Myth of the Million Man March
Issue #23, December 1995
Blacks were forced, via slavery, into society's most hazardous jobs; men are forced, via socialization, into society's most hazardous jobs...We have long acknowledged the slavery of blacks. We have yet to acknowledge the slavery of males.
— Warren Farrell, in The Myth of Male Power
If you're looking for a symbol of male victimization, look no farther than the black man in the US. This is precisely what many supporters of the October 16 Million Man March on Washington were looking for — especially members of all-male Christian groups like the Promise Keepers, and other members of the secularized men's movement. As Warren Farrell makes clear in his books, aimed largely at a secular men's movement, one way that white men can identify with black men is to call masculinity itself a form of slavery. Farrell finds this a fruitful comparison, and weaves references to slavery throughout his work, claiming that the behavior of men towards women resembles nothing so much as the behavior of slaves toward their masters (for example: putting on their coats, bowing to them, and "working in the fields" for them to make money). Another voice of the men's movement, Craig Moberg, writes in the conservative men's movement publication The Backlash! that white men should support the Million Man March because it speaks to the spiritual and ethical needs of men in general. Moberg, after blessing the March, finds the March an occasion to assert that "the time has come to regenerate healthy, responsible, ethical Male Culture in America." While he doesn't strictly define "Male Culture," Moberg relates it to spirituality, a theme which is taken up quite forcefully by the conservative Christian Promise Keepers. The Promise Keepers publicly supported the Million Man March and continue to ask their members to forge interracial male-male friendships.
While critics and defenders of the Million Man March have debated its ability to call attention to the plight of blacks in this country, little attention has been paid to how much its message has been adopted, wholesale, by the US men's movement. Conservatives and their more liberal counterparts in the men's movement seem fascinated by the Million Man March as a symbol for male vulnerability and victimhood. Indeed, the ethnic and spiritual aspects of the March have much in common with the mythopoetic bent of men's movement literature: in men's movement mythology, black male marchers can be understood as archetypal male victims. If part of the goal of the men's movement has been to get men in touch with their passive, vulnerable side, it makes a kind of weird sense to tell men a new folk tale in which, as Farrell has it, all men, like black men, are archetypal Slaves. But what exactly are the implications of creating a new myth of masculinity which centers around male victims, especially black male victims?
Ironically, the Million Man March was not overtly intended by its organizers (or by its many black male participants) to call attention to male victimhood. Organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and former President of the NAACP Benjamin Chavis Jr., the March was, in the words of Farrakhan, a response to "an increasingly conservative and hostile climate growing in America towards the aspirations of Black people and people of color for justice." This "hostile climate" Farrakhan traced to the "Contract with America," changes in Affirmative Action laws, and more obliquely, white responses to the OJ Simpson verdict. Farrakhan hoped to combat negative stereotypes and destructive federal legislation affecting blacks, especially black males, by calling for "one million disciplined, committed, and dedicated Black men...to march in Washington DC — showing the world a vastly different picture of the Black male." The March, billed as a "Day of Atonement and Reconciliation," was a call to power for black men, intended to celebrate their ability to stop black-on-black violence, spousal abuse, and illegal drug traffic. While Farrakhan told women to stay home with their families, and only intermittently addressed the question of non-black men participating in the March, he celebrated the return of "the Black male as the head of the household, positive role model and builder of our community." The myth Farrakhan hoped to create with the March was one in which black men were no longer victims, and no longer perpetrators of violence.
Of course, as critics such as bell hooks have pointed out, a march for blacks that deliberately excludes women is not really a march for black people, but rather a march for something like rejuvenated black patriarchy. And it is precisely for this reason, I would argue, that men's movement supporters of all races seized upon the March as a potent symbol and rallying cry. Like many men's movement events, such as Robert Bly's famous "drumming" retreats, the March spoke to men's feelings of social victimization in order to suggest that older, more spiritual, forms of male strength and bonding might be needed to change masculinity for the better. In the case of the black men who marched on Washington, social victimization takes the form of racism, and what Farrakhan called "the evil of slavery." Strength, Farrakhan suggested to marchers, can be found in male identities associated with Judeo-Islamic patriarchal values, and the mid-century ideal of a male "head of household" role. Both identities are linked to forms of masculinity forged in the past: antiquity in the case of Biblical masculinity, and a mostly pre-feminist era in the case of the "head of household" male role. Similarly, men's movement supporters find strength in folkloric "warrior" and "father" archetypes, often borrowed from medieval folk stories and Greek mythology. Non-black men, however, do not have a history of slavery to call upon when they want to name their victimhood. Instead, they borrow the language of black men to speak of their overdevotion to work as "slavery," their worship of female beauty as "enslavement," and their expected role as breadwinners as "negative male stereotyping" which resembles racism. Men of all races who participate in the men's movement, in other words, describe their feelings of victimization as if they were black men.
