The victimhood of older white men is apparently a fixture of our age – all the way from Sevier County, Tennessee, to the nation’s capital.
years of dismissing white privilege and disputing concerns by women, African Americans, and LGBTQ Americans, the whining and complaining about “those people” suggest that my Baby Boomer generation has met the enemy and it is us.
In the Sixties, our generation often said that things wouldn’t change in America until the older generation died off. Now we are it.
While it’s tempting to laugh them off, the tenacity in which these outspoken old white men hang on to what they perceive as a simpler time – an Ozzie and Harriet United States – hardens in the face of their fantasy that white people are losing power.
Ignorance and Intolerance
We were reminded once again of these fragile conceits when Sevier County Commissioner Warren Hurst – with toothpick in his mouth and hate on his tongue – began a harangue that managed to be a case study in ignorance and intolerance laced in racism and homophobia.
“Look what we got running for president in the Democratic Party. We can go over here to (the county jail) and get better people there than those running for Democratic, to be president of the United States. We got a queer running for president, if that ain’t about as ugly as you can get,” he intoned, drawing laughter and applause from many in the room.
But he was just getting warmed up, invoking a favorite disclaimer by racists. “I’m not prejudiced, but by golly, a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took more every day. You’ll hear’em stand on the stage and say, ‘Oh, I’m for the poor and the black.’ You never heard one of them say, ‘I believe white people have rights too.”
We hope he doesn’t get too depressed. After all, he can still fire someone who is LGBTQ for nothing more than being who they are. As a county commissioner, he can support Tennessee’s voter suppression policies at his ballot boxes.
Imagine how much more he would fulminate if he didn’t live in a county that is only 1.3% African American. However, the poverty rate in Sevier County is 13%, which suggests that he’s doing a poor job of working on those white rights he’s so worried about.
The Good Old Days
When I was growing up in Collierville, as a teenager, I saw an old redneck who looked a lot like Hurst knock an elderly African American man off the sidewalk because he didn’t move out of the way and let the white man pass first. It was a time when black people were required to leave the town square by 9 p.m. on Saturday night.
It’s a version of the world that would appeal to Hurst – a time when black people could be taught their place, gay people hid in closets, and women stayed in the kitchen where they belonged.
The good news, if there is any about this ugly incident, is that the official Sevier County Twitter account said the county administration did not share Hurst’s opinions; the city of Sevierville, the county seat, was even more direct, rejecting “bigotry and prejudice toward any and all persons”; and the city manager of Pigeon Force called the comments “disturbing” and that her city “welcomes everyone with open arms. We do not discriminate.”
The pushback from tourists got everyone’s attention, since Sevier County has the third largest tourism economy in Tennessee behind Nashville and Memphis with $2.3 billion in annual tourism expenditures.
Barr’s Epistle to the Heathens
About the same time, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame University, got up on his moralistic high horse yet again to tell us that the decline of Christian values is responsible for all that is wrong in America. Of course, it all depends on his version of what is wrong.
Between his dismissal of whistle blower complaints to chasing Trump conspiracy theories all the way to Italy, he found time to deliver what The New Republic called “Bill Barr’s First Epistle to the Heathens.” It was another of those “woe is us” harangue by older white men against a more diverse United States that embraced the false history that the founders endorsed a Judeo-Christian government.
Barr said: “This is not decay. It is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies among the progressives have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values…Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a killjoy clergy.
“In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.”
Lost In His Own Egotistical View of the World
He then promised to fight for this as attorney general, apparently adopting the position that he is the chief law officer for the theocracy that the nation’s founders abhorred. It’s Barr’s job to enforce the rule of law – a duty he’s already thoroughly politicized – rather than inflict his own version of morality on the rest of us.
As Thomas Jefferson said: “Christianity neither is nor ever was a part of the common law…I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legacy ascendancy of one section over another.” James Madison said: “The civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.” “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” Jefferson said.
Into this historic framework Barr brings his sanctimonious, egocentric indictment of a country in transition and calls for us to adopt his religious beliefs. Lost in these kinds of lectures from old white men is the fact that most progressives are Christians, most LGBTQ people are Christians, and most African Americans are Christians. They also fail to grasp the idea that it is our faith that calls on many of us to be progressives, to welcome the stranger, to care for the poor, to accept every person because they are created in the image of God.
What he’s really saying is that we’re not his kind of Christian and he then dismissed us because of it.
Barr then lays “every measure of social pathology” at the feet of those who drive Christianity from the public sphere, citing the “wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.” His concerns also include “licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct.”
It’s a classic example of how correlation is not causation. If he really wants to find the roots of these problems, he should look at policies that harden the lines of inequality, the enrichment of the powerful and wealthy, an increase in economic segregation, blind capitalism that threatens the environment and led to the opioid crisis, cuts in mental health programs, ubiquitous guns and weapons of war, and slashes to our national safety net.
In addition, for the first time, a majority of young Americans are not Christians, but rather than look in the mirror and consider that his brand of intolerant, my way or the highway, hateful religious rhetoric could be a reason, he needs to blame everyone else. In fact, for most Christian progressives, it is our faith that calls on us to fight climate change, the marginalizing of the other, to call out racism and nationalism, and to treat faith as a means for progress. It is an unfathomable concept for people like Barr.
Meanwhile, in the midst of his outrage are inconvenient truths: crime is dramatically down, teenage pregnancies are lower than 30 years ago, and the crises he cites are most serious in red states, not to mention that if he’s that concerned about “angry and alienated young males,” he would make sure that guns are not readily available to them.
Unmentioned of course in his pitch for Christianity is the surge in anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, and other white nationalistic hate crimes. Most of all, he portrayed himself as a victim despite the fact that evangelicals have outsized impact on the thinking and actions of the Trump Administration.
What Are You Whining About?
Here’s the thing: no one in human history has more privilege than white American men. Rather than use that privilege to share with others the American Dream that has served them so well, they use their place of privilege and their religion as cudgels to attack anyone who disagrees with them.
We know that the victimhood of white males is not limited to older men, but here’s my frustration: I still remember what we said in the Sixties and how we believed we could make the American Dream more real. It is the contradiction between who we were and who so many of us have become that makes this victimhood phenomenon so pathetic.
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