Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Male Preening and Posturing: The Race Game Walks Center-Stage

In many species, males make themselves look larger and more dangerous than they are to intimidate rivals and woo mates. The peacock famously extends his broad iridescent fan. Some male birds and some male lizards (the two are closely related in the evolutionary chain) puff out their cheeks and necks to look like hardened little toughs when approached. The pope wears a high hat, the highest hat of all.

Male baboons show their butts—literally so. The bigger and redder, the more dominant. Or so we’re meant to read that script.

This is what I was getting at—some of it—in my postings the last two days about the complex ways in which men intent on dominating seek to manipulate the central symbols of the hierarchical social worlds they construct, to assure that they remain on top and you and I keep our places at the bottom. Females of most species have little invested in phallic-like displays—in big bright tails, grossly extended necks, and the highest hat of all. Ostentation draws predators to their young. And in many species, females are simply too busy bearing and caring for the young to have time left over for preening and power games.

Males are accustomed to feeling powerful when they are on top, when their highest hat of all cows their critics and their word counts as law. As my postings of the last two days have noted, men on top in the culture of the United States have historically used racial and gender symbols to extend and secure their dominance. And they have done so in such a way that the very effects of their domination—the wasted lives of those they subjugate—become an argument for the domination that produced those effects. The game of domination is rigged, such that even the grossest, most easily exposed manipulation of the evidence (my penis is 53 inches long)* does not undermine but actually clenches the rules justifying the domination of those who have made the rules.

Men on top in the culture of the United States have first subjugated people of color and women (or men they regard as woman-like). And they have then pointed to the manifold ways in which their subjugation works to produce self-fulfilling prophecy in the lives of the subjugated, to justify their intent to subjugate these groups in the first place. We wouldn’t have gone after them if they weren’t weak, ripe for domination; and doesn’t their weakness and facility to be dominated illustrate that we were right in our judgment about them, after all?

We keep people of color and women (and woman-like men) in their places because they cannot safely be counted on to run things. Look at how they arrange their own lives. Would you trust them running a bank or a newspaper or a restaurant kitchen or an army or a church or a nation? Let them get out of hand—let them get the upper hand—and what chaos do you imagine will ensue?

And so the continuing use of race as a potent political text to establish the domination of some men over everyone else is not simply about inherited prejudices or unexamined beliefs. It is about strategy: the continued use of race as a potent political text to establish the domination of some men over everyone else is a strategic decision on the part of those men.

When it works to play the race game, play it they will—with a vengeance, if necessary. When the racial text does not work so effectively any longer, when another text—say, the natural superiority of males to females, the predictable trickiness and fecklessness of women and woman-like men—happens to work more effectively, that text will emerge front and center as the expedient text of domination used by powerful men to secure their power over others.

We’re in a period in which the racial text is emerging front and center once again in this nation. As Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh both noted yesterday, the leader of the Republican party Rush “My Cigar’s Bigger Than Yours” Limbaugh is now choosing to push the race theme for all it’s worth—to bring it out of the closet and hope that it will work its magic yet again and sweep Rush’s men back to power in the next election cycle.

And we would be very mistaken if we assumed that Rush “My Cigars Bigger Than Yours” Limbaugh is simply some cackling, maleficent nut case jabbering away in the shadows downstage, as he speaks his racist bit right now. We would be very deluded if we think the decision of the men who rule us to play the race game explicitly again at this moment in our cultural history is not a conscious and deliberate decision made at the highest levels of power right now.

It is a strategic decision on which they are hinging their hopes to return themselves to power—to power over the rest of us. Because the race game works. Because too many white Americans are convinced against all evidence to the contrary that we and not our brothers and sisters of color are the “real” victims of the latest recession, the hard-working, live-right, go-to-church-on-Sunday victims now being asked to foot the bill for loose-living, lazy, immoral, breed-like-rabbits spongers whose skin happens always to be black and brown.

The race game continues to work because we don’t really want to talk about it explicitly in American society. We want to play it. But we don’t want to analyze it or recognize the glaring untenability of its central assumptions.

We aren’t that kind of people. We work hard and play fair. Everyone has a chance in America. Talking about race or gender is just whining, just a way of letting those who never intended to work hard and play fair grab the microphone to wail about discrimination that is not even there at all.

You see how this game is constructed: when it’s played by the real victims of racial or gender discrimination, it’s an illicit game, a diversion from the serious business of life in these God-fearing United States. But when it’s played by the men who rule us, when they choose to play the race game, it’s not only valid, but it’s necessary. It’s their daring decision to alert us to the dangers of what we can all see right in front of our eyes, but few of us are willing to describe.

They’re just describing reality, the stark, unpleasant reality we see but are too tongue-tied to discuss. Tell them, these men who intend to remain on top, that what they’re really doing is not describing reality at all, but imposing grossly inaccurate racial or gender stereotypes on those they want to control, and you’ll find out that you are the one playing the race game.

The game is designed so that only those who designed it can win at it. And it’s designed so that any challenge to its rules only reinforces the rightness of those rules.

And that’s how it’s going to continue to be in these United States, until enough of us are tired of seeing the big baboons strut their big red butts around as they tell us that what we’re seeing ought to strike terror into the foundations of our souls. Things will begin to change when we politely observe that, yes, the butt (or hat or cigar) is indubitably large. But God knows that some things are large and others small, and who in his right mind ever imagined that imposing and intimidating are the hallmarks of moral fortitude? And as Texans are fond of reminding us, the larger the hat the more apt what is lurking underneath it is to be tiny and unimposing.

Big red baboon butts are a dime a dozen. Character is perhaps more rare, and more deserving of our admiration.

* Turns out I was right all along. Matt Kibbe’s penis was never 53 inches long at all. Note the real size of that crowd of millions in D.C. this weekend, as accurate counts begin to make their way into media reports, after Kibbe and Malkin and their epigones tried to skew calculations upwards through deliberate lies about size.