Men in the men's movement, like the black men at the March, need a language of victimhood to describe what's wrong with power as they have experienced it. It's easy to understand how racial power has victimized blacks; traditionally, they have been oppressed by white supremacy, a form of racial power which places them in the position of inferior beings. But how do men of all races, and especially white men, use the same rhetoric to claim scapegoating at the hands of a power which is arguably male? Essentially, they do it by turning all power into a kind of myth which exists separately from the very people it is supposed to benefit.
As spokesmen like Farrell, Moberg, or Bly would have it, "power," even if it is historically bound up with whiteness and maleness, is a force beyond us (like God, perhaps) which can subjugate white men by forcing them into their narrow social roles. Thus, for example, Farrell argues that what we imagine to be the power of male heroism (or machismo) is actually a form of male "disposability," where men endure great hardship and even death in order to preserve their property or families. Because men are less important than their social roles as heroic fighters, they are not in power, but are rather powerless in the face of a vast, enslaving mythology which socializes them into playing the male "disposability" role. Although white men were never literally enslaved in the same way black men once were, black and white men nevertheless currently share a sense of being oppressed by social mythologies: the myth of masculine heroism "enslaves" men in general, and the myth of white supremacy "enslaves" black men in particular.
In spite of its emphasis on black male identification, one of the principle influences on the men's movement and its claim to victimhood is second wave feminism, or the women's liberation movement that began in the 1960s. Indeed, Farrell was active in NOW before he became a spokesman for men's awareness. While Farrell has remained committed to feminist causes, the more conservative Bly writes in Iron John that feminism has created a generation of "soft men" who feel like victims. His work, and much of conservative men's movement thought, sees itself as a reaction to feminist "male bashing." Bly and his ilk may feel victimized by feminism, but it was feminism, especially in the 1970s, which cried victim first. Part of the critique of second wave feminism offered by third wave feminists like Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf is precisely that feminists of the 70s were far too invested in a sense of victimization. In her latest book, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It, Wolf insists that it was second wave feminists' interest in calling attention to how much patriarchy had victimized them that kept women from taking power in the social realm. In other words, third wave "power feminists" call female victimhood a kind of myth, one which keeps women feeling weak, vulnerable, and disempowered. Their solution? Both Paglia and Wolf advocate women taking on traditionally male forms of power in and out of the workplace. Using aggressive sexuality, economic clout, and sheer gutsiness, they claim, can make women truly equal to men.
If even feminists are criticizing the victim politics of second wave feminism, then why are men taking them on? Why, especially, if they are — like Bly or the Promise Keepers — feeling threatened by feminist tactics? Double up this question with observations I made earlier about black men at the Million Man March trying to explode stereotypes of black male victimhood, and you have a true puzzle. But the answer is surprizingly simple: it's the old bait and switch. The "bait" is the myth of power, and "switch" is what men get to do when they claim victimization. Let's unpack how this bait and switch game works. When men's movement leaders claim that power is actually a form of myth which subjugates all people — even supposedly "powerful" people — to its laws, "power" becomes a force which is up for grabs. This is because power is supposedly a series of myths which subordinate everyone equally, including those who wield it.
Using this idea, Farrell is able to argue that white men enslaved by work are equivalent to black men enslaved by white men. Even though white men seem to have power, they are really slaves like blacks, because the white man and black man are equally enslaved by certain myths — like white supremacy and male heroism — which constitute "power." Hence, paradoxically, both races seem to have access to power, since having power is actually to be victimized by it. The greater your victimization, the greater your power. This conclusion is, in part, related to the popularity and success of civil rights and feminist movements which relied heavily on "victim" rhetoric for their potency. Now, you might say, men want a part of the action too. They want to be as victimized as women and blacks, because they see victims taking away their power. And the only way most men can claim victimhood as men is to call their own male power a myth which oppresses them.
