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- Penis Politics
The present political season with all its strange and outlandish theater can most aptly be labelled ‘penis politics’. The overriding and oft-expressed desire of great masses of voters to ‘stick it to the em’ about the establishment is an obviously phallic image. But the dynamic that has emerged between our two dominant political parties explicitly pits traditionally male mores against more amorphous female ones. That the two chosen candidates are also male and female is interesting but nevertheless a non sequitur. You can be male and espouse politics not yoked to traditional male roles and stereotypes, and two obvious penis politics practitioners, Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin, presumably didn’t and don’t have one. Penis politcs are preoccupied with the male as the traditional family breadwinner, and the female as the dependent, submissive partner. Motherhood is glorified (and abortion abhorred) as an implicit cornerstone of this paradigm. Nothing is more important than that the almighty sperm – the creator within – hit its mark. People whose self-identification puts them outside these Ozzie & Harriet, Beaver Cleaver molds are deviant, dangerous, and worthy of shunning. Maleness is equated with machismo (no, they are not the same) and synonymous with physical courage, virility, the domination of women, and aggression. ‘Real’ men prove they are men with confrontation. In the same vein, strength and security, national and otherwise, are synonymous with machismo. We need to ‘project’ American power worldwide. Nothing is more phallic than a missile. God is male, male is God, and the ultimate male is a bully – he pursues domination as an end in itself. The working class male – portrayed in this context as ‘Everyman’ – is the facet of society whose needs pre-empt everyone else’s. Everything is a fight, a struggle, a zero-sum game; conversely, discussion and compromise are female ploys. No ‘real’ man countenances them. And we have an extraordinary preoccupation with rigid social norms and ideology as an absolute. Not the sly clues our language gives us in regard to underlying (yes, literally) agendas. Social norms and ideology have to be ‘rigid’. Twitter has unleashed a compulsion to ‘one-up’ or ‘put down’ one’s opponents, the prevailing exchange of this campaign season. Political debates, ostensibly a forum for airing policy proposals, disintegrate into playground taunts about the ‘hotness’ of one’s respective partners and the adequacy of genitalia. And what if you’re not ‘up’ to playing in this arena? There’s always penis augmentation i.e. buy a gun. Implicit in this fixation on domination is its correlative, exploitation. Women were created to be the help-mate to man, part and parcel of a universe designed to meet his needs and give him pleasure. Thus as well the natural world and its gifts, and the rabid hostility of penis politickers to anything smacking of environmental stewardship or protection. It’s their playground, after all. You hear that, minorities? Theirs!!! You’re just another kind of woman. It would be tempting to regard the Trump Campaign as the epitome of penis politics, but it would be overly simplistic. Although this is without question its overarching dynamic, Trump himself, a worldly and pragmatic businessman, has, for example, steadfastly refused to be drawn into gay-bashing and restroom baiting. He has also seen fit to break dramatically from Republican orthodoxy (rigid, remember?) of the last 40 years on free trade deals. This, however, is a direct consequence of his newly found identification, improbable as this reach from his always cushy rich man’s perch is, with his ‘bros’ in the white male working class. Nevertheless, his debut logo with newly picked Pence, already reportedly pulled after much Internet hilarity, perhaps sums up his campaign’s tenor best: it showed an excessive preoccupation with penetration. On the other side, Hillary, during her long sojourn in the public eye, has consistently felt it necessary to ‘man up’ to show herself ready to be commander in chief, and has often taken flack, deservedly I think, for being too cold and distant from ordinary people’s needs as well as maddeningly above it all (Who’s on top?). All I would argue legitimate criticisms but just as obviously gender generated defense mechanisms to survival in a penis politics world. Penis politics are no doubt as ancient and pervasive as the missionary position. We are, after all, sexual beings, schizophrenic as our relationship with this immutable fact is. But why are they so preponderant in this election cycle in our place at this time? Because the most aggrieved portion of our electorate is older, white, middle class males (plus their female counterparts who see this penis politics storyline as gospel), and this group’s formative male icons were John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (fairly obvious penis politicians). These are the people in our body politic who feel most, er, shafted. These are the people in mortal terror of that most visceral of male phobias, castration, even if only symbolic. The general hysteria in some quarters toward any efforts at reasonable gun control is fueled, at bottom, by this most ancient of male anxieties. And they’re not wrong. They are quite definitely the group who has lost the most in terms of power, influence, money – clout – over the past 50-100 years. Our country, but also the world, has been moving, by fits and starts certainly, but steadily toward a consensus which rejects this