An American all-male neo-fascist militia group called “Proud Boys” came to international attention recently when Trump gave it explicit public support.
Their name suggests ‘proud [to be] boys,' announcing the roots of this movement in the deadly difficulties Modern white men have with their identities, as their patriarchal authority erodes from multiple directions.
Trump and this group have in common climate denial and misogyny, now established as being highly correlated: ‘Even casual observers of denialist activities likely notice an obvious pattern; with rare exceptions […], the most prominent denialists are conservative white males’. A research publication in 2012 by McCright and Dunlap, asking whether this pattern existed in the American public as well as US elites, concluded that ‘the unique views of conservative white males contribute significantly to the high level of climate change denial in the United States’. Yet there is little climate psychology or psycho-social analysis that looks beyond correlation at gender differences in the relation of us ‘Moderns’, to climate change, biodiversity loss, nature and human transformation at the end of modernity.
A note on “digesting” petromasculinity
I picked up the theme of petromasculinity in Richard Pauli’s daily Climate Vote briefings. I’ve begun to wonder about my manner of reading these, especially lately when I’ve found it difficult to bring myself to do so. I approach them in an “efficient” (get this over with) fashion, scanning for any useful material I should file for later Digest use. If I dip into the list of defensive processes familiar to CPA members, I think I would label my process at such times ‘disavowal’. If I allowed full space to the dreadful implications of what I read every day, I feel as if I wouldn’t have space for anything much else. As mid-month approaches, it is time to firm up my theme for the Digest. Toxic masculinity. But I have only just brought myself to read the link material that I carefully filed from an edition of Climate Vote a few weeks back. I notice that I am doing this in an evasive fashion. One piece I read is accompanied by an image of a “Proud Boy”, back to the camera, machine gun in full view, huge heavy shoulders, black and yellow gear, face part covered. I shudder. I move to the reading below, nerving myself to find out more about this minuscule group affirmed by Trump. When I dig into the defensive processes of dysfunctional masculinity at this historic time when modernity’s collapse no longer can be hidden, it is hard to imagine a creative, earth-protecting future. With the US election imminent – an election whose effects spread across the whole world – petromasculinity shows me misogynistic, racist, extractivist violence. No wonder it is hard to read and feel at the same time: this is social collapse in the time of climate disruption.
Proud of the Modern world
In Emily Atkin’s informative piece on Proud Boys and Petromasculinity, their oath on joining stood out for me: “I am a proud western chauvinist, I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world”. It showed me another link between climate politics and what are now offhandedly called the culture wars. It surprised me that what I see as the ending of the arc of modernity in human history has also (surreptitiously?) entered the culture of these fragile young white American men. The threat to fossil fuel modernity is so visceral that they have built it, on oath, into their identities. It doesn’t look good for the required changes in Modern identity. Their oath and the adoption of the identity label western chauvinist (capturing the decades-old connotations of ‘chauvinist’ in the feminist label male chauvinist pigs) encapsulates racism, misogyny and fossil fuel Modernism. In this world view, human superiority gives them the right to exploit nature, extract fossil fuels to superpower their fragile masculinity. The non-West (global South) is positioned in this oath as the despised other, split off as shameful from their pride in the trappings of now threatened Modernity. Shame, regret, refusal of dependence on (mother) nature are shadowed here – along with the inevitability of climate collapse. What is left for these men but denialism?
Modernity has been responsible too for the binary production of gender difference, along with the violent suppression in ‘the Age of Reason’ of peasant societies that lived close to the land, to other living creatures and to seasonal cycles. The machine age is a product of patriarchy (as the Proud Boys assert), producing models of extreme masculinity and femininity, even while feminism has attempted to contest these.
Atkins provided me with the link to the 2018 publication by Cara Dagett, the woman who coined the term Petromasculinity. For Dagett, ‘Taking petro-masculinity seriously means paying attention to the thwarted desires of privileged patriarchies as they lose their fossil fantasies.’ A trend in the US called “rollin’ coal” enacts in ritual fashion what Dagett succinctly sums up as ‘fossil fuel violence experienced as masculinised power’. ‘Rollin’ coal involves retro-fitting a diesel truck so that its engine can be flooded with excess gas, producing thick plumes of black smoke.’ An old practice in the world of diesel truck racing, in 2014 rollin’ coal went on to the roads to protest against environmental protections. Reading this, I think I learned something about the sacredness of fossil fuels to many Modern men that I’d not appreciated before.
Rigidity and Flow
Proud Boys have another oath: no wanking. Perhaps easy to dismiss at first glance but Dagett reveals something profound here too, linking the control of male sexual desire to rigidity as an omnipresent trait of the authoritarian personality:
In Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit’s study of the proto-Nazi freikorps, rigidity is an enduring theme for the ‘soldier-male dam’ … none of the streams … can be allowed to flow. He is out to prevent all of them from flowing: “imaginary” and real streams, streams of sperm and desire. … All of these flows are shut off.
This rigidity is caught up in the repressive gender binary where women are associated with flow, with water, with ‘all that threatens to escape and dissolve the male ego’. It is suggestive, then, that the connotations of extraction – using powerful phallic machines – are caught up in these fantasies. Quoting Dagett again: ‘Fossil fuel systems provide a domain for explosive letting go, and all the pleasures that come with it – drilling, digging, fracking, mountaintop removal, diesel trucks. In the words of Sarah Palin, “drill, baby, drill!”’
Carybé, born 1911 in Argentina, later resident in Bahia, Northern Brazil. This work is from his Mural dos Orixas, the African divinities brought by the Yoruba people to Brazil.
Desire and Refusal
Dagett’s conclusion brings these observations right into the centre of CPA purposes:
When petro-masculinity is at stake, climate denial is best understood through desire, rather than as a failure of scientific communication or reason. In other words, an attachment to the righteousness of fossil fuel lifestyles, and to all the hierarchies that depend upon fossil fuel, produces a desire to not just deny, but to refuse climate change. Refusing climate change is distinct from ignoring climate change, which is effectively what many people who otherwise acknowledge its reality do.