Three weeks after the inauguration of Joe Biden as U.S. president, I am gulping in fresh air. Sane government, wise policies, freedom from chaotic, senseless attacks on everyone from the mail carrier to the Governor of Michigan. But the fresh air filling my lungs is followed by a gasp because, in my mind’s eye, I see a militia just over that hill behind us. It is a militia devoted to preserving an old system of male dominance.
I thought we had left this cultural pattern a long time ago. When Trump was elected president in 2016 over our first woman candidate, the shock was so strong that five million women and men took to the streets in protest — the largest march in history. As for myself, the shock propelled me into writing a memoir of my experience as a feminist anthropologist and science writer. It took four years to write and publish an account of egalitarian society — one in which men and women hold equal, if sometimes different, kinds of authority (Dance of the Deities: Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society). I felt impelled to challenge the often dominant opinion in anthropology that men have always been in charge of public life.
During those same four years, The Trump administration assaulted the environment, immigrants, the poor, the law, the U.S. Constitution, and our sense of reality. Even more ominous was the rise of a violent right-wing centered around the grievances of men who feel threatened by social change.
I don’t mean all men — far from it. Nor do I exclude women from this group. But I am talking primarily about a subcategory of men who are committed to an ancient cultural pattern: male dominance. Many of us, particularly white people, have grown up with this system (aka patriarchy). It runs through our veins denigrating “feminine” traits, putting men on pedestals that constantly fall over, refusing to see misogyny.
To make things worse, systems of male dominance are inherently racist, so white supremacy is paired with misogyny in a multi-pronged effort to maintain the dominance of one particular group. We find this cultural pattern not just in American, European and colonial history, but in the broader human experience. It arises out of fear of invasion by hostile forces, by “outsiders” or environmental stress. By all reports, the primarily white men in this hard right “army” fear their loss of power to the rise of women and minorities. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was part of a movement to retain their historic dominance.
We need to understand the dynamics of this kind of cultural pattern because it isn’t going away anytime soon, even though we make periodic progress toward gender equality. Most of our public commentary right now is focused on the lies and false narratives that drive Trump supporters to believe he won the last ele
ction. Those explanations may explain the insurrection of January 6, but they miss a deeper understanding of the dynamics that have shaped men in a male dominant system.
People with these predispositions don’t evolve out of false narratives or alternative realities. They come because they have usually been abused as boys and young men. They’ve been taught to disdain weakness and led to associate that with the feminine sides of their nature. Soldiers have been trained this way. Athletes have been trained this way. Gangs of adolescent boys teach each other this way. Donald Trump learned from his abusive father that there were only two choices in life — to be a killer or a loser.
It’s all around us — documented in recent books, like Andrew Reiner’s Better Boys, Better Men and Peggy Orenstein’s Boys and Sex. The abuses are detailed in Sports Illustrated with stories about athletes forced to eat until they vomit, play or run in spite of injuries, submit to constant yelling, intimidation and emotional abuse, see themselves compared in public to “pussies” and every other derogatory term a toxic coach can find to describe the female anatomy. These accounts are not a far cry from the ethnography written by anthropologist Gregory Bateson almost a century ago about the systemic abuse practiced in a small indigenous male-dominant culture organized around head-hunting.
In his book The Naven, Bateson recounted initiation ceremonies where adolescent boys were forced to drink filthy water and open their mouths for inspection, only to be jabbed with a crocodile bone until their jaws bled, among other sickening assaults. The boys were abused and ridiculed as “women” for days on end, resulting in a hypermasculine, bullying, female-phobic, shallow personality — a “hot” man who was willing to scalp and be scalped by rivals from the tribe next door, a man willing to kill and be killed. Men are the first victims of patriarchy in a culture organized around war.
Is America a culture organized around war? You decide. How much of our national resources are spent on the military today? How many times have we attacked small nations who posed no threat to our own borders? What nation exports the most military arms? How many of the insurrectionists, of both genders, who broke into the Capitol on January 6 had military training? Can we really change this in a world that seems so threatening? Do we have a choice?