penis projected male paradigm. Secularization, with its concomitant democratization of the divine, has accelerated this process (and thus becomes another focal point for anger and anxiety). Disaffected hordes are never conducive to social harmony. Thus freer societies everywhere have these pockets of males who feel entitled to the old penis politics paradigm – and just as entitled to act out their rage at its loss in violent rampages and terrorist acts. Tectonic plate caliber change never comes easily or quickly, and a shaking, rumbling playing field is not conducive to clarity. It does help to try to peer through the fog and find the real agenda. Some of these disruptions will only begin to be resolved as a younger generation supercedes the older. But we need to take a good, hard, square, honest look at male anxiety and its roots. What were once dubbed women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights are now more fully than ever just human rights. We have cadres of disaffected, confused, alienated males everywhere that need to be re-integrated into the larger social fabric. We all need liberation from passé social norms and empowerment by new, millennium worthy ones. We need to energetically seek policies, both political and practical, that are liberating and empowering for every facet of our body politic, quixotic as this quest may very well be. Competition is at the very heart of the American experience, but we need to grow up a bit and stop seeing everything in terms of winners and losers. The ship of state is in some shoals, and it needs all of its rowers to power through. And it works better when we all pull together.
- The Silent Agendas
Every election is underwritten by the silent agendas which underpin the human heart. Though politics is often regarded as an arena for duking it out over ‘getting stuff’, even when specific social reforms are a driving impetus as implied idealistic vision gives them credence. As a species we have long indulged in animated philosophical peregrinations about our supposed superior rationality, a discourse that has spanned disciplines from theology to economics and sometimes, it seems, everything in between. Our ability to reason ‘makes us human,’ ‘sets us above the animals,’ is ‘God in us’ and on it goes, our ego stroking pas de deux with this lovely thought. We are more, much much more, than mere (lower) passions and appetites, but rather creatures who can think logically and reasonably about our needs and how best to achieve them. Well, maybe we can, but we almost never do. For we are, in truth, creatures of bounded rationality at best, something modern neuroscience increasingly makes apparent. We are rational within sharp limits; we are emotional with over-arching intensity. And when we vote, the preeminent silent agenda is our emotional animus. It is our emotions that make us want, above all else, to identify with our candidate. Books like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” lament the fact that rural voters especially so often vote for candidates whose platforms will actively do them harm economically. But, if they can afford to, voters will always vote their identity rather than their self-interest. The generally high standard of living enjoyed in this country in recent decades has given this propensity a free rein at the ballot box. Conversely, the grinding economic exigencies of the Great Depression caused millions to put aside any niceties of identification and vote for someone, perhaps foreign to them in persona, intellect, and background, but who seemed willing to wade into the carnage and pragmatically take the bull by the horns. This is the economic bottom line demarcating interest vs. status politics, a concept introduced to me by Richard Hofstadter in his excellent essay, “The Pseudo-Conseervative Revolt - 1954.” Interest politics are bread and butter politics, concerned with how best to allocate resources to achieve the greatest good or remediate past social injustices. Status politics are all about the much more amorphous question of morality. ‘What is the good?’ ‘How Shall We Then Live?’ ‘Do We Measure Up?’ Status politics are inordinately preoccupied with questions of moral degeneracy, judgmental by definition, and obsessed with sexual mores. Generally, they are validated by some sense of higher, noble purpose; the human animal they purport to ennoble and improve seems scarcely to enter into their lofty calculations in any realistic sense at all. They might as well be playing chess with a wooden token. Status politics have the most emotional clout; they tend to hit us in the gut (assuming our gut is reasonably well fed). People, after all, are generally as ‘good’ as they can afford to be. Status politics are also the most polarizing, not least because we disagree about what is good, but also because those afflicted with a crusading mentality see these issues as a titanic conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In this, Manichaean, apocalyptic theater, compromise is tantamount to treason. This political mindset is also highly susceptible to the routine tools of propaganda which rely for their efficacy on vivid emotional triggers. Interest politics are more complex from an identity standpoint because they generally require diverse coalitions of disparate individuals to force the economic order in an inertia resisted direction. The issue of identifying with the candidate has to move from the personal to the philosophical. It has to engage with the rational realm with which our emotions have such an uneasy (and unequal) partnership. It