The exploding white guy syndrome

It goes like this:

A population of people, wanting more room after having overgrown and ravaged their own land, sets sail and, with their superior killing tools, successfully invades several other continents around the globe. Since the engine of their particular economy is one by which all entities – including humans, animals, and nature – are treated as physical property for generating wealth for an elite, this intercontinental invasion of theirs includes slaughter of those already inhabiting the newly-“discovered” lands, a savage and bloody pursuit of gold in what is now South America, and a massive slavery industry that ships kidnapped Africans to plantations in North and South America.

Of necessity, the invaders’ economic and political elite create a couple of handy popular beliefs in their brand-new nation to help all of this madness feel a bit more normal.

One such manufactured belief is the idea of “whiteness” as a measurable human quality that enables “whites” of all economic classes in the new nation to feel accustomed to having at least some amount of privilege over “Indians,” “blacks,” and other nonwhites. This gulf of privilege covers a wide span: the right to claim the land you walk on versus being kicked off of it; the right to personal freedom versus slavery; the right to vote versus disenfranchisement; the right to relative safety versus being subject to extermination, lynching, and other flavors of routine discrimination and murder.

The new nation’s other handy manufactured belief is the idea of the lone hero striding in and kicking ass in hostile territory. Thanks to this ethos, the popular measure of power in this new land of “individual opportunity” becomes the ability to personally triumph when surrounded by threats and insecurities. The revered lions of the culture are those fiercely solo souls who, facing danger and risk on all sides, claw their way to success and security. This cult of fiery-eyed self-infatuation completely ignores the cooperative clan- and collective-based influences in human history. But it makes a bang-up salve for a traumatized conquering army of American “whiteness,” haunted and increasingly outnumbered by the ghosts and descendants of those whose vengeance it fears, and needing to steadily shore up its self-image of rightness and decency.

And so in this nation’s official gospel we see a long and deep thread of self-righteous paranoia grounded in the lie of a heroic individual surrounded by threats. But underlying this myth are cruel realities from which even whiteness provides little or no protection: a nuclear family cut off from true community; the worst joblessness since the Great Depression; not being able to afford health care and higher education; personal finances teetering at (or over) the edge of bankruptcy; a feeling of one’s having personally failed the culture’s heroic expectations; a rage at having been thrown overboard by one’s own country. Into this volatile mix flows an ongoing gun culture where legal and easy access to absurdly lethal firearms meets the bitterness of failed whiteness.

Which brings us to the exploding white guys.

The epidemic of gun availability, and the fact that America has largely given up on providing widely-available care for severe mental illness, cannot by themselves explain why the perpetrators of mass shootings are almost exclusively white men – so much so that criminologists asked to profile mass shooters now routinely begin interviews by saying, “He’s going to be a white guy…”. A fair proportion of seriously mentally ill men, many of them poor or homeless, are men of color. And while young black and brown gang-bangers who steadily execute one another on the streets share a lot of the Bad-Ass-with-a-Gun archetype embraced by scared white men, their violence is different both in its causes and its expression. For starters, it is handguns (as opposed to massacre-friendly assault weapons) that are the guns of choice in gang and drug shootings because they are easy to conceal and cheap to buy and replace. Moreover, it is one thing for enraged young men of color in jobless and father-deprived neighborhoods to shoot one another and the occasional bystander in the daily carnage of the drug trade and the gang wars. It is quite another – and much more rare compared with white men – for a black male to walk into a public space and open fire on dozens of strangers with the intent of killing as many innocent people as possible.

So what is the white-guy trigger? Is it an emotional breaking point inherent in the late-capitalist tension between the venerable white male expectation of dominant power and the widespread white male reality of pain and loss and rage? Is it a deep sense of white male entitlement, something that is perhaps much less common in men of color who have a conscious experience of long-term oppression but is screamingly exposed in white men who feel betrayed? Is it something else? A mixture?

Sane gun control, starting with an outright retroactive ban on assault weapons, would pre-empt many of these massacres simply by making it much more physically difficult to kill so many people at once. This is so obvious that it doesn’t require elaboration. Curtailing the massive availability of other guns is just as necessary: every day, easily-accessible guns turn arguments into quick and efficient murders.

