Saturday, February 28, 2009

When Men Are “Men” Someone Needs To Get Killed? by Anthony McCarthy

Around the new year, Suzie and I posted pieces about the male mystique and nostalgia for the time when men were men and women were their support staff, at best.

This op-ed from this morning’s paper started out having me wondering if Jay Atkinson had been cribbing from us but it didn’t take long to be assured that he wasn’t.

IN ITS PUERILE, lowest-common-denominator way, Hollywood has always reflected society. The movies "Taken," starring Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative, and "The Wrestler," with Mickey Rourke as an aging grappler whose life and career have reached terminal velocity, share in their depictions of the Alpha Male* separated from his kin by the vicissitudes of the warrior profession.

Atkinson goes through the two movies concentrating on the main characters macho conduct.

In "Taken," Neeson's Mills pursues the mobsters who have kidnapped his 17-year-old daughter. Midway through, Mills accuses a former colleague of skimming money from the bad guys, asking the man why he'd do such a thing. I have to take care of my family, says the sleazy agent.

Mills notes that he's doing the same thing, and then shoots the man's wife to clarify his point. "It's only a flesh wound," he says.

Real men shoot women to punctuate an argument? And this is supposed to be, what? A model of behavior?

The Ram's [Mickey Rourke’s] situation is trickier, and sadder. It was his job to make a spectacle of himself and now, tired, arthritic, with the sagging muscles of an old circus bear, he wants his little girl to take care of him. But she won't, so the Ram starts training for another bout. He's a man who gave the world nothing, and has nothing left to give.

At this point I still expected Atkinson to break into the largely unexplored territory to talk about how macho men have always required women to act as their servants. The ultra-macho, field and stream equivalent of office mommies. Mommies they had sex with at the end of the day or between assignments. But no.

These days, it's no longer fashionable to be a man - to inhabit one's masculinity as previous generations have done. Compare baseball star Alex Rodriquez, under scrutiny for using steroids, with Red Sox great Ted Williams, who sacrificed the prime of his career to serve as a Marine aviator. (Williams flew 39 combat missions in Korea and crash-landed after taking small-arms fire.) Williams's baseball statistics, including a lifetime batting average of .344, compare favorably with A-Rod's. And in this age of the pseudo-man, it's hard to imagine Rodriquez visiting the troops in Iraq, let alone volunteering to serve there.

Interestingly, departing from his theme, Atkinson doesn’t seem to remember that there were better examples of celluloid warriors, exemplars of the warrior mystique who studiously got no closer to battle than shaking hands with their stunt double. And as the John Waynes and Ronald Reagans were doing that, there were others in the movies who, though having seen actual combat, didn’t choose to become ads for the Military-Industrial Complex.

CIA agent Bryan Mills and pro wrestler Randy the Ram worked long hours, far from home; as "real" men, their wives and children expected them to be intrepid, warlike, and venturesome.

This sentence strikes me as being deeply weird. Is there really a part of the psycho-CIA agent and the pro-wrestler of the “Ram” variety that is motivated primarily by the heroic idol they think their wives and kids see in them? Somehow, I tend to doubt that’s their primary motive, though it might be a wishful afterthought. I think it’s probably more realistic to suspect that the macho image has always been deeply narcissistic, motivated by an overgrown ego that adults outgrow. The glorious, heroic image that they want to see in the eyes of their wives and children is of themselves, after all.

Atkinson’s use of the baseball players is inappropriate for a deeper reason as well. Though I’m not a baseball fan, being from New England, I learned a lot about Ted Williams and his youngest son’s tragic stories. I think investigating the son’s sadly bizarre inability to break free from the heroic myth of his father and his inability to live up to it might shed a lot of light on that kind of heroism. That’s not to take anything from Ted William’s service during the Second World War, but that wasn’t what primarily defined his mythic image. And while he was a hero, he was also a rather unattractive person too.

Getting back to Atkinson:

Today, the American warrior is an anachronism - witness how we outsource some of the fighting in the Middle East to companies like Blackwater, then turn their operatives into pariahs when they come home with blood on their hands. In yesteryear, suburban dads taught their sons how to kick a football, or pitch horseshoes. Nowadays, they hire private coaches and personal trainers, then stand aside for these professionals. Meanwhile, soldiers and airmen in nondescript Virginia office parks kill aspiring insurgents half a world away, via predator drones.

