John Strausbaugh admits that his latest book was written as an act of provocation. In Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps and Stoopits," a former editor at the New York Press who is now a frequent contributor to the New York Times argues that creeping "sissitude" has rendered Americans incapable of thinking for themselves or acting as individuals. Shooting from both hips, Strausbaugh assails both political parties, most of the 2008 presidential candidates, the obese, global warming activists, people who use iPods, religious fundamentalists, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. The provocation seems to have worked, if the fight that nearly broke out in the audience at a recent "Sissy Nation" reading broadcast by C-SPAN is any measure. Recently, Salon asked Strausbaugh to explain how and why everyone in America became a sissy. The interview was conducted, sissy fashion, by telephone.
What happened at the C-SPAN reading? A fight broke out?
It was fun. There was a guy there, clearly not digging my stuff, which is great, you always want to have at least one heckler in the audience to liven things up. And he stood up and he was speaking his mind, which I thought was pretty un-sissy of him actually, but somebody else was like, "Oh, shut up," and they started going back and forth ... But in the end, we were all sissies and there wasn't a fight.
The term "sissy" is usually used in relation to homosexuals and women. "Sissy Nation" sounds like a book about hyper-masculinity. Why did you choose that title?
That's specifically why I did it. I thought of a lot of different ways to put it and I knew that the title was going to offend a lot of people and turn off a lot of people because they thought somehow I was making fun of women or gay males. But part of it, I don't think it's so bad to offend people. I don't think it's so bad to push their outrage buttons. We have slid into a situation where our public discourse is so excruciatingly polite and euphemistic that we avoid saying anything. So once in a while just to pop off is not such a bad thing. And then it gave me the opportunity to say this isn't a book about gay men. This is about our loss of spine and guts. It has nothing to do with bulging biceps. I'm certainly not saying women are specifically sissies. So it gave me the opportunity to take that old term and turn it on its head, which is a rhetorical trick.
What makes the United States a "Sissy Nation"?
We have become a sissy culture. I don't mean sissy in the old style of manly man vs. girly man or male vs. female or big guy vs. little guy. Sissy doesn't have anything to do in my definition with your biceps. It's got to do with your brains and your commitment and your conviction and your ability to stand up as an individual. We've become, I think, a herd of Holsteins. Soft, lazy, stupid, knee-jerk, head-bobbing, fundamentalist, high-brained, less-than-human humans now. We're becoming that way. We're not all uniformly and thoroughly sissified yet, but we're working on it. The book is to raise my hand and say this is kind of a problem and we need to think about this. I think the genius about the American experiment in democracy is to create this social environment where each and every one of us has the opportunity as individuals to achieve what we can, to be as happy as we can, to live as fulfilled a life as we can, and we're getting away from that by identifying ourselves by which pack of Holsteins we have to be members of.
How about the people running for president right now? Is Barack Obama a sissy? Is Hillary Clinton a sissy?
We all swim in this sea of sissitude, and so none of us is unaffected by it. I've been watching the primaries and it strikes me, on both sides, as sissy candidates for a Sissy Nation. I remember a time that when you were running for president, you were relatively a larger-than-life character. You may have been an enormous scoundrel or an enormous idiot, but you were enormous. You were much larger than life. And these folks, Huckabee looks like he's the type of guy you'd go into a Pep Boys to buy two radial tires from and he'd sell you four because he's such a nice guy. Hillary just seems like a corporate lawyer. Barack Obama seems like a really nice guy, like your high school class president, but none of them seem like large characters, none of them seem to have large visions. The ones who do seem to have some vision, actually, are the outsiders, who don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting anywhere. The Ron Pauls and the Kucinichs. And I always like those sort of characters because, since they know they're not going to win and they're just running to get their ideas out there, they don't grovel for our votes, they don't lie to us, they tell us what they think, because they know they're not going to win anyway.
John McCain was a prisoner of war and survived torture. Is he a sissy?
He's clearly been through stuff that an awful lot of the rest of us can't even imagine, so you got to give him that. But to me, it's not as important whether any of them are personally sissies, because I don't know [McCain], I don't know Hillary, and I don't know Barack. It's about whether they play sissy politics as usual. I wrote them all a letter and we sent them all a copy of the book, not that I expect any of them to actually read it. What I say to them, whoever you are, basically it'd be great, being such a public figure, if you'd provide us an example of un-sissitude. We don't need you to lead us out of our sissitude, but we could use some good examples. In the end you'd be doing us a better service that way than by wooing our votes for sissy in chief.
What exactly are sissy politics?
Politics has become almost entirely a politics of things that we fear, things that make us anxious, so it's illegal aliens, it's war, it's terrorism, you know, I can't afford my taxes, it's healthcare, which I think is used more as a scare tactic than some socialized medicine vision of the future. And none of them, with the possible exception of Obama, because he does give good speeches, are inspiring us to take charge of our own lives, our own happiness, our own fulfillment, our own sort of being the best human being each one of us can be. I'm not saying that politicians have ever encouraged us to do that. But I think we have gotten to such a low point in our sissitude that we could really use someone to encourage us to think for ourselves.
