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The Masculinity Panic
“Where the Hood At?” by the late DMX is a very peculiar song. The first verse is about the rapper’s intense hatred of homosexuals and his intense desire to do them harm, and the last verse is about his equally intense desire to express his contempt for homosexuals and other men on his enemies list by . . . having sex with them. The song is an anthem of homophobia until it becomes a homoerotic fantasy, and the video, full of close-up shots of muscled-up shirtless men, is at least as gay as the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
That will be mostly familiar stuff to scholars of sexual history and men who have been to prison — for most of human existence, until about three days ago, attitudes toward male homosexuality were in most times and most places very strongly dependent upon whether a man took what we used to decorously call the “active” or the “passive” role in the relationship. Naïve gay-rights advocates sometimes point to ancient republican Rome as an example of a society with a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, but Latin doesn’t even have a word for homosexual in the modern sense of that word, and same-sex relationships between men in Rome were mainly the sort of thing we very much would not tolerate in our time: pederastic exploitation by adult men of youths who were under their control (often as slaves) or who were in social positions that made them easy to exploit. To do with a Roman citizen what could be done with a slave or a child prostitute was, of course, forbidden, and if it had ever occurred to any ancient Roman to pursue something like a modern homosexual relationship — a life partnership of men generally of roughly comparable age and social status, possibly leading to marriage or something like it — the result would probably have been execution. In the case of Roman soldiers, the prescribed punishment for willingly submitting to homosexual penetration was being beaten to death — to be sexually used in such a way was, in the Roman mind, a symbol of military defeat, and, hence, by the usual operation of magical thinking in the ancient world, homosexual relations among soldiers were thought to cause battlefield losses.
If that sounds like irrelevant ancient history to you, have a look at the rifle that pathetic little misfit used in the Buffalo massacre.
The rifle in question was covered with graffiti of an obviously racial character: the names of racist mass murderers associated with massacres in Norway and South Carolina, “Here’s your reparations!”, and other things of that nature, with indifferent spelling. And some of the graffiti had a sexual nature as well as a racial one, including “Buck Status: Broken,” and “BLM Mogged.”
Those of you who are not sad-sack 4chan racial obsessives may be mystified by these. The ADL explains that “buck breaking” refers to the “use of brutal sexual violence by slave owners as punishment against enslaved Black men,” but that isn’t quite right, or quite the whole thing. The slogan refers much more specifically to a much-ridiculed documentary film called Buck Breaking, which dwells upon the claim — undocumented and preposterous — that American slaveowners punished unruly male slaves by publicly raping them, typically in front of other slaves, including their wives and children when these were available. Social and legal sanctions on homosexuality were very strong in the antebellum South, and the notion that plantation overseers would engage in public homosexual acts is, to say the least, extraordinarily unlikely. No documentary evidence of this exists. Where sexualized violence was used to punish male slaves, it was typically castration.
(The habitual rape and sexual exploitation of female slaves is well-documented.)
“Buck breaking” is another example of the phenomenon typified by the “Willie Lynch” letter, an obvious hoax purporting to be an antique guide to slave management that explains modern black social problems. The Willie Lynch letter is as fake as can be (the language is obviously from the second half of the 20th century, and there is no historian who believes that it is anything other than a clumsy fabrication), but it is regularly presented as a genuine historical document and, when confronted with evidence of its obviously fictitious nature, those who traffic in the myth of Willie Lynch inevitably turn to the “fake but accurate” approach, insisting that it represents a larger historical truth. In a similar way, Buck Breaking purports to connect the (fictitious) practice of forcibly and publicly sodomizing male slaves to the modern-day emasculation of black men, but the prurient documentary is derided as, essentially, a soft-core-porn fetish film. The Very Online racists who have taken up “buck breaking” as a threat and a term of abuse have, even if they do not quite understand what they are doing, taken on the role of DMX — they are fantasizing about cutting their enemies down to size by engaging in homosexual acts with them. Like DMX, they have arrived at the very strange point where homophobia meets homoeroticism.
