What F(l)ags Engender

bush.jpgWould it be unfair to say that this image basically sums up the content of mainstream U.S. politics and culture since “9/11”? Where does this picture fit amidst arguments about the clash of civilizations, the politics of oil, the legality of torture, secularism, multiculturalism, or the exercise of sovereign power? Does the image of George W. Bush as a roided-out Uncle Sam basically iconize the post-millenial U.S. zeitgeist?

I have felt since 9/11 that the U.S. is best understood through the psychology manifested in this image, a psychology dominated by the fragile and wounded ego of a national subject understood as ‘white’ and ‘male.’ I see U.S. politics as dominated by the mentality of the grade school playground, where argument takes the form of “I know you are but what am I?” and the insecure bully goes around whopping on whimps because he is afraid that no one loves him. I see U.S. culture in the last several years as fundamentally authoritarian. It doesn’t take a professor of anthropology to argue that “9/11” has catalyzed a backlash against all that ails the modern white male ego. U.S. culture appears fundamentally motivated by a need to build up and defend the poor, damaged male self after decades of onslaught by the feminists and the gays, the intellectuals, the Europeans, the immigrants, whatever. Though the wound that motivated much of the defensive political posturing and putsches of the last several years resulted from the spectacular humiliation of “9/11,” the abject failure of the Iraq war as a demonstration of U.S. prowess has only deepened the cut. The prospects are frightening.

Countless moments in recent memory have contributed to my gut feeling that the whole U.S. thing can best be explained as a Tough Guy response to the sucker punch on 9/11, but none to me revealed the basic psychology underlying U.S. political ideology better than when Ann Coulter called U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards a fag.

Of course there was an outcry by the earnest political press, saying that this sort of ‘hate speech’ is inappropriate in mainstream politics. Yet, I think the far more interesting response came from those who argued not that this was somehow inappropriate political speech, but that in fact it perfectly illustrated the underlying thought behind much of contemporary U.S. ideology. Glen Greenwald, in particular, has been assiduously tracking the ‘butch’ posturings of war-mongers in the U.S. Media stars, in Greenwald’s daily analysis, are unveiled for the yapping little boys they actually are, fawning over father figures. And although Greenwald unveils very tight linkages between the U.S. conservative movement and authoritarian ideology, Bob Somerby shows that the gendered logic of authoritarianism actually pervades the so-called liberal press as well. There is a lot of excellent writing on this theme in progressive U.S. blogs, most of it much more informed and well-written than anything I can say here. Indeed, much of this real-time critique of U.S. ideology is more compelling than what you can read in Public Culture.

Which raises the question: How best can anthropologists address the problem of contemporary U.S. politics? SM has done a great job of addressing the Iraq war. Yet much of the blogging here has mainly focused on ‘anthropology’ as an institutional constellation and its role vis-a-vis U.S. military policy. I am wondering about the tools of cultural analysis and how they can be used to understand (and mitigate) U.S. warmongering.

Some possible (creative, critical) connections:

  • John Borneman’s “Death of the Father” project looks at 20th century authoritarianism and analyzes forms of post-authoritarian regime change.
  • Donald Tuzin’s The Cassowary’s Revenge analyzes a very different sort of gendered regime change: the repudiation of a traditional ‘male cult’ in New Guinea.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich offers an evolutionary psychology style of analysis of war in Blood Rites. I think Ehrenreich is our best pop anthropologist.
  • Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat review some contemporary anthropological takes on the problem of ‘sovereignty’ here.
  • I find Rabinow’s rather uncharacteristic attention to gender issues post-9/11 here very interesting.