posits the individual as not just individual but a creature shaped and defined by the milieu in which he or she lives. It posits the human as an indubitably social, communal creature. So the voter identification becomes less one of say, liking, the individual candidate than with what are sometimes called ‘big tent policies’, with idealizations of human rights, social justice, a vision of what can be achieved to further the common good. Ironically, it is an identification with an abstraction even though it is less about God, who can certainly be regarded as the ultimate abstraction, and more about people. Obviously, American politics of the last forty years or so have been predominantly of the status variety. But the economic disruptions of the Great Recession and the anemic and uneven pace of recovery are causing our body politic to gravitate to a decidedly interest based focus. In whichever direction we fling our hearts and our voting allegiance, there are other silent, mostly emotional, agendas, that are always in play. We want to find someone worthy of our fealty- a leader. We want more than the lesser of two evils. We want to be uplifted and inspired by the discourse that demands our attention. We want to be respected as befits autonomous citizens in a democracy. We vehemently object to the sense of being ‘played’ in service to someone else’s agenda. We want to be offered a vision of the future in which we can believe, because one of our most pressing human needs— one infused through and through with emotional gravitas—- is for meaning and purpose. And, finally, the most amorphous silent agenda of them all: the Zeitgeist. What is the Zeitgeist? From the German, it translates literally as ‘time-spirit’; more broadly, it is the spirit, attitude, and general outlook of a specific period, the moral, cultural, and intellectual climate of an era. Politicians bear the stamp of genius when they intuitively recognize a shift in the Zeitgeist and make themselves an early ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’ Obama’s ’08 campaign had some of this stamp. Conversely, even old political warriors can appear incredibly befuddled when they continue parroting the mantras of the old Zeitgeist as a new one takes hold. Most of the time politicians, like the rest of us, stumble into a new Zeitgeist, a new point of view, propelled by a vague sense of discomfiture with the status quo which we feel acutely but would find it hard to fully articulate. The clearest sign that the American Zeitgeist has shifted are polls quizzing voters about the direction of the country which consistently report discontents at 50% or greater. Similarly, incredibly dismal ratings of the recent performance of Congress reflect overwhelming public disgust with an institution whose main focus in the near past seems to have been creating an impregnable fortress around the increasingly discredited status quo. Just as symptomatic are the successes of unorthodox, outside-the-mainstream candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The Zeitgeist, however, will have its way with us. Already, decidedly centrist candidates like Hillary Clinton are groping their way in its direction. And candidates like Ted Cruz, who regard the old Zeitgeist as gospel ( and his followers who perceive any change as apocalyptic ) are doubling down on the old, established mantras and titillating us with ‘end is nigh’ predictions if we don’t heed their clarion call. Who knew the simple little voting booth was so enormously crowded? All these agendas, however, are going to be clamoring for our attention when we mark our ballots. Come November, we’re going to find out whose voices are the most cogent.
- What is Fascism?
Fascism is one of those slippery terms that recall Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.” In the case of fascism, it seems to be more a vague but persistent sense of deep unease: we know it when we feel it. Technically, of course, fascism is the political movement founded in 1919 in Italy by Benito Mussolini which took its name from the Latin fasces, a group of rods bound around an ax head which served as an ancient Roman symbol of authority. Mussolini headed and refined this governmental system from 1922 until 1943, but it was (and still is) seen imitated in other countries by similar nationalistic movements seeking to gain and keep power through violence and ruthlessness. The Nazis under Adolf Hitler are perhaps the preeminent example but there are plenty of others: Spain under Franco, Chile under Pinochet, North Korea under the Kims, various and sundry African governments throughout the 20th century. The system carefully refined my Mussolini and Hitler included the absolute centralization of authority via dictatorship, stringent socioeconomic controls, violent suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, belligerent nationalism and racism, the aggressive and over-riding militarization of all aspects of society. So what spawns fascism? Generally, massive economic discontent and upheaval, that of Germany pre-Hitler has been well documented. Often, however, the economic dislocations create mass movements seeking more equitable economic systems, and the fascism itself is a fierce reaction by the elites to a threat to the status quo. Consequently, the nuts and bolts constructing the fascist machine are very innate emotional triggers. They have to be. Why? Because they are asking people to put aside legitimate economic needs and yearning to embrace an overarching, very emotionally driven, narrative about what’s wrong. ‘Everything is going to hell in a hand basket.’ We need a strong, visionary hero to make it right! All the old traditions are being upended – we need to return to the values and mores that made us great! Our whole way of life is threatened - only a strong military can save us! Nothing is safe from all these outsiders – our dominant group needs to circle the wagons and oust the other! Desperate times call for desperate solutions – it’s too bad about the violence but the end always justifies the means, right?! Fascism further always enlists the help and support of whatever is the dominant religious dogma. This is its major play to create legitimacy (besides it heavy reliance on old cultural traditions), and it becomes increasingly important as the absolutism and ruthlessness of its tactics begin to elicit queasy responses in more and more people. It’s not too hard to see elements of fascism in our present American political moment, but in reality these tendencies are always lurking just beneath the surface in human societies precisely because they are innately human. All they really wait for to spew forth, volcano-like, are the right mix of economic dislocations and the right leader to stir and stake their salpheric cauldron. Fascist memes readily apparent in our present American political moment are the cult of tradition and concomitant rejection of modernity, the overt rejection of analytical criticism and emphasis on emotional responses aimed at a frustrated working class, and preoccupation with dark plots and conspiracies designed to undermine our ‘birthright’. There is a palpable feeling of disenfranchisement, in our case, among mostly white working class voters. They feel humiliated by an enemy often embodied in the ultimate other, immigrants or racial minorities. Their refuge is the social strutting of machismo and militarization. Their very real fears stoke a long simmering wellspring of aggrievements that makes violence seem a legitimate response. It is always frightening – terrifying actually – to see ostensibly rational human beings behaving in ways that are anything but rational. But our present anti-rationalism recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s long ago statement on November 4, 1938, that: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” It is certainly no accident that older working class Americans have gravitated toward fascism and younger voters express a preference for socialism vis-à-vis capitalism. And it is hardly coincidental that these trends have arisen after a 40-year period of working class wage stagnation, debilitating debt loads for students and others, and soaring, crippling health care costs. Much, much more is at stake in the coming election than the appropriateness of the two candidates, consequential as that indeed is. The real question is whether our democratic systems can rise to the economic challenges posed by millions of our voters. Because the status quo is not going to cut it. The land of opportunity needs to get the opportunity side of its act together.
- I Believe in Democracy
I believe in democracy. I believe it is my civic duty to vote, and I have never failed to vote in any election, whether large or small, since the franchise was extended to me 46 years ago. But over the course of my voting career, I have seen my allegiance swing dramatically. I began as a classic liberal, wanting to create a more just society and seeing government as a logical tool for this purpose until bureaucracy, red tape, and waste raised my hackles. Then I took a more conservative tack, wanting everything to be a more scaled-back, manageable size, and everyone to shoulder his or her own responsibility. But I had loved ones on Social Security, and I saw first hand what a blessing to all a well-run socialist safety net can be. Living in a modern, industrialized society, I saw environmental degradation and pollution all about me, and apocalyptic fears made me an environmentalist. Still, I marveled at what that modern, industrial, capitalist society had wrought, and the scale and economics of the corporatist inspired my awe. I wanted to live in that modern world, but I nevertheless wanted that world as also my own life, to be oriented toward the good, to have moralist feet firmly planted on the ground. And, sometimes, I simply recoiled from trying to sort it all out, and I just wanted to live my own life in my own way, not bothering or being bothered by anyone, hiding away in my libertarian camouflage suit. So what’s my agenda? Pieces of all the above. But in the process of trying to find politicians who spoke for me, some salient facts jumped out at me: 99.5% of all politics is rhetoric The real agenda is seldom mentioned in the pretty speeches Propaganda, crises-creating situations, and emotionally baiting language are the tools of the trade Media and scandal grease the works The ‘language’ of all agendas is money – it’s the medium of the message So, I wrote a game to keep this picture clear in my mind. Because the whole process sure looked like an elaborate game to me. My game taught me to look for the hidden agenda and to think about who is juicing the works and why. It made me think about how deadly getting fixated on one, narrow agenda can be. Play the game! Run with the big dogs and buy yourself a politician! Are you going to take the high road and buy only positive ads or be lured by the greater ‘kick’ of negative ones? But, in or out of the game, keep asking: What’s the Real Agenda? … because everyone’s got one!
- The Perennial Election Agenda: Myth Marketing
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