Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism – American Life in an Age of
, 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
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 in and around the Democratic
Party. 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, the Democrat Party bosses opted not to risk
a position on the war. (Remember Clinton's Rove… Dick Morris?)
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 this coming like a freight train.
I felt like taking a purgative when John Kerry
"reported for duty" at the Democratic National Contrivance.
The Democrat pollsters and focus groups had tested the mood of our culture.
It is a culture re-indoctrinated to military masculinity by the mass
'entertainment' media: 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 built
on our collective memory of what Robert Connell has called "frontier
masculinity" embodied in the national mythologies of Daniel Boone
and Davy Crockett. (The film The Alamo was just redone last
With the Swift Boat dogfight, we are seeing
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 Bush out on his "Bring
'em on" bluster (which Kerry now echoes in his own challenge to
George W. Bush!). Bush 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 the chickenhawk indictment implicitly bases
itself on the pathological premise that armed combat is some male right
of passage. In doing so, it is plain militarism at its gendered worst.
And American military masculinity is a cornerstone of the imperial narrative.
Robert Connell wrote Masculinities
in 1995, 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.
"With masculinity defined as a character
structure marked by rationality," Connell writes, "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 Schwarzenegger, 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."
Surely this is familiar today.
So there is real content to the Swift
Boat controversy after all.
These two brothers, Bush and Kerry, 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 psychologically
connecting with the public in a most direct and visceral way. They are
coupling their appeals to the ennui of destabilized masculinity.
In case anyone is inclined to underestimate the force of reaction to
this sexual anomie, I would refer 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 violent-sexuality trope inhering in
the Kerry campaign's shameless pimping of his military 201-file.
The direct supervisory brutality 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
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 has backfired on Kerry, and not
merely in the ham-handed attack ads sponsored by Republican surrogates.
The reactionary white male base to which the Republican Party appeals
is not nearly as equivocal in its defense of male prerogative as the
weasel-cautious Democratic Leadership Council is, 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 most consistently and unequivocally opposed every threat
to male hegemony. Republicans oppose reproductive choice. Republicans
are calling for a constitutional amendment imposing compulsory heterosexuality
on marriage. Republicans have consistently opposed ANY new 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.”
This is where Kerry has gone whether he knows
it or not. (Bush, of course, was already there.) And this is where the
chickenhawk indictment 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.
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).