If you haven’t heard of “Men’s Rights Activists”, they’re a disturbing bunch: A loosely organized network of men primarily concerned with the injustices of being stuck in the “friend zone” and women accusing them of rape, whose activities of choice seem to be writing angry and threatening things about feminists in the dark corners of the internet.
But although the conversation has mostly been dominated by fundamentally bad people, there is an undeniable need for an open conversation between men about gender in our society.
Deeply ingrained gender roles and expectations touch every aspect of our families, our jobs, our health, in ways that are incredibly harmful not just to women, but also to men. We grew up within the constraints of a warped vision of manhood, one that says masculinity is not just about strength, but about violent aggression, not just about protective care but about possession, not just about resilience, but about never being vulnerable. This twisted caricature of manhood is reflected in the ways we treat each other every day, our laws and institutions, our economy and popular culture. A real men’s rights activism would appreciate the good in masculinity while pushing back against the ways in which our society’s distorted understanding of manhood hurts us.
The problem starts with the idea that men are invincible. That we are the ones born with the strength to fight wars and build economies. But it ends with the idea that men are disposable. That our bodies can be thrown down coal mines and into battlefields and prisons, often in the name of “protecting” women, who we view as too weak to work long or dangerous hours and endure such harsh violence and punishment. A real men’s rights activism would stand up for the rights of workers, fight our relentlessly expanding prison system, and demand an end to war.
Women continue to bear the brunt of poverty in America, with low-wage jobs justified by the assumption that women don’t need to be paid equally. But gender is also used as a tool to exploit male workers through long hours and dangerous conditions. The most under-regulated sectors of the economy, where worker injuries and deaths are commonplace, overwhelmingly employ men. Attempts to improve worker safety standards in constructing buildings, extracting minerals, managing waste, and operating heavy machinery are crushed by deep-pocketed corporate lobbying that manipulates powerful social norms viewing men as indestructible work machines. While other countries have shortened the work-week, mandated paid vacation time, supported earlier retirement, and even provided paternity leave for men to take care of newborn children, the American man is supposed to be tough and hard-working. He is not supposed to mind late nights at the office away from his family or missing most of his child’s first months of life. American males work more hours in their lifetimes than anyone else in the industrialized world. As more and more women have entered the workplace in recent decades, men are not working less hours as some might have predicted, if anything they are working more, particularly white-collar college-educated men. Where is the outrage from so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”? Who stands up for men’s rights to be more than cogs in the machine of economic production, to be safe at work and spend time with their families?
The explosion of America’s prison population in recent decades overwhelmingly affects men. The US holds more prisoners than any other nation in the world. With 5% of the population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners, due to harsh laws mandating unusually long prison sentences, heavy imprisonment of nonviolent drug users, low investment in prevention and rehabilitation, and a parole system that throws people back in prison as a response to minor violations like missing meetings. While prison policy is often labeled a black or Latino issue, it would more accurately be described as a men’s issue, with men representing over nine in ten inmates. Our ever-expanding prison industrial complex is made possible by our society’s perceptions of men—young men, low-income men, men of color—but ultimately men. We stubbornly reject proven cost-efficient and effective reforms like preventing crime by investing in programs for at-risk boys or helping formerly incarcerated men adjust back into society with education and job opportunities. Those are “hug-a-thug” women’s solutions. Real men understand that other men are violent and irreversibly dangerous—they cannot be helped by compassion but instead must be separated for decades from their families and communities. The show “Orange is the New Black” is largely successful because it depicts a women’s prison—we are capable of being horrified by the shocking conditions only once we can imagine women having to endure them. But we will never reform our prison system until we can recognize the humanity of other men.
There is no greater testament to our society’s willingness to treat men as disposable than war. Who fills the caskets that return home draped in flags? Who are the faces of the homeless veterans who line freeway exits and downtown sidewalks? Who are the survivors of war facing job discrimination and social isolation from disabilities and post-traumatic stress? When women and children are victims of war we are disgusted, horrified, inconsolable, outraged—why can’t we muster the same compassion for fellow men? We have swallowed the lie that we are so strong that our lives aren’t worth saving. If “Men’s Rights Activists” truly cared about fundamentally improving the lives of men they would be marching in the streets for peace, not grumbling about feminists on Reddit. It is not women who are sending us to die overseas, but powerful men who place such little value on the lives of other men.
