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The Culture of Meanness

2016 February 23
by Ian Welsh

One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty.

Most of this seems to come down to three feelings:

  • My life sucks. I have to work a terrible job I hate in order to survive. I have to bow and scrape and do shit I don’t want to do. You should have to as well.
  • Anyone who doesn’t make it must not be willing to suffer as I do, therefore anyone who doesn’t make it deserves to be homeless, go without food, and so on.
  • Anybody who is against us needs to be hurt and humiliated, because that’s how I see my superiors deal with people who go against them.

“Life is shit, therefore your life should be shit.”

“What you’ve got is what you deserve.”

There is also a culture of punching down, as commenter Lisa has observed. America has a high-violence, high-bullying society. As Lisa noted you can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America.

In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death.  Sick people sure don’t deserve proper pain medication. Poor people are poor because they “don’t add value.” If you’re poor, you definitely shouldn’t have good healthcare, because if you don’t have money, you don’t deserve money, and that’s because you’re a waste of space.

This appears to be a result of something simple: At every stage of American life, it’s a zero or negative sum game, and who gets ahead is decided by authority figures. Need to get into a good university? You need good grades from adults, you need to have done the right extra-curricular activities, you need references from adults.

On the job, only a few people will be promoted, and the competition is fierce. But worse, in many fields, people are often let go, and the competition to avoid getting fired or laid off is severe.

Who decides? Your boss. You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck.

When dealing with police, the constant American attitude is OBEY. If you don’t obey, then whatever the police do to you is justified. The police are like bosses in a way. One cop can ruin your life, even if you aren’t killed, beaten, or raped by them. A criminal record means you will never have a good job again.


On your knees, citizen.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

And as my friend Stirling once noted, the next demand after, “Kneel!” is, “On your belly, worm.”

Failure to comply means your advancement is over, and maybe your job.

Americans are desperate for the approval of those in power, because without it, they are destroyed. This is true to a lesser extent in many other Western societies, certainly in Britain.

Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person.

People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave.

The desperate need of certain demographics to keep, say, women or certain minorities down is part of this. These people need to know that there are some people who, no matter how degraded their own situation, are always lower than them, can always be beaten down.

Contrary what many right-wingers think, dominance structures aren’t innate to humanity. Evidence supports that, for most of human existence, we were hopelessly egalitarian. But surplus combined with scarcity changes that, as do large populations.

Still, while high-density agricultural and industrial societies are innately more inequal than paleolithic hunter-gathers, there is plenty of variation, and within that variation plenty more variation as regards to the level of meanness and cruelty–how much a culture can be defined as “bullying.” In the modern, Western world, America ranks high as a mean, bullying culture.

The effects of this cascade, and can be seen as high up as America’s constant wars, drone assassinations, and the routine torture in prisons, and as low down as cities passing by-laws that the homeless can’t be fed or the desperate competition amongst parents and school-children for those few elite university slots which virtually ensure one’s future.

The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.

I find myself without a real conclusion. Obviously (I hope), this is BAD. Obviously it should change. But it’s hard to change something that people have taken and turned into a moral imperative: Be mean to the weak and poor, who deserve their fates. Kick down, kiss up, because a failure to pucker up can have you thrown out of the charmed circle, and obviously higher-ups want to see you acting like them, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

It’s all very depressing, all very unnecessary, and all very much in the interests of the people who run your society.  Meanness in the chattel means they can rarely get together to challenge the masters, because they hate each other more than they hate the masters.

Kindness is a revolutionary act.

63 Responses
  1. V. Arnold permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Wow, this is pretty raw, for you. What happened?
    You did describe the U.S. I see and an increasing militarism/fascism.
    Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld changed everything using 9/11. Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; he read the U.S. exactly right.
    Bin Laden had many encounters with our darkside; so he knew.
    But even with all that it, still takes a compliant population for any of this to come to fruition.
    The U.S. is lost in a world of its making and the world’s starting to pay back in a loss of U.S. influence everywhere.
    Cheers, and don’t let the bastards get you…

  2. highrpm permalink
    February 23, 2016

    no wonder my life sucks. thanks for explaining it to me.

  3. highrpm permalink
    February 23, 2016

    what/ how much of this bullying you describe results from the corrosive “cnn effect”, i.e. the distortions that these mean bullying 24/7 putrifyingly excessively made-up talking heads spew on the imbibers of their shit?

  4. highrpm permalink
    February 23, 2016

    i don’t think the role of a pervasive and bad influencer of the masses — obviously television-gone-badly-distorted readily comes to mind — can be overlooked here.

  5. RJMeyers permalink
    February 23, 2016


    “i don’t think the role of a pervasive and bad influencer of the masses — obviously television-gone-badly-distorted readily comes to mind — can be overlooked here.”

    True, that’s pretty top-down for most people’s day to day lives. Top down approaches must have something to act on at the lower levels, something to activate that was already there. Even the much more dispersed internet / social media channels mostly function as echo chambers of things that exist in people’s lived realities. I think Ian has nailed the approximate location and cause of the nastiness, while TV and media are generally used to mobilize it for competing elite interests.

    V. Arnold:

    “Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld changed everything using 9/11. Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; he read the U.S. exactly right.”