OK. That’s a random assortment. There is a LOT of work being done in anthropology that takes as its starting point current U.S. politics and power, from the overarching effects of the ‘Washington Consensus’ to the U.S. role in forming the national-cultural order of things. What I want to emphasize in this post is that I personally am most persuaded by analyses that link current U.S. policy to gender dynamics; I am persuaded by those analyses that use psychoanalytic tools to uncover the effectiveness of authoritarian, masculinist ideology. For example, while I think that a genealogy linking current U.S. ideas about executive power back to Carl Schmitt is incredibly important, I think it ultimately fails to explain or describe the bizarro world of contemporary U.S. zeitgeist, wherein calling a man a ‘fag’ (or French) amounts to persuasively popular political critique.

16 thoughts on “What F(l)ags Engender

  1. I definitely agree with you here. Stephan Kinzer, in Overthrow, pointed out how Reagan’s actions in Grenada were largely an attempt to bolster the “self-esteem” of the U.S. after the failure of Vietnam. Grenada was a “slam-dunk” and thus an easy gold star to stick on our report card.

    Bill Hicks also had something to say about it after the first Gulf War. “They say: ‘The war made us feel better about ourselves.’ Could I recommend instead of a war to make you feel better about yourself, you try… sit-ups?”

    I think there is already some hope of turning around that mentality, however. In a recent interview with Dennis Leary on NPR:


    Leary talks about his maturing sense of male identity. Leary used to be known as the “asshole” comic, who chain smoked, bitched about everything that wasn’t hyper-masculine, and made no excuse for his temper. If Dennis Leary can be quoted as saying, “We’re starting to realize what idiots we have been, and are potentially capable of being again” Then I think there is hope for the rest of the U.S. population as well.

    If you expand the idea of one insecure male to that of a nation, then our nation is somewhere in the late stages of adolescence, I think. A young nation needs time to develop itself emotionally. In some ways Iraq could be seen as the reality check that we needed to keep us from getting to overconfident. Had Iraq gone as well as Afghanistan did initially, then what would be next? Syria, Iran, North Korea?

  2. I was working at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs when 9/11 happened. The Carnegie Council runs several series of book talks, public forums, and addresses by journalists, analysts, ex-government figures, etc — the likes of Robin Wright, Robert Kaplan, Thomas Friedman, Warren Christopher, Michael Walzer — whose talks I reported on and whose transcripts I edited for the website. So I had a front row seat for the emergence of what I call the “burly man” complex in American politics (not that it wasn’t around before, but it seems to have taken on a new relevance after 9/11). Here were these journalists and analysts sitting in the comfort of the Upper West Side, pimping their books and New Yorker articles and whatnot, and explaining how, for instance, the impoverished youth of the Middle East had to “man up” and face their responsibilities as global citizens, and yes, we know it will be hard for them, living as they are without jobs, food, clean water, or prospects, but that’s tough for them, if they’d had the good graces to be more like us they wouldn’t be in that predicament, would they? In my head, these speeches always ended with the presenter jumping on the table and thumping his chest, Tarzan-style, before biting the head off a baby.

    None of this struck me as particularly useful analysis of the real world — and to be honest, that didn’t seem to be the goal. For the most part, the intention seemed to be to show the audience the sacrifices (mostly of other people) that Americans (as Strong points out, while male Americans) had to be willing to make to keep “our place” in the world. We had to be tough, unsentimental, “realist” — in other words, men — and show the rest of the world how it’s done.

    The misogyny of this sort of display is obvious — after all, what is America masculinity if not the rejection of the feminine? Which is, of course, Coulter’s stock-in-trade — and O’Reilly’s, and Hannity’s, and Limbaugh’s, and so on. It’s Marlboro Country over there (without the cigarettes, because addictions are for weak girly-men) — a situation aptly summarized in the expulsion of “touchy-feely” Phil Donahue from MSNBC, and his replacement by the lower-rated but damn manly Michael Savage, whose main (only?) role in society is to collect, concentrate, and regurgitate the homophobia that makes the whole burly man thing work.

  3. It seems that a great many people here assume that other anthropologists will OF COURSE agree with their left politics. That the role of anthropology is to critique the powers-that-be and stand up for the oppressed.