These problems fall most heavily on working-class and poor men who fill our prisons, our most deadly jobs, and the ranks of our military. This puts men under an unrelenting pressure to succeed in today’s brutally competitive economy to escape the fleeting life expectancy of low-income men in America. It’s easy to think that only young men or only black men or only poor men end up behind bars or dying in Afghanistan or working in a steel mill, but middle-class college-educated men should remember that this system thrives on that mentality. Men are constantly running an economic rat race because somewhere inside we recognize that we are only one slip away from the fate we condemn other men to because we think they should be tough enough to handle it.
If we want to make life better for men, we must stop blaming women. We must remember that the gender roles that reduce women to silent property and sexual objects are the same that reduce men to emotionless machines made for fighting and hard labor. Feminists are not enemies of men, but allies in a common struggle to reclaim our humanity. When we refuse to believe women who survive rape and blame victims for “asking for it”, we feed a society that views us as uncontrollable sexual monsters who must not be provoked, that makes women afraid to see us on the street and parents afraid to trust us with their children. When we try to justify the pay gap by saying men work harder or negotiate better or deserve to make more because we financially support women, we feed a society that judges men’s worth by our ability to make lots of money and be cutthroat competitors who live for work alone and never see our families. When we defend the domination of all levels of government by “strong, tough” men and not “irrational, weak” women, we feed a society that continues to send millions of our fellow men to die in battle and rot in prison because that’s what strong, masculine leadership supposedly stands for.
So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” have only succeeded in carving out a little online world that provides an outlet for validating a few men’s deep-seated bitterness towards some particular women in their personal lives. But we deserve better than that. We deserve a world that doesn’t treat men as disposable machines, one where we live longer, freer, happier lives. We can’t get there by hating women. We can only get there by loving ourselves.
A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite. They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy. Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.
I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?
But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd. When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.
The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics. What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter. But organized people do.
In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.
Here’s what the study actually says.
Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:
- “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”: The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
- “Economic Elite Domination”: Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
- “Majoritarian Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
- “Biased Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent. Monocles and feather boas abound. Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.
They describe our political system as both #2 and #4. They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.
The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today. The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.
But then this begs the question: Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist? Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs? Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them. But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?
The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking. According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.
Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves. In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.
As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion. In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues. But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.
The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter. The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.” However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered. They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.
And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades. With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.
Note that the very rich don’t need to organize. The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account. Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.
But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations. None. Period.
There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy. Organize. Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think. Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals. Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams. Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before. Organize the hell out of everything. We can’t afford not to. Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.
I recently had a discussion about the weirdness of Romney blasting Obama in the debates for cutting $716 billion from Medicare. Aren’t Republicans all about cutting spending? Medicare is about as close as the US government gets to socialism and its creation was vehemently opposed by Republicans in the 1960’s. And the Medicare Advantage program, where Obamacare makes that $716 billion cut from, is widely acknowledged as a wasteful failed program, the kind of thing conservatives are always talking about cutting.
So is it simply that Mitt Romney will literally say anything to make Barack Obama look bad?
I think there’s a deeper explanation: Political ideology is mostly bullshit.
Very few political actions are actually motivated by a sweeping ideology about something abstract like the appropriate size of government. Politics is really about winning power battles to serve the interests of different groups of people.
In this case, the key fact is that suburban white retirees are an important constituency of the Republican Party. They have no particular interest in limited government, but they’re a foundation of the conservative coalition because they tend to be relatively wealthy and less government usually means they get to pay less taxes. It would be political suicide for the GOP to propose cutting their Medicare benefits, even though it fits with their ideological principle of smaller government. That’s because suburban white retirees don’t want limited government when it applies to them. That’s why Paul Ryan only proposes cutting Medicare benefits for everyone under the age of 55. And it’s also why conservatives can feign outrage when Obama “cuts” Medicare—not because it violates their heartfelt values—but because it’s something they can organize a political coalition around.
