Thursday, March 13, 2008

The F-Word, the N-Word, and the Men Who Rule Us

It’s already starting. Not just the mudslinging. Not just the use of the N-word (on which, more below).

No, it’s the F-word that’s now starting to intrude—yet again, oh so predictably—into what passes for intelligent political discourse in these United States. And not only among the Republicans, where the word has become a lame and tired slur about Democratic candidates and their supporters. Now the F-word’s being whispered, insinuated by Democrats about other Democrats.
Specifically, it’s being mouthed by Hilary supporters against Obama and his supporters. Not out in the open. Not yet. But it’s there, nonetheless, lurking behind the campaign stage props, as a kind of subliminal discourse crooking its finger to us and wooing us aside to take in an earful. The seductive subliminal F-word insinuation in intra-Democratic political discourse is inviting us to think twice before we cast our votes for a man who may betray our hope—our hope to bring a real man to the White House, someone who will take firm command of the nation and wrest it to some semblance of respectability again.
Maureen Dowd—that tart-tongued doyenne of op-eddom who can be counted on (inevitably) to speak the words others are too timid to blurt right out—used it last Sunday in her Times piece “The Monster Mash”: “But his impassioned egghead advisers have made his campaign seem not only out of his control, but effete and vaguely foreign — the same unflattering light that doomed Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.”
Effete: the F-word. In case you failed to catch the drift, Dowd’s talking about Obama here. Obama: effete. Effete Obama. At a subliminal level, through internet chatter with its constant low-level framing of discourse that eventually issues in media verdicts, Obama and his supporters are being tarred with the F-word brush. And by other Democrats.
The Clinton campaign has already made the F-word subtext explicit, with a Clinton aide claiming last week that Obama tends to attract “boutique” states. The aide observed, “Obama has won the small caucus states with the latte-sipping crowd. They don’t need a president, they need a feeling.”
A feeling. As if feeling is a bad thing? As if good political decisions are made by people who never count the cost of said decisions—the human cost? Who can’t make moral decisions because they lack the ability to imagine in some empathetic, feeling way (a fundamental moral impulse) the effect of their decisions on others?
And sipping: you know, what ladies do. At tea parties. Or after a day of exhausting boutique shopping. Real men gulp and swig. Women and girly men sip, as they sink with a contented sigh into the plush café banquette (preferably velvet-covered, and in an unobtrusive pattern) after a hard morning of shlepping bags from boutique to boutique.
What’s fascinating about this F-word text is not that it’s being used in the current campaign. What’s fascinating is that supporters of one Democratic candidate are trying it out on another: Clinton supporters suggesting that Hilary really does have the brass ones that effete Obama lacks. When the phone rings, count on Hilary to do the right thing—the manly thing. She’s tough. Little matters like feelings aren’t going to get in her way, nosireebob. Mr. Obama can’t best her in the late-night-crisis-match because, presumably, he’ll be too busy kicking back in his ergonomic t.v. lounger, nibbling dark chocolates and sipping lattes while he scans online boutique ads for organic lavender air fresheners and more fetching window treatments (puddles of raw silk? something light and airy for a change?) for the Oval Office.
What the hell is going on here? It’s one thing when Squeaky Chris Matthews or I-Am-So a Real Man! Tucker Carlson use these slimy slurs against the Democratic candidate. Both of those shining exemplars of real man mid-American political “thinking” are predictable in their insinuations about who’s The Man and who’s not: if for no other reason, they have to pull out all the stops with the F-word discourse to try to convince themselves that yes they are real men: Gimme another, make it a Bud!
But Democrats vs. Democrats? One Democrat trying to out-macho the other? This is . . . unseemly. This is idiotic. This low, ugly use of the F-word, of insinuations about masculinity, needs to stop. It gets us nowhere: precisely nowhere. Look at where we have ended up, when we let this discourse dominate our political life. Look at what we elect when we let dim-witted subliminal hints about what constitutes a real man drive our voting decisions. And I do mean what:
George W. Bush climbing out of an airplane, strutting down an aircraft carrier in a crotch-enhanced uniform, informing us we’ve just won a war that’s nowhere near “won,” while Squeaky Chris fans himself and gushes, "He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West. We're proud of our President. Americans love having a guy as President, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton.... Women like a guy who's President. Check it out."
Are we proud, Chris?
Look at what we elect, when we let the bigger-phallus-better-leader fantasy determine our political choices: George W. Bush; David Vitter; and now Eliot Spitzer.
Yes, Eliot Spitzer. And that’s where the N-word comes in. I don’t mean the totally reprehensible playing of the race card—by Democrats against other Democrats!—in the current presidential campaign. I’d like to draw attention, instead, to the N-word that never quite speaks its name.