In fact, much of the argot of the racist underground (and the adjacent political Right) is based on genres of homosexual pornography, not only “buck breaking” but also the remarkably fetishistic attachment to the word “cuck,” which features in certain homosexually oriented humiliation porn. Which side of the great cuck divide the Right wishes to be on is not always entirely clear: Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow “Jack Murphy” (real name John Goldman) is an amateur pornographer who rejoices in, as Rod Dreher puts it, the “pleasures of being a literal cuckold” by “farming his girlfriend out to other men for sex.” When he is not publicly impaling himself on sex toys, Goldman’s specialization is the topic of masculinity, and, in a very similar way, Claremont’s American Mind journal is packed with the predictable kind of sexual anxiety that is by necessity associated with that version of masculinity, fretting about “soy boys” and “simps” and the like. This is the “traditional” model of masculinity that finds authentic manliness in only a handful of manly archetypes: cops, soldiers, blue-collar workers, motorcycle enthusiasts, etc.
Which is to say, it is only one feathered headdress short of the Village People.
The link between anxiety about masculinity and homoeroticism — and outright homosexual pornography — is very old and its origins very obvious. Until very, very recently, to be a homosexual man — especially a man on what DMX and the ancient Romans and an American prison inmate would think of as the degrading side of a homosexual encounter — was to be reduced to the social status of a woman. (Set aside, for the moment, Camille Paglia’s very persuasive argument that the sexual behavior of gay men in the bathhouse culture of the 1970s and 1980s was the precise opposite of feminized — it was the detached, transactional promiscuity of the male libido liberated from any need to compromise with the priorities and sensibilities of women.) From the historical Western point of view, gay men were, in effect, not men at all. Predictably, one response to this attack on the masculinity of gay men was the emergence of a gay iconography of hypermasculine archetypes: The Village People presented the consumer-friendly model of this (which gay men in that era must have found positively hilarious, because they knew what the YMCA was famous for), but the origins of that aesthetic are in older gay erotica and pornography, most famously in the works of Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), whose drawings of muscled-up bikers, sailors, cops, and cowboys popularized and in some ways created a self-contained library of masculinity — mostly of a fun-loving libertine nature, but also containing a fair amount of darker stuff, including a scene that would have been very much at home in Buck Breaking if not for the fact that all the figures depicted are white.
(There is something to be inferred about national self-conceptions of masculinity in the fact that Touko Laaksonen did not visit the United States until he was almost 60, but his pictures were widely understood to be pictures of Americans. Europeans long regarded Americans as hypermasculine, going back at least to Alexis de Toqueville’s observations of the “women of America, who often exhibit a masculine strength of understanding and a manly energy.” The European impression of exaggerated American masculinity is in many ways parallel to white Americans’ traditional impression of exaggerated black masculinity — something regarded with a mix of admiration and fear.)
It should be no surprise that those Tom of Finland gay archetypes approximate the idealized cartoon masculinity of the online racists and their political cousins in right-wing institutions such as the Claremont Institute: In our time, it is not gay men in America who feel emasculated but white men in America. Like gay men of an earlier generation, the Buffalo shooter and his 4chan associates dream of taking on hypermasculine roles, even if that sense of hypermasculinity leads them into the realm of homosexual fantasy. Beyond “buck breaking,” the Buffalo shooter fantasized in public about “mogging” Black Lives Matter, which is to say, humiliating them with a display of intimidating physical stature. You will not be surprised to learn that the word “mogged” crops up most often at one of the traditional intersections between exaggerated notions of traditional masculinity and a gay subculture: bodybuilding. That Claremont fellow is an amateur bodybuilder when he is not subjecting himself to ritualized sexual humiliation.
It is here that our old friend Tucker Carlson enters the story.
