Monday, March 5, 2012

More than Slut Shaming: Rush Limbaugh and the Crisis in White Conservative Manhood

The 2012 Republican primary season has featured many head-scratching moments. From audiences that cheer the macabre and the cruel, a fratricidal nomination process in which the front runners seem intent on destroying one another, and a collective descent into madness where the most fringe Right wing values such as nativism, conspiratorial Birtherism, old fashioned white racism, and puritanical Christian theocratic identity politics are on full display, it seems that the bizarre has become the new normal.

Since the election of Barack Obama, the Tea Party GOP has embraced a kamikaze-like politics in which they are willing to destroy the proverbial village in order to liberate it. This appetite for destruction has reached a fever pitch during the last few weeks. Rick Santorum and the Republican Party have called for limiting women’s reproductive rights under the guise of defending “religion” from the “tyranny” of the Obama administration. A Federal Judge was caught forwarding an email to his friends suggesting that Barack Obama’s conception was the product of drunken sex between his mother Ann Dunham, and a dog. And Rush Limbaugh launched a viciously misogynistic attack on Sandra Fluke, a private citizen, who dared to testify before Congress in defense of a woman’s right to have equal access to birth control.

On the surface, these incidents appear to be unrelated. They are simply the desperate graspings and mouth utterances of an increasingly fringe and desperate Republican Party which is determined to defeat Barack Obama by any means necessary. However, these events are all symptoms of a bigger problem. In the Age of Obama white manhood—and a particular type of conservative white masculinity—is frightened, unsettled, and terrified of its obsolescence. White (conservative) masculinity finds itself in an existential crisis.

For outsiders looking in, the idea that white manhood is somehow imperiled, would in all likelihood, appear absurd. While non-Hispanic white men are only twenty percent of the American public, they control every major social, political, and economic institution in the United States. In addition (borrowing the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement), “the 1%” are almost exclusively white men. White people have at least twenty times the wealth of people of color: white men possess the overwhelming majority of these resources.

However, from the point of view of embattled white manhood, the situation is very much in doubt. If we reverse our perspective, or “turn the map upside down” as young Marines are trained to do in Officer Candidates School, the sense of crisis being felt by white conservative men is made all the more clear.

The election of Barack Obama has challenged a type of racial self-centeredness and narcissism, what is less precisely known as “white privilege,” which has historically put whiteness--and white men--at the center of all things. The white racial frame assumes white dominance as a given: for many, the symbolic politics of a black man, his wife, and children living in the White House, and doing so with grace and dignity, is simply too much to bear. This reality is an upending of their world, an affront to a very narrow sense of what the “American tradition” is, and what the limits of “common sense” actually are.

White people will no longer be a majority in the United States by the year 2042. China is an ascendant power; the United States is in decline. Women have continued to gain socially, politically, and economically—one is even Secretary of State, and a few heartbeats away from the Presidency. Gays and lesbians are winning their full and equal rights as American citizens. The United States elected its first black president. And ironically, while black folks and other people of color have seen the decimation of their middle class, and levels of unemployment approaching 30 percent or more, it is white people, and white men in particular, who are most pessimistic about their futures and economic security.

At its root, conservatism is ultimately about resistance to social change. When imperiled, conservatism becomes reactionary. In the extreme, conservatism yields to its most base authoritarian impulses. As outlined above, the social and political changes of the civil rights and post-civil rights era are a dagger at the heart of contemporary conservatism--and the electoral coalition that has grounded the Republican Party since the 1960s. The maddening politics on display in the 2012 Republican primary are a response to this reality.

For example, public opinion surveys and experiments by researchers have repeatedly demonstrated a close relationship between the idea of who is “American,” and a belief that “Americans” are “naturally” white. The courts and United States’ immigration policy have reflected this idea, where until the 1950s, a person had to be of “white stock and ancestry” according to the commonsense norms of the “average” white person in order to be eligible for American citizenship. Therefore, if we grant that the national identity of the United States is tied to “white,” “masculine,” confidence and power (see: conservatives’ love of cowboy politics and the “swagger” of men such as George Bush) the rise of China imperils American Exceptionalism as an ideology, one which is inseparably linked to both race and nation.

Citizenship in the United States is gendered—the Constitution had to be amended in order to give women the right to vote. Citizenship is also racialized—Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy were formal systems of racial hierarchy that deemed black Americans as second class citizens, and where any white person, regardless of their mediocrity and low accomplishments, were judged to be better than the most gifted, genius, moral, and brilliant person of color.