But behind the gun barrels and bullets and manufacturers is a greater and deadlier machinery: a well-oiled mechanism that sets up whites to fail at whiteness and that sets up people of color to fail at gaining fairness. We need, instead, government that is not purchased by the insurance conglomerates, by the banking sector, by the prison industry, or by the gun lobby. We need leadership that understands what universal health care and living wages and fully-funded education and job training and racial and gender justice and true neighborhood security would look like. And we need the popular will to institutionalize the public interest instead of private conquest.

Otherwise, we will continue to manufacture murder.

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Bruce A Jacobs

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I recently posted a comment on Ian Welsh’s site and it applies here, too:

    We will never change our society until we change our understanding and view of ourselves.
    We have accepted and internalized a worldview which limits what we can/should/will do. We didn’t create that worldview ourselves.
    It was carefully crated and promulgated by those who benefit from the world as it is – the world with them on top.
    When we change the way we think about ourselves, we will change our behavior and our world.

  • An interesting essay, Bruce, and one I’m broadly in agreement with – and so I’m trying especially hard to critique it for myself.

    Your first assertion, “A population of people, wanting more room after having overgrown and ravaged their own land” and passim, is particularly problemmatic for me as it massively over-simplifies the socio-economic pressures that led European nations (mainly just five: England, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal) to begin colonial expansion. The land was neither overcrowded nor overly ravaged, as even a cursory examination of actual European demographics and wilderness areas in the 16th/17th centuries will tell. By 1500 the population of Europe was still subtsantially below that of 200 years earlier, thanks to the Black Death and the Little Ice Age, and nature had reclaimed many previously-settled borderlands. To simplify the colonialist urge to this extent misses a key development of the period too – the exhortations implicit and explicit in the Rennaisance for the great kingdoms of Europe to try to emulate the classical Empires, particularly Rome, by going out into unknown lands and “civilizing the barbarians”. That truly is the origin of the “Divine Mandate” and of the “White Man’s Burden”, both concepts ported into (particularly) the British Enlightenment wholesale from Rennaisance thinking and both to have a massive knock-on effect in the New World in the expressions of “hero against the wild” and of “whiteness” so crucial to your own argument. I think it is important to realize that these expressions are not peculiarly or particularly American or recent, although they’ve found as great an expression in the U.S. since World War Two as they ever did in Victorian England.

    • Good points, Steve, and well taken. I make no claims that America is entirely unique in this regard, although it does have its own version of this manufacturing of whiteness, which reflects America’s on-site slavery agri-industry and resulting on-site state of race war, its particularly urgent and universal need for a whiteness membership club, and its heightened indy-cult mythology. One of the closest analogues might be apartheid-era South Africa, although there are also profound differences there. I focus on America in the piece because 1.) I live here and 2.) Our Exploding White Guy problem in the U.S. is arguably the world’s worst right now, thanks to the combination of the rage of entitled white males and easy access to guns.

      (Additional note:) The claim that institutions of American capitalist racism are just another flavor of age-old biases is familiar, but is both inaccurate and irrelevant. The salient point is that the expansion of European capitalism into the New World, with its global factory of human slavery and the massively race-based societal templates that followed, brought with it a mass production of commodified “whiteness” on a scale orders of magnitude greater than prior racial orders. Further, North and South America and the Caribbean, as actual sites of both large-scale factory slavery and European resettlement, were necessarily where European conquerors created the most broadly- and brutally-regimented multiracial capitalist societies. Of these, the United States – as a society in which Caucasians became a significant demographic majority as well as the source of the economic ruling class – created an unprecedented pool of resultingly-entitled white males (read: working- and middle-class white guys accustomed to male and racial privilege). As subsequent capitalist turmoil and demographic changes erase some of this privilege, enraged white American males with easy access to guns are now illustrating the consequences. Mind you, if workers in Greece today had easy access to assault weapons we would likely see carnage as well — but brewed with different ingredients. The U.S. history of race is hardly the only factor in what’s going on with American gun massacres right now. But it is a potent factor. To write it off as mere repetition of European history would be a grave mistake.

      • Better to reflect on Trade and the Closure of the Silk Road for much of the impetus behind the European exploration to discover routes to the Orient.

        Finding the Americas was somewhat of an unfortunate happenstance.

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    Reminder that whenever you hear “Founding Fathers,” replace it with “Founding Slave-Owners” or “Founding Slave-Rapists”

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