    I think you can go back much further than that. I’m (relatively) young at 34 and so may be speaking out of my butt here, however I’ve read memoirs from people lamenting the nasty turn in US politics since just after World War II. Specifically, Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” contains reflections on WWII from people who went through it, with most of the interviews conducted from the late 60s through the mid-80s. A number of the interviewees remarked that US society took a noticeably nasty, competitive turn shortly after the war ended and lamented that the spirit of cooperation and brotherhood that took hold during the war had eroded so quickly.

    For some, the change happened within a few years of the war. For others, it only gradually became apparent by the early 1980s. It’s been going bad for a while. (I’m also not sure it really was all that great during the war itself, but US society during WWII is practically an alien civilization to someone born in 1982).

  6. V. Arnold permalink
    February 23, 2016

    February 23, 2016

    As I told an ex-student of mine; the system won’t be fixed;
    so fix yourself…
    She understood completely, and was already on her way for just that.

  7. V. Arnold permalink
    February 23, 2016

    February 23, 2016

    Yes, I wouldn’t argue your point. The war with Vietnam was my major turning point; but 9/11 was seminal for the suspension of constitutional rights, bill of rights, U.S. law, and the flagrant violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions against torture, as policy.
    Bush made a mockery of the Trials at Nuremberg; which as the worm turned, were a very bad joke of Kabuki theater in the end. (watch the very excellent movie; The Nuremberg Trials)
    Genuine history rules; so, you’re not wrong; I just have more than twice your years of existence on the third rock from Sol (planetary system), milky way, known universe. 😉
    But I’m not an ageist; so, 34 may know more than 70; time will tell, no?

  8. someofparts permalink
    February 23, 2016

    To me, it seemed to ratchet up in earnest after Reagan kicked aside the fairness rule. Once the requirement that political opinion allow equal air time for opposing views was gone, the shock jocks crawled out of the woodwork. Before Reagan, there was no sustained hate speech in the media.

    Mark Ames produced an interesting book about this –

  9. February 23, 2016

    My children went to school with the children of Enron, Haliburton, KBR, Exxon, Shell, Bechtel, etc. high-level employees. This was during the Skilling and Lay years of Enron. Most of those children were so vicious to their “lesser” classmates that the 5th grade class trip was cancelled as punishment for year-long harassment. Those children are now in Ivy League universities and will take their parents’ place in the world.

  10. February 23, 2016

    Very simply, this kind of thing is the culture of a dying empire, with everyone knowing that it is all coming apart and clawing to be on the top of the heap when it does.

  11. jsn permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Peter Turchin at UConn makes a cogent case that in cultural evolution the function of war has been to clean out this kind of very unhealthy within group competition. His new self published book “Ultrasociety” is a fairly quick read that makes a very strong argument with a surprisingly upbeat conclusion.

    That egalitarianism you mention came with projectile weapons when alphas risked eradication with their domineering ways, rocks and equalizers did what Sam Colt did 10,000 years earlier. God kings had their civilizations overthrown, eventually, by kings who looked after their populations. Societies without the burden of slavery over came those with it because “God favor large battalions” and those lost as slaves or their enforcers are lost to the external power of the state. Etc over 20,000 years until now.

    This history combined with this reality
    suggests change could happen a lot faster than anyone realizes.

  12. Dan Lynch permalink
    February 23, 2016

    If you want to understand why America is mean read “12 Years A Slave.” It comes through loud and clear. Meanness was necessary to keep the slaves under control, especially in the deep South where slaves outnumbered whites. Dehumanization was necessary to get all the whites to go along with it.
    We changed the laws, but we never changed our culture. How do you change a culture?

  13. nihil obstet permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I wish there were good information on the differences between heavy TV watchers and light or non watchers. If I remember correctly, back in the 60s and 70s some research was done which indicated that heavy watchers were more negative about and fearful of outsiders. It seems to me that hardline conservatives are virtually always very heavy TV watchers. We live in a propaganda state, but have little info on how the propaganda works.

  14. February 23, 2016

    This post is really important because this aspect of culture and where it comes from is key to understanding why so many obvious Nice Things that the USA can surely afford just aren’t happening.

  15. S Brennan permalink
    February 23, 2016

    To add to that:

    There is the “so it has ever been in America” which is a very thinly veiled disguise by the author that calls for complete paralysis…or a plan that is so revolutionary it inhabits a single mind…which results completely ineffectual firing of neurons, effectively putting the body politic into helpless quivering tremors.

    Or the call to “return to what worked”, [however imperfectly, for 46 years] and the expansion of those principles and programs, which has a specific agenda and requires the author work at some particular facet, or look to be a hypocrite.

    The upper-class hated FDR, they still do, because he modified capitalism and made it work for the “common welfare” as was his duty. YES, YES, a thousand times YES, it had imperfections, unlike the “plan that is so revolutionary it inhabits a single mind”, which clearly, has no imperfections. In the 60’s we dreamed of perfecting the New Deal, today we deal with the implementation of Milton Friedman’s satanic verses, we have returned to the gilded-age, sans the protection of mercantilism.

  16. EmilianoZ permalink
    February 23, 2016

    RJMeyers notes that the bad turn may have taken place just after WW2. In that case, the turning point was probably FDR’s death and the beginning of the Cold War, red scare, McCarthyism, …

    Oliver Stone (in his “Untold History”) seems to think that had Henry Wallace been VP instead of Truman (and he could have been, he was the popular choice), the Cold War might not have happened at all. Wallace was to the left of FDR, and was hated by the Party’s apparatchiks.

