The American magazine Newsweek used a picture of Michael Douglas as its cover on March 29th, 1993, four weeks after the cinema release of "Falling Down", with the headline "White Male Paranoia". I don't believe this was the main meaning of the film, but it's what the Newsweek reporter David Gates took from it. That's the mark of a good film. Different people can read into it different messages. That's especially the case when the film is a tragedy, about a good man who is destined by fate to suffer a bad end.
Click here for one of my reviews of the film. I'll probably write about it again in the future. Today I'll just quote the Newsweek article in full. It's written by an American for Americans, at the beginnining of Bill Clinton's presidency, but it has relevance for white men in any western country. I welcome comments from readers willing to discuss the article and its relevance to the film.
WHITE MALE PARANOIA by David Gates, Newsweek, March 29th, 1993
"I'm the bad guy?" asks an incredulous Michael Douglas at the end of "Falling Down", the politically befuddled and wildly popular new movie. In context, it's a black-comedy laugh line: Douglas, as an ex-missile-plant worker called D-Fens (after his vanity license plate), has just spent an hour and a half on screen hectoring people of color and senior citizens, terrorizing his ex-wife and committing conventional movie mayhem with everything from knives to bazookas. But the line also packs a pop-sociological punch. The fashionable revisionist reading of American history and culture that makes the white male the bad guy has triumphed, the film seems to argue, and it's made him not just defensive, but paranoid.
Before we all nod in agreement that it's twilight time for white guys, we should take another look at the faces on America's currency and in America's Congress. But "Falling Down", whether it's really a message movie or just a cop film with trendy trimmings, pushes white men's buttons. The annoyances and menaces that drive D-Fens bonkers -- whining panhandlers, immigrant shopkeepers who don't trouble themselves to speak good English, gun-toting gangbangers -- are a cross-section of white-guy grievances. From the get-go, the film pits Douglas -- the picture of obsolescent rectitude with his white shirt, tie, specs and astronaut haircut -- against a rainbow coalition of Angelenos. It's a cartoon vision of the beleaguered white male in multicultural America.
This is a weird moment to be a white man. True, one of them just became president, but one of them always becomes president. And this one has just finished appointing the most nonwhite, nonmale cabinet in American history. A black female poet read at his Inauguration, welcoming everybody to the party -- "The Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew, the African, the Native American, the Sioux, the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru" -- and dropping in the occasional Swede and Scot almost as if they were tokens. WASPs didn't even rate a mention. Some party. Suddenly white American males are surrounded by feminists, multiculturalists, P.C. policepersons, affirmative-action employers, rap artists, Native Americans, Japanese tycoons, Islamic fundamentalists and Third World dictators, all of them saying the same thing: "You've been a bad boy".
White guys should have realized things were starting to slip at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings, when Anita Hill testified about being sexually harassed and the white male senators looked like a bunch of oinkers who just didn't get it. Or at that presidential debate when a black woman stood up and asked George Bush, the whitest male in recent memory, how the budget deficit affected him personally and he just didn't get it. A lot of white guys out there didn't quite get it either. On the other hand, in the words of sociologist and men's activist Michael Kimmel, "they feel like they're getting it from all sides".
The white male used to be (as Ralph Kramden put it) "the king of the castle"; now he's the ogre. "We still have the power", says Washington-area computer-software editor Neil Froemming, "but nobody likes us". The truth is, lots of folks never did; it's just that now they're not afraid to say so. The white guys who run the business world, a 36-year-old female trucking-company executive recently told a Pittsburgh paper, are "a bunch of shallow, bald, middle-aged men with character disorders. They don't have the emotional capacity that it takes to qualify as human beings. The one good thing about these white, male, almost-extinct mammals is that they're growing old. We get to watch them die".
But is the white male truly an endangered species, or is he just being a jerk? It's still a statistical piece of cake being a white man, at least in comparison with being anything else. White males make up just 39.2 percent of the population, yet they account for 82.5 percent of the Forbes 400 (folks worth at least $265 million), 77 percent of Congress, 92 percent of state governors, 70 percent of tenured college faculty, almost 90 percent of daily-newspaper editors, 77 percent of TV news directors. They dominate just about everything but NOW and the NAACP; even in the NBA, most of the head coaches and general managers are white guys. So now they want underdog status, too, and the moral clout that comes with victimhood?