And here's the switch: just as men are calling themselves victims of white manhood, women and non-white men are starting to distance themselves from the "victim" label. Men in the men's movement have switched power positions, just as blacks switched positions when they marched on Washington. The traditionally powerful are saying they should be considered victims, and the traditionally victimized are saying they should be considered powerful. Using the myth of power as bait, men have switched from the power role to the victim role. Taken in by the idea of a mythological power which affects everyone equally, traditionally victimized groups are given the "switch" of men as victims. The switch here is twofold: social groups switch sides, and men offer their victimhood as a new form of power (the "switch") to anyone who has bought into the "myth of power" idea. Certainly, we should acknowledge that it is important for men to get in touch with just how horrible it can be when one is forced to become a soldier or a workaholic just to appease one's sense of social duty. And it is also important for oppressed groups like blacks or women to acknowledge their genuine power. But swapping positions, seeing power from a different angle, doesn't do enough to change the nature of power itself.
Power, ultimately, is not merely a myth, and it does not exist outside of the people who wield and submit to it. Traditions and social expectations, like myths, do exert power over us, but the fact is that power is a human tool, which can take different forms in the hands of different societies. Furthermore, power isn't just a kind of universal myth which enslaves everyone. It is a various and constantly changing set of human relationships which affect different people in different ways. To claim that male unhappiness with the "worker" role is equivalent to black revolts against slavery and racism is to mythologize power as an empty category which has virtually no meaning. We need to understand "power" as a very basic, material issue which does not exist outside of very specific interactions between social groups and individuals in them. The problem with power in the US right now, the problem that drove one million men to march on Washington, are hierarchical relationships such as those between the "powerful" and the "victims." Our social lives, our economic lives, even our personal lives, are organized in hierarchical patterns which are often unfair and painful. Races, genders, and classes get favored over others because we conceive of power as always meaning that the person on top gets more and better than the person on the bottom. Hence, the powerful get more powerful while the weak get weaker. Power is therefore uneven — different people benefit from it at different times.
Many have argued that when social groups like men and women switch positions — trading off the labels of "powerful" and "victim" — power changes hands and gets dismantled. But the problem is that "switching" does not question hierarchy. It merely shifts people around in the same old hierarchical structure. Men who call themselves "victims" of power do not question hierarchical power itself, merely their position within it. They choose to flee from overt power, to distance themselves from it and turn it into a "myth," rather than reshape power. At the same time, blacks and women are eager to take hold of the very hierarchical power denied them for centuries, maybe even in the hope that one day they will victimize the white men who once victimized them. Unless, that is, male "victims" can steal the show one more time, capitalizing on their newfound victimhood to take back their places as "head of household," and of course, heads of State.
Until we have a new definition for power, one that does not mythologize it and place social groups into hierarchies, the problems of power will still plague us. As I write this, the Promise Keepers are planning another March on Washington, modeled after the Million Man March, to be staged in early 1997 after the election. This March, according to Promise Keeper leadership, will celebrate male spirituality, interracial male relations, and male patriarchal power as it is described in The Bible. Men who identify with black male victimhood are already finding new ways to lay hold of hierarchal (i.e., patriarchal) power.
Without a revamped notion of power as non-hierarchical, we will continue to experience power switches, but not social justice for the victims of deprivation, underemployment, and discrimination. Perhaps what we might focus on in the months before the Promise Keepers take to the streets of our capitol are the commonalties among social groups which seem to have very different agendas. Men have learned a great deal from blacks and women, just as women and blacks have clearly learned from men. All of these groups are concerned about how power has been used to victimize individual human beings. If we wish to change the shape of power for the future, a march for social empowerment cannot claim power for one social group like black men, or Christian men, or women. It must offer up power to be shared among us. It must attempt to generate a hybrid power which combines the interests of social groups while preserving the differences that make them view power differently — but not from the rigid hierarchical positions of "powerful" or "victim."
Annalee Newitz is co-director of Bad Subjects, and a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC Berkeley. She has recently co-edited, with Matt Wray, a collection of essays on race and class called White Trash, forthcoming from Routledge Press in 1996. E-mail her at email@example.com.