Saturday, December 15, 2012

What Do Men Want? (American right-wing men, that is)

There are a lot of hunters in my neighborhood, and I like that. I invite them to set up a deer stand on my wooded land, so that they can harvest the bucks, and perhaps share the meat with me. We also have a lot of wild turkeys, and when turkey season comes around in the spring, I hope we will share some turkey meat.

The older hunters in my neighborhood are very careful: they know how dangerous their weapons are, and they never, ever shoot at a deer if beyond the deer, they can see a neighbor's barn or shed. The younger ones, though, seem almost drunk with the power of their weapons: one told me that he wants an automatic rifle because of "the adrenaline rush" of firing many rounds per second, and because of the respect that he would get at  the shooting range toting such a powerful weapon. This is childish, and this young man is in many ways still a child.

The shooter in Connecticut was barely out of his teens, and also still a child, it seems. We don't know what was going on his head--yet--and we may never know. He must have been crazy; we can be pretty sure of that. He must have been pretty angry, and his anger was directed in part at his mother, because he killed her in their home, and then went to the school--in full combat gear--and methodically executed kindergarteners with semi-automatic weapons that fire up to six rounds per second. All twenty of them died, as did five of their teachers.

It's always a man that does this, and usually a young man. He's often described as a "quiet loner," little known to the people in the neighborhood.

Why don't women shoot up schools? Women go crazy as often, maybe even oftener than men. Women have access to guns; apparently the shooter picked his guns from the arsenal in his mother's home. But there has never been a mass shooting where a woman has gone berserk in a mall, a movie theater, or a school. Maybe it will happen some day, and we will be shocked all over again in a new way.

But one has to ask: what is wrong with American men? They shoot their fellow citizens, and even littler versions of themselves, little children, at a much higher rate than men in other countries, who are presumably wired the same way. American men do have more access to guns perhaps than, say, men in Japan. But men in Canada and Switzerland have a lot of guns too, and they don't shoot their neighbors at the same rate.

We can look at our politics and our culture for the beginnings of an answer. Right-wing American men in high places have made themselves famous in the past year for waging a continuous war on women: trying to take away birth control; trying to make rape seem normal and acceptable; trying to force women to bear children conceived in rape; trying to shame women about having sex at all. And they are succeeding: many states have passed laws that make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, or birth control, especially if she is poor. Women who are raped during military service are not entitled to an abortion. The fact that women get raped at all, by their fellow soldiers, while serving in the military is shameful enough; it is beyond shameful to force them to bear the children of those soldier rapists.

Why the resurgence of 19th century ideas about sex and women, at this time? Because, ladies, we are winning. And these right-wing men know that. They are afraid they can't put the genie back in the bottle. Thus the Taliban-like "purity movement," that requires girls to be under the total control of their fathers until their father picks a husband for them, at which time they pass to the control of their husbands. Thus the obsession of the religious right with the sexuality of all women and some men (the gay ones). Thus the passionate hatred on the right against powerful women like Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

This kind of backlash has happened before. During the Civil Rights movement, whenever the movement scored a victory, it could expect a church bombing or an assassination of one of its leaders. As Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win." We're in the fighting stage now. American right-wing men are fighting desperately to hold on to the last shreds of their male privilege. Their guns are a potent symbol of that privilege. That's why they grip them so tightly and sometimes explode with berserk rage, showering kids and women (in this case) with bullets.

One might ask, why American men? Men in other developed countries are also seeing their male privilege erode as women take more power in public and private life. Why aren't Frenchmen shooting little kids in schools? To understand the peculiar psyche of the American man, we have to look back over the last sixty years. At the end of WWII, white American men were on top of the world: our cities were still standing, unlike the cities of Europe, and our manufacturing had no rival.  We had defeated fascism, so the Greatest Generation men told themselves. Black people were still firmly under their thumbs. Women were herded back into the confines of the nuclear family and locked up there.

But then the sixties came. First black people, then women, and then gay people demanded to be first class citizens along with white men. The struggle for equality is still ongoing, but white American men know that their days as Masters of the Universe are fading. And it makes them angry. To add insult to injury, working-class white men have lost a lot of ground over the last thirty years: their wages have stagnated, and then declined. Whatever sense they once had of themselves as superior to blacks and women has eroded. Women are graduating from colleges and graduate schools at higher rates than men, especially in families of first-generation college students. Women are making as much money, and often more money, than their brothers and husbands. The twilight of the gods is upon us.

European men seem to be making the best of this, perhaps relaxing a little now that they can share responsibility with grown women for the family and the state. But American men, particularly right-wing men, do not like it one bit. They had more to lose, maybe, and like a lot of immature  young men, they don't really understand the down side of war and violence in the same visceral way that Europeans do. Europeans saw their populations decimated and their cities leveled twice in fifty years. The two world wars just made Americans richer and more narcissistic, drunk on military might and economic hegemony.

Essentially what we're witnessing is a narcissistic male culture reacting with rage and fear in the face of narcissistic wounds: loss of white privilege, loss of male privilege, and loss of economic hegemony. We can expect the tantrums to continue for a while. I've just recently realized, in fact, how much American men fear each other. There was a story recently about some men in some states turning in their guns as part of a local government buy-back program, and the reaction of one of my male friends was, "Please don't make public the list of men who have turned in their guns. When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Apparently the only thing that makes this man feel safe in his home is his personal arsenal!  I guess when you have made government small enough to drown in the bathtub, you have to take law enforcement into your own hands. The idea that you might support government--which is another name for the things we choose to do together--rather than being a lone wolf never seems to occur to these men. Lone, invulnerable, heavily-armed wolves are these American men.

 It will take a long time to change this. In the meantime: let's tell our young men that having powerful weapons does not make them men. Learning to do something, having a skill, that is useful to your community: that's what makes you a man. Learning to do something takes some work and some persistence, and a guy might have to get over his laziness. It's easier to take a short cut and just go out and buy a gun.