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Angry White Men: A Book Review

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My father-in-law recently got promoted at work. He went from working "on the floor" to working "in the office." He works in manufacturing and his life has changed significantly: his shifts are better, his work seems a bit more flexible, he's more in control of what gets done and how, and I'm assuming he got a bump in pay. When I asked him about it, he smiled and jokingly said, "It's just like I always thought -- they get paid more to work less." He wasn't unhappy with his work before, but he seems a hell of a lot happier now. But he's an outlier, and an even bigger one among men in manufacturing jobs. More of them have lost their jobs to outsourcing or downsizing, are taking cuts in hours, pay, or positions "beneath them" to make ends meet than are getting jobs "upstairs." And some of them are pissed off about it.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel's new book, Angry White Men, dissects the rage many of these men experience and connects it with the anger experienced by a diverse collection of middle and lower-middle-class white boys and men. When angry white men act out, when they're violent, when they kill, we're often told that it's a result of gun access, mental illness, or other factors that help us think about them individually (as though something was wrong with certain individuals) rather than socially (as though something was wrong with our culture).

School shootings are a great example and one Kimmel takes on. Young white men have perpetrated almost every school shooting in recent history. When we hear about these attacks, the conversation often revolves around access to guns, mental illness, and other individual factors. We rarely hear what they have in common: they're almost universally committed by young white men who've been socially ostracized, gay-baited, and more than that, they feel they've been denied the position in the social hierarchy they deserve. And it's precisely this struggle that Kimmel argues motivates angry white men. He refers to it as "aggrieved entitlement" and connects a diverse group of pissed off white guys by this emotional perspective: the "men's rights" movement, school shooters, fathers' rights activists, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of what Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj call "the outrage industry," neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, gun rights activists, and more. In Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel describes this cultural phenomenon that's been not-so-quietly sweeping the nation: straight white men are revolting.

Revolutions are tricky things to predict. Just when will the masses rise up and say, "We've had enough and we're not gonna' take it anymore"? Sociologists will tell you that revolutions typically emerge among what you might initially think of as unlikely groups. Revolutions don't begin with groups with nothing left to lose; they start among those who've got something to lose. It is not the absolutely impoverished who rise up. It's the groups just about to lose out that revolt -- the downwardly mobile. Increasingly, young white men whose fathers' and grandfathers' positions in life were relatively assured are struggling to achieve jobs that a generation ago would have been assured. The old dream of climbing higher than your parents feels harder to achieve, and for many, even holding on to the class status of our parents is harder than it used to be. Kimmel explains that the definitions of masculinity these men seek to obtain have become more and more out of reach; American masculinity is, as Kimmel puts it, "at the end of an era."

But who's to blame? Kimmel shows that the collective rage experienced by these guys is motivated by nostalgia for a time when their gender and race afforded them privileges that feel less automatic today. These are guys raised to believe that their gender and race provided them with the right to be sole breadwinners, with loving families, a house of their own -- the "American Dream." Yet, Kimmel shows that the true forces that have stripped them on this reality (the rise of multi-national corporations, outsourcing, predatory lending, downsizing, cutting jobs and more) are rarely blamed. Rather, angry white men are much more likely to blame others who are struggling alongside them, trying to make ends meet -- gays, black people, immigrants, and more than anyone else, women.

Rather than considering these angry white men as outliers, however, Kimmel shows that the experiences of these men are often more generalizable than we like to assume. For instance, while the intense gay-baiting and ostracism that many school shooters experience ought to make us take bullying more seriously, CJ Pascoe's Dude, You're a Fag shows us that this kind of bullying is much less of an exception than it is the norm. And Kimmel explains this collective rage sociologically rather than psychologically. So, rather than focusing on problems with specific individuals, he calls our attention to the larger social forces shaping these men's struggles.

The answer, according to Kimmel, lies in leaving behind this culturally bankrupt notion of entitlement. Acknowledging a kinder, more just idea of what it means to "be a man" will lead these men to true happiness. The gains made by women, people of color, LGBT individuals, and immigrants are unlikely to disappear no matter how loud they shout. In the meantime, they're paddling upstream, and the current's getting stronger.