The Anger of White Men
One night when I was twelve, my cousins introduced me to the band Tool’s album Undertow. During the golden age of the compact disc, musicians could add “secret” tracks to their albums. This was a great motivation to listen to the album all the way through without skipping, well before playing songs at random was the norm. Sometimes there were “negative tracks,” coded in such a way that you wouldn’t hear the song if you skipped to the track, unless you rewound it into the negative count. The most common hidden track was tacked on to the end of the album—songs, skits, or other strange found content accessible if you sat through long minutes of waiting. The secret track of Tool’s Undertow album, “Disgustipated,” did this twice: it was the 69th track on the CD, with tracks 10-68 being a few seconds of silence, and after the song itself there is another, creepier conclusion.
The song begins with a preacher talking to a herd of sheep, speaking of a vision of carrots fearing harvest day, the day they will be devoured. Then a repetitive, hypnotic chant begins: “This is necessary. / This is necessary. / Life, feeds on / Life, feeds on…” I had no idea what to make of this, but more unnerving was the true ending of the album. When the song ends, there is a long stretch of cricket noises, before finally a man’s insistent, emotionless monotone tells a story. “It was daylight when you woke up in your ditch. You looked up at your sky then. That made blue be your color.” It continues, surreal and without any apparent plot, before ending with the sound of a phone hanging up.
My cousins lived in a house on land that had been in my family’s possession for a few generations, at the outer edge of a northern town in Indiana that lay in the nebulous boundary between rural and suburban. Behind their house was a dense forest that extended for miles, near as I could tell, broken by fields. Some summer days we spent hours in those woods and fields. It was a quiet, somber land. The kind of town that people imagine when they speak of Indiana.
I lived two hours away in central Indiana, a place further into the nebulous boundary between suburban and urban, where wealthier people lived. Not at all the kind of place people imagine when they speak of Indiana. During summers and long weekends my mom would drive me up an hour where we’d meet my aunt, who’d driven down, to transfer me between cars so I could go with them back to their place. It was a reprieve from the bullying and loneliness of my home life.
Musical exchange was a part of how my cousins and I connected. One was a boy my age, with whom I spent the most time, but occasionally we would be allowed into the space of his older brother, who initiated me into the adolescent mysteries of pornography, cigarettes, and marijuana. Though we were all part of the same extended Catholic family, these boys seemed less preoccupied with purity and punishment than I was. They read horror fiction and introduced me to industrial and heavy metal music, stuff that sounded like Satan. It terrified me. Of course I kept coming back for more.
That night, we discussed “Disgustipated” for far too long, sifting it for secrets. In those days, everything felt suffused with an occult meaning. Adulthood held its mysteries aloft, teasing us with the promise that eventually we would understand. I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking of the psychotic chanting and the man’s bizarre story. Nights at their house were quieter than the ones I had at home, even with the incessant noise of frog and cicada, giving my anxious mind ample space to ruminate. In my fearful imagination I saw, in the deep shadows of the forest, men in white Ku Klux Klan robes walking the earth, spreading terror. I sensed terror and anger from the land.
The distance between my cousins and I was as much class and sexuality as geography, I understand now. My father had grown up working class but was aggressively working his way up the white collar ladder, simultaneously resenting and wanting to impress his wealthier colleagues. I was a shy, anxious, introverted, unathletic Catholic kid who was terrified of sin and hell and only beginning to sense my queer desires.
My cousins, on the other hand, loved sports, breasts, heavy metal, and video games. While school came easily to me, both struggled, and at an early age they put a stop to my obnoxious tendency to correct their grammar. Their father alternated between teaching jobs and construction work, at times quitting his job in an act of defiance. The cousin my age inherited his father’s anger. He would get enraged at seemingly nothing, rant and rave, and inflict violence on the walls and floors of the house with whatever means available. All this happened when he was a kid, not even a teenager.
They were not the only white boys with anger. Friends of mine throughout junior high and high school knew it in various ways. They listened to white men singing angry punk and metal anthems, raging against political and social injustice, or venting personal grievances against lovers and parents. We went out in the dark to commit random acts of vandalism and property damage, just because. I participated in my way, even enjoyed some of the same music, but my anger was turned inward. We all sat around campfires, drinking, singing, talking, but I feared my queerness would get me exiled and beaten. Instead of raging against authority and injustice, I raged against my own sinful ungovernability. Boys who could have been my comrades I saw as potential threats, their anger something I learned to fear.
Why were we so angry? I wonder this often, particularly as the anger of white men glows brightly in our culture like hot embers, ready to ignite with the breeze. My imagination of Klan members in the forest was not random. Throughout my childhood I took note of the racist graffiti in bathrooms, heard the racist jokes shared between white people, and learned in school about the second, nativist wave of the Ku Klux Klan flourishing in early twentieth century Indiana. Then, as now, economic desperation had given rise to nationalist exclusion and white supremacy. Then, as we will see in the future, this brought only suffering and disappointment.
My cousins and I drifted further apart as time and class widened the gulf between us. I saw no future for me in Indiana, no path forward that would give me the social connection, cultural stimulation, and opportunity for intimacy I craved, so I moved to Chicago. When I was finishing my undergraduate education, I went back for a family reunion and confessed to my uncle and older cousin that I realized I was intimidated by the working world. My cousin, who never finished high school, grinned ferociously and said, “We’ll eat you alive!”
