Saturday, July 09, 2005
Rights Of Passage
Atrios asks: "Anyone else notice just how excited it seems to make certain members of our mediocracy?"
"It" being terrorism--the attacks in London and the prospect of similar attacks here.
I've noticed, big time. In fact, it seems like way more than "certain members"--with the sane exceptions of Michael Scheuer and Larry Johnson, nearly every guest and pundit on cable is trying to find their spot in the banshee chorus. When all of these "terror experts"--many of them affiliated with rightwing think tanks--pontificate and speculate (based on no real information) about who the perpetrators were and the nature of the long struggle we're in, they look and sound keyed-up, keen with anticipation, eager to entertain the worst.
No kidding. They're like a bunch of coke addicts trying desperately to re-capture that first great high that made them feel omnipotent. ("May the Lion come roaring back!")
9/11 was a very dramatic act of terrorism, a made for TV spectacle that horrifed and riveted the world for days. Many of these people threw themselves into the fantasy that this "war on terrorism" was the gravest threat the world has ever known (MAD be damned) and that they were somehow at the center of this conflict, destined to be heroes of the age. There were even those who said overtly that the greatest generation were a bunch of free-loading socialists compared to the freedom fighting liberators of today. It was obvious from the get that there were deeper psychological issues at play.
I suspect that among those who have not had to fight a war there are always a few who regret not being able to prove themselves on the battlefield. War does seem hardwired into the human experience; the battle cry is a pretty primal thing. So, I can understand the excitement of the twenty somethings like Pat Tilman who joined up after 9/11, driven by a strong desire to test his mettle and physical courage. (Hell, that was the reason Oliver Stone joined up in Vietnam, Kerry too --- it has little to do with politics.)Young men being excited about war is nothing new --- and having their illusions shattered by the reality of it is nothing new either. The literature of the ages can attest to this.
That is not what we are dealing with here, however. We are dealing with a group of right wing glory seekers who chose long ago to eschew putting themselves on the line in favor of tough talk and empty posturing --- the Vietnam chickenhawks and their recently hatched offspring of the new Global War On Terrorism. These are men (mostly) driven by the desire to prove their manhood but who refuse to actually test their physical courage. Neither are they able to prove their virility as they are held hostage by prudish theocrats and their own shortcomings. So they adopt the pose of warrior but never actually place themselves under fire. This is a psychologically difficult position to uphold. Bullshitting yourself is never without a cost.
And I think there is an even deeper layer to this as well and one which is vital to understanding why the right wing baby boomers and their political offspring are so pathologically irrational about dealing with terrorism. Vietnam, as we were all just mercilessly reminded in the presidential election, was the crucible of the baby boom generation, perhaps the crucible of America as a mature world power.
The war provided two very distinct tribal pathways to manhood. One was to join "the revolution" which included the perk of having equally revolutionary women at their sides, freely joining in sexual as well as political adventure as part of the broader cultural revolution. (The 60's leftist got laid. A lot.) And he was also deeply engaged in the major issue of his age, the war in Vietnam, in a way that was not, at the time, seen as cowardly, but rather quite threatening. His masculine image encompassed both sides of the male archetypal coin --- he was both virile and heroic.
The other pathway to prove your manhood was to test your physical courage in battle. There was an actual bloody fight going on in Vietnam, after all. Plenty of young men volunteered and plenty more were drafted. And despite the fact that it may be illogical on some level to say that if you support a war you must fight it, certainly if your self-image is that of a warrior, tradition requires that you put yourself in the line of fire to prove your courage if the opportunity presents itself. You simply cannot be a warrior if you are not willing to fight. This, I think, is deeply understood by people at a primitive level and all cultures have some version of it deeply embedded in the DNA. It's not just the willingness to die it also involves the willingness to kill. Men who went to Vietnam and faced their fears of killing and dying, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, put themselves to this test.
And then there were the chickenhawks. They were neither part of the revolution nor did they take the obvious step of volunteering to fight the war they supported. In fact, due to the draft, they allowed others to fight and die in their place despite the fact that they believed heartily that the best response to communism was to aggressively fight it "over there" so we wouldn't have to fight it here. These were empty boys, unwilling to put themselves on the line at the moment of truth, yet they held the masculine virtues as the highest form of human experience and have portrayed themselves ever since as tough, uncompromising manly men while portraying liberals as weak and effeminate. (Bill Clinton was able to thwart this image because of his reputation as a womanizer. You simply couldn't say he was effeminate.)
Now it must be pointed out that there were many men, and many more women, who didn't buy into any of this "manhood" stuff and felt no need to join in tribal rituals or bloody wars to prove anything. Most of those men, however, didn't aspire to political leadership. Among the revolutionaries, the warriors and the chickenhawks, there were many who did. Indeed, these manhood rituals are more often than not a requirement for leadership. (Perhaps having more women in power will finally change that.)
The only political aspirants among those three groups who failed to meet the test of their generation were the chickenhawks. And our problem today is that they are the ones in charge of the government as we face a national security threat. These unfulfilled men still have something to prove.
And, I suspect because their leadership of the "conservative" movement has infected the new generation, we are seeing much of the same pathology among younger warhawks as well. This is why we hear the shrill war cries of inchoate bloodlust from these quarters every time the terrorists strike. It's a primal scream of inner confusion and self-loathing. These are people whose highest aspirations and deepest longings are wrapped up in their masculinity, and yet they are flaccid failures. They are in a state of arrested development, never having faced their fears, never becoming men, remaining boys standing in the corner of the darkened hallway watching Bill Clinton emerge from a co-ed's dorm room to lead a rousing all night strategy session --- and sitting in the bus station on the way home for Christmas vacation as Chuck Hagel and John Kerry in uniform, looking stalwart and strong, clap each other on the back in brotherly solidarity and prepare to see what they are really made of. They have never been part of anything but an effete political movement in which the stakes go no higher than repeal of the death tax.
So, now we are facing a new crucible, one which the fighting keyboarders insist is an existential fight for everything we believe in. And you once again have campus Republicans sputtering about how their bake sales support the troops, trotting out their manly beer drinking as a stand-in for meeting the test of manhood their own belief system requires. Indeed, in a typical twist of reality, they claim that they are the new campus revolutionaries --- as they support the power structure in every way and insist that traditional values be enforced. I have no idea if they are getting laid, but their hyper-reliance on frat boy hyperbole to prove their masculinity to one another makes me doubt it. And so the weakness of one generation is passed on to the next.
Wolcott concludes his piece wondering how the warhawks can reconcile their alleged admiration for the British "stiff upper lip," with their own hysterical overreaction to the threat of terrorism:
The curious thing is that so many of the rightward bloggers and Fox Newswers who are hailing the Brits for their quiet stoicism and pluck don't seem to realize they're issuing an implicit rebuke to themselves and their fellow Americans. They're saying, in effect, "You've got to admire the Brits for showing calm and quiet perserverence after these explosions--they don't get all hysterical, overdramatic, and overreactive the way we Americans do." They don't seem to realize the example shown by Londoners might be a lesson to them, a model they might follow instead of playing laptop Pattons at full volume every time they feel a rousing post coming on.
Playing laptop Pattons at full volume, supporting the president and the entire power structure of the government is their only way of proving to themselves that they are warriors. They are damaged by their own contradictory past and as a result they cannot see their way through the haze of emotional turmoil to seek out and find real solutions to the problem of terrorism. They lash out with trash talk and threats and constant references to their own resolve because they are afraid. They've always been afraid.
digby 7/09/2005 10:27:00 AM