The white male may still be holding his own (and most of everybody else's) in the world of hard facts, but in the world of images and ideas -- where we also live, and where our feelings about ourselves reside -- he's taking a clobbering. On TV, the white male is a boob or a villain, not just in such shows as "Roseanne", but in the ads, too. In 1987, one researcher found that in the commercials' mini-conflicts between men and women, the woman won out 100 percent of the time. In the movies, he's a target for Thelma and Louise, or a loutish and entirely unwanted suitor for Belle in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". Mainstream literary scholars have become so gun-shy that the distinguished classicist Bernard Knox preemptively calls his forthcoming book on the ancient Greeks "The Oldest Dead White European Males". Essayist John Leonard calls his forthcoming volume "The Last Innocent White Man in America". In the art world, white guys are the bullies who once "marginalized" everybody else but who are now getting their comeuppance. This year's Whitney Biennial Exhibition (the museum equivalent of the debutante ball) showcased gay, female and nonwhite artists who, as associate curator Thelma Golden wrote in the catalog, "work consciously to deconstruct and de-center the politically constructed site of whiteness". Everywhere in the culture, from low to high, is the image of the white male as Ice Person: can't jump, can't dance, can't feel.
That sort of talk is part of what's eating white men these days, what if they talked like that about blacks? About women? A double standard, they think, is now applied to both their speech and their behavior. Peter Keihm, 29, recalls a woman at his Atlanta computer company joshing about tying up a male colleague for sexual-bondage games. "If it was a guy saying the same thing", he says, "it would be harassment". Good thinking. Or is it? These days it's hard to tell when the fear of committing sexual harassment crosses over into paranoia. Dave, 49, a Tampa newspaper editor who no longer dares ask female colleagues to lunch, seems close to the edge: "The crowd that wants to make people so aware of nuance in things has almost frozen me into inaction". Then again, we don't know the women at Dave's paper.
Sexual harassment is an issue with no consensus, no clear rules-and lawsuits for guys who just don't get it. Insurance companies will now cover firms against sexual-harassment suits; one Boston-area company with about 100 employees had a close brush with such a suit last year and now pays a $25,000 annual premium for $1 million worth of coverage. Men like to indulge in bitter overstatement about the pitfalls of this uncharted territory. "It's getting to the point", says Georgia state legislator Sonny Dixon, "where you better not extend your arm for a handshake unless she extends it first". As sociologist Kimmel recently told The Boston Globe, "What we called traditional workplace behavior may be called sexual harassment. What we called dating behavior may now be called rape. Most men are not happy with this".
And then there are all these little things that can nag at a white guy. It sounds crazy even to mention them, but they add up. His cash machine asks if business is to be conducted in English or Spanish. A panhandler pointedly wishes him a pleasant and safe day. He's passed by a car, more luxurious than his own, booming rap music. (He has lately acquired a taste for country music). He opens a door for a woman who didn't need it opened. At preschool they're teaching his kids songs in Swahili; what happened to "Three Blind Mice", or aren't you supposed to say "blind" anymore? Certain public figures begin to get his goat: Spike Lee, Sinead O'Connor, Al Sharpton, Faye Wattleton, and he hates to admit it -- it's so trite -- but Hillary Rodham Clinton. He's beginning to feel like Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones, who knew something was happening here but didn't know what it was. People seem to be talking in code -- wack? def? -- and he's getting sick of feeling obliged to pay attention. He hates the word womyn, and anything with the suffix -centric. He worries that he's a becoming a fascist. He has been thinking about buying a gun.
White male paranoia isn't old-fashioned white liberal guilt; it's atavistic racial and sexual dread, and it achieves critical mass when a rapidly contracting economy becomes over crowded. White men used to feel guilty about what they had or what they'd done. Now they're required to feel guilty about what they are. Shrinks, understandably, are seeing more white male anxiety cases, especially among men whose medical benefits help cover such things. "A lot of these men are freaking because they don't know the rules", says Harvard psychologist Steven Berglas. "The male-dominated system has failed, and the men haven't processed it yet. There's been attitudinal compliance, but you're not getting attitudinal acceptance". Brookline, Mass, psychologist Ronald Levant says the string of recent scandals -- Anita Hill, William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, Sol Wachtler, Bob Packwood, the Tailhook affair -- have "put the traditional male sense of entitlements under the microscope. On the simple level, men don't know where the line is. But on a deeper level, there is anxiety".
Of course, white men in America have worried that things were getting away from them since Columbus hit the beach and saw that other people lived here. "European males", says self-styled New Jersey "street therapist" Onage Benjamin, one of the few African-Americans deeply involved in the men's movement, "have always had the propensity to say 'I feel threatened' while holding a gun to somebody else's head". The perception that minorities are taking over is a staple of American political paranoia. A 1990 Gallup poll, for instance, found that the average American estimated 32 percent of the U.S. population was black and 21 percent Hispanic; the real figures were 12 percent and 9 percent.
