The "masculinity"-obsessed MSNBC anchor illustrates a predominant theme lurking in our political discourse.
(updated below – updated again)
I’ve written a fair amount recently about the media’s obsession with the faux-masculinity of GOP candidates in general, and the tough-guy military persona of Fred Thompson in particular, and don’t have all that much to add about that specific topic at the moment. Still, this dialogue last night about Fred Thompson from Chris Matthews — who is really just the slightly less restrained id version of most media stars — is simply too extraordinary not to note:
Does [Fred Thompson] have sex appeal? I’m looking at this guy and I’m trying to find out the new order of things, and what works for women and what doesn’t. Does this guy have some sort of thing going for him that I should notice? . . .
Gene, do you think there’s a sex appeal for this guy, this sort of mature, older man, you know? He looks sort of seasoned and in charge of himself. What is this appeal? Because I keep star quality. You were throwing the word out, shining star, Ana Marie, before I checked you on it. . . .
Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of — a little bit of cigar smoke? You know, whatever.
What can even be said about that? And nobody really seems to find this odd or disturbing or objectionable at all — that night after night, one of the featured “journalists” of a major news network goes on television and, with some of our most prestigious journalists assembled with him, speaks admiringly about the smells and arousing masculinity and the “daddy” qualities of various political officials, and that this metric is, more or less, the full extent of his political analysis.
During the last week, when I was traveling, I spent substantial time driving in a rental car, and thus had the opportunity to listen for large chunks of time to The Rush Limbaugh Show, which I hadn’t actually heard in several years. Virtually the entire show is now devoted to an overt celebration of masculinity — by Rush Limbaugh — and to claims that Democrats and liberals lack masculinity.
As but one example, Rush claimed that the New York Times buried the story of the JFK terrorist plot on page C30, immediately prior to the Sports Section, because nobody would see it there, because the “wimps and sissies who read the New York Times don’t read the Sports section, because it’s too macho for them.”
And just as Glenn Reynolds has done, Rush has developed a virtual obsession with the book The Dangerous Book for Boys, geared towards teaching “boys how to be boys.” Rush spent the week hailing it as the antidote to what he calls the “Emasculation of America.”
Identically, Reynolds on his blog has promoted the book a disturbing 17 times in the last six weeks alone. When doing so, he routinely proclaims things such as “maybe there’s hope,” and — most revealingly — has fretted: “Are we turning into a nation of wimps?” It is the identity of the “we” in that sentence where all the meaning lies. Perhaps if “we” torture enough bound and gagged prisoners and bomb enough countries, “we” can rid ourselves of that worry.
Republicans have long tried to exploit masculinity images and depict Democrats and liberals as effeminate and therefore weak. That is not new. But what is new is how explicit and upfront and unabashed this all is now. And what is most striking about it is that — literally in almost every case — the most vocal crusaders for Hard-Core Traditional Masculinity, the Virtues of Machismo, are the ones who so plainly lack those qualities on every level.
There are few things more disorienting than listening to Rush Limbaugh declare himself the icon of machismo and masculinity and mock others as “wimps.” And if you look at those who have this obsession — the Chris Matthews and Glenn Reynolds and Jonah Goldbergs and Victor Davis Hansons — what one finds in almost every case is that those who want to convert our political process and especially our national policies into a means of proving one’s “traditional masculine virtues” — the physically courageous warriors unbound by effete conventions — themselves could not be further removed from those attributes, and have lives which are entirely devoid of such “virtues.”
This is notable not merely because this pervasive and insecure craving for artificial masculinity supplants rational and substantive political considerations, though it does do that. Nor is it notable merely because it is so unpleasant, even cringe-inducing to behold, though it is that, too. Instead, this topic is unavoidable, really at the center of our political discourse, because it leads directly to some of our most significant and controversial political decisions.
That is why I thought General Clark’s response to Joe Lieberman’s obscenely casual call for war with Iran was so appropriate and piercing:
Only someone who never wore the uniform or thought seriously about national security would make threats at this point.
Clark there was not making a standard “chickenhawk” argument that only those who served in the military can advocate for war. Rather, Clark was pointing out that those for whom “war” is but an abstract concept, a psychological device for feeling “strong” and “resolute,” are able to cheer wars on from a safe distance even in the most reckless and destructive way.
Recall the illustrative incident conveyed by Jeffrey Goldberg in his New Yorker profile of Lieberman from several months ago:
Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was “Behind Enemy Lines,” in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, “Yeah!” and “All right!”
