[Marxism] Stan Goff on the Swift Boat controversy
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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
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
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 Bushs 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
Clintons 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 Ill
say it again and this will hurt the feelings of some fellow veterans we
never should have gone there.
Its 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-childs 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.
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 Geronimos 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 womens social emancipation by appointing a couple of
judges (Hes already said that positions on reproductive freedom will not
be a litmus test for these appointments.) have not considered the enormous
betrayal of womens emancipatory project embedded in the big-dick strategy
of reporting for duty.
The gender regulation of womens 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 campaigns 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 states 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 womens 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
womens social agency. Gender has political juice, and for those to whom
it matters, they dont want theirs watered down.
War is to man what maternity is to woman.
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
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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