    There’s a book of conversations between John Gerassi and Sartre. The conversations took place in the first half of the 70ies. At some point they talk about that subject of fear and individualism, dog-eat-dog society. Sartre remarks that you can already see it in de Tocqueville’s book. So, maybe it’s just a permanent founding feature of the US, with some fluctuations in its intensity.

  17. February 23, 2016

    Reagan did this, Ian. I gather from study that it happens whenever plutocrats get the upper hand, but in my lifetime Reagan started it as governor in California, where he was the first to fire on students. He and his ilk moved swiftly from mocking Jimmy Carter, the last decent human being in the White House, to subverting every decent impulse in the privileged class — and then their meanness inspired the same response from those they bullied and robbed and then the masses could be easily manipulated into blocs and set to attack each other.

    Europe was blighted in the same way by Thatcher and her gang — and now the ravening beasts of Brussels get off on starving the poor and stealing their national patrimony.

    To bring down all the predators and retake what’s ours (including the milk of human kindness), all we’d have to do is stand together in the might of our numbers. It shouldn’t really be hard.

  18. Spinoza permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I see this at work. I see this in my peers and in my life. For most of my life I have worked in one or another service job. Mostly restaurants as a short order cook with stints in retail.

    There’s an aspect of cruelty that a fair number of leftists don’t think about. Probably because a lot of the left wing intellectuals go to the nice schools like our adversaries and their experience of low wage work is a summer job or once a week outside school hours. The full timers, and this would include myself at times, hold a great deal of resentment for these kids that are working for spending money rather than paying bills or trying to better their chances with side classes at the local community college.

    This phenomenon I’m referring too, I have come to call the “kapo system”. Yes, this is a reference to the nazi camps. For those unfamiliar the SS guards, in order to more fully control the imprisoned, would choose from among the inmates a “kapo”. This was a person who was often crueller to his fellows than even th guards. The kapo received better treatment based on how well he could keep everyone else in line. This led to the inmates feuding among themselves. According to some accounts of Holocaust survivors the kapos were hated even more than the SS.

    In restaurants, retail stores, and other low wage jobs, the boss will typically have favorites they rely on to enforce their rules. Often as not, this favorite functions in a way similar to the kapos of old. Now, these new age kapos don’t have formal titles. Sometimes they do, most usually not. What is common to all is a slavish devotion to the job and to the boss. They will inflict petty cruelties in order to drive the other employees to greater productivity. Do they get rewarded with raises? Sure, sometimes. The most common reward is clear favor from the boss and investiture of authority over the others. Not formally, mind you, but informally. Kapos take their responsibilities seriously. It separates them from others. It makes you feel better.

    I’ve been a “kapo” myself, both formally as an assistant manager and the untitled kind. Most of the times it doesn’t end well. Often I think to myself that I’ll be different from the other suck ups. Rather like an unofficial shop steward to my co workers. Try to shield them from bullshit but also make sure everyone is working well so that we all get paid, and, you know, keep our jobs. The problem, among so many others, is that power over others changes you. I would find myself coming to work in a bad mood, whether personal or work wise, and I would take these frustrations out on others. I would feel better afterwards. It would get the frustration and agression out. Now, in my defense, I would immediately stop. The most disturbing part is that it would happen naturally without any planning.

    I’ve seen kapos treat others with great cruelty. No one does anything about it. The boss rewards you. The cycle continues.

    This power dynamic is rarely addressed in the left wing analysis of the system but this is one of the main forms of hierarchy that many, many people experience on a daily basis. Along with the cops, the loan officers, the landlords, those with greater social status. Power flows up and violence must always flow down.

  19. highrpm permalink
    February 23, 2016

    what then motivates us omega-runt-commoners?

  20. Spinoza permalink
    February 23, 2016

    A fantastic question that I have no answer for as it is above my pay grade.

  21. February 23, 2016

    S. Brennan, I am puzzled by this remark:

    There is the “so it has ever been in America” which is a very thinly veiled disguise by the author that calls for complete paralysis

    “So it has ever been in America” is a simply recounting our history. From smallpox blankets and Indian wars and slavery through the Monroe doctrine, waterboarding (we did that to the Moros in the Philippines), carpet bombing in Southeast Asia, and now our wars for corporate profits and Israel in the Middle East.

    You mentioned the New Deal, there was also the labor union movement which did so much for our working class. The Wall St. Dems who run the party joined with the GOP in selling out the unions, and they’re not trusted stewards of Social Security, either (both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have tried to put it on the cutting board).

    I’m voting for Sanders, but I’m won’t ignore reality.

  22. Erin Gannon permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Annd now [drum roll], the reason I had to get the hell out of San Francisco after 20 years:

    IMO bullying has always been around. But our GenXers bubbled up these “stinky neo-repubs” (as I called them at the time) that were reading Ayn Rand and whinging about men’s rights, etc. Interesting, these were by no means “popular” boys–they were usually awkward and isolated, but their breathtaking arrogance remained unabated. Now one of them is the Speaker of the House.

  23. markfromireland permalink
    February 23, 2016

    @ Erin Harris February 23, 2016

    When I was a schoolboy – so a bit more than four decades ago, I got a scholarship to live and study in various Jesuit schools several of which were in “deep South” Southern states but I also went to one in California. I agree with you about Reagan but I think he or more accurately his administration officials and his backers were walking through an open door. They didn’t have to push the door open it was already wide open.

