Some of my best friends are straight, white men. I like them a lot. I even have one or two in my family and we often manage to spend time together without me awkwardly bringing up demographics. I say this because I want you to know that I’m not a hater. Some people, you see, seem to believe that men, particularly white men, are under attack.
On 15 March, a “white man march”, led by those who believe that “white Americans are being attacked at almost every level”, apparently took place in several North American cities. I write “apparently” because, despite a great deal of publicity and increasingly deranged soundbites from the event’s organisers, only a few photos have surfaced of white men actually marching anywhere and they mostly feature cross-looking chaps in ill-fitting jeans holding up signs about “white genocide”, which isn't a real thing. The group was mocked around the world, laughter being one of the few cultural defences against the sort of fledgling neo-fascism that really isn’t funny, even when it gets lost down a backstreet in Kansas with a wonky banner.
In a time of technological change and economic uncertainty, in which everyone has the right to a vicious opinion but few have a secure job, the type of bigotry that finds followers is blundering, resentful and prone to sprawling online tantrums that spill on to the streets. We’ve heard the arguments before but they breed in the echo chambers of the internet. The new bigots believe that “foreigners” and “feminazis” are stripping poor, defenceless white men of the privilege they were raised to expect and therefore obviously deserve.
The less evidence there is for such assertions, the more they are clung to as articles of faith. Feminism, for instance, is not in reality a strategy cooked up by left-wing women so we can take all of men’s power and money for ourselves and turn them into sex slaves. I know this because, if it was, I would be sitting on a gigantic golden throne with oiled flunkies feeding me chocolate biscuits, rather than having the same arguments over and over again with angry gentlemen who seem to think that there is a set amount of privilege to go around and that if they have less of it, someone else must have more.
Some months ago, in a nondescript London coffee shop, I met Mike Buchanan, a “men’s rights” activist and the leader of the small, single-issue party Justice for Men and Boys. The former procurement worker, in his mid-fifties, was dragging a suitcase – he described himself as between homes and without a stable job and was moving from one friend’s sofa to another’s that day. It was only a few years ago, when he was looking for work and “a huge woman” turned him down for a job in public-sector procurement, that Buchanan realised that women had too much power.
“I think men are trashed, as you go down the social scale,” was one of the first things he told me. “As you go down the social scale, men are totally disposable. A man on the minimum wage – what chance does he have?”
If white men are finding themselves adrift in an uncertain world, it is not the fault of feminism, or of anti-racism. Just because the rise of a new wave of feminist and anti-racist campaigning has coincided with the collapse of modern economic certainties, it does not mean that one caused the other. But instead of getting angry at the state or at the systems that deny working people of every race and gender the right to a decent living, some prefer to kick down – at women or minorities, who must surely have taken all the good jobs and safe places to live.
This is the mindset that believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that governments are just desperate to give money to anyone who isn’t white, male and a citizen, presenting immigrants with free cars and women with free houses for daring to give birth outside marriage, another feminist plot. It is not unique to fringe groups, who find their conspiracy theories backed up in the tabloids. With absolute certainty, Buchanan told me “Any woman out there can get pregnant in a pub car park tonight and she knows she’ll get accommodation for life.” I reminded him that this is not the case and never has been, whatever the Daily Mail might say. “OK,” he said, “perhaps I’m exaggerating.”
Behind the stuttering rage of men’s rights activists is a simple, human yearning for respect and security. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. Then they come out, as Buchanan did, with statements such as: “Feminists have lied outrageously, shamelessly, about rape statistics.” Buchanan supports and writes for the site A Voice For Men, which recently campaigned to shut down a site designed to help students at Occidental College in the US report rape and assault without fearing for their own safety. He told me that A Voice For Men “totally has its fingers on the pulse”. And that, I’m afraid, was the point at which my compassion ran out.
Being raised to expect special treatment because of your race or gender doesn't make you a bad person. A lot of my friends really are straight, white men, and most of them aspire to be decent human beings, and many of them struggle every day with how to negotiate their own privilege and find models of masculinity they can live with in a world where they find themselves less powerful and more vulnerable than they ever expected. I played a couple of them parts of my interview with Mike Buchanan, and I watched them cringe.
“I was a bit like that guy once,” said one friend, after I recounted the story of the Buchanan interview. “I was raised on that middle class, nuclear family story. It sounds like it would have been a nice life. I feel like I was programmed for a world that no longer exists and now I have to recalibrate. That’s my work to do. And it sucks. It hurts and you want to be angry and you want to blame somebody.” Somehow, not everyone ends up blaming wicked women and grasping migrants for every problem they face.
Many of the fringe reactionaries are convinced that the raw deal they’re getting is the fault of women and ethnic minorities. They believe that the hurt feelings of white men excuse any amount of recreational racism and sexism and the presence of their ridiculous propaganda in the sphere of public debate does huge damage. Yet the greatest damage they do is to people of their own demographic who cannot begin to speak about their own experience of race and gender without running into a pile of vintage prejudice polished with resentment for the digital age, with a few bad stats and banners thrown in As long as the frothingly prejudiced continue to dominate all discussion of what it means to be a man, or to be white, or to be both, that conversation will flounder, will continue to be bogged down by doubt and dogma long after everyone else has begun to move on. The new bigotry may be cringing and inept, but that doesn’t make it harmless. The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he was a bloody idiot.