Michael Kimmel calls the phenomenon “aggrieved entitlement,” and it appears to be the prime motivator behind the tsunami of white male rage that has fueled the rise of neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements in both the U.S. and Europe.
Kimmel, the Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, has been following these developments with fascinated dismay. In his latest book, “Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into — and Out of — Violent Extremism” (University of California Press), he makes a convincing argument that the underlying force behind the surge of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist groups isn’t ideology but, rather, masculinity. (Disclosure: Kimmel is an old friend and colleague of mine.)
As he recalls, Kimmel was on a TV talk show with “four white men who thought that they were the victims of reverse discrimination.” They proclaimed loudly “a black woman stole my job.” Significantly, the men were not pointing to a specific job and a specific woman, just voicing a generalized rage.
Kimmel turned their accusation around and asked them, “Where did you get the idea that it was your job?”
“That’s what entitlement sounds like,” he says.
I ask him to compare it to the Tea Party slogan so skillfully remodeled by Donald Trump into his “Make America Great Again.”
“‘We have to take our country back.’ The analogy is exactly right,” he replies, adding with a laugh, “The only people who can legitimately say that are Native Americans. Everybody else came over here on a boat.”
He explains, “There is a sense that these guys feel, ‘I made a bargain, the same bargain my father made, the same bargain my grandfather made, that if I worked hard and paid my taxes and followed the law I would be able to support my family, own my own home, my wife wouldn’t have to work.’ Now these guys are downwardly mobile, the industrial jobs they had are gone.”
Encouraged in their rage by right-wing demagogues, they turn their rage on historically marginalized people — non-whites, Jews, women, Muslims in overwhelmingly Christian countries, gays and lesbians.
“I try to say to these men, ‘You are right to be angry because you’ve gotten screwed,” Kimmel says. “You can’t have the life you expected. But you think feminist women gave you the predatory loans that bankrupted you, that immigrants are responsible for climate change and jobs being shipped overseas?”
Gradually, Kimmel began to perceive that this wave was rooted in emotion rather than ideology.
What he realized was that what the young men who were drawn to neo-Nazi movements in Europe and their near-equivalents in the U.S., as well as jihadi groups globally, were seeking was a strengthened sense of support for their own challenged masculinity. In that respect, he notes, they serve a similar psychological and sociological purpose as youth gangs, another dangerous phenomena not noted for its political thought.
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“It’s a similar structure and model,” he says. “It’s about having ‘brothers,’ being part of a community, the feeling that another male has your back. You’re hanging out, you’re partying, and that’s when the organizers introduce the ideology.”
He points to Ingo Hasselbach, once infamous as the neo-Nazi “Fuhrer of Berlin,” who explained that in initial contacts he would lead recruits on wilderness camping trips, “doing Boy Scout stuff,” only introducing Hitlerian ideas when the boys were comfortably integrated into the group.
That realization is what led Kimmel to study the network of formal and informal organizations working to extricate men and women from the hate groups. Hasselbach is a startlingly apt example, one of the founders of EXIT Deutschland, a group that helps the disaffected find a way to new, more normal lives.
EXIT Deutschland and EXIT Sweden offer a program that includes six months to a year of job training and placement and group therapy, “which is essential.” Kimmel notes that this sense of the solidarity with others who have been through the same process help “formers” find a place to land. Similar, less formal groups now exist here; most prominent among them is Life After Hate, which is the subject of a chapter in the book, and there is a growing body of Islamic organizations working with jihadis who want to leave the shadow world of hate groups.
After having the unusual experience of being a nice Jewish boy with roots in Brooklyn and the Five Towns who found himself on several occasions in a room with a prominent ex-Nazi, Kimmel is surprised to declare himself guardedly optimistic about the future of the “formers.”
“People have to understand that the involvement is more visceral than ideological,” he concludes. “These guys filled me with some hope that no matter how dark a place you go to, there’s still a way to get out. You have to give people a place to land.”
George Robinson covers film and music for the paper. His column appears monthly.