Which politicians in recent history would qualify as larger than life?
There have been tons of them in the 20th century. Look at LBJ. Look at Richard Nixon. Look at JFK. I think the descent begins sometime around the time of Jimmy Carter and I remember thinking it then. Jimmy seemed much smaller than the guys who had gone before him. For all his flaws, Reagan was a larger-than-life character. That's all he was. He was our logo. He was like having one of the Pep Boys for president, but he was larger than life. This president stupid we've had for the last eight years, oh my god, that guy, you wouldn't even buy the radial tires from that guy.
You view George Washington as someone who is not a sissy, correct?
I guess. Although, the classic example is the myth of the cherry tree and he only fessed up once he got caught. There's a lot of problems with the Founding Fathers as individuals, but what was amazing, what was a watershed in human history, was the ideal that they placed in front of us and that all of us have failed to live up to. But it's a great ideal. But I think we've come through the last 30 years of being told how awful our Founding Fathers were and what terrible victims we all are. If we don't even trust that ideal anymore, then that's too bad.
Throughout the book, you attribute our national sissitude to the post-World War II suburbanization of America. What does suburbanization have to do with it?
A whole lot of different kinds of trends and impacts have converged to create Sissy Nation. Suburbanization is one of them, because in the suburbs we were able to create these perfect fantasies, virtual reality, virtual communities. People in the suburbs don't know each other, they don't even know their neighbors quite often. They live in their identical houses, they drive their identical cars, wearing their identical mall clothes to their identical office cubicles or their identical schools, and come back in their identical cars, sit down in their identical living rooms, and watch their identical TV shows. So one of the things that did was reinforce a trend that had been going on for some time, since at least the 1880s, where we were moving from what had been the earlier idea of capitalism, the entrepreneurial idea, the craftsman, the individual, to the corporate ideal, where we've all become worker bees and consumers and cogs in the giant corporate maw. By the '50s, exponential numbers of us were being sucked up into that corporate maw. And at the same time the suburbs were being created, so they reinforced each other.
You give a list of people whom you don't consider sissies that includes Lance Armstrong and the Williams sisters. However, you also mention Arnold Schwarzenegger as "resisting Sissitude" because he has "some clear opinions, values and convictions, and [is] willing to act on them." But Schwarzenegger isn't really a tough guy, he just acts like one in movies.
No, I know. [Sissitude] has nothing to do with being a tough guy. I mean, look at the guy, all he really had going for him was that he had spent a lot of time at the gym. He had a terrible accent, he's kind of a silly character, and yet even with this extremely limited skill set, look what he's done for himself. You could argue if you're a Californian and you happen to like that guy, that look at what he's done for your state. I'm not a Californian, so I don't have an opinion on that. But it is amazing that he became governor of California considering that he had what you have to admit is a pretty limited skill set. He can't even act, for God's sake. He sort of went his own way and made things happen for himself. And you got to give him credit for that.
Based on this criteria, why is Al Gore one of your ultimate Sissies? He was highlighting the issue of global warming long before it was fashionable.
What Al has become in my opinion is a high priest of the secular apocalyptic religion of global warming. There are people who believe that global warming is happening and a lot of people who believe in global warming the same way that fundamentalist Christians believe in the Bible and fundamentalist Muslims believe in the Quran. Al's movie, I thought, was preaching to those fundamentalist global warming converts.
You compare the way people believe in global warming, the advocates of it, to people who believe fervently in a religious faith. All the scientific evidence points to global warming being a real phenomenon. Do you really think it's fair to compare belief in confirmable fact to religious faith?
There are some people who don't just believe that global warming is happening, they believe in global warming. It's become an apocalyptic secular religion for them. In some ways, those people love the fact that there's global warming. "Oh my god, the world's going to end and it's our fault."
As in they have a death wish?
As in the same way that apocalyptic Christians and apocalyptic Muslims talk about it. There have been, over the years, secular apocalyptic sects. Look how nuts everybody went over Y2K and that crap. In a way, people do enjoy scaring themselves, and collecting their bottled water and their Saltines for the end of time. It's a powerfully attractive horror story for people. I don't think personally that all the evidence is in that global warming is entirely dependent on human activity. And even if it is, it's one thing to believe that it's happening and another thing to fervently believe in it and reject anybody who raises his hand and questions it as a blasphemer and the antichrist, which is the way true believers in global warming do react to those people who don't believe in it.
How many times have you met somebody who just instantly says global warming is happening because they went to see an Al Gore movie? They're not reading the scientific data. There's still plenty of scientific data out there that says wait a minute, that might not be happening, this might be happening. There's tons, there's more data than you or I could possibly read. There are people out there who are not basing their opinions on the data. They're receiving the wisdom and running with it. And I think we do that a lot. A part of it is that there's too much data out there for anyone to absorb anymore. And we're so poorly educated in America, that among the industrialized nations we're below average and falling lower all the time in reading, math and general problem-solving skills. We're not studying the data on anything and basing our decisions on it.
