Monday, August 06, 2007

Leering Old Men: Another Take

-- by Sara

As Dave discusses in a post below, Digby thinks the conservatives are a bunch of whining babies who can't take a loss. Dave responds with the observation they're leering old men who can't get it up any more. Both views suggest that our national corps of conservative talking heads, taken as a group, has a very warped relationship with masculinity. But I've got a third take on it, which sort of takes in both their arguments and then goes a little deeper.

Over the years, my online ex-fundie community has spent a lot of time puzzling over the ways in which fundamentalism arrests the moral, social, emotional, intellectual, and sexual development of anyone who embraces it. (And I could argue that, inasmuch as fundamentalism is authoritarian religion, this observation may well hold true for political and social authoritarians as well.) Specifically, we've come to a consensus that the belief system traps people somewhere around the age of five or six -- and keeps them there for as long as they continue to believe.

In fact, that naivete -- deceptively packaged as purity and innocence -- is one of the main things people are seeking when they're drawn into authoritarian systems. They join up because they feel overwhelmed by the complexity and nuance in the world. There's just too much to keep up with, too much responsibility, too much chaos. Often, they've been caught in the gears of the machinery of modernity, and have had large parts of their lives chewed up by the works. It all feels out of control. (Chris Hedges, in his new book American Fascism, describes how Christianist proselytizers are taught to seek out people going through hard times-- they're the hottest conversion prospects.)

Unfortunately, seeking this regression means giving up on quite a few of the most important attributes of adulthood. First, there's the intellectual sacrifice. There's a huge cognitive leap that occurs around the age of seven (it usually comes in right alongside reading fluency) that enables a far greater level of abstraction -- typically, at the expense of magical thinking, which drops off dramatically once kids learn to read. At this age, kids give up fantasy play and Santa Claus in favor of a more empirical approach to life, and more serious pursuits leading to the mastery of adult-world skills. Developmental psychologists call this leap "the age of reason."

Right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers have little use for reason; but are very invested in their fantasy lives. They take myth and metaphor absolutely literally, because interpreting them requires a level of abstraction they aren't comfortable with. In other words: they are voluntarily choosing to operate at the intellectual processing level of a first-grader.

They also have to give up on adult-level emotional functioning (which, as I mentioned, may be welcomed as something of a relief after adult life has blown up under you a few times). Authoritarian followers crave someone who will keep things ordered and safe, someone who will provide and protect and set firm rules and boundaries; someone all-powerful and all-knowing who can teach you right from wrong and keep the harsh parts of the world at bay. Someone, in short, who looks like Daddy looked when you were about five years old.

RWAs would far rather curl up in Daddy's lap -- even if it means abandoning reason and taking the occasional spanking -- than try to deal with the world by themselves, on adult terms. This is also why RWA family and community relationships (as Lakoff has explained) are necessarily hierarchical. These people still need parents around, because they don't feel emotionally safe without the presence of a strong authority figure. Egalitarian relationships terrify them, because there's nobody in charge to make the rules and set the boundaries that keep people from hurting each other. And that's damned scary, because (as masters of projection) they're quite sure that everybody else in the whole world is also still five years old and playing by sandbox rules. Without a playground supervisor in charge, they know for sure that somebody will get hurt.

This is why this voluntary intellectual regression is accompanied by a similar moral regression. Any parent of a kindergartner knows that a child's morality is determined solely on the basis of outside (adult) authority, which makes and enforces the rules. This is pretty necessary when you're very small, because left to your own devices, id will run wild. At this age, the self-control just isn't there yet.

Still, it's coming, which is why five- and six-year-olds are tremendous rules lawyers. A lot of their social interaction is about what's fair, what's mine, and what's going to get you into trouble. And anyone who's spent time around fundamentalists will recognize fear of external authority (in the form of the pastor or God), rules lawyering (this time involving a well-thumbed Bible) and a constant battle with id as big preoccupations as well. You'll even find tattling: "I'll take it to the Lord in prayer" is just a slightly kinder form of "I'm gonna tell Daddy on you."

