The virus is jumping across the pond. I’m talking not about COVID-19 but our lethal mixture of hatred of women, love of guns, and warped right-wing political thought — a toxic concoction that has been perfected right here in the U.S. of A. but is finding converts in other troubled post-industrial lands, including the United Kingdom.
In Plymouth, England — the coastal town famous for launching pilgrims seeking the purity of a new world — a young man named Jake Davison was discovering nothing but trouble in his old world, much of it around the topic of the opposite sex. As he entered his 20s, the British youth took to social media sites like Reddit and YouTube to complain about his lack of success with girls — calling himself “a virgin, fat, ugly,” who’d never been kissed — and, increasingly, about his mom, whom he described as “my vile dysfunctional chaotic mother.”
Lost, the young man increasingly looked to America, so much so that at times he claimed — without evidence — that he’d been born in Phoenix. Some of his U.S. love was harmless — rooting for the New York Giants in the NFL — but increasingly he was drawn to America’s unholy trinity of gun culture, online misogyny, and the right-wing demagogues who exploit the first two. He liked and reposted videos of U.S. citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights at target practice. He found solace in the “black pill” culture of the internet’s so-called incel movement of young men who find common cause in their rage over their virginity in a sexualized world — and also a role model in our nation’s misogynist 45th president, Donald Trump, whom he quoted: “In America we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to want.”
In his historic port city, Davison — who was able to get a gun license, a rarity in the UK — imposed his warped way of life on a gaggle of innocent victims when he finally snapped on Thursday. Starting with the murder of his own 51-year-old mother, the young man then burst out into the neighborhood and fired his pump-action shotgun at anyone he saw — even a 3-year-old girl. By the time he turned the gun on himself, England’s worst mass killer in years had taken five other lives.
The British police were quick to announce that the killing spree was not an act of terrorism. Really? What could be more terrorizing than a man with a gun in a nation with very few of them, converting his hatred for women and modern society into wanton, random murder. In fact, the Plymouth rampage was powerful proof of the ties between hatred toward women and acts of domestic violence and eventual mass shootings.
There is both powerful anecdotal evidence and increasing research that establishes a strong link between mass killings — almost exclusively the province of men — and misogyny. Reports have shown that, despite the popular misconception, a history of domestic violence is a stronger predictor of killing sprees than mental illness. In fact, one study found more than half of mass shootings are domestic violence incidents — as was the case in Plymouth. The man who killed 26 people in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church had been court-martialed for assaulting his wife and stepson. The Pulse nightclub gunman in Orlando was also a wife beater, and so on. The one thing that’s different in 2021 is a global World Wide Web where gross justifications for misogyny like the “incel” movement flourish across national borders.
Nor is it surprising that the young Plymouth killer would be drawn into a right-wing ideology that exalts gun ownership, a libertarian concept of personal freedom ... and Donald Trump. The last dozen years or so have provided powerful proof that nothing fuels the id of the modern conservative more than an almost primitive fear that more power or agency for Blacks or immigrant cultures or women will end the “freedom” of white male supremacy. Indeed, the arrival of an African American president in Barack Obama was only trumped by the threat of a female one in Hillary Clinton in driving the U.S. right toward full-throated authoritarianism.
In the wake of the so-called Tea Party movement that was inaugurated at the same time as Obama, Republican lawmakers arrived at state capitals fired up not to impose fiscal restraint but to limit the freedom of women to control their bodies. Most “red states” enacted creative new restrictions or efforts at total nullification of abortion rights in these years. In Congress, a lot of the force behind the unified GOP opposition to Obamacare was the belief voiced by then-Republican House leader John Boehner that “a ‘yes’ vote for this government takeover of health care is a ‘yes’ vote for sending hard-earned tax dollars to pay for abortions.”
But the great moral panic of 2021 — after the shock of the coronavirus brought lockdowns, joblessness, and an unprecedented rethinking of the meaning of work ... and life — has conservatives even more agitated than usual. The sweeping changes around the workplace, the at least temporary rise in government aid, and longer-term factors like massive college debt and ridiculous urban rents have more women postponing marriage and motherhood or refusing to return to the menial jobs that have become the foundation of late-state capitalism.
The best-selling-author-turned-Ohio-Senate-candidate J.D. Vance went so far, in speaking to a recent forum, to suggest that parents should get rewarded with votes for their children which they (and not, heaven forbid, the children) would control at the ballot box. The Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore, writing about Vance’s bizarre proposal in New York magazine, said it reflects growing GOP digs at Democrats without biological children like Vice President Kamala Harris or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but also “the natalist, pro-high-birth-rate tendency that is just underneath the surface in very conservative Christian circles, where abortion and sometimes even contraception are inconceivable and women are expected to stay at home raising tomorrow’s ‘patriots,’ while taking a big stick to the progressive feminists and sodomites who allegedly run the country and have no interests beyond their immediate libertine gratification.”
These dog whistles about the traditional role of women — coded appeals, in essence, to the uglier concept of male supremacy — are what Republicans hope can win them back control of Congress in the 2022 midterms. The problem with political dog whistles — as we’ve seen again and again over the last half-century — is that not everyone picks up these frequencies in the same way. For the young, atomized and alienated, the promise of white male dominance in an increasingly diverse and complicated world isn’t an election pitch but a call to radicalism. A world in which more women are standing up for more choices than preordained motherhood or humdrum jobs is sold as an existential threat to these isolated young men.
In a globalized society, bad ideas spread even faster than the delta variant of COVID-19. We’ve seen it with the noxious conspiracy theory that is QAnon — which last year inspired the mass killer of 10 people in Germany — and we’ve seen it now in Plymouth, England, with toxic masculinity. Quarantines don’t work. We must fight to eradicate misogyny as a political strategy.
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