In light of Lieberman’s call this weekend for war with Iran, that incident is actually grotesque, as it is painfully clear that Lieberman sees those bombs he wants dropped on countless Iranians as indistinguishable from the “onscreen hits” he so clumsily and embarrassingly cheered on — as invigorating and stimulating events which establish the “American power” that he so loves and craves.
That same dynamic is what enables an effete and bloated figure like Rush Limbaugh to parade around as the icon of masculinity, and it is what drives him not only to dismiss — but to overtly celebrate — the abuses of Abu Grahib and other torture policies as just good, clean fun had by real men (like Rush, as proven by his support for it). As John McCain pointed out in the GOP debate in South Carolina, men who have actually served in the military find torture to be dishonorable, dangerous and repulsive. Only those with a throbbing need to demonstrate their masculine virtues would glibly embrace things of that sort.
This dynamic is depressingly pervasive, yet incomparably significant. It’s what causes someone like Glenn Reynolds — who, by his own daily admission, devotes his life to attending convention center conferences on space and playing around with new, cool gadgets in the fun room in his house, like a sheltered adolescent in his secret treehouse club — to fret: “Are we turning into a nation of wimps?,” and directly in response to that concern, to urge “more rubble, less trouble” — meaning that he wants to watch on his television set as the U.S. military flattens neighborhoods and slaughters more people in the name of “strength,” “resolve,” and “power.”
And this is what causes someone like Jonah Goldberg — who needs no description — to explicitly invoke the fear of being the kid who gets bullied in middle school as a rationale for starting wars, or to urge that “the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” And it’s what spawns someone like Victor Davis Hanson devoting himself to celebrating the Glories of Manly Warfare and to attacking the effete weakness of academics, even though he has never been near military service and has spent most of his career as a Classics Professor at California State University at Fresno. And it is what subjects us to hearing people like James Taranto mock John Edwards for being insufficiently masculine. And on and on and on.
In the 1990s, this mentality manifested as the relatively innocuous trend whereby middle-aged men left their wives at home to go dress up in military costumes and march around on the weekend play-acting as “militia” comrades or, relatedly, as not merely advocates of gun rights, but as worshippers of guns themselves. But now — really, ever since the 9/11 attacks so frightened so many of them and made them feel, to use Rush’s formulation, as though they were besieged by “The Emasculating of America” — this mentality has come to dominate our political culture, as those who so plainly perceive themselves (understandably) to be lacking the traditional masculine virtues degrade and exploit our political system in order to satisfy those cravings.
And as a result of all of this, our dominant political discourse is comprised of people like Rush Limbaugh calling others “wimps and sissies” for not supporting the torture policies he loves, and people like Joe Lieberman wanting to start new wars because they think it is a way that they become “powerful,” and “journalists” like Chris Matthews, on a nightly basis, deciding who the best presidential candidates are based upon who emanates the strongest cigar odors from their bodies.
None of this is about psychoanalyzing anyone. Unfortunately, all of this comes explicitly from their own mouths, and is tragically unavoidable. And there is simply no way to understand our degraded political discourse and the radical militarism of the last six years without thinking about these twisted character traits, which their carriers tout quite overtly and even proudly.
UPDATE: Based, presumably, on the theory that a picture is worth 1,000 words, TS, over at Blue Texan’s blog, provides a photographic illustration of one of the blogosphere’s most popular tough-guy warriors.
It is indeed difficult to avoid noticing the physical similarity among so many of our right-wing warriors who mock the alleged effeteness and lack of masculinity of their political opponents and who engage in chest-beating war dances and emphasize the need for manly courage and resolve, in the form of more wars fought by others, brutal interrogation techniques and the like. It is perfectly legitimate — I would say necessary — to examine these issues with regard to those who perpetually insinuate these sorts of faux masculinity themes into our public sphere.
The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.
Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.
It is difficult to describe our tough-guy, faux-masculine warriors any better than that.
UPDATE III: Digby has been writing about these issues very insightfully for quite some time, and one of the first and best posts I ever read on this topic was a Digby post from back in July 2005, before I even began blogging, which traces this dynamic back to its roots in the Vietnam era. I highly recommend that post.
UPDATE IV: C&L has the video clips of Matthews from last night, during which he also wonders whether Thompson is the “new Robert Redford or Matt Damon.”