So you're not convinced that global warming exists? And for those who do believe it exists, wouldn't ensuring that the world survives be a pressing issue?
How much impact we have over the world surviving is a debate we can have at another point. That can be debated. Whether or not global warming is entirely the result of carbon gases and things humans are doing to the planet is a debatable point. There's another point of view that the planet takes care of itself relatively well. And when it's fed up with us, it'll just get rid of us. Like fleas off a dog. We'll die. But the planet will go on without us. And whatever the next species that comes along -- the dolphins will take over for us. So that is another point of view that isn't raised at all. I'm not saying global warming isn't happening, but I'm saying there's room for debate about how it's happening, why it's happening and what to do about it, and there are global warming fanatics, just like there are fanatics for a lot of other things, like Republicans who believe all Democrats are the antichrist. And fanatical Democrats. And fanatical feminists who go batshit when Ted Kennedy comes out for Barack Obama. There are fanatics everywhere. And what they're fanatical about is a type of fundamentalism.
Are you a sissy?
I say on Page One that I'm a sissy too. I don't think any of us can avoid at least some sissitude and I've got plenty of sissitude in me. I use an iPod at the gym. I consider myself a sissy who looked around, one of the Holsteins who raised his head and said, wait, wait, we're all marching in the same direction here, and this is not a good direction to be marching in, maybe we should be heading over in that other direction. But I do not claim anywhere to be a non-sissy.
Is there anyway to get around or above the preponderance of sissitude?
The start, which is one of the main reasons I wrote the book, is to realize it. Like the people say at AA, the first step is to admit you're an alcoholic, and the first step in Sissy's Anonymous is to admit you're a sissy. And then to look to yourself and look to ways you're not speaking your own mind when you could be, you're not standing up for yourself when you could be, when you're acting, when you're being politically correct, when you're being knee-jerk, when you're being a fundamentalist, when you're fearing the entire world around you. I mean we're afraid of sunshine now, we're afraid of air, we're afraid of water, we're afraid of dirt. I think the first step is to realize it in yourself and then it's up to you to decide if you care, and if you care, I don't think it's that hard to start catching yourself being a sissy and stop.
The most controversial passage in the book might be when you suggest that the U.S.'s response to 9/11 was unimaginative and "sissified." You propose "The Race for the Keys" instead. You say President Bush should have called Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, and demanded Osama bin Laden's head by "noon tomorrow" or else the U.S. would release a high-yield neutron bomb over Mecca, killing the entire population. Then you would've had Jews and Africans brought into Mecca so that they could take the house and car keys of the departed for their own. You're joking, right?
I believe that a) it couldn't have been any less effective than what we've done. Part of the problem with the way we go to war now is that we think wars can be fought cleanly and surgically and nice-guy-ly and at long-distance. We fight virtual wars now. War is a horrible, horrible business. It's the worst thing human beings do to one another in groups and I'm of the opinion that if you're going to go to war, you should go to war the way we did the last time we fought one correctly, which was World War II. We went berserk and we showed the world that we were the world's berserkers. And it ended World War II. Fighting it this way has dragged it out how many years now, and how many more years are we going to be stuck there? We saw that in Vietnam and we've seen that in other places. So yeah, I'm joking about "The Race for the Keys," but I'm not joking about, if you're going to fight it, get in there and fight it.
How many of the arguments and statements that you make in the book do you really believe and how many are there for the sake of provocation? For example, you say that if there is a God that perhaps Osama bin Laden really was sent to punish us. If it's hyperbole for the sake of attention, aren't you an Ann Coulter-like caricature?
To an extent, I am parodying the Ann Coulter-like caricatures. But what I do like about the Ann Coulter types is that they break through, in all their rudeness and their outrageousness, the level of sissy, polite discourse that we have fallen into as a nation, where nobody says anything in any strong terms. Everyone is dissembling and prevaricating, and being careful not to offend anyone else. I think it's good to offend one another once in a while. I think it's good to outrage one another once in a while. It's good to be balls-out and to say what you mean and maybe even to exaggerate what you mean, just to get through that sort of blanket of politeness that covers all of our public discourse now.
In the book, you define an unwillingness to grapple with the complexity of the world, to view everything in black vs. white, good vs. evil dualities à la President Bush as one of the key characteristics of being a sissy. But don't you ignore complexities yourself by creating these huge generalities and labeling practically everyone in America as a sissy?
Ha. Maybe. Maybe I am. Again, I don't claim to not be a sissy. I wanted to write a book that read the way a one-hour ranting monologue would sound if I were standing in front of you doing it. So there are some generalizations and some glossing going on there, obviously. Then again, sissies don't seem to want to read anything more than 10 pages. I have written long, deep books and no one seemed to want to read them, so I thought, I'll just keep this simple, I want to get this out, and we can fill in the blanks later.
Do you think writing this book has made you less of a sissy?
Good question. No. Probably not. I'm still a sissy. I'm thinking about it a lot more now, obviously, but I'm probably obsessing about it now like a sissy.