This mess of a paragraph requires a longer commentary.

Notice two things, how the mercenaries of Blackwater who have done so much to deserve their status as pariahs, are equated with someone like Williams who volunteered to be a combatant in a provked war. And that Atkinson wants us to sympathize with the mercenaries who have “blood on their hands”. There is a fundamental contradiction in the “warrior” image, of someone who is honored for doing something awful, killing.

Atkinson, like most people, don’t differentiate in why the killing was done. America’s involvement in the Second World War was due to an attack made on our country and to defeat the allied fascist-Nazi forces who were set on conquest and imposing a brutal regime of continual war on the world. Iraq was an unprovoked war based in lies and with the clear goal of controlling the oil resources of the country. There is a world of difference in the two wars and the motives of a volunteer and a mercenary in either one. The blood on the hands of those who fought Imperial Japan in the 1940s and those who contracted to protect the Imperial administrators of the conquered Iraq isn’t the same. While it is impossible to describe every single act in the two wars and come to a black and white distinction, ignoring the reasons that produced the wars, the motives of the “warriors” and the victims of the violence they committed and other aspects of it, produces nothing but a tidy lie of convenience. That, thanks to science, some of the thugs can do it from a desk, out of harms way, doesn’t sanctify the thuggery of those who lack the technical skills required to use predator drones.

Warriors have only one possibly legitimate role, that is to protect a society from an unprovoked, outside attack. It isn’t to provide fantasy heroics for desk jockeys and the entertainment industry. That kind of dirty work is a world removed from truly filthy work of imperial conquest and rule. Mercenaries are highly paid thugs. In a democracy it’s the role of the warrior to re-enter civilian society. It isn’t to act as an advertisement and bulwark of an imperial system. It is right that a those required to repel that kind of attack are respected and compensated for their service. Parades and the phony honors substituted are both the cheap way out and a danger to a civilian democracy.

By the time Atkinson gets back to making the absurdly tenuous link between homicidal mercenaries and suburban dads who leave their SONS’ training in vicarious combat to professional coaches, it has veered into the totally surreal.

Considering how he began with the Ram’s desire to have his estranged DAUGHTER take care of him, you would think that the dad’s failures re co-ed activities would be more relevant. Though the absence of the daughter in this passage is revealing, isn’t it.

Here is how Atkinson finishes his wild ride into nostalgia.

There are a few holdouts. Recently I met an out-of-work carpenter in Fitzwilliam, N.H.; because of the poor economy, he and his ex-wife and three children continue to share their modest, two-bedroom home. To give everyone a break, the carpenter, an avid hunter, goes out and sits in the woods until dark; he's killed two deer that way, dressing them out on the back porch so his kids could see how it's done.

Just can’t get away from killing as the real determinant of manhood, can he.

Any single dad will tell you that family court punishes those men who persist in doing what men were once mandated to do: range wide in hunting, bringing back the kill at irregular intervals, adorned with its blood. In today's world, you must produce the trophy without being the one who kills it. In Hollywood, anyway, the only acceptable role is man-by-proxy: You must get someone else to do your dirty work, or risk losing everything.

So, this is the goal of the piece? The typical “Men’s rights” whine that they can’t get away with trying to live out the fantasies of Walter Mitty when they’ve fathered children? That their play warrior lives don’t tend to jibe with responsible parenting? And that the courts sometimes make them pay up? No, it’s not a matter of getting someone else to do “your dirty work”, it’s to grow up because someone has to take care of the children you’ve produced.

I’m sorry if this piece is all over the place but the habit of simplifying and conflating so many aspects of the masculine mystique is deeply embedded and the destructive results are a major problem for us all. Masculinity is a mess, you can’t deconstruct it without getting your hands dirty.

* Can’t help but noticing this bit of ethological clap trap, adopting the language of assumptions made about animal behavior for our society. It really isn’t very useful when trying to change things for the better, is it.