It seems beneath my manly dignity to give David Brooks a hard time for his comments decrying Obama's "manhood problem in the Middle East." He made them on a Sunday talk show, after all, and we know that no one watches them. And anyway, people accidentally say stupid things on television all the time.
And yet, I suspect that Brooks actually meant it. Because even though he's distanced himself from the conservative movement in all kinds of ways over the past six years (basically, since George W. Bush's presidency went down in flames), one thing that's remained consistent with him since his days writing paeans to American "national greatness" for William Kristol's Weekly Standard is his tendency to swoon (in only the most manly of ways, of course) at dramatic displays of militaristic swagger and toughness.
When that kind of man's man looks at Barack Obama's policy in the Middle East — with its gratuitous displays of not bombing countries, not overthrowing their governments, and not invading and occupying them — he sees something less than virile, a little bit limp, and just a tiny bit flaccid (emphasis on the "tiny").
He sees a girly man.
This certainly doesn't place Brooks out of the mainstream on the Right. On the contrary, Brooks' comments on Meet the Press might be the most mainstream conservative thing he's said in years. There is a long, deep, and highly repetitive tradition of testosterone-fueled bellicosity on the Right that consistently justifies itself in terms of manliness and sees itself as the necessary antidote to the creeping, potentially fatal feminization of the nation.
Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first to valorize manliness (and decry feminization) in American public life. In the 95 years since his death, he's been venerated by a broad swath of conservatives, and especially by the second-generation neocons and their onetime hero John "Battlefield: Earth" McCain. Hell, this faction's leading political philosopher — Harvard's Harvey C. Mansfield — even wrote a book titled Manliness, in part to defend men against all the mean and hurtful things that scary feminists like to say about them.
If all of this sounds a little personal to me, that's because it is.
Back in 2002 when I worked as an editor at First Things — a journal that's aptly been dubbed the New York Review of Books of the religious right — I wrote a column for the magazine that got me into a bit of trouble. My son had just been born, and I wanted to make a case for the modern, egalitarian family in which fathers play an active role in the day-to-day drudgery and delights of raising small children. This was in contrast, of course, to the more traditional family structures usually defended in our pages.
Conservatives have a point, I argued, when they focus on negative consequences of women working outside the home; children often end up being raised by strangers in day-care centers, and women feel torn between their maternal instincts and their desire for careers. But the answer to such problems, I suggested, was not an (unjust, undesirable, and impossible) return to some earlier paradigm of stay-at-home mothering. It was rather an increase in fatherly involvement in the family — and perhaps even the advent of Scandinavian-style government-sponsored paternity leave to allow men to more fully share domestic burdens and rewards.
That didn't go over well with our readers. At all. Not that I expected it to. But I did expect that the controversy would be about ideas. Instead it was about testicles. Mine, to be specific — and in particular about how my wife had quite obviously stolen them just before bullying me into denying the self-evident fact that mothers are forbidden to work outside the home, fathers are precluded from changing diapers, and God wants to keep it that way.
And then there was the special treat of a letter from Gilbert Meilaender — distinguished moral theologian, longtime friend of the magazine's editor-in-chief (Richard John Neuhaus), and member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics. As far as Meilaender was concerned, my ideas clearly flowed from a deep-seated longing to lactate.
As I wrote in my published response to the letters, this charge had about as much intellectual substance behind it as a playground taunt of "f--got."
Another day at First Things, another reason to break from the Right.
The important point is that when they pronounce on the subject of manliness, none of these people — not Teddy Roosevelt, not John McCain, not Bill Kristol, not David Brooks, not Harvey Mansfield, not Gil Meilaender — can be taken seriously on an intellectual level.
What they're doing is some kind of ideological shtick, whether or not they recognize it as such. They're either cynically flattering gullible men and attempting to whip them into a froth of indignation in the way that Fox News and talk radio hosts do every day — or else they're inadvertently confessing their own gendered status anxieties. Either way, it's both inaccurate and insulting to treat their grunts as more than irritable mental gestures.
Obama's policy in the Middle East is wise or foolish, smart or misguided, moral or immoral. His "manhood" has nothing at all to do with it.
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