Race and gender also intersect. (White) manhood has defined itself by controlling access to women’s bodies. Historically, white manhood has also been validated through efforts to dominate and control the bodies of people of color: in particular, those of African Americans. The American rituals of racialized violence, political exclusion and oppression, discrimination in the labor market, and the violent spectacle of the lynching tree, were/are means through which conservative white masculinity, specifically, and white identity, more generally, were validated.

We cannot forget that power is about more than controlling people’s bodies. Power, is also about dictating the contours of people’s life chances. The retrograde and fringe efforts by Republicans and Christian Nationalists such as Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and others to deny women their reproductive rights is a direct heir to a type of white manhood (and phallocentric politics), that validates itself through the control of female personhood. The white racial resentment which is the currency of the contemporary Republican Party also draws from this same wellspring.

My claim is not that there is something new about the current crisis in conservative white manhood during the Age of Obama and the Great Recession. For example, during the 1990s, movies such as Falling Down and the rise of “the angry white man” were signals to a sense of upset and malaise in which white men (and white people more generally) were believed to be under assault by immigrants, people of color, gays, lesbians, feminists, and “liberals”--all of who were enabled by an “oppressive” multiculturalism and agenda of political correctness.

More recent films such as Fight Club were efforts to work through the meaning of white manhood in an era of globalization, the rise of the service economy, and the decline of “blue collar” American masculinity. Nixon’s silent majority, and Reagan’s New Right, “working class,” white electoral coalition, were also backlashes against the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and a belief that white American masculinity was imperiled

Looking back more broadly, the United States struggled with what it meant to be white, male, and American during the great waves of European immigration and World War One during the early part of the twentieth century. It also worked through changing norms of white manhood as the country transitioned from one that was predominantly rural, to one that was urban, during the same time period. Ultimately, these are old questions that are still with us, and which are reoccurring, resisted, and renegotiated by succeeding generations of white men—as well as women and people of color.

The contemporary Republican Party’s return to the decades-old language of the Culture War is an effort to capture the lie of a past, the myth of the Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet America that never was. This America was one of conservative, white, heterosexual, male dominance. From the point of view of conservatives, the gays, women, the poor, and the minorities knew their place. The long history of resistance and defiance by oppressed and aggrieved populations to this racial and social order is overlooked in favor of a comforting lie that puts whiteness, and white middle class masculinity and manhood, at the center of social reality. In the white conservative imagination these identities were triumphant, safe, and never in doubt or challenged.

When Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh and their allies suggest that women should be denied reproductive rights, or that they should put aspirin between their legs in order to avoid pregnancy, white conservative manhood is reaching back to this fictive past. Likewise, when conservatives indulge in Birtherism, or wallow in white racism in order to delegitimize President Obama, they are reaching back to this lie of a dreamworld. To outsiders looking in, the claims by Pat Buchanan and Charles Murray that white civilization is under siege and in decline appear to be some type of agitprop theater, what is silly-talk that no reasonable person ought to take seriously.

However, for a particular type of white conservative the threat is absolutely real. The coarseness of the political rhetoric in the Age of Obama, and the Republican Party’s embrace of the most fringe elements of the Right-wing imagination, is largely driven by a desire to protect conservative white manhood and masculinity at any cost.

For them, American civilization is inseparably and irrevocably tied to whiteness, and a very narrow, “traditional” understanding of what is means to be a “man.” Therefore, by this calculus, the suicide bomber politics of the contemporary Republican Party are not insane—rather, they are the necessary and desperate actions of a people who believe that they are facing demographic suicide. The question then becomes: how far will conservatives go to protect a world in which white men and their sympathetic allies (such as Stockholmesque women like Sarah Palin and her “grizzly mom” brigades) are at the center of all things?


Shady_Grady said...

Good column. I would just add though that the contraceptive debates not withstanding that the overwhelming majority of reactionary white men are married to, related to, birthed by and work with/for reactionary white women. =)

Anonymous said...

My reply to your query

Release the Kracken! Of course white america will react in an twisted manner it is the legacy of race relations in our nation. We have already encountered slavery, castration, lynching, segregation, profiling, disparate treatment , ect, etc, etc

I view white america like Israel another western white nation ( Per US Census Jews are White) Israel will start a WWIII against Iran and to protect the homeland at any cost including blowing up the world..