In fact, conservatives are for big government in a lot of situations, as long as it doesn’t affect the constituencies that make up their coalition:
- They’re down with big government all up in a woman’s uterus
- They like big government profiling Muslims at the airport
- They’re cool with big government stopping and frisking black teenagers on the street
- They love big government telling gay people who they can’t marry
- They’re all about big government asking random Latinos for their immigration papers
The disguise of political ideology is exposed at the local level, where politics gets batshit crazy. Take this recent incident in my city: Residents of the affluent conservative east side opposed the construction of a new apartment complex. Over 50 people, self-organized as far as I can tell, stayed at a hearing for four hours waiting to speak. Listen to their frothing-at-the-mouth-anger:
“I’m in shock,” resident Christopher Fries said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to file a lawsuit.”
“You’re not getting our vote,” yelled Nadia Emen, who earlier had said she got married Saturday and cut the festivities short to speak out against the project at the hearing.
Now you might be thinking: “Wait a minute… Wouldn’t a city planning commission blocking a developer from freely buying private property and building whatever type of business enterprise they chose be an intrusion of big government on the liberty of job creators and whatnot?”
But these folks don’t really care about small government. They care about their own group interests. And in this case, they are a bunch of suburbanites who really really really don’t like the idea of poor people living near them.
Although ideology is mostly bullshit, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
I’m progressive, but I don’t like big government for its own sake. I had a high school American history teacher who talked a lot about the legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton. I consider myself a Jeffersonian even though Jefferson hated the growth of the federal government. But back then, government was funded by a regressive tax system whose burden fell on the 99%—the rural farmers—and was mostly used to benefit wealthy urban manufacturing elites. If I lived in Jefferson’s time I would have been against big government too, because what I really care about is using politics to serve the interests of struggling working-class people.
I just wish we could be a little more honest and stop pretending we give a shit about philosophy.
A recent NY Times article highlighted a study of a 1990’s government program that gave subsidies to low-income urban families to move to the suburbs. The theory was that families who left neighborhoods of concentrated poverty would experience better education, better jobs and higher incomes.
The program was a complete failure in achieving those goals. Families in the program got out of the hood but stayed poor, they just happened to live in a neighborhood where there were middle-class people physically near them.
But weirdly enough, these families experienced a large rise in happiness. The self-reported happiness for families making $20k a year who moved was equal to the average of families making $33k a year who stayed.
Was this policy a success or failure? It comes down to a deeper question: What is our ultimate goal in producing social change? Is it actually about people being happier?
I’ve got a utilitarian streak in me– I’m normally more into the issues that improve people’s everyday living conditions rather than the deeper philosophical stuff, which I find frustratingly fluffy sometimes.
And my main political passion– fighting economic inequality– is partly grounded in a utilitarian view of happiness: Studies show that extra family income brings higher levels of happiness until a certain plateau (around $75k per year in the US) after which additional money doesn’t change your life satisfaction. So boosting overall economic growth does less to improve people’s lives than ensuring the economy’s gains are shared by low and middle-income families.
But if all we cared about was happiness, we might want to give up on the social movement shit and just make funny YouTube videos or build free amusement parks for the masses. Better yet we could create some sort of creepy dystopian future where everybody lies around all day taking happy pills or living in a perfect virtual reality world.
Making people happy isn’t what motivates me to do the work I do. If it was, I’d study engineering and go make iPhones. People fucking love iPhones.
Maybe I’m a disgruntled political animal who just likes the fight itself.
Or maybe there’s some larger abstract idea of justice that matters in its own right. Maybe there’s an inherent moral problem with a world where the few have so much power and the many have so little. Sometimes struggling to tip that balance of power feels like it’s not making people more happy, but maybe there’s some deeper moral value that isn’t just about happiness.