The most interesting overlap between the obsessions of Tucker Carlson and the Buffalo shooter is not, as our self-serving Democratic friends insist, “replacement” rhetoric — it is masculine anxiety. Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson comes from the West Coast version of the old New England and Mid-Atlantic WASP elite, a product of the La Jolla Country Day School and boarding schools in Switzerland and New England. He doesn’t have any more experience with ranch labor, factory workers, or the Hells Angels than Tom of Finland had, but his valorization of blue-collar and rural life is marked by the same kind of longing after masculine archetypes, and his approach to the question of masculinity could not be more literally reductive — his interest, as described in his recent documentary, The End of Men, is commanded in no small part by the state of the American testicle. Carlson represents the latest in a very long line of insulated aristocrats gripped by a panic about the state of masculinity in their time: Teddy Roosevelt was another, with his advocacy of the “strenuous life,” and the father of Scouting, a movement intended in part to address certain perceived deficiencies in late-Victorian masculinity, was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, KStJ, DL. Xi Jinping, the son of a high-ranking Communist Party official who did not find physical labor much to his liking when he was forcibly rusticated by Mao Zedong, has banned depictions of “sissy men” from Chinese media. Vladimir Putin’s regime is strangely interested in the question of gay Russians — since we have it on the good word of senior Russian officials that there are no homosexuals in their jurisdictions.
Where the fear of emasculation meets “replacement theory” is on the hard ground of social-status competition. What was that tiki-torch dork parade in Charlottesville all about? As the man behind one of the country’s premier neo-Nazi websites promised those thinking about attending that rally, the result would be not the beginning of a racial holy war or the achievement of political power or anything like that: “Random girls will want to have sex with you,” he declared. As it turns out, that doesn’t seem to be how things went down. But the Nazis say more than they perhaps intend. Of course the Buffalo shooter dreamt of inflicting sexual humiliation on those of his fellow countrymen he regards as his enemies — from a certain warped point of view, that is only reciprocal justice. You will not find very many happily married men among the ranks of the mass shooters and their 4chan fan clubs, or among the armband-and-jackboots set. It is not usually sexual satisfaction and social success that leads a man to testicle tanning. And, as even most casual observers know, socioeconomic success and marital success are linked: There is almost no difference between the overall workforce participation rate for black Americans and white Americans, with both groups typically hovering in the low-60-percent rage; married black men are significantly more likely to be in the workforce than are single white men; even more telling, the workforce participation rate for married fathers is well above 90 percent.
The acquisition of wealth is not a zero-sum game — the things we do to create wealth for ourselves often create wealth for other people as well, and because wealth is created, your gain is not necessarily someone else’s loss. The pursuit of status, in contrast, is a zero-sum game, because status is by its nature an exclusively relative criterion. The identity of sexual competition with status competition and the zero-sum nature of status games explains the seeming paradox at the heart of globalization: In an increasingly free and prosperous world, the very people who enjoy the most freedom and prosperity — white men in the Anglosphere and Western Europe — are among the most dissatisfied. (Similar phenomena hold elsewhere in the world: In India, Narendra Modi’s angry populism is targeted not at poor people belonging to marginalized minority groups but at high-status Hindus.) That dissatisfaction is distributed across a wide spectrum: Sometimes, it means grumbling along with Tucker Carlson, and sometimes, it means the sort of political radicalization that resulted in the Buffalo massacre. It is not necessary to indulge in some kind of vulgar and reductive pseudo-Freudianism that reduces every question to sex, sexual frustration, and sexual ambition to appreciate this aspect of our public life.
But it is interesting — and I don’t think accidental — that our modern right-wing nationalists and 20th-century gay pornographers have about the same idea of what a real man looks like.
Words About Words
The word cult, which I am required to use often because of the things I write about, is misunderstood. In common 21st-century American English, cult is almost exclusively a pejorative term referring to a religious or pseudo-religious organization that exercises strong and exploitative control over the lives of its members. That is a legitimate use of the word, but it grows out of the other, older senses of that word.
I am not entirely sure who was the first to observe: “Cult is the first word in culture.” If you search on the Internet, all you will get are things that I have written, so I am tempted to claim it for my own. (I have a memory of taking it from T. S. Eliot, but I can’t find exactly those words in any of his works. At least, I couldn’t on the morning I wrote this.) Cult is also the first word in cultivation, and that seems to me appropriate: The Latin root cultus means worship or reverence, but it also means labor; as such, it comprehends the two main senses of the word cultivation: learning and farming. The cultivated mind, like cultivated land, has been improved and made ready to be fruitful.
