The Sorrows of Young Weev

Here’s Ethan Mills sending an open letter to his fellow “white dudes”:

In the last 10-15 years the internet has weaponized fragile white masculinity in anonymous toxic discussion boards and comment sections as well as directed hate campaigns such as the one against Leslie Jones in the summer of 2016.

In my late teens and early 20’s I was as angsty and as prone as any young white dude in 2017 to rail against the hypocrisies of my society.  But the difference is that I’m just barely old enough to have grown up without the internet …

His piece is rather ostentatiously written in the voice of a stereotypical white dude, which I found annoying. And most of it rehashes tiresome internet tropes, like John Scalzi’s suggestion that being a white man in America is like playing a video game on the lowest difficulty setting. This cutesy analogy ought to have died a quiet memetic death long ago.*

My biggest quibble, though, is that I think Mill’s essay commits the sin it’s most anxious to defend against:

I’m haunted by the thought that the real blame for this mess is on older white dudes like me.  Maybe we let down our younger brothers by creating the conditions that made them who they are; perhaps we failed to be role models of what responsible white dudeness looks like.

At 40, I’m probably among the last group of white dudes who grew up with our privilege largely unquestioned.  It must be confusing to have come of age in the last 15 years or so with the vestiges of invisible privilege while having that privilege made visible and explicitly challenged.

I’m the same age as Mills. I’m also a science-fiction-loving white dude. And I think men of our generation need to look a lot harder at our own contribution to the kind of pseudo-Nietzchean antisocialism he complains about. That goes double for our elders in the Boomer cohort. The weird brew of trollishness and insecurity we see among white men on the internet goes back, I think, to the youth rebellions of the fifties, when white men began to look for new sources of identity distinct from the imperial hubris and reactionary hatreds of their forebears.

An origin point for the trend might be Norman Mailer’s encomium to the hipster–aka, the “White Negro”–published in 1957:

… the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live … with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled … why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself …

“The unstated essence of Hip,” for Mailer, “was its psychopathic brilliance,” a horror of conformity and therefore of society. But what’s striking about Mailer’s essay is his candor about the inspiration for this antisocial stance. In Mailer’s thinking, the white man’s civilization had already proved itself, by his time, to be evil, deranged, and hostile to life. Atomic war, Nazism, and all the horrors of the early twentieth century had made the young white man of the fifties a prisoner, one might say, in his father’s house, an unwilling initiate in a white supremacist cult of death. The only way for a young white man to thrive–to be fully alive, to embrace life–was to become an outsider in his own society. And the obvious way to do that was to take someone already alienated from society as his role model.

Hence the “White Negro,” a young white man who adopted, by choice, the alienation imposed on black men.

Thus began a trend that has continued ever since, from the hipsters to the Beats to the hippies to the stoners to the punks to the slackers to a new generation of hipsters, and now to the curdled contrarianism of the web’s message boards. The romantic traditions of the West–which had always emphasized the needs of the self above those of society–found renewal in a strain of chi-chi sociopathy. Forms of youthful rebellion that had entranced earlier generations of young men–the upstart aestheticism of the pre-Raphaelites, the sentimentality and lyricism of nineteenth century poetasters, the preening effeteness of the flaneur, the dapper exhibitionism of the dandy, the Jazz Age hedonists cavorting at their Prohibition parties–gave way to assertions of bitter antisocialism. Those earlier rebellions had celebrated escape–into pleasure, art, nature, the life of the mind. Now mere escape was deemed insufficient, too feeble a tonic to soothe the pains of a developing white male mind. Only violent rejection could allow the male ego to save itself from the influences of a sick society.

Ever since, successive phases of white male radicalism have sat uneasily alongside movements for minority rights. The contradictions have always been obvious. What began for blacks and gays and others as an enforced, and keenly felt, lack of privilege has been adopted by white men as an assertion of privilege. When a black man shouts, “The system’s keeping me down!” there will always be a dozen white men on hand to answer, “Me, too, brother! Me, too!”

