Our real white male problem: Why Fox News defeats Bruce Springsteen and liberal moralizing every time

White anger's latest murderous turn, fueled by right-wing media, must be addressed head-on, and not by moralizing

Published December 5, 2014 9:52PM (EST)

Delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008.       (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 4, 2008. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

“In the wake of the Ferguson verdict I feel a swirling cocktail of grief, anger and outrage,” writes Claudia Horowitz, a spiritual/social activist and interim director of Houston’s Rothko Chapel, in the luminous London-based website openDemocracy, “but nothing I'm feeling compares to what people of color are experiencing.”

Asking, “What Are White People to Do?” she urges whites to “put ourselves through some honest reflection and let that process lead us on to thoughtful action … to dismantle a system of white supremacy that permeates every corner of our legal, economic, political, relational and cultural lives.”

In a letter to the New York Times, Kevin Abel recalls a discussion of the problem and writes, “Seven white people don’t have a right to discuss the problems of race in America without peering within and acknowledging that we are most certainly part of the problem and the solution.”

Horowitz urges whites who are upset and grieving over the murders and what they represent to get right with themselves: “Listen and read,” “Notice how you feel,” “Manage your reactions,” and “Pick your doorway” to the right commitments and projects.

Now comes news of another grand jury's declining to indict New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, another unarmed black man. There is no ambiguity about what happened, and no ambiguity about the grand jury’s outrageous decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the failed human being who was given a badge and a gun by a system that is as failed as he is.

But to me it is not news at all. Twenty-five years ago I wrote "The Closest of Strangers, Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York," a book borne of 10 years’ working and sometimes living in heavily black and Hispanic north-central Brooklyn, five of those years in an eight-unit tenement whose other tenants were black or Hispanic.

As chapters four and five of the book show, I also spent a lot of time with white, “working-class” New Yorkers, including some cops, whose experiences ran closer to those of George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson than to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. (Martin’s murder prompted this reflection, which introduces Gasper Signorelli, a white resident of a racially changing Brooklyn neighborhood, whose words are well worth reading.)

But Horowitz doesn’t address those millions of white guys (and gals) who run the gamut from a Zimmerman to a Signorelli. To do that,  whites who think and write about race would have to “peer into” the lives of whites who are perhaps even more deeply angry than we are -- so angry they haven’t enough words or even scapegoats to lift the sadness that accompanies their rage.

We'd also have to discover that some of them are as angry at moralizing, liberal whites as they are at blacks – just as angry as they'd be if America were white from coast to coast, like the England of Charles Dickens, where grinding, gnawing differences in class weren’t racial at all, as they also aren’t in most majority-black societies.

We’d have to understand why the white anger I've just mentioned is taking increasingly murderous and perverse turns that won't be deflected by our moralizing.

Start with two contrasting images of generic American “white guys,” taken from two historic moments less than a decade apart.

When death-embracing fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11, perhaps the most telling response came from New York City firefighters and police officers who ran toward death in order to rescue others, not slaughter them.

These mostly white-ethnic men’s sacrifices prompted reverential, often unanticipated stirrings of patriotism in the rest of us. Yet to many of us these first responders were almost alien, bonded as they were into brotherhoods that have irritated both the politically correct and the managerially sharp.

Liberals had often deplored first responders' father-son unions as racist and sexist, as they certainly were, although things were beginning to change. And “free-market” apostles of quarterly bottom lining had deplored these men’s working conditions as “economically incorrect,” too, because they were governed by rules, rights, loyalties and honor codes that had been nourished since childhood in parish sports leagues and parochial schools and that reminded observers of medieval guilds — a far cry from the competitive, atomizing ethos of the money managers and minions they rushed in to save on 9/11.

Now, consider a second image of American white guys, this one taken from the 2008 Republican National Convention. Its presidential candidate John McCain certainly understood brotherhood, bonding and sacrifice. But his acceptance speech was interrupted repeatedly, unnervingly, by a large contingent of young men who physically resembled firefighters and cops and army sergeants and whose political repertoire consisted solely of shouting "Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!"

Even McCain’s subtlest, most poignant evocations of his patriotism were answered by "Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!" When he vowed to a family whose son had fallen in battle and whose bracelet McCain was wearing that he would "make sure their country remains safe," the parents grew moist, and the crowd cried, "Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!"