    Perhaps because I’d already encountered it in Northern Ireland I was very aware of the underlying current of viciousness that seemed to permeate the Southern States, I have to say that I didn’t get that feeling in California or the midwest or subsequently either in New England or the Pacific North West but in the South it was very noticable to me and it has got noticably worse there.

    I think one of the worst developments of the last few decades is how apart from getting worse in the South this viciousness has spread to the remainder of the US.

  24. sdf permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I think one of the worst developments of the last few decades is how apart from getting worse in the South this viciousness has spread to the remainder of the US.

    For many decades there was a quite deliberate push to move industry and commerce out of the North and into the “Sun Belt” states. A large movement of population followed the jobs into those states, and (wittingly or not on their own part) the immigrants largely assimilated the local mores. It was a truly nasty and successful piece of large-scale social engineering that drastically swelled the size of the “red” section of the population.

    This in turn made it possible for that section–once the telecoms revolution occurred, bringing regional cultures into closer and closer contact–under Bush II to culturally conquer the U.S.A. as a whole, and with its dominance of the world hegemon established, from there to press its values onto the entire human race.

  25. markfromireland permalink
    February 23, 2016

    @ sdf – I’ve heard that before and over the years read various articles about the “southernification” of the US. It sounds about right to me.

    Regarding your final sentence this is why I reject arguments from American “liberals” about how the problem lies with “capital” as though it “capital” and hegemony can be separated. “Capital” is indeed international – there are economic oligarchs on every continent but “capital” in the form of the oligarchic class and those who serve them is overwhelmingly concentrated in the US.

  26. Lisa permalink
    February 23, 2016

    There are several elements as to why the US so bad in this (a) history of slavery and current racism (b) authoritarian religiosity (c) a culture of toxic masculinity. Any of them is bad enough, but combined together….

    They all feed a culture of authoritarianism which by its very nature it is built on systematic bullying. Authoritarianism is hierarchal and encourages pre-emptive attacks on those lower down the chain (bullying) as a way of ‘keeping them in their place’.

    There is another factor, authoritarianism is built on hypocrisy. Those at the top get free passes in behaviour not tolerated lower down (paedophilia and abortion are the classics).
    I was struck by an article that I read awhile back, about the anti-abortion protesters….who at other times sneak in for their own.. They are not in actual fact against abortion, they against ‘them’ having abortions.
    There is an implicit rule working here, ‘toe the line, get to the top (or even just a bit higher) and you too do anything you want”. This is a rule organisations like the Catholic Church has used. for centuries to ensure doctrinal purity, buggering little boys was the perk held out. Look at the numbers of paedophile priests kicked out versus the number given the boot for ‘revolutionary political’ issues, accepting LGBTI people and all the sorry rest. Thatcher did this with paedophile Conservative party members as well.

    Some facts are just so glaring they don’t get noticed.

    Authoritarians are also cowards, who live in a state of fear of ‘the other’ imagining all sorts of terrible things they do, mostly things they would like to do if they thought they could get away with it, but will shy away from direct conflict unless the odds are very much in their favour and prefer some ‘agency’ to do the dirty work. The classic behaviour they show in personal relations is ‘passive aggressive’.

    The Abrahamic religions are hierarchal and authoritarian, with their beliefs set around the inherent ‘inferiority’ (or sinfullness) of certain people and the permission given to treat them anyway you want. They are inferior and full of sin just by existing, so punish them.

    Now all societies have these tendencies to a great or lesser extent (see Germany) , but the US has a far higher percentage than most, largely because it is more religious and the type of religion is steeped in the principles of prejudice, hypocrisy and (safe to them) violence against ‘others’.

    It also has another factor, a culture of toxic masculinity. Now women can be (and often are HRC, Thatchers, etc) just be as bad, but when you define masculinity around a very narrow set of allowable behaviours where things like honour, reflection, empathy, intellectualism, gentleness, caring, etc are totally devalued for males then you create a cadre of people that take to bullying authoritarianism like a duck to water.

    I compare so many modern men to my grandfather, fought at the Somme, brought up 3 kids on his own, worked in the shipyards, filled the house with books and known and respected as a ‘hard man’ (in Glasgow terms someone you do not mess with), but a gentleman through and through, who was kind and gentle and would never allow a woman or a kid to be abused in front of him. He tought me to sow and play chess.

    Compared to him they are whiny, bullying, cowardly little boys…who don’t like being told that either.
    The amount of men like that who complain about being ‘bullied’ by feminists (etc) is amazing, when all that is happening is that they are being told their behaviour is appalling and go and change it. My grandfather would have given them a good belt around the ears.

    Then you have this (here in Australia) , perfect toxic masculinity training, if they are already bullying girls half their age at 12 guess how they are going to grow up.
    “Boys are attacking girls in the school playground, but nobody is listening
    On two separate occasions, I have had angry fathers come to my front door to tell me off for asking their sons to leave my daughters alone. Both boys were around 11 or 12 when my girls were half their ages.
    In a nutshell, I was told these boys have the right to roam the neighbourhood, doing as they please, and how dare I say anything at all about it.
    There are some parents out there raising entitled little kings.
    Coming to the front door to intimidate the woman who stood up for her daughters? That’s just further modelling how you treat girls, isn’t it? It wasn’t their mothers coming to speak to me. It was the blokes coming round to sort out the mouthy sheila and put her back in her box.

