Thursday, April 06, 2006

Man, Oh Man

So we were watching the Colbert Report last night, and the guest was this conservative windbag named Harvey C. Mansfield. Mansfield has just penned a tome called Manliness, which seems like the worst book ever. I went over to to read up on the book, and saw nothing but praise from readers regarding the acuity of Mansfield's rhetorical skills. Then I hopped over to the New York Times and read a devastating take-down by Walter Kirn that more or less confirmed my suspicion that Mansfield's stock-in-trade is curmudgeonly pontification and facile Great Books dot-connecting. Mansfield is another devotee of Leo Strauss, rounding out the illustrious rogues' gallery of neocon Straussians, who have brought us such delights as the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib.

So why am I even bothering recapping this? Well, "manliness" is a tough topic for me. I am biologically and culturally a man, but I have absolutely no investment in the historical construct of "manliness." Unlike a lot of other putatively progressive, artsy males I seem to meet here in Texas, and just about all of those guys I meet who are not into these pursuits, I hate machismo, performed stoicism, bassos profundi, thumbs hooked in jeans belt loops, tattoos, boots, tools, trucks, fighting, sports, lad magazines, militarism, and heroic alcohol consumption. So that is part of the dilemma. Between the music scene here, the folks I meet through FF's literary involvements, and the handful of radical political types I have met here, I have had to continually confront my distaste for expressions of proud masculinity. Sticking to an anti-"manliness" stance in Texas, even on the fringes, is virtually a life sentence of alienation and mild nausea. I am lucky, of course. I just have to tune these bozos out. Women and gay men actually have to date them . Ecch.

But this brings us to the second dilemma. Obviously, hating the hairy-chested, swaggering, he-men who show up at literary readings , improv music concerts, or hip coffee shops is a no-brainer. But there seems to me to be an elitist tinge to the "hate list" I enumerated above. The Republican agit-prop machine has been busy, since at least the Alger Hiss trial of the late 1940s, linking liberalism with pantywaist, pin-striped limp-wristers, and conservatism with burly masculinity. So from Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry, Democrats have been depicted as both elitist and emasculated. This no doubt accounts for some of my feeling of being a snob, rather than a critic of gender, when I feel revulsion around alpha-male behaviors and culture. Of course, nobody displays more remoteness from the imaginary flannel-clad all-American sausage party about which Republican strategists fantasize than effete, upper-crust pencil-neck eggheads like Mansfield (and other cheerleaders of Nascar middle America like David Brooks, William Kristol, and Fred Barnes).

But there is a third dilemma that cannot be explained a way just by pointing to the way the Right has gamed the manliness issue over the last half-century or so. In one of my lives, I am a student of US labor history. So when I think about the reactionary nature of "manliness," I can't help but recall that the working-class version of "manliness" has been one of the central themes of union culture in America. Virtually every document in the history of US labor organizations, from the Knights of Labor, to the AFL to the CIO, contains a pledge to remain "manly" in the face of the encroachments of capital. "Manliness" stood in for a complex of values, like self-respect, dignity, and solidarity that helped (male) workers launch sustained challenges to management prerogatives. At the same time, tragically, the women working in the needle trades, steno pools, tobacco plants and homes of the wealthy were denied access to the preeminent image in the language of labor. And even though this gendering of labor culture contributed to many of labor's failures, past and present, it seem too facile to dismiss "manliness," if we are to recognize other cultural phenomena, such as pulp novels, radio, TV, etc. as tools of resistance as well as repression.

The famous "I Am a Man" signs held by the African American Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968 still seem to resonate with some power, despite their deference to "manliness." But we cannot forget that the more powerful image of working-class "manliness" from that era is that of "hard-hats" beating up anti-war protestors in New York. So, is manliness, like "whiteness," a construct that needs to be tossed on history's dustpile? Or is there some way to articulate a counter-"manliness" to that of doofusses like Mansfield?


Arnold said...

SB, I can't wait to read your PhD dissertation.....this is true reading pleasure.

ren said...

Wow! I can't even counter with a comment about genders cross-pollinating attributes (i. e., I hook my thumbs in my belt loops and have tatoos, but I'm so not manly).

SB, can I get in line to read your dissertation?

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