"I hate war," he declared quietly at one point, insisting that good judgment and principles are as often important as the will to fight. Knowing what he’d been through as a captive in Vietnam, I believed him. But the Republican convention was seeking political clarity in fogs of war and aimless bellicosity so desperate that McCain’s account of his own brutal transformation from self-important flyboy to a soulful bearer of American Republican yearnings deserved strong, voiceless applause from a mature, deeply moved audience. Instead it got, "Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!"

I think I understand what these guys were doing. They hadn't all curdled into fascists, as some liberals fear. Their buffoonish, boorish chanting was only one side of them. Republican strategists, Fox News and radio demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh had been poking that side, though, ratcheting up their hurts and pointing them toward war and nasty hatreds of dubious villains at home.

Their "Yoo Es Ay!" problem, like Darren Wilson's or George Zimmerman's problem, involves more than racism, and more than young men's hormones and war wounds and old men's deceits. It attracts even more than just men, as became clear at the 2008 convention when Cindy McCain touted Sarah Palin as "a pistol-packing hockey mom." (Republicans, the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages and the National Rifle Association have all urged women to pack heat.)

If we can’t understand how and why Palin at the convention was able to channel her listeners’ pent-up indignation and yearning into a roar so deep it was riding on thwarted love as well as hate, we can’t understand the trouble that Democrats are in. Although Obama won that year, when a perfect storm of Republican policies was too disastrous to finesse, little in Democrats’ politics of moral posturing about race and sex addresses these men’s wounded pride, offended decency and grieving for lost codes of honor and social networks and “economically incorrect” work that was actually fairer and more productive than a lot of what passes for work now.

Yes, making that work “work” involved running shell games against blacks and Hispanics and women in education, real estate and employment, mixing racism and sexism with tokens of fairness and opportunity that weren’t always wholly cynical or tactical.

In "All Eyes Are Upon Us," an important new book I’ve just reviewed for Bookforum, the historian Jason Sokol shows not just that whites have been two-faced about race but – counterintuitively to those who don’t know them – that both faces have often been quite sincere: They can cheer Tiger Woods or Colin Powell (or, until recently, Bill Cosby) unreservedly and insist that their daily discrimination in their neighborhoods and workplaces is driven only by hard market realities and real, undeniable dangers from blacks broken by richer whites who insulate themselves from the racially inflected consequences of economic policies they design and promote. Another of Sokol’s books, "There Goes My Everything," showed that in the 1960s, even many die-hard Southern segregationists believed sincerely that the mores and protocols they were losing had done more for racial comity and mutual understanding than had activist lawyers’ impositions. No wonder that their children are trying now to re-segregate Southern politics via opportunistic racial districting and voter-identification laws.

The real challenge is that whatever stability was provided by union workers' “economically incorrect” arrangements through the 1980s has been shrinking under attacks on the public-sector employees by Republicans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and on workers for private corporations that, like Wal-Mart, dance to and exploit casino-like financing that’s unanswerable to any republican polity or moral code.

Bruce Springsteen got at what the white guys and their families have lost when he sang:

These mills they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country's wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we're wondering what they were dyin' for.

If Republican economics has brought us this, Springsteen’s singing for Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and other Democrats hasn’t brought white guys anything better. The reason why Fox News, Palin and other demagogues have been able to dislodge whatever hold Bubba and Obama had on white, working-class America is that Democrats have abandoned serious challenges to deepening inequalities and embraced an identity politics of faux-compensatory gestures against sexism and racism.

Some of that politics, such as “lean-in” feminism, divides women from women as well as women from men, glossing the economic arrangements that are stealing increasing numbers of women’s and men’s opportunities, thwarting their talents and hopes, and plying them with degrading escapes into self-destructive behavior, scapegoating and demagoguery.

There’s little reason to romanticize Springsteen’s lost mill towns. They were racist and sexist even when booming, and here in Salon, Emma Goldberg, a brave, intrepid young journalist, showed recently not many "white guys" in Steubenville, Ohio, are ready to plumb the causes of high school rape in a Rust Belt town that, like Youngstown, has been left with little but its football team and its churches.