I’m talking about entitlement. The moment the Spitzer story broke, the Internet was abuzz with stories about how the likes of Tucker Carlson were immediately speaking out in defense of Mr. Spitzer: everybody does it after all. Real men do it. Bogus pseudo-scientific articles began to flood cyberspace about how males are just hard-wired to philander, to take what’s there for the taking, while women stay home and grind the grain, dandle the babies, keep the fire burning in the cave to welcome home their roving, hunting warriors.
Interesting, but I don’t recall any of that talk when Larry Craig was caught with his pants down, so to speak, in that men’s room in Minneapolis. Not that what Larry Craig did is in the slightest bit defensible—any more defensible than what Diaper Dave did with his ladies of the night in New Orleans, or what we now know Eliot Spitzer has done.
What I’m trying to draw attention to, however, is the discrepancy in the way “mainstream” culture and the “mainstream” media are treating Spitzer, and how they treated Larry Craig. Remember Tucker Carlson’s giggles when Larry Craig got caught—the endless musing about how the gays signal each other in men’s rooms, the giddy confession that he once bashed a man in the head for coming on to him in a restroom?
Here’s what Carlson had to say immediately after the news about Eliot Spitzer broke: “Getting all high-handed that a grown man went to a prostitute is nauseating . . . . A lot of us are like him, frankly . . . . Now just because he goes to a hooker they're going to be getting all high handed on him . . . I just think this is one of the least sleazy things he's done."
The N-word: what Eliot Spitzer did (and Bill Clinton, and David Vitter, and countless others) is not about grunting cavemen chasing bison and booty while the little woman stays home with the children. It’s about E-N-T-I-T-L-E-M-E-N-T.
It’s about what we allow “real men” to do. We. Allow. We allow. We have formed a cultural consensus, with pseudo-religious warrants propping it up, that allows real men to get away with things. With a lot. With robbing, pillaging, raping, bashing. And with telling us that they set, interpret, and enforce the moral standards for the rest of us.
Real men are all about entitlement. Entitlement is what being a real man is all about. This is why the phallus-challenged will forever clamor to prove to us that they are real men, whether the price they have to pay to do so is to down another Bud, enhance the crotch of their fake military uniform, slap the little woman around a bit, shake their croziers and wobble their wattles at us as they define the moral rules that apply to everyone else.
Real men have an astonishing sense of entitlement, a sense those of us who knew from early in our lives that we weren’t real men—not in that sense, at least—can only look at from the sidelines and wonder about in baffled amazement. Who died and made the phallus God? Specifically, who died and made their phallus God?
Entitlement: the world is there for the picking—women; cars; women; money; women; plum jobs; women; cigars; women; CEO positions; women; the presidency; women; the pilot’s seat; women . . . . This is the message with which real men grow up. This is the message that bombards them constantly from the time they are old enough to observe the world around them. Real men get perks. F-word men don’t. Real men are entitled. No one else is so entitled, not in the astonishing sense in which real men are entitled.
Enough. It’s time for us, as a human community, as a nation, to imagine some other way of doing business, if we expect to have any business to do at all in the future. The astonishing entitlement of real men has royally screwed up the world, the planet, and just about anything human beings have touched. It’s time that someone besides real men begins to re-think all the warrants in all the world religions that have enabled this behavior of total entitlement.
It’s time for women and gay men, for instance, to read the scriptures and discover the abundant evidence there that, despite the claims of the real men who purport to own the scriptures, God does not dispense blessings or curses on the basis of who does or does not possess a phallus, or a phallus larger than anyone else’s. It’s time to say enough to the crude male-entitlement assumptions that run all through our religious traditions.
And, in case you don’t still know where I stand on these issues after reading the preceding, I’ll end with a poem I wrote several years ago after having endured a good portion of my purgatorial allotment (or so I devoutly hope) on an airplane with some of the men who rule us. The poem’s called “The Men Who Rule Us”:

You see them everywhere.

They straddle airplane seats
Casting words from lips bonetight and cutting,
Aimed to whip and cow
With illusions of power unspeakable.

Outside the plane the wet Louisiana clay
Secretes its honeyed humors,
Mists that wreathe the grass in light
And seduce the eye to inward grace.

The girls, they say.
I had three girls typing all day
Stewardess honey give me real magazines
Success, something I can sink my teeth into
Ate too many damn steaks
Sat around the bar and drank too many damn drinks
Gotta lose weight.

The world's enchained in power
By men who talk slantwise, crosswise,
And not at all,
But shoot words out like missiles
To spin their meaning into nothingness.


Save through a language
That drives clean
And homes the heart to wonder
Like a fog-enshrouded field?

In this world,
The only coming God
Is one who walks in haze
Outside the plane.

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