    And they wonder why the number of single women in the US now exceed the number in a relationship?

    So when you bring all these strands together you have a high violence/high bullying culture that they will defend…by bullying. These people see bullying as an integral part of the social order and they don’t want it to stop.

    The dirty secret about bullies.. they enjoy it. It’s a non financial perk.
    Another dirty little secret, a heck of a lot of people get off on others suffering (Catholics are particularly bad at this because suffering is an integral part of its ideology).

    Here in Australia we have a great organisation called Safe Schools designed to stop bullying. They rolled out a campaign to prevent bullying of LGBTI kids…and guess who are against them?
    Yep right wing, Christian authoritarians, none of whom have said boo about the scandals being reported in our Royal Commission into Child Abuse and the systematic sexual abuse of kids (even those who didn’t actually do it protected those who did).

    But within their worldview that is better (because it is someone powerful doing it) than teaching that (eg) trans kids are actually human and it is unacceptable to attack them.

    The appalling attacks on trans people in the US over these ‘bathroom laws’ is another classic example.

    If you want to change the economic systems you have to address the social systems.
    How often have you seen neo-liberal justified decisions made, that make absolutely no economic sense but harm a lot of people? That’s just bullying by another name.

  27. cripes permalink
    February 23, 2016


    When I was a quality supervisor, I succeeded in securing ISO 9002 certification for the company, introduced SPC (statistical process control), encouraged training of line workers to use micrometers and gauges for quality checks, and brought inventory accuracy from 70% to greater than 95%. Morale improved and workers were contributing and thinking more about their contribution to work and skills.

    Management told me I was sympathizing too much with the troops and got me fired on a trumped-up defect that happened on a shift I didn’t even work.

    This has been the general theme of my jawbs in publishing, manufacturing and nonprofit work.

    No good deed goes unpunished in the USA.

  28. cripes permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Lisa managed to write 1,500 words in the time I wrote 200?
    All I can say is: what she said.

    For those interested in the phenomenon of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers, this is required reading:

    Bob Altemeyer’s – The Authoritarians

    You can’t have the few authoritarian leaders without the many followers willing to do act as enforcers.

  29. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Lisa and/or cripes,

    Since you are proponents of the Frankfurt School’s “authoritarian personality” line – which as I understand pathologizes normal white Christian men – maybe you could answer me this. Does that school have anything to say about communism, given that it killed an order of magnitude more people in the 20th C than fascism did? And if not, would you happen to know why?

  30. Hugh permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I have often written that the three great problems we face today (there are other bigger ones down the road) are kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war. In other words, how a few criminals steal our wealth, the result of that theft, and how this state of affairs is maintained.

    The main weapon of class war is distraction. A wealthy criminal few could never prevail against the many. So they set us against each other, keep our attention off them. Class war is much less about the haves against the have-nots. It is how the haves get us, the rubes, to make war against each other. While we are at each other’s throats, they laugh and live their absurd, parasitic (but incredibly comfortable) lives. Our lack of solidarity, our atomization, engenders our disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and degradation. The culture of meanness, cruelty, and indifference is not a bug. It’s the point.

  31. Lisa permalink
    February 23, 2016

    BlizzardOfOz: Ignoring the ‘straw man’ part of your comment, those who have the authortarian personalty type work within and support any hierarchal system. Communist party, Catholic Church, corporation, whatever…. The old Communist block had its more than fair share of such people.

    If such organisations collapse or are destoroyed those people will just find another one. They are attracted to: power for the sake of power, being reactionary against changes (especially social ones), hierarchies, bullying as a form of social control, fear and hatred of ‘the other’…whoever they may be.

    Rulers of such organsations love them because they are useful cannon foddder to impliment their will (and excuse their behaviour and cover their tracks). There are very few, if any, levels they will not stoop to in inflicting cruelty.

    We see this again in Australia with how we treat kids by sendng them hellish conditions at places like Manus Island, where cruelty is systematic. Just about everyone involved in the decsion making and actions is an authoritatian personality type. And, as usual some might say, these kids are treated far, far worse than paedophile archbishops.

  32. Escher permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I’m young enough not to have known a pre-Reagan U.S.A., but found this enlightening.’s-cheshire-snarl/

  33. Michael permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Not really sure if it was intentional or not (having some familiarity with your work, I think it probably safe to assume it is), but you hit the nail on the head in that second-to-last paragraph.

    This is the very foundation of America’s culture. It didn’t start with Reagan. It didn’t start with Clinton or Bush. It goes much farther back than Truman. The first stone was laid damn near four hundred years ago.

    And a lot of what prevents change from occurring, the oppressed and the slightly less oppressed joining together, can be found right there.

  34. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    February 23, 2016

    What most of you said, especially Dan Lynch.

    The ideology of cruelty was used to justify slavery (and less blatant varieties of coerced labor) and the theft of land from the First Americans, but the ultimate motive for those crimes was, and is, not sadism, but the plainly obvious motive: St. Paul’s“root of all evil”.

    The fundagelicals love to talk about the USA being a “Christian nation”, but our true god is, and always has been, Mammon.

    I think Global Capital is Emperor Palpatine, while Uncle Sam is merely Darth Vader. Mark thinks Vader is his own boss. I suppose the difference matters little for practical purposes.

