A few kind words for the white American male

This was, in the context of the times, one of my more radical essays, a defense of a constituency the Democratic Party would lose for the next quarter century. As I wrote in 2001:

One of the besetting sins of many in the progressive movement is that they have made white men the enemy. In fact, no ethnic group in history has given up so much power so quickly and so peacefully. Every social movement of the past 40 years has depended on either the acquiescence or active participation of large numbers of white men. To bash them is both bad politics and bad philosophy, tossing out constituency and logic at the same time. One of the basic reasons for the Democrats’ current problems is that they have implicitly treated minorities and women, on the one hand, and white males, on the other, as mutually exclusive groups. This perception has helped to send white males to the Republicans. While it is obvious that white men have been responsible for most of the horrendous political and ecological policies that have left us in our current situation, it should be similarly obvious that most white men have also been their victims — in everything from war to black lung disease to economic exploitation.

Sam Smith, 1979 It may be time to say a few kind words for the white American male. It is, I know, not fashionable and some may consider the mere suggestion a new form of treachery, another plot to continue the oppressive status quo, to ensnare and enslave, co-opt and coerce. Oh well, after nearly two decades of being lumped among the unreconstructed heirs of Attila, Genghis, Adolph and Simon simply by merit of the draw in the fallopian and penile estuaries, I guess I can take the flak. It’s one of the things you’re best as these days if you are a white American male: surviving in a world that doesn’t like you very much.

Of course, you know you don’t have the power that others credit you with, that you’ve struggled pretty hard to get what you’ve got, and that there are times when you would gladly trade the lot for the right to say that all your problems are someone else’s fault. But you don’t, first because you are tired of all the arguing, yelling and yammering, and second because you know that in a relative sense you are probably better off in a lot of ways than many of those who blame you for everything and they are going to have to catch up before they realize what you already have learned – that the bridge is out on the road ahead.

So mostly you keep quiet and let the armies of the upwardly mobile roll over your psyche at will. It’s not the way it’s told now, but I think it’s the way it will be. Behind every significant advance of blacks, women, homosexuals, latinos, youth or what have you of the sixties and seventies was the voluntary capitulation or active assistance of a large number of that constantly criticized creature: the straight, white, over-30 American male. If this creature’s role was truly as purported, history would have been quite different. In fact, the allegedly dominant role has been betrayed at every turn by a mass of white American males. They have repeatedly rather switch than fight to a degree that has few historical parallels. And this is one important – but largely overlooked – reason our society is quite different than it was a quarter century ago.

Part of the brilliance of the early civil rights movement was to recognize the difference between the homogenous appearance of the white community and its actual heterogeneity, between it own past subjugation to reactionary cliques of power and its potential acceptance of new ideals and alliances. Had Martin Luther King been as stubbornly ethnocentric as some of his successors in the black movement, the blood might still be spreading in Selma today. It is part of the power of Andrew Young as well; he has the capacity to move others than blacks, to speak first of universal rights and needs and only secondarily to plead a particular ethnic cause.

It is a skill that has not been highly valued in recent years. After King, the black movement – rightfully scornful of the debilitating absorption of minorities by traditional integration as opposed to desegregation with equality – turned on the coalition politics of the early civil righters and pursued goals in isolation, with guerilla-like attacks on the white establishment that first stunned and confounded it but later only annoyed it. Important as it was for blacks to rediscover long-suppressed values and traditions, once so armed and united they were still only a minority – easily turned away from the door.

The separatist politics flourished anyway. It was more important to shock than to convert, to decry than to convince. Whites were driven away from the civil rights movement just as later males would be shunned in the feminist movement. If you were black you didn’t trust whites, if you were a woman you didn’t trust men. If you were young you didn’t trust anyone over 30. If you were a homosexual you scorned the straights. And if you were an over-thirty, straight white male your main role in the social politics of the nation was to be confronted and condemned. The role provided immense psychic rewards for those groups battling for equality: a largely immobilized, somewhat guilty mass of American men against which to sling their ideologies. The only problem was that by deliberately disengaging a large segment of the population from the battle for rights, active resistance to these movements could function with little fear their opposition might be reinforced by allies. The minority of those with power could battle the minority that sought it on terms considerably more favorable to the former than in the days of the old coalitions.

