Orlando and the American Pathologies of Masculinity and Militarism

It is virtually forbidden–as an unpatriotic act–that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.
–James Baldwin

People light candles for the Orlando victims on Old Compton Street in London (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The dominant responses to the Orlando massacre have contained much of the venom that defined the act itself.

Conservatives have deepened their racist demonization and their gun cult fascism. Liberals have indulged in empty symbolism while calling for an intensified surveillance regime, a more militarized and repressive police state.

Both responses reflect the logic of a society in decay.

Any meaningful response to the Orlando slaughter must address the pathologies that produced it. And to truly do that, we cannot look to some alien ideology or threat. We must examine ourselves.

This gunman was “Made in America.” We made him. His pathologies are our pathologies. He is an expression of our homegrown extremism, our fundamentalism, our normalized violence, our hatred of The Other.

But if we have all been poisoned by racism, patriarchy, and homophobia, the events in Orlando also reveal the effects of another, related pathology: Toxic Masculinity.

Toxic Masculinity is the primary expression of masculinity in our society. Its principle of power through male domination underlies our worship of guns. Toxic masculinity fuels domestic violence and sexual assault. It is an essential ingredient of rape culture. And it is inseparable from the ideology and practice of white supremacy.

American notions of hetero manhood, of straight masculinity, are deeply antisocial, deeply antihuman. Sadistic. Whatever his sexuality, the Orlando gunman was strongly identified with a heterosexual male identity that is clearly pathological.

But on a larger level, the gunman was also acting out our American tradition of slaughtering the Other. All settler colonies throughout history have been established through genocide. And all empires, as they pursue an agenda of internal and external conquest, begin to rot from within. In many ways this gunman was practicing the murderous logic of our empire, our warfare state. We’re a society of mass killers, whether we’re killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Palestine. How can we commit such spectacular violence abroad and expect that violence not to infect us, to degrade us, at home?

To understand the connection between toxic masculinity and militarism, we need only observe that the gunman was an employee of the massive security firm G4S, an organization responsible for detaining, torturing, and killing civilians, including youngsters, in Palestine and far beyond.

If we look honestly at the roots of the Orlando carnage, we must conclude that we need a new society, a new system. Reform is not enough.

We must move beyond symbolism. We must move beyond even gun control, though obviously that is necessary. We must resist calls for more state surveillance, more police technology, more militarization. We must resist xenophobia and Islamophobia. Such hatred helped cause the problem. It can never solve it.

We don’t need a return to “normalcy.” We don’t need more “diversity” or “inclusion.” We need to construct a humane society from the bottom up. We need to seize this outrage, this momentum, and build a mass movement—a people’s movement against racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, and all forms of oppression and exploitation. And queer and transgender people of color must help form the vanguard of this movement, as they did during the 1969 Stonewall uprising that launched the gay liberation movement.

We need to join the people of France and so many other parts of the world who are now launching a rebellion from below, a rebellion against monopoly capitalism and its attendant social pathologies, from toxic masculinity to gross inequality.

Another world is possible. Today we mourn. Tomorrow we organize.

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Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “Orlando and the American Pathologies of Masculinity and Militarism

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    Yes, we need a radical bottom-up reimagining of America. This nation was founded on rot–slavery, annihilation, rape, theft of land, racism, colonialism.

    Does not gun control wind up being a sort of surveillance?

    Toxic masculinity sounds like what academics often call hyper-masculinity. I wonder if brother Russell is making a distinction between the two terms?

    Brother Shabazz (Kwame Zulu Shabazz)

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