Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Shootings in Pittsburgh
Coming on top of the murder of two black men at a grocery store in a Louisville Kentucky suburb, and the many packages with pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the murders in Pittsburgh raise terrible questions about what is going on in America. Some commentators I have heard on the radio take the easy way out and blame it all on Pres. Trump. But that is not helpful. Pres. Trump did not invent anti-black or anti-Hispanic racism; Pres. Trump did not invent anti-Semitism or the mass murder of Jews. The most one can say about him is that he is encouraging the open expression of different forms of hate.
Hate is everywhere. Conservatives hate liberals. They can't stand to listen to them. Their beliefs and arguments seem so transparently faulty that it is difficult to see how anybody with just a grain of intelligence could be a liberal. A lot of liberals hate positions they regard as extreme, for instance, the people on the political left who want to abolish capitalism and replace it with democratic socialism. They have equal disdain for people on the far right who want to reduce the role of government to that of the policeman who keeps the peace in the streets.
Red Sox fans genuinely hate supporters of the New York Yankees and Yankees fans feel the same about supporters of the Red Sox. But they do not go out and kill each other. Conservatives don't ambush liberals. Liberals do not murder leftists or extreme libertarians. But the hatred that comes to the surface in America today is murderous hatred. It is the hatred that animated both parties in the Civil War. It is the hatred that animated lynchings of Black Americans and progroms against Jews in 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe. It is the hatred that wants to kill. It is not all hate that concerns us but the hate that needs to destroy or that applauds the destruction wrought by others.
Not all killing is motivated by hate. There is a great deal of killing in our world which does not particularly involve hatred. 17 years ago after 9/11 we "had" to invade Afghanistan in order to show that we were not weak and that we were going to punish the people somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. I'm not sure we hated the Afghanis; we had no reason to hate the Iraqis. We had other reasons for killing them.
In lynchings, in progroms, in killings of black churchgoers or Jewish worshipers the victims somehow threaten the survival of their killers and their people. Whereever they have lived among Christian people, Jews have been felt to be a threat to these Christian communities. Whites often feel threatened in their identity as whites by the existence of black communities, especially by thriving black communities. The church and synagogue shootings were not perpetrated by white people just because they did not like black people but by people who thought their white identity required destroying black persons. Typically far right white supremacists talk about the white identity being under threat and needing to be defended. They talk about being the victims of "white genocide." The survival of whites requires that Blacks, and Jews, be killed.
If we are going to understand these shootings in churches and temples we need to understand the persons whose identities cannot coexist with other groups of people. The shooter did not only detest members of the group killed. He could not continue to be himself as long as they lived. His identity was under acute threat.
"Well," you say, "these people are more or less insane. The threats they feel are unreal. What we need is better mental health care for people like that."
That is a comforting thought and if there are only a few persons who go out and commit murder, who are motivated by some completely unrealistic fear for their existence, it would, of course, be very sad and upsetting, but it does not show that anything is amiss in our society, except that we let people out in the street who should be locked up.
But this morning's New York Times reports there were a sizeable variety of pages on Instagram with names such as "#jewsdid911" in "a torrent of anti-Semitic images and videos uploaded in the wake of Saturday's shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue."
The shooters may have gone over the edge and acted out their fears about their white identity but there are a significant number of people in the America today who feel under attack by the mere existence of people who are different. The mere presence of a group of may be 4000 impoverished and frightened central Americans 1000 miles away from our borders in Mexico causes them acute anxiety. These people are different. They make the Americans feel terribly insecure.
This is not just an odd fact. It is a display of a social disease, of a widely distributed personality disorder. The support for racist attacks and murders is not the only symptom of this widespread personality disorder. There are a number of reports that the counties that gave exceptional support to Donald Trump in the 2016 election are also counties with exceptionally high rates of drug use, drug overdoses and suicides. Groups that fear people who are different who feel their white identity is being threatened by people not classified as white feel extraordinary insecurity about their own identity and their own worth. Drug abuse and suicide may well be the result of those profound insecurities.
This is not an underhanded attempt to blame the President for wide-spread drug abuse or suicide. It is instead to point out that the president's supporters are frequently persons who hate persons different from themselves and feel mortally threatened by them. Their sense of themselves, their sense of their worth and the worth of people like them is feeble. They do not know who they are other than that they are different from people with brown skin, from people practicing a different religion from theirs.
There is a goodly number of such people in the US and when someone murders people by whom they feel threatened, they applaud.
The difficult question with which the murders in Pittsburgh, or in Louisville Kentucky confronts us has to do with the existence of significant numbers of Americans who are seriously afraid of people different from them so that they welcome when someone murders black people, Jews, Muslims. Our culture is seriously deficient because it does not allow everyone to grow up feeling secure in who they are so that they can tolerate differences.