Yet white males may soon have reason to feel they're being crowded. "The United States", writes University of Louisville population researcher William O'Hare, "is undergoing a transition from a predominantly white population rooted in Western culture to a society composed of diverse racial and ethnic minorities". In the next century "minorities" may no longer be in the minority, and half the population, needless to say, will still be women. More women than men are now enrolled in colleges, and by the year 2000, two out of every three new workers will be women or minorities. That's about right, considering white males' share of the population, but it's not the way it was. "For white men in their 30's and 40's, this is not a joke at all", says David Charney, a Washington-area psychiatrist. "Their whole future is at stake, in their minds. They're scared".
For those too macho (or too broke) for the psychiatrist's couch, there are still the traditional fishing trips or poker nights, Civil War re-enactments and men's movement retreats where they can access the inner warrior in sweat lodges and soul-baring gabfests. The squalid shock-jock Howard Stern, now heard on 15 big-city radio stations nationwide, provides a vicarious Animal House for workadaddies. For interactive types, there's the give-and-take on such sports-talk radio stations as Washington D.C.'s WTEM, which describes itself (with a telling mix of self-assertion and self-mockery) as "hair-on-your-back, testosterone-laden radio". And for the real hard core, there are "Rush Rooms": nearly 100 bars and restaurants around the country where fans gather daily to cheer on right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. "The white male is the most persecuted person in the United States", says Tom Cole, 61, a retired marketing executive and patron of the Chicago Pizza and Sports Arena, a Rush Room in suburban Atlanta. The talk here veers between personal testimony about the weird new behavioral rules that are suddenly in effect and potshots at the Clinton administration's search for a female attorney general. "We got down to the third woman on the female list", says Phil Copeland, 29, who works for the state transportation department, "and never looked at the top male on the list".
Among the Rush Room set, the insistence on appointing the best female attorney baldly and publicly violated the canons of fair play and equal opportunity. So, of course, does the ratio of male to female attorneys general in American history -- counting Janet Reno, it now stands at 77 to one -- but Rush Roomers don't see it in that light. They're not the only ones who fret about where things might be heading. Tom Williamson, president of the National Coalition of Free Men (whose Board of Advisors includes Ed Asner), complains that Clinton "has brought in a feminist administration that has no conception of men's problems. They are self-serving and self-pitying. We're going to be in for it".
White males voted 62 to 37 percent against Clinton (40 percent for Bush, 22 for Perot), partly out of fear that his multicultural ecofeminist storm troopers would take away their guns, steaks, cigarettes, V-8 engines and jobs. He's come close to fulfilling his pledge to appoint a cabinet that "looks like America", and Clinton watchers rate the odds of another white male's replacing Byron (Whizzer) White on the Supreme Court as only slightly higher than White's replacing Emmitt Smith on the Dallas Cowboys. The search for diversity has apparently slowed up subcabinet appointments; a conservative former assistant secretary of state charges that foreign policy is suffering because key posts are either unfilled or held by inexperienced staffers of the "right" sex or ethnicity. One administration staffer admits that "in sifting through resumes, you get to the point where you're not even looking at white men". Yet other administration sources say relatively few white males have actually been turned away specifically for whiteness and maleness. "Some of these people were legitimately screwed", says a transition-team member, "but a lot of people are just using it as an excuse": a convenient fiction both for underqualified job seekers and for interviewers who want to soften the blow.
If 128 years of black emancipation and 73 years of women's suffrage haven't changed the balance of power much, it's likely to survive even eight years of Bill and Hillary. For all the talk of diversity, the Clinton administration's senior command is still largely white and male. "It's hard to feel sympathy", says one female adviser, "when every time I go to a senior staff meeting it's all white males". As of early March, women held only a quarter of subcabinet jobs, half what they'd need for things to look like America. Black appointments (17 percent) exceed the goal, but some African-American critics say the proportion ought to reflect black support for Clinton during the election, a line of reasoning once favored by bankers and defense contractors.
The Clinton administration typifies the new affirmative action: it's less about giving individuals a leg up, and more about creating models of diversity, like the bomber crews in World War II movies. Outside Washington, the old affirmative action still chugs along, and the status quo hasn't changed much there, either. For blacks, in fact, unemployment has gotten worse relative to whites, and white men with high-school degrees saw their incomes drop by some 25 percent during the 1980s. As Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote in "Two Nations" (1992), one indisputable accomplishment of affirmative action has been "to pit whites with modest aspirations against blacks who want better lives for themselves". Just drop by your local firehouse. "They stole my pay, they stole my promotion", says a white firefighter in Miami, "and I couldn't say I didn't like it. White guys are being pushed around big time to make up for past wrongs. If you're black and belong to a black group, you're an activist. If you're white and you belong to a white group, you're an asshole. Nobody supports the KKK -- I don't -- but there's nothing for a white guy to join. A few years ago, I was a walking keg of dynamite; I was the Rolaids king. If I talk too much about this I start getting wound up and I can't sleep".
