It seems like another era, though it was less than five years ago, when I was sitting around the Men’s Wisdom Council, grunting Ho with the guys, and studying their hodgepodge, Shake-and-Bake ‘traditions’ for a book I was writing on changing conceptions of white straight men. But now, just as my little political ethnography of the men’s movement has come out, that silly dufus weeping around the campfire with the Native American speaking stick in hand has morphed into the image of the militiaman holding his assault weapon across his chest, those denim cut-offs and raw cotton shirts exchanged for camouflage fatigues, those formerly damp and sensitive eyes transformed into opaque chips glinting out an implacable and vicious rage. For most of what passes for the Left and/or feminist progressive community these days in particular, white men are assumed to be on a rampage against both women and non-white minorities who for the past three decades have been clamouring for the power and rights they deserve. On this view, white men are so many racist, sexist fleurs du mal, self-defined by their lust for power over women and non-whites; and the Washington Post’s Juan Williams had it right when he said the April 19th bombing of Oklahoma City was committed by ‘white men in their natural state’.
It seems to me, though, that such a broad-brush portrait of American white men, or for that matter, of any gender and/or racially coded group, is bound to occlude more than it reveals—and that the differences between the guys around these two types of campfire count at least as much as what they have in common. Both the men’s movement and the militias can be seen as responses to a general cultural and political situation, characterized by a widespread confusion as to what men, including and perhaps especially white men, are supposed to be, mean, and do, and a related uncertainty about what the United States—as a polity, certainly, but even more as what Benedict Anderson calls an ‘imagined community’—is about, including whether it even works as a country any more. (Yet another such response, as cynical as it is sentimental, and as widely successful as it is imaginary on both counts, is obviously last year’s box-office blowout Forrest Gump, but let that pass.) But the differences between the two responses speak above all to the fault-line now cracked
As it happens, I know a fair bit about what both sides of that gap look and feel like, having crossed over from one side of it to the other, back when such passages were more possible than they are now, but remaining, in spite of that passage, something of a partial exile in both. I come, that is, from exactly the kind of part-industrial, part-agrarian small town and white working-class culture in which the militia movement is now flourishing. And while I was home a few weeks back, I spent a fair amount of time visiting some of the guys, and one of the women, I went to school and have kept in touch with ever since I went away to college and beyond in the years in which they had their kids and brought them up while working in the plant or on their declining farms or off in the woods. But as a college-educated, post-sixties baby boomer guy, outside and beyond Port Allegany, I’ve also lived a long time now along the Left edge of what was once the counterculture but is now upscaled and remarketed as a spectrum of ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’ lifestyles and milieux.
What I’d like to try to do now, accordingly, is sketch out both these habitats as they appear to the white guys within them—that is, to the ones with one foot in alternative culture and the other usually somewhere along the professional-managerial slopes of the post-industrial divide, and the other white guys in the hollows back around home. And maybe the place to start is with the accusation levelled at both groups, and, indeed, at white men as a group: that is, that racism and misogyny are at the core of both movements and groups, and at the very base of the white man’s soul.
I recall a moment at the Day for Men retreat with Robert Bly and Michael Meade I attended with some five hundred-odd other almost entirely white guys early in 1991, when someone stood up and challenged Bly to justify the absence of men with more melanin. Bly’s telling response was to insist that while it was indeed important for men of other racial and ethnic backgrounds to recover and defend their own traditions, there was a genuine need for white men to do the work of getting back in touch with their own traditions and wisdom. Yet the myths, folk tales and homilies that filled out the day were, like the drumming itself, as apt to be drawn from Native American or African culture as to come from the North Woods.
Likewise, in all my time hanging around the Wisdom Councils and neighbourhood groups, I never heard a single word of overt feminist-bashing. On the contrary, the main line on feminism was that now that women were recovering their own strengths and truths, it was time for men to do the same. And as with the appropriation of tales and rituals from non-white and non-Western cultures, so too, in relation to feminism, with both the formats of many of these meetings, and with the old and new masculinities celebrated and espoused within them. Stripped of their ritual integumenta, that is, a good many circles of men look and sound an awful lot like male versions of the consciousness-raising groups that launched second-wave feminism a few decades back; and beneath the
Of course it’s possible to claim these assertions and silences are simply so much deep cover for impulses that remain misogynist and racist at the root. But if we take them for a moment at face value and ask where they might come from, a more accurate and interesting picture of these guys’ world and worldview starts to emerge. Above all, what seems salient is the assumption that women, African–Americans, Native Americans and other non-white or non-male Others are, each and all, self-enclosed communities of people whose identities are first and foremost culturally given rather than politically and historically made. Each separate group is understood to be its own tribe, with its own organically held traditions, rituals, and essential knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. And all white men—those in the men’s movement, that is—are doing is simply, like all the other sisters and bruthahs, doing the same for themselves.