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The pictures themselves are beautiful, in a gray and tragic sort of way.
Among the many images of human kindness still filtering out of Texas, two have generated so much commentary that the photos themselves have become a story. They’ve been lauded as evidence of the universal gallantry of “rednecks” and “real men,” images that affirm the character and social role of the strong, white male archetype that some say is too often demonized as inherently misogynistic and racist.
The first, the image above, features a white Houston police officer walking through water, carrying a distressed Asian woman who cradles her small child. The boy looks as if he’s found sufficient comfort to sleep. The second, below, features another white man, this time possibly an independent volunteer. He’s giving someone behind the camera a full on macho, steely stare, the image of a man strong enough to care but rigid enough not to emote beyond a frown. The man’s massive right hand holds an elderly woman’s. Her head rests on his forearm. It’s just them and floodwaters deep enough for the boat to create a wake.
Should anyone need help understanding what’s been captured in either image, far right, alt-right and just avowedly right-leaning sites have come to the rescue. Here is a portion of what the unidentified writer behind the Modern Man Facebook account said.
This, the writer explained in the post, is precisely what “real men” do.
When disaster strikes, it’s what men do. Real men. Heroic men. American men. And then they’ll knock back a few shots, or a few beers with like-minded men they’ve never met before, and talk about fish, or ten-point bucks, or the benefits of hollow-point ammo, or their F-150.
Representatives of the “Modern Man” Facebook page did not respond to requests for comment.
For all intents and purposes, these men with the ball caps and battle fatigues, beards and frowns are the embodiment of an American action-movie-hero archetype, what most Americans, to varying degrees, understand as the definition of a “real man,” said Andy Horowitz, a professor of history at Tulane University who studies political, cultural and social responses to environmental events, including natural disasters.
“This is one of America’s oldest stories,” Horwitz said, the typical protagonists in word-of-mouth storytelling, news coverage and even historical records of disasters. “That does not mean that these individual men — and I might add, many people — were not brave. But an event like Harvey is hard to wrap your head around. So we all fall back on the stories and the tropes that we know.”
Therein lies one problem with all the enthusiasm for the “country boys” and the “Redneck Army.” There are individuals, some of them white men, who showed up in Texas and came to the rescue. But there are also images of men and women, black and white, Asian and Latino, young and old, large and small, forming human chains to rescue neighbors, feeding people, and making someone who now has little, temporarily warm, dry and safe. All deserve the nation’s gratitude.
But certain right-wing websites, social media feeds and public figures have decided that this is also the moment that will rehab the collective image of America’s white, uber-macho, outdoors-loving set. Many of these same outlets and their fans — often Trump supporters — have spent months rejecting charges that they’re racists who perpetuate the patriarchy. But that rejection ignores that those who supported Trump’s campaign were either attracted to the stereotypes and racial scapegoating that it employed from the day that it began, or were not bothered enough to vote against it.
Given all of that, it’s no wonder individual acts of kindness and decency have been deployed as slate-cleaning devices for an entire group. It’s also no surprise that so many have communed now around the idea that the manly man should be given his proper due.
For some champions of the “redneck,” the “country boy” and the rugged Jeffersonian individualist, the images of those two men engaged in hurricane aid have become evidence that white, masculine men must play a central, if not dominant, role in national life. One need only read what the “real man” contingent is saying about their own.
Matt Walsh, a columnist for a conservative info outlet the Blaze, dispatched a tweet describing the Houston police officer image in terms that all but spelled out: Know your place, it’s white men who really matter in serious times. Anything else is just effete fantasy.
“Disasters turn everybody into a sociologist,” said Horowitz. “What you believe to be the fundamental nature of human beings, what happens, or perhaps should happen, when the social order is stripped away begins to emerge.”
Long before Harvey, “redneck” was a term with its own universe of merch and an identity that some of its users were trying to rebrand. Some self-identified rednecks made a study of actual American history and took public anti-racism stances.
The earliest uses of the term “redneck” in the United States date to about 1890, said Ted Ownby, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
“At that time, ‘red neck’ was a term first of criticism, the way that polite town and city people talked about white Southerners who worked a lot in the fields,” he said. “These were simple, hard-working white folk who had sunburn and therefore, red necks.”
But by the early 20th century, Southern white politicians began referring to themselves as rednecks (now just one word), men who were running to represent the interests of plain, hard-working white people with limited formal education and a strong work ethic, Ownby said. The essential promises of these men’s campaigns: certain rights and opportunities would be reserved for white people and withheld from everyone else.
By the 1990s, redneck had become a stock and trade of country music, some Southern Rock and the essence of comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s career. It was, in some circles, embraced or regarded as entertaining self-deprecation that toyed with stereotypes. In 2004, country music singer Gretchen Wilson released a pop chart hit, “Redneck Woman.”
The people who have turned Hurricane Harvey’s #RedneckArmy into a thing, appear, by and large, to view the images of individual white male volunteers as all the evidence needed that this same “type” of white man plays no part in America’s roiling racial crisis. A Facebook page promoting the “Proud Boys” — a loosely organized group of men bonded by the, shall we say, alternative fact of Western civilization’s superiority and the central role of men in it — has touted the group’s response to the Houston flood as evidence that its members were “missed [sic] judged us as ‘evil racists’.”
The group says it’s not affiliated with the alt-right and is open to both men of color and gay males. Members of the organization were, however, in Charlottesville last month. And in the image below of an all-white collection of an armed, self-appointed Houston anti-looting patrol that circulated on social media last week, all but one man displayed a hand sign that members of the alt-right have often flashed as a joke. Most hate group experts regard the alt-right as one of the fastest growing parts of the American white supremacist movement. (Informative reading about the Proud Boys and their unusual membership rituals can be found here.)
What appears to be taking shape in the national conversation about disaster recovery is praise not only of the individuals doing the work, but of a particular brand of white male masculinity. And with that has come an open attempt to dismiss legitimate concerns about the stereotyping and racism some self-identified “rednecks,” “country boys” and those who admire them engaged in before the storm.
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