    I don’t understand how you are getting from the IS to the OUGHT here. Why should an analysis of “the way things work” be expected to lead to a particular course of action? Perhaps one might look at the analysis and decide that it could be used to keep the ignorant masses down, under the control of their superiors.

    I don’t think that, but I don’t get there from anthropology, I get there from my own moral code (my understanding of Buddhism) *plus* what I see as the state of things in the world.

    How is expecting your colleagues to share your views, as a matter of course, NOT sleight of hand? Commanding assent by social pressure rather than by argument?

  4. You left out George Lakoff. I have some issues with his work, but if you are going to talk about the gendered framing of Right-wing discourse, he’s your man.

    I personally am less than convinced that the answer to the pop-psychology of the Right is to create a pop-psychology of the Left; especially a pop-evolutionary-psychology of the Left if there really can be such a thing…

  5. Much of the blogosphere seems to fit in with the logic of the gender split as well. But because it is more extreme maybe it more clearly illustrates the split. The unifiers, who straddle the two sides come off best, and hopefully they are also the survivors. Hopefully the extremists run out of steam, or arguments.

    The extreme left tends to use male pejoratives and hold to your wounded pride model as well. America does not hold the high moral ground anymore and that is shameful. Everything has gone to pot since 911 and the right stole the show. Restore the pride.

    The other player in the blogosphere is the right wing uber-alles types. But their sense of it is that the rot set in before 911 and so they are vindicated. All they are doing is bringing back the sanity. And restoring the pride.

    And then every now and again, each side makes sense……..and you know you haven’t gone over to the dark side.

  6. Obviously it’s not a comprehensive list, Kerim, just a random assortment of relevant connections. Lakoff on ‘moral politics’ generally fits with the sort of work I think we can do to understand how it is that ideology works, convinces, pleases. I don’t buy Ehrenreich on war, but it’s interesting and worth looking at.

    My general suggestion here is that there is an important linkage between the authoritarian ideology that has been so popular in the US for the last several years (and even longer) and certain gender dynamics. Beyond Lakoff and cognitivism, there would be of course Theweleit’s famous Male Fantasies. Someone at Sadly, No! thought this might be relevant reading right now too:

  7. I didn’t mean to imply that the list should be exhaustive, but it does seem to me that most of the public discussion about this issue, especially on the internet, has been in terms of Lakoff’s work. A search for the words “Lakoff” and “Father” on Google yeilds 222,000 hits … Not to mention the fact that he has been consulted by the highest levels of the Democratic party.

    Personally I prefer the work of Geoff Nunberg. There is a nice video of Nunberg talking about his book here. But Nunberg is not so focused on masculinity…

  8. Wow, thanks for the link Kerim! This is great. I do find Lakoff’s work pretty interesting. (Mostly, I envy his ability to explain himself in incredibly lucid and ostensibly extemporaneous language. I saw him give a talk at UCSD once that was amazing.)

    Thanks also Oneman for reporting on your experiences at the Carnegie Council. Interesting. I love to hear stuff like this: the hallway or classroom discourse that is sometimes more important than what actually gets published.

  9. I don’t think I am assuming, Karen, that anyone will agree with an anti-war agenda ‘as a matter of course.’ Quite the contrary, I tend to assume that folks will reflexively trot out that IS/OUGHT distinction as you have done here. And I am certainly not naive enough to think that if we understand the ways that authoritarian ideology weds particular kinds of affect to particular kinds of meanings that this will end up with the whole world a happier place. I am aware that anthropologists tread the hallways of some bad places, using anthropological insight in unseemly ways. I am just thinking out loud in this post about what I see as the root ‘thing’ motivating American politics today. I don’t think that thing is Reason. I think it’s something else.

  10. I find it odd the American nationalist image is a masculine one, whereas the British image of the nineteenth century(that other Empire) is a feminine one–the matriarchal queen is the starting point, but women (some women) were presented an mythic–Florence Nightingale, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark come easily to mind. There are masculine figures, but I am wondering at why the difference?