  35. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Oh yeah, another important factor in the “Southernification” of the USA was the invention of practical air conditioning, which made that southward migration possible. One of the reasons Africans were chosen to be enslaved was that they were thought to be best adapted to the subtropical climate of the southern colonies (later states).

    Haruhi knows I love our mild winters, but I must admit that my Southland, the whole USA, and indeed the whole planet, would probably be better off if the South, like the North, was just too damned cold for plantation crops. 🙁

  36. Lisa permalink
    February 23, 2016

    More on the Australian Safe Schools anti bullying issue, which is a microcosm of all this.
    In the end all those against it are arguing that bulllying is a good thing and that attempts to humanise LGBTI kids and stop it are wrong.

    Again I’ll make a bet that not a single one has commented on or are in the slightest bit concerned about all the revelations from the Child Abuse Commission.

    In fact some (at least) of these so called concerned parents would probably give their child a good hiding if they told them they were being abused by someone powerful (yes this actually happened and almost certainly still happens today). Their ‘concern’ for children, even their own, is ‘skin deep’.

    “Do not allow these funds to be use for the advancement and propagation of gay lesbian agenda. We do not want our children to adopt these unnatural habits,” one says.

    “It is an thinly disguised attempt to indoctrinate our children and young people into accepting homosexuality and ‘gender diversity’ as normal,” another notes.”

    “Another email reads, in its entirety: “Please stop. Gay and lasbians. (Abominacion) God never aprove gays and lasbians. Stop Know.””

    This sums up their conservatism and irrational fears perfectly… ‘it is all a giant conspiracy’.
    ““Why all the propaganda…. seems very political to me. Once again the loud gay community with lots of money is influencing our politicians,” one says.”

  37. Lisa permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Sorry to keep adding to this Safe Scools issue but it encapsulates everything said about ‘mean society’ perfectly in one neat little bundle.

    This is such a classic and is incredibly revealing.
    ““Please do the cost benefit analysis,” a parent implores. “For the potential benefits in relation to a very small percentage of kids who are bullied for not being heterosexually oriented, the cost in damage done in exposing all kids to information that normalises unnatural behaviour is simply not worth it.””

  38. highrpm permalink
    February 23, 2016

    if what that parent implored is mean, then why the hell does society have lane markers on public roads?

  39. Hugh permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Just for general information.

    As per the 1860 Census, of the 15 slave-holding states, only 2 had slave majorities: South Carolina (57.2%) and Mississippi (55.1%). Four states had enslaved populations of 40-50%: Louisiana (47%), Alabama (45.1%), Florida (43.9%), and Georgia (43.7%). Of the border states, Kentucky (12th) had the highest percent of slaves at 19.5%, followed by Maryland (12.7%), Missouri (9.7%), and Delaware (1.6%). In absolute terms, Virginia (8th) had the largest slave population: 490,887 followed by Georgia (6th): 462,232, then Mississippi: 436,696 and South Carolina 402,541. Delaware (15th) had the fewest: 1,798.

  40. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    February 23, 2016

    @highrpm: Exactly what in the unholy name of Tezcatlipoca are you talking about? 😕

  41. Kfish permalink
    February 23, 2016

    I visited the US in 2013, and the thing that struck me the most was seeing a spike strip in the exit lane of a Sunset Boulevard, Beverley Hills bank. If you accidentally tried to enter via the exit lane, it seemed you deserved to have your tyres shredded. But it was on their private property.

  42. darms permalink
    February 24, 2016

    On a similar topic –

  43. darms permalink
    February 24, 2016

    The sify movie version –

  44. Lisa permalink
    February 24, 2016

    darms : Great link, thanks.

  45. Lisa permalink
    February 24, 2016

    One way of reducing the ‘culture of meanness’ is simple politeness in day to day life. Thanks, please and all the rest. Acknowledgement.

    Try an experiment, if someone here says something you agree wth, then say so,.
    “thanks that is a good point’, or ‘dont entirely agree but I agree with most of it’ or anything like that.

    Acknowledge the work put in by someone at least.

    I have a rule with other trans women, we all notriously lack self confidence, I always say something nice about them. Could be their clothes, or a piece of jewellry or a nice scarf or anything, but I make sure I say one good thing about them.
    I know how it feels to have crippling lack of confodence so I try to help others.

    Politeness makes a big difference.

  46. Some Guy permalink
    February 24, 2016

    Here’s a blog post on a TED talk: Does Money Make You Mean> [spoiler: yes] that seems relevant to the topic at hand.

  47. tony permalink
    February 24, 2016


    You are trying to enforce upon men a gender role under which men will enforce certain standards of behaviour on other men. Becoming the sort of hard man your grandfather was is a heavy burden, and as a man I see no reason to pick it up. Nor would I want to risk assault charges because I decided to enforce my moral standards by violence.

    There is a lot to lose by carrying that male role and almost nothing to gain. I would have to put in a lot of work and can face state and individual violence as a result, lose my social standing and property. On the other hand I can be lazy and irresponsible and treat women like I would fellow men. Women have no responsibilities towards me. Why should I adopt responsibilites towards them?

  48. chris permalink
    February 24, 2016

    Yes, our society certainly and clearly rewards bad behavior. There’s every financial incentive to behave badly and we are trained daily that “only losers” cooperate and care about others. There will always be a supply of bad actors who will “step up” to take advantage of others if unchecked (which they are.) The shameless of bad actors, from corporate to Congress (and even in charities of late) is now completely accepted.

