Review: Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era by Michael Kimmel

I started reading Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era because the author gave a good interview to the Guardian in advance of the upcoming re-print of his book in relation to Trump supporters. Kimmel’s interview was intriguing, and since his book is essentially about two intersections of my PhD research, I felt I should read it.

In this book, Kimmel, a Jewish liberal sociologist, attempts to explain why white men become so angry, sometimes to the point of mass murder and genocide advocacy. While Kimmel is clear that he doesn’t believe white men are an oppressed class, he argues that men who join extremist groups are part of the downwardly mobile lower middle class, and that they suffer of ‘aggrieved entitlement’. Kimmel describes this as “the sense that those benefits to which you believed yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unseen forces larger and more powerful”. Kimmel argues that the promise of the American dream (and the lack of its deliverance) is what radicalizes white men.

While I think Kimmel is partly right to try to understand how class radicalizes men, I do think he overlooks the history that got us here in the first place. Kimmel looks at men’s groups and theorizes on why they are angry now, often relating back to class and the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling of deserving more. This is perhaps my biggest qualm with most masculinity studies books: I think it’s dishonest to look at the history of masculinity without including colonialism, indigenous genocide and slavery as a part of white male violence.

Most books (this one included) look at men’s discontent with feminism and anti-racism from around the period of Robert Bly’s mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980s. Of course, this is materially accurate because this is when a movement for the rights of white men officially formed, but analyzing the centuries that gave us Bly’s movement is essential. White men’s violence — while still accepted and justified by large swathes of society today — was sanctioned and accepted as normal, even desirable, for colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. It must be said that these groups (MRAs, the KKK, Neo-Nazi groups, etc) are part of a long history of white supremacists patriarchal rule, and Kimmel’s focus on class reveals an unwillingness to look at whiteness as inherently problematic. He needs to justify the evil of white angry men with economic anxiety.

Kimmel does engages with white and male privilege in his book, repeatedly stating that angry white men blame the wrong people for their failures and that ‘aggrieved entitlement’ is a symptom of privilege, not of deprivation. They should really be blaming, he argues, corporations and the government who take advantage of the little guys. Yet, Kimmel fails to connect the exploitative nature of capitalism to its inherent white supremacy and patriarchal rules: these two pieces of the puzzle are, in my view, essential to understand radicalized men because they foster an environment that coddles and seeks to understand white men’s despair over everyone else’s.

Halfway through reading this book I realized this: Kimmel takes Neo-Nazi’s words too seriously. While he can point out empty Tea Party talking points from GOP supporters as false, and he affirms that populism is an emotion, not an ideology, when radicalized white men justify their violence with economic anxiety, Kimmel jumps at the opportunity of a class analysis. Again, Kimmel shows his blind spots: he relates economic anxiety to radicalization, but fails to make clear that ‘aggrieved entitlement’ isn’t only when something you believe was meant for you was taken away. ‘Aggrieved entitlement’ is when white men don’t get what they believed they deserved because it was given to a woman or a minority. The definition is incomplete if Kimmel does not recognize that racism and sexism are inherent parts of whiteness. It could be argued that he implies this a whole lot, but he doesn’t write it out clearly enough.

Parts of this book were frustrating because of Kimmel’s tone and his lack of engagement with feminist theory. For example, at one point Kimmel writes that feminist critiques of power don’t resonate with men, which is a completely irrelevant assertion. Feminist critiques are not designed to put the oppressors at ease about their own actions. He also discusses domestic abusers, making clear that abusers are responsible for their own actions but failing to illustrate the cycle of abuse that is widely recognized as true. This would, in my view, solidify his point that abusive men are completely in control of the emotional manipulation and physical intimidation they enact against their partners.

Ultimately, Kimmel’s book is an ambitious overview of angry white men, providing the reader with good snapshots of what those men do, how they act and how deviating types of masculinity might result in violence because of society’s lack of acceptance. His analysis and theorizing on extremist groups, however, were extremely lacking in historical context and blind to white supremacy as a system that helps and coddles white supremacist extremism.

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