  11. Re Karen Lofstrom and Strong’s posts, I feel that one important way in which anthropology helps resolve the “is/ought” questions is through grounded, empirical, experiential data that, because we are largely ground-up observers, possibly brings in different variations of “ought” to the table. From my own work in China, then, official “socialist ideology” both complements and conflicts with rural communitarian ideologies, and what we bring to the wider discourse are those voices (yes, filtered by outsiders).
    I think it is clear for us anthropologists that many of our “oughts” lean liberal, and this shapes the “is”‘s that we see. I see this in my own discussions with my anthropologist wife (a Quaker who did work on Korean nationalism and masculinity). I see myself as in the “militant middle” (to either quote or paraphrase Michael Herzfeld, I can’t remember); before becoming an anthropologist, I was an infantry officer in the US Marine Corps. I’m always intrigued by my fellow anthropologists when it comes to talking about such issues as military policy. I’m also not sure that “Reason” ever really motivated American politics of the past, let alone today!

  12. John, the idea that everyday machines or objects in our lives are actually volitional beings seems like really obvious fetishistic thinking. I remember going crazy during the Toy Story movies, the premise of which was that children should not hurt the feelings of their mass produced plastic toys (commodities). It drove me bonkers.

    Fred, yes there is probably great work somewhere on archetypal national figures and their genders. My thinking on the topic tends to track certain themes: the state emerges out of the repudiation or suppression of kinship as an organizing principal for social life, the state thus arrogates to itself claims of a universal sort, the suppression of kinship ends up meaning the repudiation of the domestic domain generally and its values (including nurture), and that this is all accomplished semiotically through the linkage of certain ‘qualia’ of sociocultural experience with gender. Current claims to universality (sovereignty) are based in the ‘objectivity’ embodied in male reason and ‘hard’ science. Etc. This string of thoughts can be tracked back to Hegel (and others) through Judith Butler, or it could be given a radical feminist slant, as for example, in the work of Catherine Mackinnon. I just tend to see certain forms of ‘political’ or ‘collective’ claims as requiring the suppression of certain other kinds of claims, and this suppression seems everywhere or often to take a gendered form: the rejection of the feminine, of the particular, of the soft, of nurture. My gut thinking here tracks a series of discussions in feminist anthropology from the 1970s to today.

    And speaking of gendered embodiments of the nation, check out this crazy image of Angela Merckel:

  13. Pardon me, but “obvious fetishistic thinking” seems, shall we say, a bit dismissive. No subtle theorizing here. Just an assumption that boys and toys are given-end of conversation, wham!

    Personally I was hoping that someone might comment on the observable differences between the images of masculinity embodied by Optimus Prime on the one hand and the George Bush as a roll-up-his-sleeves-and-punch-em out Uncle Sam depicted in the image at the top of this thread. Does it make any difference that one slugger literally gears up for battle, with the human a humunculus directing a giant, shape-shifting machine, while the other has taken off his coat and rolled up his sleeves to display his own muscles? Does it make any difference that the Wired author comments wistfully on Optimus Prime’s self-sacrifice, dying for the cause in which he believes, while the image makers of Bush as Sam imagine no such possibility–if he’s the biggest and baddest, he’s got to win. Does the author’s reflecting that, in the world outside the story, Prime is doomed by the dynamics of a toy industry that needs new heroes to sell have anything to do with the nature of heroism in a 15-minutes-of-fame-what-have-you-done-for-us-lately culture in which celebrity churn has replaced enduring archetypes?

    Lots of stuff to think about here. A student who wrote for me nothing more than “this is obvious fetishistic thinking” would be damned lucky to get away with a C.

    The balls (pun deliberate) are in your court.

  14. Sorry to disappoint you John. I guess I will leave the ‘subtle theorizing’ of ‘Transformers’ to you then. When I said ‘obvious’ I wasn’t being dismissive, I was thinking that my idea was rather obvious (viz., unoriginal).

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