Which brings me around to my point, which is that the over-the-top behavior around masculine gender roles Digby and Dave are noticing is pretty classic early primary behavior, too. The games boys play at this age often involve extreme masculine archetypes -- cowboys, cops, soldiers, sports heroes, spacemen, and so on. (It's interesting that Little Boots has, at one time or another, tried to cast himself in all of these roles -- and that the male Kewl Kids just swooned over it, every time. Remember the fuss over Jet Pilot Action Figure Bush's "package"? Damn fool didn't loosen his straps before getting out of the jet. Nobody else on the deck had his crotch trussed up like a Christmas goose; and to them, he looked like a rookie idiot. But Chris Matthews practically had an orgasm on-air while watching him prance and strut.) The fact that so many mainstream and conservative media guys are suckered by this posturing shows that they don't really have a clue about what a Real Man looks like -- though, somewhere deep down inside, they're pretty sure they don't qualify. That's why they're so easily wowed by men who can put on the costume and make it look good.

But they're even more easily cowed by men who can actually fill the boots. John Kerry. John McCain. Colin Powell. Bill Clinton. (You don't have to agree with their politics; but nobody can say these men haven't comfortably worn the full measure of male power and responsibility for some critical stretch of their lives.) Like little boys, the media guys are so awed by the outward forms of masculinity that they eagerly make a fetish out of them; but they also actively fear and resent men who display the authentic internal goods that make an honest-to-God man. These guys' very presence incites such a strong sense of personal inadequacy that the Boys On The Bus can only resort to attacking them in ways that are openly calculated to feminize them -- that is, to bring them down to their own level. He look French. He's whipped by his powerful wife. He's preoccupied with his hair. Translation: This guy has more balls and more maturity than we do -- and we need to take him down before everybody figures out how inadequate that makes us feel.

Whatever the "real" content of manhood is (that's a whole separate discussion), sexual agency and virility lie somewhere near the core of it. It takes a sexually mature and capable man to find and woo a partner, father children, sustain the relationships that make a home, and take his place among the valuable men of the community. When you're a kid, Dad's sexual competence is the very heart of what makes him the alpha male in your family pack. At five or six, the physical attributes that make him a man are magical stuff -- and not only do you not have those attributes, your childish sense of time is such that it's easy to fear that you never will. The whole issue, as Freud knew, is fraught and uncomfortable. The only way little boys can deal with this deep and mysterious discomfort is to make giggly jokes about it. It's either that, or stand in dumbstruck awe about the power that your young life utterly depends on, yet you simply cannot comprehend -- and that's not an option on prime time TV.

The howling conservative and MSM men we're seeing on the air these seem to be stuck in some early sexual stage -- a stage where manliness and sexuality are scary adult mysteries, the obsessive stuff of wild curiosity, rampant misunderstandings, crude jokes, dress-up play-acting, and bizarre fetishes. For all their media power, these guys have sexually scarcely moved beyond playing doctor-- and, at this late stage, probably never will. Scratch any leering old man, and you'll expose a scared kid who, fifty years on, still hasn't come to terms with his own uncontrollable wet dreams, let alone the challenge of engaging productively with his own adult sexuality and that of the real-life adult women he shares the world with.

My first husband -- who as a Latino, a clinical psychologist, and the son of a Marine Corps drill instructor, knew a thing or two about the anatomy of macho -- used to say that the first rule of real macho was that those who possess it never need to prove it to anyone. If you have to prove it or put it out on display, you don't have it in the first place. And if you are intimidated by seeing it in others, you aren't even in the ballpark. The truth of that should come home to all of us every time we hear an MSM or conservative talking head going on in breathless awe about some public figure's "manhood," or asking leering, creepy questions about other people's sex lives.

In a time when we need thought leaders who can help us sort out the issues and navigate the national crisis, we've got a media staffed by sniggering, leering first-graders who exhibit every regressive intellectual, moral, emotional, and sexual characteristic of right-wing authoritarian followers. It's time to clean house -- and to demand new media voices who aren't in business to make fun of the grownups, or shamed by people who show the attributes of true maturity and power. It's time to send the scared little boys home, and put some authentic adults in charge.

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