It happened on August 29, 1786.  Protestors, many of whom were veterans of the Revolutionary War, were angry about the distressed economic circumstance that developed in the aftermath of the war.  Hard currency was in short supply, and this caused a credit squeeze.  The government had come down hard on citizens in an effort to ameliorate the debt problem, and there were court hearings for those who could not or would not pay their taxes or other debts. Led by  Daniel Shays, a veteran, protestors shut down courts in five cities, bringing the hearings to a halt.  Shays’ followers also began raising an army.  When some of the rebels were captured, their colleagues began arming; in response, a militia unit raised a private army and routed most of the rebels.  Although there were scattered protests into the next summer, the rebellion was pretty much over by February 1787.

            Shays’ Rebellion, as it came to be called, was probably the first organized rebellion against the United States government led by angry white men.  The upheaval caused by the war had whipped up a maelstrom of changes that frightened the lower classes.  These men unleashed their fury against a government they thought had turned against them.  In Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel tells us that white men are still angry.

            For the last twenty or so years, we have seen a number of journalists and academics write about the seismic economic, social and demographic changes roiling American society and their effects on white men.   The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1993) by Stephanie Coontz; Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male, (1999) by Susan Faludi and The End of Men and the Rise of Women (2012) by Hannah Rosin are thoughtful and thought- provoking analyses of white male anger, but all were criticized–unfairly–in part because they were written by women.  This isn’t an issue with Kimmel’s book. He interviewed scores of angry white men from all over the country, many of whom were exceedingly frank with him.  Most were suspicious of Kimmel at first–one told him to his face that he wouldn’t talk to a Jew–but after Kimmel assured him that he was seriously interested in their stories, they unloaded. 

            Who are these guys and what the hell have they got to be angry about? The last time I looked, white men are only 31 percent of the population, yet they hold more than 65 percent of the elective offices in America.  The top 10 percent of white families–surely some of them are composed of men–own more than 70 percent of the country’s wealth, and white men are more than 94 percent of the CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.

            But now for the first time in the history of this country being a white male is not enough to ensure economic opportunity and mobility.  In every situation–work, college admissions, internships, even prestigious volunteer activities–white men no longer have an automatic edge.  Shocked and petulant, they feel as though they’ve been punched in the gut.  This isn’t the way things were supposed to be.  One man told Kimmel “We’re going down the fucking toilet...There’s illegals everywhere.  There’s Wall Street screwing everybody.  And now there’s a goddamn. . .I don’t care if it is politically incorrect.  We got a fucking nigger in the White House.  We’re all screwed.   Nobody gives a shit about us guys anymore.  It’s all over.” In other words, white men in America now wake up in a world where women and minorities have lived for hundreds of years, and they think it sucks.

            Kimmel, Stony Brook University’s Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, has written a number of books on gender in American society. He doesn’t make light of the anger now felt by white men, and he’s angry, too.  But he notes that even though the men’s anger is real,  it isn’t honest.  Instead of being angry about women, minorities, immigrants or gays, they should be angry at the traditional American narrative of manhood, “an ideology that promises unparalleled acquisition coupled with a tragically impoverished emotional intelligence.” America’s changing demographics and a global, service-based economy have caught white men off guard.

            We know these men are easy prey for the disconnected, virtual world of the internet and talk radio, a medium Kimmel calls “the last locker room.”  Talk radio and the internet are fueled almost entirely by outrage at “the other,” whoever that other is.  (Cue Harold Hill, the huckster salesman in the Music Man.  “Well you got trouble.  Right here in River City.”) Online and on the radio, they can be as rude, vulgar and politically incorrect as they want because they are protected to a certain degree by unanimity.  They are also preaching to the choir which makes them feel all the more righteous. White men have been hoisted on their own petards.

            Angry White Men is full of story after story of men who say they’ve done all the right things.  They watched their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, neighbors and friends work hard and take care of their families.  As they were growing up, they expected to follow in the footsteps of family members who worked for the industrial titans of America, and to earn a decent wage doing that work.  They’ve stayed out of trouble, contributed to their communities, and reared their children.  And what did they get?  Pink slips, fierce competition for jobs,  rules against hostile working environments and shaky retirements. No wonder they are angry.

            Angry White Men is solidly researched and that research is ably and clearly presented.  Kimmel also includes young white boys and women in his study of this phenomenon.  Yet as I was reading it, these men reminded me of an old James Brown song: Talking Loud and Saying Nothing.  Some of these men still don’t get it: the country has changed and there’s nothing they can do about it.  Rather than learning to navigate or manage the change, these men spend their time in chat rooms, bowling alleys and on line complaining about a train that long ago left the station.  Some of them even turn to violence in an effort to get even. 

            By the end of the book, I felt like stopping white men on the street corners and telling them “Just get over it and move on.”  After all, Kimmel said it’s the end of an era, not the end of the world.