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It’s Just So Hard Out There for the White Man

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There’s a new book by Joseph Darda titled How White Men Won the Culture Wars. I haven’t read it, but I was reading a review of it The New Republic and it’s striking just how much of our society is defined by white men of the last half-century whining about their grievances.

Conditions were ripe for returning Vietnam vets to engineer this dramatic change in status. The so-called white ethnic revival announced a defection from the old model of WASP ascendancy, and the assertion of new cultural status on behalf of a cohort of twentieth-century immigrants—Polish, Italian, Greek, and Slovak Americans (or PIGS, in the provocative coinage of white ethnic theorist and eventual neoconservative theologian Michael Novak)—who bore limited culpability for the original sin of Black slavery. This reconfigured model of the white immigrant experience “turned white people into minorities, innocent and self-made,” Darda writes, while the culture-first logic of the white ethnic revival permitted these reborn white Americans “to attribute the material barriers that Black and brown Americans faced in education, health services, housing, law enforcement, and wealth accumulation to culture and choice.”

The emerging new politics of white blamelessness came to a head in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision Regents of University of California v. Bakke. The plaintiff in that case, a Marine vet in Vietnam named Alan Bakke, alleged that he was a victim of reverse racial discrimination after the University of California at Davis twice rejected his medical school application in favor of nonwhite candidates selected under a quota system. The court ruled in his favor, and in place of the putative discriminatory nature of admissions quotas, the Bakke majority endorsed the far more amorphous-to-subjective metric of “diversity” to justify minority outreach efforts in college admissions programs—thereby vastly complicating measurable progress in racial representation while helping to launch a top-down human resources land rush in diversity training and institutional image management.

Other returning Vietnam veterans, meanwhile, were coping with the challenges of reintegrating into an America society that seemed ashamed of the failed Southeast Asian war—and indifferent to hostile to the plight of veterans of the conflict. The mounting sense of anomie in the white veterans’ community became focused on the notion of post-traumatic stress disorder—a new psychological diagnosis that took root after a nurse in a Boston VA hospital treated a veteran who’d taken part in the infamous massacre of some 500 Vietnamese villagers in My Lai. By the time PTSD was formally adopted in the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the notion of post-Vietnam trauma was already spreading beyond the corps of afflicted veterans and gaining traction as an all-purpose depiction of white male grievance in a contracting economy and a still-confrontational climate of post–civil rights and feminist protest. “The attribution of PTSD to vets and the white men who identified with them, most of whom did not serve and did not suffer from PTSD” worked “as a kind of entitlement,” Darda writes, “a belief that something they deserved had been taken from them, had been taken and must be returned. It encouraged a feeling of entitlement through a sense of discrimination.”

In a telling augur of this shift, Vietnam Veterans Against the War—a militant anti-war group that gained notoriety when several of its members (among them future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry) hurled their service medals over a fence near the White House—began to focus principally on issues of trauma and recovery, sponsoring a series of “rap groups” to describe the harrowing experience of combat in Vietnam and vets’ halting efforts to come to terms with its psychic legacy. White veterans dominated in these sessions, as well, and even when they recounted stories of atrocities that they’d carried out in Vietnam, the psychologists who moderated the VVAW encounter sessions diagnosed them as “survivors” of PTSD, effacing difficult questions of accountability and guilt in “a dehistoricized trauma culture in which all could claim the status of survivor,” Darda writes.

Another potent channel of this emerging dynamic of white blamelessness was the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action movement, which also managed to transmute a cross-racial vets’ issue into a politics of white grievance. As part of the phased withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, the Nixon administration orchestrated a high-profile return of 591 American prisoners of war in the spring of 1973, in an initiative dubbed “Operation Homecoming.” The returning prisoners were acutely unrepresentative of the actual forces serving in Vietnam: They were mostly college-educated officers. None of them had been drafted. They were all men, and 95 percent of them were white; the most famous among them, John McCain (another future senator and presidential candidate), built a political career on the idea that his sacrifice and suffering were emblematic of his generation of veterans. From this lily-white, mediagenic presentation of returning prisoners of war, an activist movement took root, seeking the return of allegedly still-living POWs in Vietnam who were chiefly figments of urban legend—and the broader optics of the American veterans’ movement ensured that these imaginary figures had to be white. “The whiteness of the Operation Homecoming vets, the most visible and distinguished former prisoners of war, made the POW/MIA movement a vehicle for white racial grievance,” Darda writes, “and the POW/MIA flag has been a common sight at white supremacist rallies ever since. When a 1985 Newsweek headline declared ‘We’re Still Prisoners of War,’ some readers, whether conscious of it or not, would have taken that ‘we’ to mean white America.”

Now, I don’t entirely know what to make of the claims about PTSD and veteran trauma being located primarily among white veterans. I am not one to handwave away the hell of war. However, I can absolutely believe that the angry veterans movement of the 1980s was defined as almost exclusively white, even though people of color fought in Vietnam at rates far higher than that of whites, per capita. All the movies were about angry white men. The issue of veteran homelessness absolutely had a white face. The POW/MIA movement was almost exclusively white. All of this ended up being about conservative race-based politics, even if there were legitimate grievances about how veterans were treated by the Reagan administration. The irony of that of course is that these movements ended up being quite politically conservative and largely supportive of the administration that slashed VA support for those struggling after their return to Vietnam.

We also know that white men have been whining ever since–every issue from affirmative action to crime to welfare to foreign aid has been defined as a war on the White Man. This has reached its apotheosis with Donald Trump, with his core supporters of old white men. Trump was a grievance merchant from the beginning, even though he had all the privilege in the world. The fact that his presidential runs were based in part on Barack Obama making fun of him says it all–he was now the most aggrieved person in human history. Of course his followers would love him. He’s been pushing the same message they’ve wanted since 1968.

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