White America is no different .. I can expect given the massive scope and ability of software and IT systems even the isolation of Black folks via some type of dna litus test that would make us an easy target for whatever..

I am not a conspiracy buff nor paranoid but I do know in America evil things have been done to people on large a collective platform..

It can happen here..

chaunceydevega said...

@Shady. That is the point no--I try to get at that briefly in the end. Palin, Coulter and the others who enable this are the female face of the American Right. Protofascists have long used narratives about strong, "traditional" women as a part of their political narrative.

@Anon. A small group of people with power are not going to willingly surrender it. The question becomes how will they play the game according to "normal" politics...or not.

Anonymous said...


Whites are not a small cabal they dominate the landscape in America more importantly as you have noted many times the nature of their cultural trademark in America is such that they will engage in group hysteria at our peril .We cannot fall asleep here we are in peril if we ignore the reality of a majority that believes they are in peril again Israel is the example and model for this!

Dan B. said...

I we do not believe in free speech for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all. I happen to agree with the "slut" Sara Fluke!
I also happen to disagree with the lynching of Rush Limbaugh. White manhood is imperiled! Free speech is a thing of the past for white men. Jokes are off limits as well. Youth are taught from an early age via mainstream media that white culture is garbage. TV commercials always portray white men as bumbling idiots only to have some smart black person or woman save them from disaster. White children are adopting black culture in droves because of the negative association with their own race. It still amazes me how little it takes to assassinate white men. Just a tiny bit of insensitivity or even a joke now results in the destruction of its originator and the entire white race.

chaunceydevega said...

@Dan. Now I know you must be kidding. Are you cousin to Brother X Squared? If not, you just proved my whole argument despite yourself. But I have to believe you are writing in jest.

Anonymous said...

Dan's quite real and his comments reflect those of the 'silent majority' who will go fucking crazy on us in a redneck minute..

We cannot sleep on this reality white folks when they act irrational and under duress will fuck up folks..

Just look at Israel posturing today with Obama & Bibi they are reserving the right to blow up the world in some twisted sense of self defense no more holocaust mantra"

The Dan's of the world are no different...They will come at us and no diplomatic and sweet prose will stop the Kracken..

Whites gone mad is a real threat especially in the age of Obama in a post industrial era where they precieve their empire is at risk..

Even today on Druge they are reports of whites buying guns at an alarming rate!!

Nebris said...


Dude, white and black folks have been doing a back and forth swapping of Kultur in this country since the early days of slavery. The musical and artistic heart of America is an Anglo/Irish/African mash-up that is four centuries old. That's also why I dismiss Black laments about 'white folks stealing our culture'. Y'all been doing that to each other forfuckingever!

Fedupagain said...

I think it is all about male supremacy. Name one place in the world where we are free of this disease of humanity? White men are falling, but I can assure you, there are plenty of men of all colors just slobbering for the chance to rule "their" women.

chaunceydevega said...

@fed. patriarchy ain't nothing new. it certainly predates racism by a long, long time.

MilesEllison said...

I wonder if Dan realizes that the majority of the people writing the commercials that make white people look like buffoons are white themselves. Probably not.

As far as Rush Limbaugh's "lynching" is concerned, that's how discourse works. In Dan's perfect world, Limbaugh would be able to spew his misogynist nonsense without anybody fighting back.

Dan B. said...

@Miles: I realize the people behind the white buffoon commercials are likely to be of the same race. In a truly equal society Rush's comment would be viewed for what it really was. An absurd thought excursion into the extreme in an attempt to produce entertaining radio, not misogynist nonsense

@Chaunce: 0 jest mate! All oppressed peoples tend to rise up against their oppressors which is why I absolutely adore Brother-X-Squared. The matter of if we are related remains a mystery.

Sam Holloway said...

Dan, white men in this country have no oppressors beside themselves. They bow, scrape, and to the bidding of the rich, who love to see us going each at the other's throat. It's been the same here ever since the colonial planter class offered white laborers a Faustian bargain: we'll give you land, mobility, and maybe even just the imaginary privilege of being better than the Negro if you'll help us keep them down, and we'll certainly let you run your domicile like it's your private castle. So for that (occasionally marginal or illusory) racial and gender privilege, white men have continued to enslave themselves.