    Seems to go back to our founding as a take-what-you-can, rugged individual society which has now run up against scarcity.

    I also wonder about our slaves vs Europe’s serfs and whether the European nobility imbued more of a sense of obligation towards “lessers”, as limited as that was (and ironic).

  49. Dagnarus permalink
    February 24, 2016

    On the subject of both a culture of meanness, and institutions which systematically sexually abuse youths, according to the “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012”

    roughly 9.5% of youth in state juvenile facilities were sexually victimized at least once by youth or staff, in the 12 months leading up to the survey.

    In particular of those in male only facilities roughly 2% were victimized by other youth, whereas 8.2% were victimized by staff. While in female only facilities 5.5% were victimized by other youth whereas 2.2% were victimized by staff.

    Of male youth victimized by staff roughly 5.3% were victimized by male staff, 91.5% victimized by female staff and 3.1% were victimized by both. In the case female youths victimized by staff this is roughly mirrored with roughly 90% victimized by male staff 6.6% victimized by female and 3.3% victimized by both.

    45% of cases of victimization involved force. In 20% of cases where force was used male staff were involved (15% male staff only, 5% both male and female staff), whereas in 80% of these cases it was female staff.

    roughly 18.9% of youth on youth victims were victimized 11 or more times, whereas 20.4% of those victimized by staff were victimized 11 or more times.

    I’m sorry if I’m a bit of topic, but it seems to me that the hall mark of a mean society is taking their problem youth and putting them into an institution where roughly 9.5% of them will be sexually abused every year. I also think that it is useful to point out that women put in positions of authority also seem to show a propensity towards abusing it. I think it is useful to point this out as certain segments of the left seem quite happy to take all that is bad in this world and lump it upon one half of the population. I don’t think this is conducive towards a world in which people can work together towards solving our myriad problems.

  50. Billikin permalink
    February 24, 2016

    I do not encounter much meanness in the U. S. in my daily life, but that’s me. I don’t have much to say, but I do think that it is impossible to understand the culture of the U.S. without recognizing its pervasive racism. While racist speech is frowned upon these days, racism is behind the mistreatment of those considered inferior and undeserving. It also feeds the strife between those who are oppressed, as they direct their anger and aggression against different racial groups instead of uniting against their oppression.

    Politeness and niceness can help alleviate meanness, but can only go so far. I grew up in the Deep South, and southerners are still quite nice. As my fiancee said, they seem to like me, but how can you tell? They’re southern. (They do like her, BTW. :)) But niceness is not enough to overcome racism. Obviously, as far as the South goes.

    When I was a kid, people said, The South shall rise again! But nobody believed it. Well, now it seems like the South has risen again, both politically and culturally. The South I grew up in definitely had an authoritarian culture, which spawned authoritarian personalities. (BTW, being libertarian does not mean that you are not authoritarian. ;)) Perhaps the rise of the South has meant the spread of authoritarianism. IMO, the rise of the South has been a disaster. When I was in my 20s there was talk of a New South, one that preserved the southern virtues of hospitality, graciousness, and kindness but renounced the evils of racism. I am afraid that the risen South looks a lot like the Old South, however.

  51. Chaz permalink
    February 24, 2016

    So marvelously wonderfully and eloquently put into words what I as a visitor have been saying for some time now. I would also add…

    – Brainwashing from day one,
    – Control by religious institutions,
    – Fear of truth and the ability to face up to the truth,
    – Fear of everything that is not you or does not conform or look like you,
    – Ability to live in a perpetual state of contradiction,
    – Delusion that the more jobs and hours you have and work constitutes a hard worker,
    – The craving for a European social system but with American branding that says it is not that same system,
    – Pathological hate for government which is blamed if it did not act and if it did act in any given situation,
    – Despising of the media which most distrust except when they are saying things that ring true with ones own sensibilities then its quoted as a source of fact,
    – Politicization of the court system which directly flies in the face of law and justice,
    – The erroneous belief that this is a democratic society… “the best in the world”… and that voting for anything and everything reaffirms that,
    – god guns veterans and money are the real deity

    etc etc etc

  52. someofparts permalink
    February 24, 2016

    This quote from the great link darms shared –

    “If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs.”

    – right there, THAT is what hit me when Reagan won his first big landslide presidential victory.

  53. Lisa permalink
    February 24, 2016

    tony : I think you missed the point, the key thing was he rased 3 kids on his own, cooked, cleaned, taught , sowed, was gentle, poltite, intelligent, knowledgable, honourable, dignified all without any doubt or or anyone questioning his ‘masculinty’ even in a largely ‘hyper’ masculine culture.
    Later on I met many men who were musicians, artists, writers, all creative, intellgent, wonderful talented people.

    The thing he was ‘broad’, not ‘narrow’ which is the current definition amongst too many these days and if you fall out of those narrow definitions you are not ‘masculine’, which is nonsense.

    In fact by some defintions such as used by idiots like the MRAs he would be seen as some sort of ‘pussy’ or ‘omega’ or something by those not fit to lick his boots (or even survive one day in the shipyards). “What sort of man is one who cannot cook” he would ask.

