtean ubermenschdom, they are unimaginative dolts working from a prepared script — the same way every wannabe forum-trolling twerp incorporates and attempts to “improve” sick burns and florid scatological metaphors crafted by their secretly-resented idols. Black trenchcoats, a faux Joker get-up, long-winded incomprehensible manifestos — hell, the entire concept of these murder sprees was swiped from those who came before them and filtered through a Hollywood lens.
They’re one-man plays performed to gratify the wounded egos of their solipsistic-nihilist leads. When these outward facing Gotterdammerungs don’t end in a climatic suicide, they tend to end with the killer getting nabbed as he hangs out, zombie-like, after the “performance.” They’re junior high revenge fantasies manifested as real-life tragedies.
Yesterday a church. Last year, a campus community. Three years ago, a theater and an elementary school. Fifteen years ago, a high school. Twenty years ago, a Planned Parenthood clinic. And that’s just handful of the horrors small and large unleashed by these murderous idiots in recent times.
Like I said at the beginning, I’m not trying to make excuses or downplay yesterday’s atrocity within the ugly context of race relations in 21st Century America. (Which, honestly, is something that I’d feel arrogant about taking on as a whiter-than-white dude.) What we do have is a nasty confluence of issues — racial, cultural, social, mental health, gun control, gender, and so many others — which all need to be seriously addressed if we want a safer and saner society.
And quit playing the victim, fellow white dudes. As long as we keep pretending we don’t carry this shit around with us, we’re a huge part of the problem. That ain’t self-loathing. It’s self-understanding.