Further, the discarding of coalitions was accompanied by a change in strategy that also worked against the goals the minorities sought. Instead of seeking change based on an evolving ethical consensus shared not just by their own kind but by others as, well, they relied increasingly on power politics, the very game they were not organized or prepared to play.

If, as a Chicago politician once said, “Politics is a matter of who gets what, where, when and how,” the isolated interest groups were doomed to failure. Not only did their numbers generally not add up, their own constituencies tended to be far more varied and uncontrollable than the leaders liked to suggest. If the old civil rights movement was a romantic ideal, so then was the alternative – an assumption of unified power that simply didn’t exist and which probably wouldn’t have worked if it had.

Besides, many of the issues raised no longer had the moral simplicity of the early civil rights agendas. Much as black leaders would like to say it was so, Bakke and Weber were not the lunch counter suits of the seventies, but complex issues involving relative rather :than absolute rights. Bussing, although constantly raised as the litmus test of racism, was, in fact, only a theory, not a right – and a theory that could only be tested in a context that brought valid values into conflict. These issues may have raised constitutional or moral principles, but they also, more importantly, raised the question of the efficacy and equity of specific political and bureaucratic means of institutionalizing these principles.

The fact that bussing was aimed towards achieving a moral principle in no way proved that it would, in fact, achieve it, or that there might not have been better ways of achieving it. Not every worthy principle is destroyed by its opponents. It can be destroyed by poor politics, poor bureaucratic administration or poor timing.

We live in a time when we are rapidly turning away from community and altruistic enterprise of any sort, towards a nation of 220-million ego-centered universes where the only social movement that may finally count is the Me Liberation Front. There may even be a causal relationship between the isolated politics of the social change movements of late and the isolated values of the day. Once you accept the idea that one or another large mass of humanity is to be firmly rejected, it’s only a matter of addition until the oppressors total everyone except oneself. In any case, it’s not a particularly inviting time for social change and if you are among the declining number still interested you need all the friends you’ve got. And one of the most frequently overlooked possibilities is that punching bag for those frustrated by their ineffectual assaults on the status quo: your run-of-the-mill white American male.

Now that Nixon has opened the doors to China and Begin those to Eygpt, perhaps the ideologically and ethnically pure should consider normalizing relations with this fellow. He’s had a time of it. Back in the fifties, the social critics were saying that his problem was that he was a pawn, the man in the gray flannel suit, pitifully compliant to a matriarchy (remember Momism?). The hip view was that if he only got a little more consciousness-raising he’d try to run things instead of being run by them. Then, all of a sudden, he was in the sixties and, having barely learned how to speak up to the boss, was being accused of oppression and perpetuating a racist society. Previously rated as incapable of taking care of his own business, he was now being asked to help with everybody else’s as well. Some resisted, some just stayed out of the way, but some did try to help. Some even got hurt, jailed or killed trying to help. For a while that was okay with those calling for social change. Then they got the idea that you couldn’t really trust people who weren’t the same color, age, sex or whatever as you and so they not only indicated that they didn’t want you around but that wherever you were and whatever you did you were part of the problem. So you went away and every time you’d stick your head up somebody would say you were a macho pig, a racist or something like that so you’d stick your head back down and hope it blew over. If you tried to help you were seizing control; if you didn’t try, you were insensitive and indifferent.

By this time you may have figured out that you were part of America’s largest downwardly mobile class. Everyone else was meant to move ahead; you were meant to move backwards. And feel guilty about it while doing so. They even tried something for you called Men’s Liberation. But it wasn’t like Women’s Liberation because what you were supposed to do at Men’s Liberation meetings was to stop being such an awful person, which was nowhere near as exhilarating as learning how to get equality and power and stuff like that.

Maybe you began to suspect that there was a difference between equality and ethnic politics. But it was a hard thing to say aloud. Maybe you thought there were other values in the world, ones that didn’t end in an Ism, like decency, kindness, civility, patience and understanding but there were no rallies on their behalf so it was hard to tell. Maybe you thought that having your kid bussed across the city an hour each way was kind of stupid but when you said so even Walter Cronkite seemed to think you were a racist. Maybe you noticed a literary double-standard developing: Ebony magazine writing an article on whether whites could sing the blues but no articles on whether blacks could sing opera or bluegrass. Progressive newspapers hiring feminist columnists to conduct ad hominem attacks on the male sex with no reply. Maybe you increasingly wondered how, after all the years of being mau-maued, patronized, criticized and excoriated you could still retain the slightest interest in anyone’s rights but your own.