Yet there’s plenty of reason to mourn elite Democrats’ and leftists' abandonment of serious politics for an identity politics that ends up dividing blacks from blacks and women from women as it kowtows to Wall Street predation and neoconservative warmongering.

Absent political leaders and movements that challenge these affronts, the hopes of white guys whose manliness and munificence relied rather heavily on the old arrangements are curdling into something called ressentiment. (In French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn.”) It’s a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy and hatreds long borne in private erupt scarily in public, as they did in the 2008 Republican convention, presenting themselves as noble crusades but diminishing their participants while seeming to make them big.

White guys who succumb to ressentiment aren’t as trapped and brutalized as black guys. But unlike blacks, who’ve been denigrated, mauled and murdered forever in almost routinized ways that whites can barely imagine ever happening to themselves, the white guys are reeling now because their loss seems so recent, humiliating and, to them, inexplicable.

In ressentiment some of them find “easy” enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers they’re afraid or ill-prepared to confront. By making them feel big even as it diminishes them, ressentiment warps their assessments of the hardships and challenges before them. It shapes disguises they put on when they run those shell games in education, real estate and employment, pursuing vengeance, if not vindication, without risking punishment or reproach.

Wherever ressentiment has erupted throughout history -- whether in medieval Catholic Inquisitions, Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunts, Chinese cultural revolutions, nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements,” or political correctness in academic departments -- its most telling symptoms have been paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Its collective passions touch raw nerves, often under the ministrations of an increasingly surreal journalism that brutalizes public discourse itself. (Cue Murdoch and Fox.)

Those “journalists” who've made a fine art of fomenting and feeding on overstressed people’s fears and resentments soften up the public sphere for something much worse. Movements borne of ressentiment carry legitimate grievances to a fleeting brilliance, but soon they curdle and collapse, tragicomically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and scapegoating and other lies.

As they collapse, adherents spin their resentments into newer, more perverse kinds of force and fraud that emerge in racist shootings, road rage, addictions to violent video games, intensively marketed security precautions against armed home invasion, gladiatorialization in sports (including cage fighting but also hockey and football), nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment, and a huge prison industry that employs mostly white guys to punish mostly nonwhite, broken, violent men, even as schools in the whitest neighborhoods are imprisoned by fear of gunmen who are often the students themselves.

Staggering through this growing derangement, which Democratic and Republican policies are enabling and which Murdoch, the Koch brothers and their minions are fomenting, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves.

No wonder that neoliberal economic and political strategists survey the public wreckage they’ve caused, cluck their tongues and tell one another at Davos that, after all, the people must be ruled. Yet these supposed leaders can barely rule themselves, and they, too, become reliant on demagogues who vow to rule everybody for everybody’s own good.

So, a lot depends on white guys’ recognizing that what’s happening to them can’t be blamed on the derelictions of even more damaged blacks and the dizziness of more-affluent or cloistered liberals who blame everything on racism and sexism. Recognizing this depends on more journalists telling the truth, even though their capitalist publishers can make more money playing on audiences’ resentments and fears instead of focusing on their resistance and hopes.

There’s certainly no harm in well-meaning whites such as spiritual activist Horowitz’s plumbing their own feelings about race. But only newly instructive leadership and organizing could turn white guys’ heads, rattle the commentators’ rationalizations, and politicize the spiritually inclined.

The civil rights movement did all that when it roused impoverished black churchgoers to walk, unarmed and trembling, into silent Southern squares ringed by armed white guys and dogs. It didn't always deter the white guys, but it did instruct and shame some of them.

Is anything analogous possible now? Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated while leading a Poor People’s encampment in Washington and a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, understood that impoverished, diminished people of all races would have to walk into Wall Street squares and media headquarters and face surveillance and security services protecting powers that, nowadays, don't even drape themselves decently as they bypass our brains and hearts on their ways to our lower viscera and our wallets.

Hyper-racializing this groping, whether it's done out of liberal moralism or conservative ressentiment, won’t advance the reckoning we all need. It may only reinforce what it wants to stop. Decades ago, the Tawana Brawley “rape” hoax and the O.J. Simpson trial were psycho-dramatic, counterproductive black reactions to a long train of similarly false accusations and violence by whites. Writing about the racial tit-for-tat in "The Closest of Strangers," I warned that no movement for social justice can be built – as some black activists were then trying to build one -- on lies, grandiose distortions, vilification of innocent parties, intimidation of people with legitimate differences of opinion, and dehumanization of political adversaries.