I let myself be hurt by this at the time, but now I wonder about the anger behind his words. He was smart. He read as much as I did. He wrote. His struggles in school and at home were largely behavioral. Years before he said this, I woke up to hearing my uncle throw him out of the house for some offense. Having worked with homeless teenagers, I understand better how deeply painful this rejection is, even for the most stoic child. He never finished high school, and his town had few opportunities for someone without a degree. When his parents eventually let him move back home, he seemed to withdraw entirely. Rarely any romantic relationship, getting a job working the night shift, coming home to smoke pot and sleep all day.
I wonder if his father had a context for valuing his son’s intelligence and encouraging him to cultivate that. I wonder if his father had his own failed dreams and grievances, his anger at being ruled by the whims of others. Nothing in my cousins’ lives encouraged them to reach beyond the limits of the town and its political and economic realities. I could very easily see either of them spending hours on the Internet, getting radicalized by the alt-right.
Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of Tool, has remarked that the band’s fans seem unable to appreciate the humor in his music. “Insufferable people . . . I’m sorry. Can’t help them. Way too serious. Too much. Lighten up.” Listening to “Disgustipated” now, I recognize the song as tongue-in-cheek, probably ridiculing folks who cannot accept our needs as animals to eat other living things. The closing story, according to the Internet, was a phone message left on Keenan’s answering machine by his landlord, possibly a rambling manifestation of a hallucinogenic trip the man was on. Meaningless drivel, so abstracted that searching it for meaning is akin to trying to weave a sock out of a spiderweb. Another promise of childhood proven to be an illusion.
During the summer of 2016, I was coming to the end of a long arc, seven years that included the dissolution and resurrection of my career. The recession of 2008 pushed me into the kinds of service jobs that I’d avoided for so long. This was the “being eaten alive” which my cousin had predicted, during which I learned that no one is too good for a job, all labor is challenging, and everyone deserves dignity and fair pay in their work. In a grief circle at a polytheist conference, I confessed something I did not understand: I felt cheated. I felt there was a life I was supposed to have that was now impossible, thanks to the decaying world and shifting economy. I recognized, as I said it, how entitled it was coming from a privileged white man. Yet there it was.
The more I thought on it, the more I recognized it as the same wounded entitlement shared by many white men. It is what Susan Faludi discussed in her book from the year 2000, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Rather than pathologizing this anger or essentializing this pain as a toxic ingredient of manhood, Faludi rather compassionately explores the ways that economic shifts have devalued the jobs, skills, and social roles of men without providing a life-affirming alternative. These conditions have only worsened as declining economic opportunities limit the opportunities of men and boys for whom middle management and programming work are not easily accessible. Instead, they have their parents’ basements and memes. It is the festering wound of white masculinity that drew so many toward a president who promised the impossible, that he could bring back a way of life long gone.
Remembering my childhood vision of terror in the forests, I contemplate of the relationship between European settlers and the land that would be claimed as the United States. People from distant shores, escaping enclosure and disenfranchisement, hoping this soil would be a place where they could establish the wealth and autonomy denied them. Unacquainted with the spirits of the land, people huddling together in their townships. The forest around them was an adversarial realm, harboring every person, plant, and animal hostile to the settlers’ presence. This fear of the forest is, I believe, engrained in the cultural soul of the white US citizen. Our literary history points to this, from the 2015 movie The Witch in which the forest harbors Satanic horrors; to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in which the titular character witnesses a black mass outside the borders of his town. H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction epitomizes this trend in American literature. His white supremacy is central to his vision of horror, in my opinion, as every monster emerges from the bodies and spirits crushed under the weight of white identity.
As white men, anger and betrayal might be the unfinished business of our ancestors. Ours are the ancestors who learned to blame themselves for their suffering, to individualize their anger and see their neighbors as competitors rather than allies. Ours are the ancestors who sacrificed their unique cultures for the unsatisfying pseudo-culture of whiteness. Our ancestors allowed racism, sexism, and hatred of the other to divide themselves from those with whom they had common cause. All for the promise that if they simply worked hard enough, they would have wealth, ease, and love. A promise that has been broken over and over, a promise that increases the wealth and power of the elite while we cling even harder to the lie.
We have been given a shitty deal. Theodore W. Allen talked about white privilege as a “baited hook,” something that traps us even as it seems to give us a treat. Deep down, we know the wealth we desire comes from the oppression of others. We know our anger keeps us from the solidarity we desperately crave. The system that exploits our dreams and desires wants us to be hateful and wary of women, people of color, and queer folk. It wins when we see ourselves as competitors fighting over scraps rather than comrades who demand more.
Our ancestors oppressed and colonized, but that’s not all they did. We have ancestors who joined with Black people in the fight against slavery and segregation. We have ancestors who fought for freedom, social equality, better wages, the right for people of all classes, races, and genders to vote. We do not have to bear our burdens alone. All we need to do is be willing to share the burden of others. We can join them in the forest.
Let’s turn our anger to the people who benefit from keeping our wages depressed, not the people who take whatever they can get to support their families. Let’s turn our anger to the banks who foreclosed on our houses and the government that paid for their mistakes. Let’s turn our anger to those who would rather pay us to endanger our lives doing violence in foreign countries than spend that money investing in our healthcare, schools, roads, and bridges—all of which would create jobs. Let’s turn our anger to the corporate practices that dump waste in our water, that eviscerate our forests, that poison our health.
Our anger is fire. With it we can bring warmth to the world. This is necessary.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.
Anthony Rella is one of the writers featured in several issues of A Beautiful Resistance. Click the image below to see all our publications.