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Swift Boat Dogfight The Gendered Degeneration of American Politics

The Gendered Degeneration of American Politics

by STAN GOFF

Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism–American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, published all the way back in 1979, said:

"Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity all politics becomes a form of spectacle. It is well known that Madison Avenue packages politicians and markets them as if they were cereals or deodorants; but the art of public relations penetrates more deeply into political life The modern prince [an apt turn of phrase for the current member of the Bush political dynasty] confuses successful completion of the task at hand with the impression he makes or hopes to make on others. Thus American officials blundered into the war in Vietnam More concerned with the trappings than with the reality of power, they convinced themselves that failure to intervene would damage American ‘credibility’ [They] fret about their ability to rise to crisis, to project an image of decisiveness, to give a convincing performance of executive power Public relations and propaganda have exalted the image and the pseudo-event."

And so today we come to the comic political opera of the Swift Boat tempest, with the George W. Bush publicity apparatus baited by the John Kerry publicity apparatus. Now the spectacle is a strident dick-measuring contest over military service records.

It goes without saying–or does it?–that the image of the warrior-king and the pseudo-events of political conventions have now decisively sidelined any meaningful public discourse about the actual situation in which the world finds itself.

I think we can salvage some meaning by looking more closely not at the electoral implications of this political dogfight, but at the cultural ones. Before the Democratic Leadership Council enjoined the political assassination of Howard Dean–whose insurgency within the Party was trifling, but important on one account and that was his stated opposition to Bush’s Napoleonic delusion in Iraq–there was a new energy, semi-conscious as it was, emerging inside the Party, and that energy was rooted in the mass movement that had materialized against the post-911 neocon lunacy, especially the plan to invade Iraq. Fearing a conscientized popular base every bit as much as the reptilian Karl Rove (remember Clinton’s Dick Morris?), the Democrat Party bosses opted not to risk a position on the war.

Instead, they would mount an ad hominem campaign using the zombie Kerry and his moment of alleged martial courage in an earlier failed occupation to paint AWOL-George as a chickenhawk.

I saw it coming like a freight train, and felt like taking a purgative, when John Kerry "reported for duty" at the Democratic National Contrivance.

They had tested the mood of a culture re-indoctrinated to military masculinity, with fare from Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down to the military-male-revenge fantasies of Steven Seagal films, with the CNN docudramas produced by embedded reporters, and with our collective memory of what Robert Connell has called "frontier masculinity" embodied in the mythologies of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. (The film The Alamo was just redone last year.)

Thus we see the inevitable declension of the "chickenhawk" indictment of Bush into its ultimate masculine absurdity. I have said before, and I’ll say it again–and this will hurt the feelings of some fellow veterans–we never should have gone there.

It’s one thing to call him out on his "Bring ‘em on" bluster. He said that from an air conditioned office, and it would have made not a whit of difference if he had a leg full of shrapnel and chest full of fruit salad on his mothballed uniform. It was stupid and hypocritical under any circumstance. But reaffirming the sick premise that armed combat is some male right of passage, as this chickenhawk business tacitly does, is plain militarism at its gendered worst.

Robert Connell wrote Masculinities, a book I suggest every male read for his own good within the next week, and in it he showed, among other things, how martial masculinity evolved as an ideological reflection of empire-building. The battle of the Alamo, it must be said, was about expansionism and protecting slavery. Teddy Roosevelt built his reputation on the imperial subjugation of dark foreigners.

"Cowboys and Indians" is a male-child’s game of genocide. Connell writes, "With masculinity defined as a character structure marked by rationality, and western civilization defined as the bearer of reason to a benighted world, a cultural link between the legitimation of patriarchy and the legitimation of empire was forged."

He goes on, however, to describe this same military masculinity in its more irrational fascist guise–reflected on the silver screen in psychosexual bloodbaths like The Rock, and a long list of revenge-fantasy films featuring the likes of Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarznegger, and Sylvester Stallone. "In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving towards equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will’, thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier."

Take note there is real content to the Swift Boat controversy after all.

These two brothers in the same grave-robbing fraternity (Skull and Bones claims to have Geronimo’s skull–an imperial war souvenir), who are now snapping at each other with bared teeth over questions of combat and courage, are connecting with the public in a most direct and visceral way. They are hooking up with the ennui of destabilized masculinity.

In case anyone is inclined to underestimate the force of this sexual anomie, I would point you to the sexual mutilation that was integral to every lynching campaign in US history, campaigns forged in the flames of white male sexual insecurity. This gender business has material force and immense political power.

Those who stake their feeble political hopes on John Kerry to mount his shabby defense of women’s social emancipation by appointing a couple of judges (He’s already said that positions on reproductive freedom will not be a litmus test for these appointments.) have not considered the enormous betrayal of women’s emancipatory project embedded in the big-dick strategy of "reporting for duty."

The gender regulation of women’s lives by the state pales in comparison to the control exercised by the culture itself, reinforced by exactly the kind of trope inhering in the Kerry campaign’s shameless pimping of his military 201-file.

The direct supervisory violence against women has seldom come from the state; instead it has been a family affair–protected for many decades from public intervention by the state’s definition of privacy. While the fight for legal equality has always been important in the fight against male supremacy, the decisive battle is the fight against the cultural hegemony of masculine-feminine scripts.

There is a daily tidal wave of images of women every day in this society–images internalized by women and men from birth–that are degradingly subservient. That internalization IS hegemony, and it regulates more powerfully than any law ever could. Take this away, and legal inequality will scatter like a house of cards before the terrible wind of women’s latent political power.

John Kerry has held out this crumb of limited legal equality to women, and in the same breath embraced the culture of violent masculinity as a political weapon that will always–in the final instance–be aimed at women. This tactic may well backfire on Kerry, and not merely as the ham-handed attack ads sponsored by Republican surrogates nowadays.

The reactionary white male base of the Republican Party is not nearly as equivocal in its defense of male prerogative as many Democrats are, and consistency matters. Those men who are listening with their beset phalli to the subtexts of the political campaign will respond to the Party that has consistently opposed every threat to male hegemony–from opposition to reproductive choice to the call for a constitutional amendment imposing compulsory heterosexism on marriage to opposing ANY manifestation of women’s social agency. Gender has political juice, and for those to whom it matters, they don’t want theirs watered down.

War is to man what maternity is to woman. -Benito Mussolini

This is where Kerry has gone–Bush, of course, was already there–whether he knows it or not. And this is where the chickenhawk argument has taken us all. Like everything else with this election, we are seeing the important social movements sidelined to watch the big dogs go at each other and they are not our dogs.

STAN GOFF is the author of "Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti" (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and "Full Spectrum Disorder" (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at http://www.freedomroad.org/home.html. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is bthn@mfso.org.

Goff can be reached at: sherrynstan@igc.org