Those had always been whites' tactics against blacks, and I warned then that whites who kept using them would find themselves wallowing soon enough in the social breakdown that they ascribed to blacks, because their racist ressentiment was forcing the wrong kind of reckoning and blocking the right kind. But the liberal racialism of identity politics makes the same mistake. Al Sharpton, a perpetrator of the black Brawley push-back, now understands the danger and futility in such tactics. In St. Louis last week he declined to gloat over the resignation of police officer Wilson, insisting instead that the protest movement “was not about Darren Wilson’s job. It was about Michael Brown’s justice ...  We are not anti-police. If our children are wrong, arrest them. Don’t empty your gun and act like you had no other way.”

This is something white guys can hear, though one may doubt that many listened to Sharpton. They certainly won't listen to a politics that begins and ends with black racial grievance.

If we Americans can't produce political organizers and leaders who are strong, deep and seasoned enough to understand and reach the “white guys” at the World Trade Center in 9/11 and at the Republican convention seven years later, our society will never deflect undercurrents of ressentiment that are being pumped into our collective bloodstream by the Murdochs and Kochs and that are growing in force in our public life.

Writing independently and unaware of one another’s recent work, several observers recently invoked the New Testament’s parable of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to characterize emerging dangers to the American republic.

Don Hazen, editor of the left-leaning website Alternet, identifies “the Four Plagues, or if we wish, The Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse,” in an arresting, sobering sketch of new developments in the privatization, financialization, militarization and criminalization of American life “that together are producing a steadily creeping authoritarianism — a new authoritarianism — to fit our times.”

Meanwhile, writing here in Salon, I, too, listed “four predatory new asymmetries in our national life – in security, in speech, in investment, and in consumer marketing,” immense imbalances of power that overlap with those identified by Hazen and that, I wrote, “are delegitimizing the liberal capitalist republic that once promised to give security, speech, investment, and marketing very different meanings and consequences than the ones they’ve acquired.”

James K. Galbraith’s magisterial, new "The End of Normal" shows American economists refusing to face his Four Horsemen: our abuse and exhaustion of natural resources; our continuing resort to military force as an increasingly futile guarantor of national security; our anything-but-liberating dash into the digital storm; and our casino-like financing of work. Again, note the overlaps.

Reading Galbraith’s deconstruction of Americans’ reliance on models and myths of perpetual material expansion, I shared his doubts that either Bruce Springsteen’s white guys or the financial “meritocracy” that’s dispossessing them have a future. Only an almost revolutionary reconfiguration of our "regime" might curb its increasingly destructive inequalities and environmental destruction. Yet Galbraith shows that his Four Horsemen remain utterly invisible to and unimagined by many of the most "distinguished" economists.

None of these accounts of the Four Horsemen identifies racism as one of them. Then again, we’re all white guys, so, case closed, right? Meanwhile, Washington liberals seem to have been so terrified by the title of Eli Zaretsky’s lucid book "Why America Needs a Left" that they couldn’t even open it, let alone review its calm, historical argument that America has benefited whenever liberals have been challenged by the left to be less spineless before economic practices and prerogatives that deepen inequality.

Zaretsky does devote one-third of his account to the civil-rights movement, as well he should. Like Jason Sokol, he’s writing as a historian, not mainly as a political strategist. But it’s noteworthy that even his concluding section, “The American Left Today,” doesn’t emphasize race and all but dismisses Barack Obama’s personal and symbolic racial breakthroughs, which have delivered scant structural reform.

So while I endorse Claudia Horowitz’s admonition to “Listen and Read” and to open doorways to action, my own decades of experience tell me also that the most effective and lasting answers to racist and sexist violence in the streets and on campuses will come not from banging on racial or sexual drums but from organizing that listens and feels its way into the ressentiment that's growing among the “white guys” and, in reaction to it, among blacks and women who feel the brunt of their bewilderment and rage.

Only a deeper, less censorious engagement will enable Americans to direct a cleaner, loving anger against the right targets. As Yale’s “radical” chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. intoned at a commencement decades ago, “Help us to free the oppressed, in such a way that the oppressor, too, is freed.”

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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