The critical difference is that for minority groups, anti-establishment agitation situates individuals within larger communities that experience, together, some form of shared oppression. For the young white male hipster, or the young white male slacker, or the young white male psychopath, rebellion is a lonely road. The characteristic white antihero–Travis Bickle, Rambo, William Foster–fights against everyone, on behalf of no one; he represents only his own insatiable need for psychological ease. Mostly, he fights with other people like himself, other self-involved, errant, undisciplined sociopaths. In the revenge fantasies of late-century cinema, maverick cops and maverick criminals hunt one another through lawless hellzones, stubbornly dismissive of rules, conventions, and authority. The reckless cops in these stories, like the murderous criminals, are fierce, predatory, solitary, and dangerous. Good guys and bad guys are distinguished only by narrative cliches and genre conventions. Everyone, in exploitation cinema, behaves like a lone wolf.

Instead of rebelling against Western society, then, the young white male radical comes to emblemize its most odious features: arrogance, narcissism, nihilism, and a poisonous obsession with personal independence. Imitating the anger of the dispossessed, he becomes, himself, an agent of dispossession, valorizing his own self-assertion over every social bond and scorning the type of conformism that sustains nurturing communities.

What to do? Young white men today face three challenges.

They have to explore their roots in Western culture while distancing themselves from that culture’s most noxious beliefs.

They have to support minority movements for civil rights while understanding that they’ll never belong to those movements in the deeper sense implied by shared suffering.

And they have to do all this while doing the work of growing up, differentiating themselves from their parents and their peers.

These challenges are compounded in a society where the boundaries of privilege are increasingly sketchy, where gender roles are perennially in flux, where minorities are gaining power (however slowly) while white men are losing it. Today’s fashionable pop feminism adds yet another twist, giving white men another set of radical postures to imitate. In the message boards of the alt-right, we see a new species of white male radical emerging, one who retains the classic antihero’s penchant for violence while eschewing his characteristic toughness. This new white radical is emotional, mercurial, sensitive, but has no interest in the nineteenth century’s romantic sentimentality. His chief preoccupation is his own vulnerability. Moody, petulant, easily wounded, he’s determined to persuade you that in today’s society, he is the true and only victim.

Mailer’s White Negro, that is to say, has been joined by the Male Female: a young man who imitates the argumentative style of a Third Wave feminist–snarky, easily hurt, sexually put-upon–without experiencing the same disadvantages.

As Mills says, he had things easier growing up in the nineties, when the erosion of white male privilege wasn’t quite so noticeable. I grew up at the same time, and even then, things were pretty confusing. People like Mills and me have a special responsibility to young white men, since we’ve been through some of what they’re going through, albeit in a muted form.

Are we living up to that responsibility? I look around at my fellow white male Gen-Xers and see us ducking responsibility in every way possible. We retreat into the pop-culture wonderlands of childhood, wallowing in the warmed-over vestiges of an eighties culture rife with nerdy self-congratulation and muscle-bound machismo. We scant the history of Western culture, even though as white men we’re well positioned to champion its better features. We become reactionaries, or worse, turn into trolls ourselves.

Or, more often, we use angry young white males as convenient bogeymen, scoring cheap points off them to curry favor with the more fashionable wings of contemporary liberalism.

The challenge for people like Mills and me, I think, is that we have to repudiate or ignore all the lessons of our upbringing. We have to give up the questionable consolations of antiestablishmentarianism. We have to support movements for minority rights without imitating or intruding on those movements. We have to be stewards of the arts and ideas of our own heritage without forcing those arts and ideas on others. We have to try and curtail the misogyny and bitterness of younger white men without indulging in cheap forms of self-congratulation. And we have to do all this in a way that champions the undersung virtues of maturity: responsibility, diligence, nurture, and wisdom.

In short, we have to learn to become something that no modern American ever wants to be. We have to become squares.

*I mean, what counts as a hard setting? Getting raped by Bill Cosby? Getting shot by gung-ho cops? Dying of opiate addiction? Growing up in Somalia? This metaphor says more about privilege than Scalzi intends.

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