We need to look at our national cultures to understand this problem, at what we teach young people about what makes life, their life, and their person worthwhile, at what we teach young people about what is really important in life.
The nation needs to ponder these questions in the wake of the latest mass murders.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Men and their Manhood

Questions about what it means to be a man in America in the 21st century come up in the background of the Kavanaugh hearings debacle. But similar questions, complaints, outrages are at work all over our culture today. The federal government has just indicted four white supremacists for causing riots in Charlottesville, VA last year and in other places. These four men are members of what they call the Rise Above Movement. Their description of their movement speaks of "emasculated white men needing to reclaim their identities by learning to fight and engaging in purifying violence." Here male identity is the source of serious complaints. Men have been emasculated. They can reclaim their masculinity only through serious violence, including murder.
Male identity is the topic of a flood of books. In all of them masculinity is presented as problematic or endangered. Different authors regard the threats as more or less serious. Some see problems; others see masculinity destroyed.
Often the problems of men are blamed on women and more specifically on feminism. The feminist movement has focussed public discourse on the problems of women, on the ways in which women have been and still are disadvantaged by unfair practices on the part of men. But no one sees the problems of men. No one cares to help out when they need assistance.
Others attribute the erosion of masculinity to the absence of fathers in many families. With the divorce rate shooting up, more boys are raised by their mothers without a father in the house. With mass incarceration separating more men from their families male children are suffering the absence of a father.
Others cite economic causes: many well-paying manufacturing jobs have moved abroad, to China or to Mexico. With men earning less, their wives need to leave the home to earn a living and the traditional family with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother and wife has become a rarity. His authority is undermined by the mother also working and often earning more than her husband. Men are no longer the deciders in the family. It is not uncommon for the father to stay home and to mind the house and the children while the mother goes out and earns a living for all. The traditional role of the father and head of household can no longer be maintained.
Men therefore have trouble understanding what it means to be a man. The traditional answers--that men support their families, that men are the ultimate decision-makers, that men are autonomous, strong, and can be depended on to defend their families-- are losing their plausibility. They no longer make sense. They no longer can reassure men that they are valuable and important.
As a consequence of all these changes, men feel adrift. They are unsure of who they are. They do not understand their social position or their positions in the family. They do not know how to meet their emotional and sexual needs or what role they are to play in relation to their children. So it is not surprising that some, at the extreme, for instance, members of the Rise Above Movement cited earlier, try to regain their previous male dominance through street fighting.
What are we poor men to do? How can we find new answers to the ancient question of what it means to be a man?
It is useful, for a moment, to look at the question and ask ourselves what we are looking for. For ever and ever men have defined themselves in contrast to women. The most devastating criticism of a man was, and is, that he is effeminate. He is too much like a woman and therefore is not a real man. The fundamental defining feature of men is that they are not women.
As a consequence men have for thousands of years restricted the range of women's activities. They have been confined to the house, they have been limited to having and bringing up children. They have been kept out of the public life outside the house. Men then could claim that dominating women and all public spheres was their appropriate role. Often men claimed even that God himself placed them in this powerful position. With women able to escape these limitations, men's roles have become unclear and they feel thoroughly threatened.
The remedy is to think differently about what it means to be a man. Defining manhood as being not a woman leads us into a complete dead-end. According to that way of thinking one can be a man only by dominating women. The existence of powerful men demands that women be unequal. Once we commit ourselves to the equality of all citizens regardless of their gender, we commit ourselves to minimizing the difference between men and women.
Yes men and women have different genitals and therefore play different roles in perpetuating the race. Once the child is born, men and women can play equal roles in rearing it and seeing that it grows up to be a productive citizen.
There are, today, other differences between men and women. Women are more emotional; they are better at maintaining relations to friends and relatives. But these are social differences, a consequence of the man's search for differences from women. Men can learn to recognize their own emotions and those of others and learn appropriate responses to them. Men can learn to maintain their own friendships and family relations without needing their wives or female partner to play the role of social secretary.
The crisis of manhood – that men no longer understand what their special role in society is – is made by men themselves. By defining themselves as different from women, they can only be real men at the expense of equality for women. Once the society commits itself to equality for women, the old male paradigm as the dominator in the family and in society at large is outdated and needs to be rejected.
Men can find an identity for themselves by recognizing that what they have in common with women is central and that being a man, rather than a woman, deservedly has lost all meaning. Men will find a proper identity when they learn to honor their feelings and those of others, and when they learn to foster and maintain their own relationships as carefully as they memorize statistics about their favorite team.
Women go into combat in the Marines. Soon a woman will be elected President. There is nothing men do that women are not showing they can also do. There are no biologically based differences between men and women besides those having to do with procreation. All men need to do is to acquire the skills they have refused to learn because they were thought to be skills of women—living their own emotions and caring about those of others, being open to others instead of hiding behind a jokey facade. They must learn to live in the world of feelings.