Saturday, August 02, 2014

Roll Over, Tough Guys — Make Way For A Wise Guy!

For all of his "all hat & no cattle" braggadocio, The Dubster sneered "Let 'em bring it on" when warned about the insurgency in Iraq. That fool caused death and suffering by both the Iraqi people and U.S. military personnel in the folly known as the Iraq War. For all the swagger and tough talk, Osama bin Laden was untouched by The Dubster's surges and purges. Instead when the CIA learned of bin Laden's whereabouts in Pakistan (thanks to old-school detective work and intelligence analysis, not waterboarding and torture), it was not The Dubster who nailed the coonskin to the wall. Instead, it was POTUS 44 — derided as a wimp and unmanly yada yada yada — who gave the Go-Order to Seal Team 6 and, today, bin Laden sleeps with the fishes. Adam Gopnik does a fine job of differentiating between the tough guys and the wise guys. If this is (fair & balanced) gender analysis, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
No More Mr. Tough Guy
By Adam Gopnik

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Barack Obama is not a tough guy. Everybody rolls him. He’s a wimp, a weak sister; he won’t stand up for himself or his country. Vladimir Putin, a true tough guy, blows planes out of the air, won’t apologize, walks around half-naked. Life, it seems, is like a prison yard, and Obama cowers in a corner. “It would be a hellish thing to live with such timidity. … He’s scared of Vladimir Putin,” one Fox News contributor said about the President. But this kind of thing is not confined to the weirder fringes: Maureen Dowd pointed out a while ago that former fans of Obama “now make derogatory remarks about your manhood,” while the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page runs a kind of compendium of “weak sister” pieces every morning, urging the President, at one point, to make more “unambiguous threats”—making unambiguous threats evidently being the real man’s method of getting his way.

“Barack Obama is the first female president” — "The Daily Caller," a Web site co-founded by a former adviser to Dick Cheney, blared, without a trace of irony or consciousness that female might not be such a bad thing for a President to be. "The Daily Caller" lists seven basic “manly” traits—courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, honor, and manliness, that last one bafflingly redundant but, hey, that’s the way men are—and shows how Obama fails in regard to each. (He’s terrified of his wife, apparently, though one would think that this is actually a classic Jimmy Stewart-style American sign of husbandliness.) Toni Morrison wrote memorably, in these pages, that Bill Clinton had become, in a symbolic sense, “our first black President”—meaning that Clinton’s perceived faults were flaws of appetite, of a kind that a racist imagination traditionally ascribed to black men. “His unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” Morrison wrote. Obama’s perceived flaws are the ancient effeminate ones, of the kind that a bigoted tradition ascribed to women; above all, the criticism reflects the President’s unapologetic distaste for violent confrontation and for making loud threats, no matter how empty those threats may obviously be. (The joke, of course, is that, with Clinton as with Obama, the symbolic substitute may well precede the real thing.)

Obama—contemptibly, in this view—offers off-ramps in the direction of reason even when faced with the most fanatical opponents, who are bent on revenge for mysterious, sectarian motives, and yet he still tries to appease them. And that’s just the Republicans in Congress. Shouldn’t he be tougher with bad guys abroad? The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances. Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.

Why does this belligerent rhetoric still stir us? The American political historian K. A. Cuordileone wrote a good book a few years ago about the birth of this “cult of toughness” in American foreign policy, in which she makes the point that it was essentially the invention of liberals in the Kennedy Administration—the Eisenhower and Truman people were more inclined to talk of “duty”—who wanted to curb the suspicion that liberals were inclined to be effete. What is strange, reading through her pages, is exactly how exclusively focussed on pure appearances the cult of toughness always was. All of the arguments, the ones that led to the near-apocalypse in Cuba and, later, to Vietnam, were not about calculations made of interests and utility. They were about looking manly.

Cuordileone quotes Lyndon Johnson in his retirement on the catastrophe of Vietnam, when he was still obsessed with the idea that, if he had withdrawn, his enemies—by whom he meant, notably, Robert Kennedy, a founding member of the real-man cult—would know that Johnson was, in his own words, “a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine.” She goes on to write that Johnson’s words show a “deep psychological investment in masculine self-image,” one that “has the power to subvert circumspection, logic, prudence, morality and even national self-interest in matters of national decision making, and create the illusion that there are no alternatives.”

This business of looking manly even developed its own theoretical rationale, the concept of “credibility”: if we are willing to act violently in pursuit of a peripheral interest, everyone can be certain that, when a vital interest is at stake, we will be still more violent. “Credibility” is defined as the willingness to kill a lot of people now for a not very good cause to assure the world that we’ll kill a lot more people if we can find a better one. This is the logic that led to wild overinvestment in peripheral struggles like Iraq, and is, in the view of many of its proponents, too subtle for the feminine mind to grasp.

“I will do such things—what they are yet I know not—but they shall be the terror of the earth.” So mad King Lear announces—and it is, as Bertrand Russell once noted, the Tough Guys’ point of view packed into a phrase. We’ll show them! Though what we’ll show them, and how we’ll show them, and to what end we’ll show them, and what we will say to the mothers of the children whose lives have been wasted in order to show them—those things remain as strangely unsayable for the serious men as they did for crazy Lear.

We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too. Ω

[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA from McGill University. Later, he studied at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.  In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012).]

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