Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo.
Reviewed by Samuel Wood
Sometimes we are browsing in a bookstore and we happen to pick up a book. Maybe the cover appeals or the title provokes, so we read the jacket copy, scan a page or two, and wonder “Is this book for me?” or “Who is this book for?”. In the case of Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo, the answer is anyone who watched the events of January 6th and wondered how the world got there.
After those events it is hard to disagree with the title. An armed assault on the US government for the purpose of taking selfies does not speak of the pursuit of excellence. Rather, it shows the white American male as a menace both to himself and to the world. Indeed, as Ijeoma Oluo brings us up to 2020, the operative word is “legacy”. That is why I am immensely glad to have picked up her new book and taken it home.
Beginning with Buffalo Bill and the “Winning of the West”, Oluo traces the (self-) idealized identity of the white American male from the nineteenth century to 2014 and 2015 and the occupation of federal land by antigovernment militias. What becomes clear is that, after centuries of political coddling, pandering and complacency, January’s attack was nothing new but an inevitability coming home to roost in the US Capitol.In her lively, chatty style, Oluo looks at the white American male and his catastrophic effects on women, Black, indigenous and minority communities through education, housing, labour, party politics, presidents (Bill Clinton, we’re looking at you), policing, and her own liberal activist circles. I especially enjoyed the chapter on that most masculine of sports, American football, in which the hypocrisy is most vividly and cruelly on display.
This identity is devastating, not least to white American men themselves who, for all their entitlement and status, are expected to inhabit an impossible ideal that leaves them without creativity, style or compassion. Trapped in its narrowness, flesh and blood men are insecure, disappointed, and caught in systems that prevent them from identifying with anything other than the stunted yet dangerous figures taking the Capitol. Confronted with the disappointments of this ideal, they rage against their failure to meet it, a rage which Oluo helps us understand not just in their violence against perceived threats but also in their anger against themselves, their suicides, and the “deaths of despair” of America’s opioid crisis.
So, here’s the thing about reading Mediocre: Ijeoma Oluo sees and knows the pain of White Male America and wants him to escape it. For his survival and ours, it is essential he rise to her challenge.
Sam Wood is Japan-born and Scottish-raised. He went to Dawson College in the ‘90s and returned to Montreal in 2011. The authors he goes back to are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Ellison, and Ali Smith.