Now, though, the privilege is endangered by the hard-fought gains of long put-upon women and minorities. Non-wealthy white men face a choice: reject the illusion and band together with women and minorities, or double down and descend into moral and physical savagery (there is far more precedent presaging the latter). Whatever white men decide, they must first face the mirror and recognize their true oppressor.

[Re: Obama and Limbaugh: Barack Obama is the perfect establishment candidate for this juncture. He's black, so he pokes directly at the sore spot of threatened racial privilege. On the other hand, he is intellectually equipped-- and clearly 'morally' inclined-- to protect the political and economic structures that have long relied upon the support racism and misogyny. What's a desperate white man to do when faced with such a conundrum?

Rush Limbaugh is more than just an 'entertainer'. He is a relentless, shameless, and smashingly successful fluffer of the collective white male id. Sixty years ago he and his listeners wouldn't have bothered with pusillanimous prevarications about the nature and intent of his discourse. They'd have called a spade a spade, pun intended.]

obi said...

@SamH - "Rush Limbaugh is more than just an 'entertainer'. He is a relentless, shameless, and smashingly successful fluffer of the collective white male id."

Keep those lips off my id, dude! Not even close: Other than unlocking the secret to being married 4x and avoiding conceiving a child (ostensibly under the auspices of "opposing" birth control)during those decades & where to score great deals on Oxy and Viagra (but sadly, not avoiding prosecution), there's NOTHING that blubbery moron can offer / offers this particular caucasian male! 'nuff said!

Anonymous said...

The demand is we further our genes, but the world is too big to take on alone. So we join with others, but the world isn't so big that the others can be everyone. The groups compete (and the competition is not as extreme as it used to be) for advantage. Groups grow and change as threats grow and change. Not too long ago white men didn't include non-WASP's. I would guess Hispanic-white will be next to join the tribe.

chaunceydevega said...

@Sam. Great, concise, and on point.

@Obi. The irony is that Limbaugh, flag carrier for conservatism, would have found himself a model example of a white manhood that was weak and in need of improvement none too many decades ago. The hygiene, eugenics society types would have had a field day--quite literally--with him.

@Anon. You are spot on. Whiteness keeps winning.

Anonymous said...

Dan, when you wrote that we should view Limbaugh as "An absurd thought excursion into the extreme in an attempt to produce entertaining radio, not misogynist nonsense " I think the problem is that I see zero entertainment value in Rush Limbaugh, and why do you, as a white male, get to dictate what I should perceive as misogynistic nonsense? If a white person were to do a comedy routine where they did a blackface or yellowface routine, are you going to defend that?

The problem with Limbaugh's view of himself as just "being extreme for entertainment" is that he's trying to argue that there is a separation from his radio persona and the 'real him', and I see no such distinction. Whenever he's called to explain his remarks, the tone is still the same and the sentiment is still the same.

As for there being 'no freedom of speech,' no, white males still have plenty of freedom of speech, it's just that the rest of us are going to use our freedom of speech to tell them what we think. This ain't the good old says when a white male can say anything and expect no criticism.

If you're going on about bumbling white males, seriously, how many movies don't have white male heroes? I think part of the 'bumbling white male' is that it represent a truth - in our society, a bumbling idiot of a white male can even be president.

Jado said...

This is classic misdirection - anyone who tells you that they feel persecuted as a white male in America is trying to sell you something, even if it's just selling you the idea that you should feel sorry for us.

White men get the best deal on EVERYTHING - trust me, as a WM I have seen it myself. The thing that constantly amazes me is the blatant wasting of talent and ability that white men are willing to accept simply because that talent or ability isn't the "right type of person" or "one of us". We as a species need all the help we can get, and we are wasting giant swaths of human potential in an effort to "keep THEM in their place", regardless of who THEY are.

Don't fall for the BS. PLEASE rise up and force us white males to respect the rights of all humans. Maybe if we're finally forced to stop fighting to keep our fellow humans down, we can all concentrate on getting back into space, or fixing the climate, or dealing with radioactive waste, or developing clean energy. You know, problems that might KILL US ALL AS A SPECIES.

I am continually amazed at the BS my fellow white males spew forth in an effort to stay on the top of the heap on this polluted little ball of rock. We have so much work to do, and we would rather drag ourselves down than rise up together.


Batocchio said...

Good stuff, Chauncey. You and Sam covered some of this already, but I was also reminded of What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War and how much southern white male notions of masculinity fed into that conflict. Also, zunguzungu.

If Obama wins re-election, some people will go (even more) insane...