But the amazing thing is, given the way they have been treated, that many American white men did. If white men were truly as worthless as the rhetoric of social change would have us believe, the insults and catcalls would have long ago driven them into aggressive opposition. In fact, white men have proved themselves remarkably adaptable to change. I know of few white males of my age who have not in some way undergone a major change in their lifestyle or values as a result of the social movements of the sixties-and seventies and in the overwhelming majority of cases these changes (unlike the changes for blacks or women) have meant giving up power or mitigating former drives.

It is hard to gauge the difficulty of giving up privileged values and traditions until you try it. On the whole it is not as much fun as gaining power. And it has not been made any easier by the failure of those who are seeking power to understand the difficulty or by the tendency of some to abuse a righteous drive for equality with personal greed. The white male attempting to adapt to social changes faces a sizable array of obstacles: the condoned exclusivity by sex and race for everyone except the white male, the black politician who comes to whites for support during a campaign and then generically libels them after being elected, the “isn’t it cute, he’s washing the dishes” patronization of women, the ‘you wouldn’t understand, you’re not a woman – black – latino – homosexual’ clincher to an argument, the interminable race and sex baiting and the ethnic and sexual con artistry.

Taken together, they provide a silent message to white men, not a claim to equality but an incipient claim of superiority. And there is, lurking behind some of the drives for equality, a dangerous form of fundamentalism – dangerous not because it believes in original sin, but because it doesn’t really believe in salvation. The original sin idea doesn’t hold up too well in theology or politics; there’s too much fatalism involved for both the alleged sinner and the alleged savior. But it doesn’t bother me that some feel that way (at least in rhetoric) half as much as the idea that the fatalism is total; there’s really nothing I can do about it anyway. I mean, if I can turn to Jesus simply by flipping my TV dial and calling the toll-free number in Oklahoma City that flashes on the screen, I don’t see why blacks and feminists should set any higher standard.

Well, yes I do. At least politically. For if white males are unreconstructably sinners then their critics are unreconstructedly pure and it makes everything much simpler. You can forget about all the other human virtues and faults, ship the Ten Commandments back up the mount, throw out several thousand years of ethical inquiry and reduce morality to a binary system: race and sex. If, on the other hand, it is a good deal more complicated than that, then race and sex may not be your best guide to virtue. And part of true equality may involve recognizing sin where you find it and virtue where you find that and not assigning them en masse to social groupings.

Of course, that makes it harder. It might lead you to perplexing discoveries. Like that not everyone opposed to bussing is a racist. Or that Bakke and Weber and Arabs and Proposition 13 supporters are people, too, and mainly want to get in or up and not set back thirty o years of social progress. Or just because America is largely controlled by white males doesn’t mean that most white males control America. Or that while the way white American men relate to each other may be different than the way women relate to one another, this difference does not in itself prove that one or the other is superior. Or that if you want someone to treat you decently one of the best ways is to treat them decently.

It hasn’t been tried much on the white American male. It might just help. Of course, that means listening to him and trying to pay some attention to his concerns. It means compromise. It means working together on one thing when you don’t agree on lots of others. It means granting him as much right to non-destructive values of his own choice as any member of a minority . It means understanding that while you may think he’s sitting on top of the world, he probably doesn’t feel that way, that he feels as much as you a victim of forces he can’t control. It means being really interested in equality rather than exchanging one form of power abuse for another.

It could start with the rhetoric. If the rhetoric changed, then maybe the politics could change. Women wouldn’t have to fight for women alone, blacks for blacks alone, and so forth. I don’t know. It’s just an idea. We don’t ask much out of the deal. You can forget the power-hogging business. You’ve got to realize that we white males have soul brothers who are presidents of the world’s largest corporations who are spending one third of their time on affirmative action cases, another third on their impending divorces, and the rest trying to figure out how to get the kids off valium. Anyone who doesn’t know that power isn’t worth the candle deserves it. Given an equality of respect from those seeking equality, your average white American male may not turn out to be so bad after all.

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