American Populism And White Anxiety About The New Definition Of “Man” (Timothy McGee)

Current Events

The wrong version of this article was inadvertently published earlier.  The one below is the correct one.

The present political crisis represented by this election isn’t simply the outcome of more fundamental class dynamics or at root just an expression of white racial resentment. The crisis is a crisis about America, about being American, where being American is synonymous with “civilized” humanity, meaning, with humanity in its most general and proper form, what Sylvia Wynter calls “Man.”

For Wynter, European Christians in the sixteenth century no longer viewed themselves as a particular, divinely favored mode of human life. Instead, they took their cultural forms to be identical with human nature itself. Lacking aspects of their culture—for instance, alphabetic writing, commodity trading, particular kinds of clothing or clothing at all—now came to signify a defect in being human, a failure to have fully entered the rational organization of life that defines what it means to be fully and unquestionably human, Man.

Put simply, in the sixteenth century, the “others” to European Christians became “others” to humanity itself, and global history unfolds within this dynamic. As Wynter says in an interview with Greg Thomas, “our issue is not the issue of ‘race.’ Our issue is the issue of the genre of ‘Man.’ It is the issue of the ‘genre’ of ‘Man’ that causes all the ‘-isms’” (55).

It should not surprise us that Donald Trump is not leading a revolt of the poorest of the poor whites. His supporters are those who have been centrally invested in Man. They’ve been led to believe and largely experienced that America is the best of what it means to be human, and America means their way of life. Now, they can no longer guarantee that the future of America will bend toward and move through them.

This loss of centrality and control quite easily leads to shock, outrage, defensiveness, and even a violent backlash; after all, what’s at stake is quite simply everything: a whole way of life, and civilization itself. The most dominant alternative is a kind of multicultural global capitalism that ostensibly welcomes everyone but actually excludes “deplorable” folks like them—and many others. So it’s difficult to imagine an alternative other than this frantic and increasingly violent effort to hold onto control, no matter what.

So yes, race has everything to do with it, and, yes, so does class. But the problem is that a good number of white people are “losing their minds”  because they cannot control and dominate the present genre of being human. They are experiencing the harrowing possibility, in fact, that they might become racialized. Their geographical location, physical appearance, and diction might start to influence and determine their access to power and resources, their presumed respectability and fitness for inclusion, for the worse.

My suggestion, and I’m talking directly to my fellow white friends here: we need to first show our aggrieved white family and friends that their efforts to retain or regain control are undermining the basic democratic system they believe makes America great (think: voter ID, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement through the criminal justice system, a candidate casting doubt on elections and encouraging voter intimidation, etc.).

Whether through a lingering attachment to the “idea” of American democracy or through the realization that an authoritarian turn will not actually serve their own self-interests, hopefully this growing anti-democratic tendency will at least cause them to rethink their current political trajectory.

At this point, then, economic and theological arguments might hold more weight. On the economic side, one can go back through the history of the U.S. and show that alongside the values of democracy, there have been large portions of non-elites—including white persons—who have not benefited from the system but have suffered in various ways under it. From there, it might even be possible to disconnect their desires from this figure of Man and imagine other ways of being human, perhaps even forging political connections to communities with much longer and stronger traditions of moving against and beyond this politics of Man.

Theologically, as Willie Jennings has pointed out, the racial imagination—or, in Wynter’s terms, the invention of Man—involves a theological failure: we forget that we were Gentiles (Eph. 2:11), not the chosen people of God but outsiders. Everything, theologically speaking, hangs not on us policing the borders of belonging but on our being “unnaturally” (Rom. 11:24) grafted into another people. Without the need or desire to control who belongs, and without the idolatrous task to secure the future of “the human,” we are free to live this life now with an intense desire to join and be intimate with others.

This theological point is quite important, for without this positive invitation to another way of life the condemnation of the present investment in Man lacks the quality of “good news.” As Karl Barth put it, “the human nature of Jesus spares and forbids us our own” (43). Sparing us this dangerous, unstable, and completely destructive investment in a human nature of our own comes first. It is grace, and because of this grace, it is a law, forbidding our commitment to this project, Man.

Whether other rhetorical, political, and theological points seem more strategic to emphasize, the essential point here is that we have to understand that this present political crisis is a response to a shift in the “genre” of Man: all of our “-isms” follow from it.

Our theological and political tasks certainly won’t be resolved, no matter what happens with this election. For us white Christians, we must learn to think and live other than for the sake of propping up or holding onto this shifting figure of Man, in either its conservative racial-nationalist or its liberal, globally-capitalist iterations. And we have to find ways of speaking about this to white folks on both sides as good news.

Timothy McGee is a doctoral candidate at Southern Methodist University in the field of Systematic Theology and a recipient of the 2016 Dissertation Fellowship from the Louisville Institute.

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