[Marxism] Stan Goff on the Swift Boat controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 22 21:15:49 MDT 2004

The Gendered Degeneration of 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
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 

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 

“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 

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.

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