Saturday, April 23, 2005

A Response to Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank has a piece in this week's NYRB that will serve as an addendum to the paperback edition of What's the Matter with Kansas?. The article is more than worth reading (that goes without saying) but I would like to offer some additional historical and other perspective. It goes without saying that I think he missed something: the crisis of masculinity that I think permeates American politics.

Frank offers his brilliant analysis of the populist politics of the past thirty-five years: the Republicans' mastery of convincing working class people to vote against their economic interests in order to stick it to elitist liberals who seek to destroy the working class's values. By manipulating religion, the right--the party of elitist business concerns--makes an unholy alliance with fundamentalist Christianity.

an aside(For those seeking further historical parallels, study the history of the English Civil War. The Roundheads, Cromwell's armies, were the product of years of propaganda campaigns in the countryside that sought to equate the peasants/small tradesmen/budding bourgeoisie with their Calvinist embrace of severity and simplicity against a Court/City culture of extravagance, sexual corruption, and secret Catholicism. But this analysis is for another diary.)

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.

I don't disagree with Frank. I think he's right. But where he sees "class," in his analysis, I see "gender."

A newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House. Republicans, meanwhile, were playing another game entirely. The hallmark of a "backlash conservative" is that he or she approaches politics not as a defender of the existing order or as a genteel aristocrat but as an average working person offended by the arrogance of the (liberal) upper class. The sensibility was perfectly caught during the campaign by onetime Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who explained it to The New York Times like this: "Joe Six-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it."[3] These are powerful words, the sort of phrase that could once have been a slogan of the fighting, egalitarian left. Today, though, it was conservatives who claimed to be fighting for the little guy, assailing the powerful, and shrieking in outrage at the direction in which the world is irresistibly sliding.

I have commented on this before. Part of the chaos that is being reacted to is the shifting world of gender politics. No longer confined to home and babies, no longer economically dependent on men, women occupy a nebulous, borderless, threatening position in our culture right now. I used to reject notions of patriarchy and archetypes: now, as I have postulated before, the past forty years have brought with it
I find myself wondering if America doesn't long for Daddy's spank. So many people bemoan the loss of order in this culture: the hard, unyielding discipline meted out by daddy, the kind that scared us, the kind that made us behave ourselves for fear of getting into trouble. In the last forty years, things have been more fluid, more yielding, more liquid, and increasingly, covered by the mucus of borderlessness, some in our culture seem genuinely grossed out. Female bodies are icky for some, and perhaps they feel as if they've been living inside a cunt. The shapeless feminine.

Class gives boundaries, markers, borders within which individuals feel safety. It is possible to leave your class in an upward bound trajectory, but for many of us who grew up in working-class families, there is a certain stigma that comes with such a move. A sense of class betrayal. Of going to the other side. As class has broken down: the destruction of the working class, the destruction of the middle class, the triumph of a two-class system: rich and poor, class no longer serves as identifying marker. What's left? Gender and Religion. And gender isn't in great shape right now.

To quote Frank again:
James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever and, proclaiming that "everything we hold dear is on the line" because of the threat of gay marriage, addressed gargantuan political rallies of evangelical Christians around the country.

"Everything we hold dear." Gay marriage threatening everything we hold dear. The penetration of the family, of gender roles, of men acting like (heterosexual) men--and the equation of John Kerry, the war hero, with a "girlie-man."

More Frank:

The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment's notice.

Weaklings. Eggheads. Traitors. The treacherous feminine. The archetype of feminine danger, of Eve, conspiring with the serpent to bring Adam down.

War casts in sharp relief the inauthenticity of the liberals, the insincerity of their patriotism, and their intellectual distance (always trying to "understand" the terrorists' motives) from the raw emotions felt by ordinary Americans—each quality an expression of the deracinated upper-classness that is thought to be the defining characteristic of liberalism.

The reason conservatives are always thought to be tough and liberals to be effete milquetoasts (two favorite epithets from the early days of the backlash) even when they aren't is the same reason Americans believe the French to be a nation of sissies and the same reason the Dead End Kids found it both easy and satisfying to beat up the posh boy from the luxury apartment building: the cultural symbolism of class. If you relish chardonnay/lattes/ snowboarding, you will not fight. If you talk like a Texan, you are a two-fisted he-man who knows life's hardships and are ready to scrap at a moment's notice.

Before 2006, before 2008, progressives have got to figure out how to appeal to the wounded masculine in this country. It is not to be accomplished by destroying Roe v. Wade, denigrating women, repealing the small steps that gays have made toward full citizenship. We cannot go backwards on that. But we can realize that there are a lot of alienated males in our culture right now. Without their jobs, their traditional jobs that gave them identity, they need a new way of understanding their manhood.

George Bush has stirred up patriotic fervour in this country. (Patriotic: from patria or father). He has tapped into and his advisors have manipulated a warrior ethos in which it is unpatriotic to not support the troops and the war, where to oppose the war is to be sissified. The right has stirred up resentment against elitism as the provence of effeminancy, borderlessness, the world of sexual depravity. The Christianity that has emerged to combat these evils is not the gentle Christ; it is the manly, take-no-prisoners, I'll-kick-your-ass Christ.

The culture war we are engaged in is one of class, yes. But it is framed in notions of wounded masculinity that seeks to destroy the feminine in oh so many ways. As a woman, I'm terrified. But it's not about males versus females. Gender here is about more than that here. It's about rigidity versus fluidity, it's about authoritarianism versus freedom.

We must find a way to address these issues.


General Stan said...


Just wanted to say that I greatly appreciate your work. strolled across this post on your DailyKos diary and wanted to respond, but found myself deeper than expected. Thanks-

Adam said...

Extremely thought-provoking. As was your "Jesus and Real Men" over at culturekitchen. The link between theocracy, or let's say religion, and fear of the body haunts me, too. To the point that I've written a novel about what sex would be like in an American theocracy, and how it would be the last act of rebellion left in such a theocracy.

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