Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Men in Full. posted by Richard Seymour
Who's the Daddy? It's a question we have all had to ask ourselves at some point in our lives. Is that the sweet looking old man on the television? The next-door neighbour with ungainly muscles and a shaven head? Is it the man who cleans the windows and offers reassuring winks as he wipes away the soapy liquid? The question is more urgent than ever when catastrophe strikes. The American empire's assertion of manly virtues, barbarian virtues, the values of the Rough Rider, the frontier man, the Teddy Roosevelt civilised beast, has been a minor obsession of mine for a while. In this connection, Susan Faludi's latest, The Terror Dream, is a brilliant analysis of the post-9/11 culture in America. I've always liked Faludi's work: she deals effectively both with the American assault on women (especially African American women), and with the reasons why men are made to feel small, and cheated in light of the decline of meaningful work. This one draws on the work of the eminent psychosocial theorist Richard Slotkin to examine the animating myths of American culture that were so readily (re)activated in light of the conflagrations in New York and Washington.
The arrival of the 'barbarians' (the term widely used, without irony, after 9/11) not only gave masculinism a fresh lease of life against what are perceived as the decadent, feminising years of the Clinton administration; it gave a floundering Bush the chance to foster paternal projection by feeding us with baby talk, in the manner of Reagan. This is the significance of 'The Hug', the stage-managed encounter between Bush and Ashley Faulkner, photographed by her Republican father and sent to some people who rapidly dispersed it among 'close friends, whereupon it found its way through all the usual right-wing outlets and then the mainstream media. Bush, it transpired, was the Daddy of the nation, and his hugs would become legendary, even after he had presided over the contrived destruction by neglect (and then seige) of New Orleans. I have written before about how nationalism relies on familial (patriarchal) metaphors, and anyone who wants to understand the regressive tendencies of nationalism need only consult Peter Blickle and Uli Linke. American nationalism has emphasised these trends, despite the occasional nod to diversity. It is instructive to see Faludi's discussion of Bush going through his reassuringly fatherly routines: he discusses his favourite gun, stages photoshoots while swinging axes and chainsaws, catches big fat fish. "Protection fantasies," Faludi says, have become ubiquitous. Thus, Kerry repeatedly poses with a rifle (not unlike this man in a way), and photograghs of this are used on electioneering leaflets with the slogan 'Kerry Will Protect Ohio'. Pollsters and PR men seemed to decide that venturing into the wild and killing animals proved manhood: and Americans wanted nothing more than a big fat manhood hovering over them.
As the Rough Riders were sent forth to tame the Islamic 'wildnerness' with its bloody frontiers, pundits celebrated the re-emergence of the John Wayne style in American life. A wave of mass violence and terror was favoured. NYT columnist enthused: "We will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders and continue fighting." It would be like the Indian Wars again, except with much more efficient killing machines. This was the Last Stand (that fictitious episode that survived in mythology, like the heroic defiance of the Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis, long after the correct empirical data had been established), and this time Custer would win. Faludi comments that "the dreamscape in which Americans dwelled since the disaster" was a sortie into the past, especially into the references of the 1950s. Now, it so happens that the 1950s is a hot-button cultural space for the American right - that glorious decade of lynching, repression of commies, union-busting, genocidal war in Korea with barely a whiff of dissent, before the sexual deviants and wimmin and blacks and commies ganged up to ruin the place. You can't prise Newt Gingrich's frigid fingers off those Norman Rockwell illustrations. Reagan would be parted with his Fiftiana kitsch only over his cold dead body. It is a symbol of moral clarity in a land of confusion and turmoil. And so, once again, the white male, with a suitably racialised Tonto in tow, is the future of humanity.
What happens to women in this story? They can return to domestic docility, or they can take up decoy roles in the military. They can be like the precious Jessica Lynch, for example, whose story has been written and rewritten on her behalf and without her input several times. The helpless white girl roughed up by savages, rescued by the Rough Riders: a damsel in distress and danger, in need of humanitarian intervention. They can be weeping widows and mothers (unless their sons have been killed as a result of an unpopular war - intriguingly, there is no mention of Cindy Sheehan in Faludi's book). They can be "Let's Roll" widows, provided they stick with the media script provided in advance (one of the strengths of Faludi's account is to show how the voices of ordinary women are always pre-scripted by the corporate media). They can be virginal brides too. The dramatic resurgence of puritanical family values did not begin in 2001, and was never as popular as pretended in some quarters, but it did come to decisively shape the spectacle. Serious efforts to discover the full range of real public reactions to 9/11 found that they did not conform to the stale categories imposed on them. Quite the contrary: the sudden sense of vulnerability humanised people, and erased the distinction between (masculine) heroes and (feminine) victims. But these were not the stories told by Hollywood, or by Fox News, or by CNN or the New York Times. And that means that the stories that were told about men and women in the last six years have been important to the selling of the 'war on terror'. The truth was too toxic.
You can read an interview with Faludi here.