    I see, here in Australia, too many trying to ft into a narrow stereotype in the way they look, act and speak. Subject matter only sport and derogatory comments about women, speech patterns loud and exageratingly low in pitch, impolite, manspreading, pack behaviour all showing off to each other, anti-intellectualism, we won’t even menton any dignity because there is zero and if any could cook, clean or sow (let alone write or paint) they would never mention it in public.
    Slightly different versions depending on class, but you even see elite male kids acting like total jerks.

    Now everone goes through a period during puberty of being a total idiot at times, but in my era everyone grew up pretty quick. But now many don’t. It is one thing to catcall at 14 it is another to do it at 24 or 34 or 44…..

    An odd thing, my era was sexist but not misogynist, it was also polite, I remember being astonished by a guy I met who just poured out hatred of women because that was so uncommon then.
    Now you see these days some males who just hate women, they absolutely detest them. Bizarre.

    So my argument is that masculinity is as broad a thing as feminity, that there are infinate ways to be a good man and that being ‘good’ is not weakness, but strength. But too many of those attributes are devalued these days.

    Even in the area of violence, a lot of us followed a ‘hero’ culture, sure people fought (Glasgow early 70s, duh) but for a reason and with an equal. You didn’t start fights, you defended yourself and others. The exact opposite of the bully culture, who were seen as scum then.
    We had an unoffical pecking order based on how good a fighter you were, but you got up it by beating the one on a higher level, not picking on those smaller or weaker than you. Those scum who did so learned very quickly not to do it in front of the ‘real fighters’ and scurried out of the way real fast.
    In fact we had mass fights at my school over an older scum kid beating up one of ours who was quite small (we won) that is how important that hero culture was to us was back then.

    So something has gone very wrong in our culture especially amongst men, which is also bizarre because there never has been a better time to be a man in most western countries.

  54. markfromireland permalink
    February 25, 2016

    Half assed analogies to a not very good American cinema series doesn’t cut it. “Capital” in the sense it’s being used here is overwhelmingly American capital – American hegemonic capital. Trying to pretend otherwise is rather more than being merely disingenuous and you know it.

  55. tony permalink
    February 25, 2016


    I stand corrected, thank you.

    What you are desccribing sounds to me like a false self. Sam Vaknin believes that we live in a narcissistic and pschopathic culture so that could be the cause.

    I see those people on the net occasionally, but I never realized they were common enough that you might actually meet them in real life. I think they believe that since women prefer predatory men, they should develop such traits.

  56. markfromireland permalink
    February 25, 2016

    @ Lisa February 24, 2016

    We’re more or less contemporaries and what you describe in Glasgow was the situation when I was growing up in Ireland also. Not surprising really … ahem … Celtic and it’s supporters.

    So something has gone very wrong in our culture especially amongst men, which is also bizarre because there never has been a better time to be a man in most western countries.

    Actually that’s the problem – materially there’s never been a better time to be male in most western countries. They bully and brag and pose because they have motive, means, and the opportunity to do so it saves them actually having to have anything even remotely resembling principles.


  57. Lisa permalink
    February 25, 2016

    Classic uncontrolled male pack behaviour in Brazil, showing in all its glory everything that is wrong with toxic male behaviour within another high bullying/high violence culture.

  58. Lisa permalink
    February 26, 2016

    On this issue please sign the online pettion to support the Australian Safe Schools initiative:

  59. February 29, 2016

    Great piece, Ian!

    Being a naturalized US citizen, I have lived more than half of my life abroad, in a European country. The first striking difference between I noticed was the widespread lack of solidarity among workers, or as we would have called anywhere else, the working class. The constant inculcation of the idea that the US is a classless society seems to serve the sole purpose of eliminating the class conflict and whoever brings that up is regarded as a “divisive” subject. The lack of solidarity is an evident offspring of the “self-reliance” at all cost that our kids are taught everywhere in the educational system.

    Most of the issues described by Ian result directly from the dilution of workers’ rights, including but not limited to, the destruction of unions and the lack of interest of the surviving ones to stick their neck out to make a difference. I don’t have data at hand, but I would not be surprised that societies where life is at the antipodes of what Ian describes have strong unions and a deep sense of solidarity among workers.

    In my spare time, I am an adjunct faculty in a community college that has about 80% of the teaching done by adjuncts. The adjunct union cannot leverage that circumstance to coagulate enough interest in a walkout, mostly because about half of the adjuncts are retirees and recipient of a state pension. They have zero interest in helping younger faculty who struggle financially. That kind of leverage in the “right hands” would yields eventually the elimination of the “adjunct” faculty category and force schools to merge it into full-time and revisit how they spend their funds. The lack of solidarity prevents that from happening.

    Finally, the education system is chartered to perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class. Schools and university follow a multi-tier structure that feed corresponding strata of the public and private activity. The few exceptions serve as “carrot” whereas the abysmal prospects of a low paying job or, worse, a criminal record are the stick to keep everyone in line.

    Roosevelt New Deal had served to mitigate, if not eliminate, some of these circumstances, but the neo-liberal renaissance, enabled by the vast amount of money available to “influence” politicians, has pulled back the US society back toward its state at birth. The ultimate solution (and, I believe, unreachable) is to eliminate private money, any type of private money, from the political process and finance the political parties and candidates ONLY with a fixed amount of public money. Again, I don’t have data at hand, but I would not be surprised that countries where life is “better” are very close to this model than the one we have in thet US. If we were able to get there, life will get better for everyone.

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