Friday, January 30, 2004

The Manly Art of Politics

From one extreme end of the political spectrum (George Will in the Washington Post) to the other (Richard Goldstein in the Nation) the pundits and talking heads seem to agree: Politics Is A Manly Man's Game. Neither writer finds this particularly disconcerting, probably because they are both men. It's nice to have a game all for yourself and to point out that it's because you are better at it.

The only problem with this is, of course, that politics is not a parlour-game, but supposedly the manner in which we take care of our shared concerns. Or is that just propaganda to be fed to the not-so-manly men and all women?

Be as it may, these otherwise completely different political writers are now unanimous in their demands for macho or butch politicians, men bristling with body hair, anger and competitiveness. George Will quotes a writer called Carnes Lord who argues that leadership

"... presupposes some element of "such traditionally manly qualities as competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command.""

There you have it. Woman can't lead because they don't have the manly qualities of competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command. Well, except for the tiny fact that Will provides no evidence of the absence of these qualities in women, and except for the tiny fact that anybody who grew up a girl knows all about womanly competitiveness, aggression and even the ability to lead.

"Can a Democrat be an alpha male?" asks Richard Goldstein in his rambling Nation article. Goldstein sees the popularity of the Republican party among white men as caused by a successful campaign to interpret political issues in symbolic terms as a battle between the white men and everybody else; a war waged to either maintain their supremacy in the society or to end it. And the Republicans are on the side of the white dude, whereas the Democrats are against him. That's why, according to Goldstein, only 22% of white men identify as Democrats.

George Will goes even further:

"New Hampshire confirmed what Iowa intimated. Democrats who are serious about the candidates' electability understand that seriousness requires a retreat from the feminization of politics.

That explains Democrats' short-lived flirtation with Wesley Clark, the empty uniform who, were a Democrat now president, probably would be on the right flank of Republicans running this year. And the Democrats' movement away from feminization explains John Kerry's brisk forward march, with a military cadence.

Kerry's "patrician aloofness" may be manly reticence. But he has embraced today's confessional ethos by making autobiography serve as political philosophy and reducing his narrative to a war story. Riding his Harley, gunning for Iowa pheasants and playing hockey in New Hampshire have expressed his campaign's subtext: manliness."

A retreat from the feminization of politics is what we need now according to Will? Hmmm. What's the number of women in the U.S. Congress again? How many female American presidents can you list? How many are running for the job of the next president? How much feminization of politics would be acceptable to Will? One percent? Or even less?

Goldstein doesn't pretend that politics has somehow suddenly been feminized, but he does have other odd ideas. For one, he thinks that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers has a clear symbolic significance as an attack on traditional masculinity (never mind that the attackers also were men, never mind that women also died in this atrocity, never mind that this utterly trivializes the real human suffering that took place), and that this attack reinforces our desire for a strong Daddy to lead and protect us. And presumably the new phallic symbol that will be erected in the place of the destroyed Towers.

Because Will is a conservative, he's quite comfortable with a plan to masculinize politics even further. Because Goldstein is not, he adds the obligatory nod to us non-macho readers at the end of his article:

"We may resent the fact that Americans regard the penis and its symbolic projections as synonymous with strength. But the psychic reality cannot be denied. At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation. The trick is to be the man women admire, blacks find credible and white guys bond with. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it or Bush will ride the backlash to the White House - with a real mandate this time."

And what is the backlash that will take Bush back to the White House? It's not obvious from Goldstein's article, unless he means the need to protect our phallic symbols. I wonder if this bit is from an older article, written about 2000. Never mind, in comparison to Will's feverish ramblings (do read them if you doubt me) Goldstein comes across clear as water. Sort of.

Now, as I have no penis handy myself, I do resent the 'fact' that Americans regard the penis as synonymous with strength. Maybe I should strike Will and Goldstein down with my divine feminine pinky, just to remind them not to make simplistic stereotyping generalizations at the expense of real critical thought. Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth the First of England, Catharine the Great of Russia and many other woman leaders in history show that strength is not only a manly characteristic. Women can be competitive, aggressive and ruthless, and men can be cooperative, kind and merciful. Human beings have access to all sorts personality traits, and to assume that they are solely determined by what might be found between the legs is preposterous and insulting. And not only insulting to women, as may have been the intention of these articles, but also to men and especially white men whom Goldstein at least regards as immature teenagers permanently worried about the next erection and its size and unable to differentiate their own human worth from such considerations.