Richard Wagner, 55, president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, is worried that he, too, will be passed over. If he makes lieutenant, he says, "maybe I can send my daughter to something better than a state college. When I go to retire, maybe I can make $600 a month instead of $300 a month". Wagner insists he's all for affirmative action. "But I'm only second generation in this country", he says. "I didn't own any slaves, I didn't have anything to do with that. Now I'm being made to pay for these atrocities?" Working-class white males used to feel crowded chiefly by blacks, but Steve, 29, who sold his Jeep CJ7 to put himself through police academy at a San Francisco-area community college, has been losing out to women. He was a finalist for a job in a rural northern California town, but got bumped down the list by three women he says didn't go through the same application process. "When they take the chance that I had and allot it to three women just because they're female, that burns me up", he says. "I got shot out of the saddle."
White male academics know better than to use telltale metaphors like that, but they feel much the same way. They now hold more than two thirds of the tenured positions, but they believe universities are eager to even things out-at their expense. "If you're a good woman from a good program you will pretty definitely get a good job your first year or two out", says a history professor in the Southeast. "You can be a first-rate male and still be in real danger". In desperation, some become what might be called academic cross-dressers. "Lots of white males consciously adopt race-class-gender topics", says this professor, "in hope of getting back into the job-market loop". But he says he doesn't blame women for seizing the day. "The people I really feel bitter towards are the white, middle-aged professors at elite institutions. I've never seen one give up his job to a woman or a minority", he says. "What they do is give up my job."
In its terminal stages, white male paranoia turns apocalyptic. "Look at our TV sitcoms", says Jerry Bowyer, editor of Pittsburgh's 126-year-old Christian Statesman, which he says is America's oldest conservative Christian publication. "The white male -- the dad -- is always the stupidest guy in the room. A culture that's constantly denigrating its own authority structure, whether it's white males in this culture, or black females in a matriarchal African culture, is not going to last". Larry Evans, 45, a liberal activist from Pittsburgh, is also thinking gloomy global thoughts. "The paranoia the typical white guy has is deep rooted", he says. "Western Europeans are not exactly populating the earth right now, and in the 21st century that's going to be even more apparent. It's gonna end up in a confrontation". He adds, "Here I am sounding like a Nazi".
Some white males have experienced what many more have ugly fantasies about: an up-close-and-personal taste of the confrontation between the world's haves and have-nots. Blacks themselves are overwhelmingly the victims of black street crime; that doesn't make Bill Higgins, a freelance writer in Los Angeles, feel less shaken. "A black guy pulled a gun on me in Hollywood", says Higgins, 43. "He reached into the bag to get the gun and cocked it. He said, 'Don't run'. I was gone. I was the fastest white man in America. I've debated the gun thing. I got close enough so that I was looking at the shotguns at the sporting-goods store. But one of my ambitions, honest to God, is to get through life without killing anybody". Not every nice white guy makes such a measured decision about "the gun thing", especially in L.A. After last year's riots, gun instructors were inundated with calls from the wealthy white parts of town. As the proprietor of one gun-training service told The New York Times, "Nothing beats a race riot".
But full-blown cases of the D-Fens syndrome still happen mostly in the movies. "There are many more men who are taking care of the children than there are men on the freeway going berserk", says Joseph Pleck of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. The affronts most white males experience remain merely ideological and attitudinal: white-baiting jokes from such comedians as Paul Moone, a former writer for Richard Pryor who works the racial cutting edge; men-are-pigs wisecracks from "Roseanne"; the occasional dirty look in the workplace. The Ice Person stereotype has acquired a degree of respectability: "Thinking like a man just means proceeding from the left side of your brain in a linear way", Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie E. Wahl told Life magazine last summer. But it still lacks the damage potential of older stereotypes: the flighty woman, the shiftless black.
Up to a point, trashing white males was good clean fun, in the all-American tradition of deflating the pompous and the powerful: the insufferable Jim Anderson of "Father Knows Best" richly deserved getting Simpsonized. Generations of white males judged women and minorities not by what they did but by what they were. Turnabout is fair play. White men are now beginning to say: only fair play is fair play. It figures that they'd think of that now.
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