Tag Archives: status

About Those Angry White Guys…

Like many women, I am still fuming over the Kavanaugh hearing. Not only was a man elevated to the Court who clearly has no business being there–for multiple reasons, not simply the very credible accusations of sexual assault–but women were dismissed, diminished and disregarded in ways that still infuriate me.

After the hearing, I posted about the extreme anger that permeates contemporary political life, and what I see as the reasons for that anger. It probably isn’t surprising that I see some  as righteous, and some as considerably less so. Those displaying the latter type, I wrote,

are primarily White Christians (disproportionately but not exclusively male) who have a well-founded fear that they soon will be robbed of their cultural dominance and privilege. They are reacting with fury to culture change and the increasing claims to a place at the civic table by LGBTQ, black and brown people, and women. Robert Jones has documented their resentment and rage in his recent book, The End of White Christian America.

It wasn’t just an analysis from one feminist blogger. A few days ago, Paul Krugman’s column made a similar point.

When Matt Damon did his Brett Kavanaugh imitationon “Saturday Night Live,” you could tell that he nailed it before he said a word. It was all about the face — that sneering, rage-filled scowl. Kavanaugh didn’t sound like a judge at his Senate hearing last week, let alone a potential Supreme Court justice; he didn’t even manage to look like one.

But then again, Lindsey Graham, who went through the hearing with pretty much the same expressionon his face, didn’t look much like a senator, either.

There have been many studies of the forces driving Trump support, and in particular the rage that is so pervasive a feature of the MAGA movement. What Thursday’s hearing drove home, however, was that white male rage isn’t restricted to blue-collar guys in diners. It’s also present among people who’ve done very well in life’s lottery, whom you would normally consider very much part of the elite.

Krugman referenced the considerable body of research debunking the notion–advanced by good-hearted albeit naive liberals– that Trump supporters were economically insecure.

What distinguished Trump voters was, instead, racial resentment. Furthermore, this resentment was and is driven not by actual economic losses at the hands of minority groups, but by fear of losing status in a changing country, one in which the privilege of being a white man isn’t what it used to be.

That resentment isn’t confined to people who are economically insecure. It isn’t even more prevalent among them.

And this sort of high-end resentment, the anger of highly privileged people who nonetheless feel that they aren’t privileged enough or that their privileges might be eroded by social change, suffuses the modern conservative movement.

As Krugman points out, that “high end resentment” positively oozes out of Trump. And Kavanaugh is cut from the same cloth.

As a lot of reporting shows, the angry face Kavanaugh presented to the world last week wasn’t something new, brought on by the charges of past abuse. Classmates from his Yale days describe him as a belligerent heavy drinker even then. His memo to Ken Starr as he helped harass Bill Clinton — in which he declared that “it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear” — shows rage as well as cynicism.

And Kavanaugh, like Trump, is still in the habit of embellishing his academic record after all these years, declaring that he got into Yale despite having “no connections.” In fact, he was a legacy student whose grandfather went there.

Adding insult to perceived injury,

An increasingly diverse society no longer accepts the God-given right of white males from the right families to run things, and a society with many empowered, educated women is finally rejecting the droit de seigneur once granted to powerful men.

And nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Exactly.

Connect The Dots!

It’s not just easy access to guns–although that access certainly facilitates rising American homicide rates.

As the Guardian recently reports, there is a strong–if surprising– connection between income inequality, respect, and increases in violence.

A 17-year-old boy shoots a 15-year-old stranger to death, apparently believing that the victim had given him a dirty look. A Chicago man stabs his stepfather in a fight over whether his entry into his parents’ house without knocking was disrespectful. A San Francisco UPS employee guns down three of his co-workers, then turns his weapon on himself, seemingly as a response to minor slights.

These killings may seem unrelated – but they are only a few recent examples of the kind of crime that demonstrates a surprising link between homicide and inequality.

The article cites emerging research that strongly suggests that inequality plays a pivotal role in escalating passions in encounters that might otherwise end with some profanity and fisticuffs–that it raises the stakes of fights for status among men.

The connection is so strong that, according to the World Bank, a simple measure of inequality predicts about half of the variance in murder rates between American states and between countries around the world. When inequality is high and strips large numbers of men of the usual markers of status – like a good job and the ability to support a family – matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately.

Inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable”, says Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario and author of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide.

Other studies show that rates of gun ownership rise when inequality does. Rising inequality also predicts the re-emergence of cultural traits like placing more emphasis on “honor.”

“About 60 [academic] papers show that a very common result of greater inequality is more violence, usually measured by homicide rates,” says Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of the Equality Trust.

Why would financial inequality lead to a renewed emphasis on status and respect? Researchers explain:

When someone bumps into someone on the dance floor, looks too long at someone else’s girlfriend or makes an insulting remark, it doesn’t threaten the self-respect of people who have other types of status the way it can when you feel this is your only source of value.

“If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it,” says Daly. “Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”

Social science is methodically enumerating the negative social consequences of extreme inequality. Most reasonably well-educated people recognize that inequality produces social instability–history teaches us that growing anger from those with nothing to lose leads to riots, even revolutions–but most of us are less familiar with other ancillary effects.

There is ample evidence that large gaps between the rich and poor retard economic growth, depress marriage rates, and raise crime and homicide rates. (Ignoring the 41 million Americans who live in abject poverty in order to gift your already obscenely wealthy donors with a tax cut also implicates that pesky little thing called morality.) Historical precedent suggests that these effects–left unaddressed– ultimately destroy societies.

None of that evidence, evidently, is persuasive to the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of this world. Or perhaps they know and just don’t care. They are perfect examples of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

 

What America Got Right

President Obama made a speech in Kenya that has received very little attention, and that’s a shame, for many reasons. As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox,

While his remarks focused on Kenya, they might as well have been about the United States. And this is what was so striking about the speech: the degree to which Obama seemed to articulate a worldview, and thus a foreign policy, rooted in the lessons of America’s history of racial discrimination. Obama was offering not just a prescription for one African country, but a diagnosis of how discrimination and hatred can endanger any society — one he seems to have drawn from his experiences engaging with America’s domestic struggles during his presidency.

The speech focused upon the structural nature of discrimination and the fact that social attitudes–about the proper role of women, to take just one example–shape systems that operate to perpetuate rules and actions based on those assumptions even after majorities of citizens no longer hold them.

As important as it is to examine and address these discriminatory structures, it was the President’s other point that really struck me.

He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream was not just of an America without segregation, but of a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character, without prejudice or bigotry. “In the same way, people should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave. Are they good citizens? Are they good people?”

As I tell my students, one of America’s most striking departures from prior systems of government was this focus on behavior rather than identity. The rights of citizens were not to depend upon caste, religion, ethnic identity, or the other categories that determined  civic status in the old world; the new American philosophy (if not always the reality) held that citizens should be judged and treated as individuals, on the basis of their behavior, and not as members of favored or disfavored groups.

We have not always lived up to that standard, but the trajectory of American jurisprudence has been in that direction.

Ours is a view of citizenship and equality that is still rejected by many countries around the world–not to mention a distressing number of citizens here at home. As the President forcefully pointed out, however, basing rights on who people are rather than how they behave isn’t just morally wrong; it inflicts real damage on a society.

“When we start making distinctions solely based on status and not what people do, then we’re taking the wrong path and we inevitably suffer in the end.”

This emphasis on government’s obligation to treat people based upon their actions–not their wealth, not their religion, skin color, sexual orientation or gender– is at the core of what it means to be an American.

That principle–not our wealth or military power–is what is “exceptional” about America.