I have observed many times (possibly too many) that modern-day political partisans have re-created ancient beliefs about divine kings and, specifically, about the effect of the royal character on national prosperity; in this context, I wrote: “If I am going to join a Levantine wine cult, I choose Christianity.” The word cult there bothers many readers. But Christians have for many generations used the word cult to refer to ourselves and our devotions — for those who are familiar with the terminology, to speak of “the cult of Saint Anne” is not to suggest heresy or idolatry or anything untoward, only a particular kind of admiration for a particular saint and a devotion to that saint’s example. Cult meaning style of worship or particular religious form is pretty common in English. Back to Eliot, who writes in his Notes toward the Definition of Culture:
In the next three chapters I discuss what seem to me to be three important conditions for culture. The first of these is organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of ‘regionalism’. The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion—that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion.
Elsewhere in the same essay:
The chief cultural differences in England have, in the past, been those between Anglicanism and the more important Protestant sects; and even these differences are far from clearly defined: first, because the Church of England itself has comprehended wider variations of belief and cult than a foreign observer would believe it possible for one institution to contain without bursting; and second, because of the number and variety of the sects separated from it.
It may only be my ear, but sect also seems to be acquiring a disreputable connotation — a suggestion of fanaticism or extremism.
I would like to rescue the word cult from disreputability and to emphasize its connections to culture and cultivation — a culture contains what a civilization believes about the most important things, and cultivation is how one draws close to those beliefs and learns to understand them. (Which is not the same thing as accepting them.) At the same time, I hope it continues to sting when I describe certain political enthusiasts as being cultish or cult members. “I’m not saying I like everything about Mammon — in fact, I have some real reservations about Mammon, and I know Mammon is far from perfect! — but Moloch is the worst, and this is a binary choice: If you aren’t pro-Mammon, then you are operatively pro-Moloch. Do you really want to be pro-Moloch and have that on your conscience?”
A reader who is not Stannis Baratheon wants a ruling on less/fewer, citing this sentence from the Wall Street Journal: “Last month, Nancy Green, the chain’s president and chief executive, stepped down after less than two years running the brand.” My correspondent asks:
Maybe I have the rule wrong, but years feels like a count noun, which would entitle it to fewer. But, I’m not 100 percent if that rule applies to time in the same way it applies to say, apples.
Years certainly are countable, but, in this case, the writer is talking about a quantity of time on the job that is not necessarily enumerated in discrete years. Just because we can count them doesn’t mean we are counting them in a given usage. One year and four months is less time than two years, and one year and eleven months also is less time than two years. We are keeping track of time, but not counting years as such. But six semesters at college are two fewer than the eight required for graduation.
Here is another example: “The ski resort is still unprofitable after its fifth ski season, while others have achieved profitability in fewer seasons than that.” Here season is the necessary and relevant unit, and not only is it countable, it is being counted. So, you might write, “The program is open to boys less than ten years old” but, “He has fewer years on the job than is required” in a context in which years might be counted for the purpose of determining seniority or eligibility for a promotion. Where the years themselves are not necessarily counted, you might write: “He has less time on the job than she does” or, “He has less time on the job than the 20 years required for retirement” or, “He has fewer years on the job than the 20 required for retirement.”
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In Other News . . .
The J. Paul Getty Trust is the world’s richest art institution, rejoicing in a $7.7 billion endowment thanks to the philanthropy of notoriously flinty arch-capitalist Jean Paul Getty Sr., who was the wealthiest American in the late 1950s. The fruit of Getty’s fortune is being used, among other purposes, for the rescue of a hideous monument to socialism in Bulgaria. It is a shame that that other great industrialist Alfred Nobel is not around to donate the dynamite to knock the thing down, as should be done. As the New York Times reports, the “Sistine Chapel of Socialism” may be repurposed as a music venue or an event center. It currently is a rotting ruin, which makes it an entirely appropriate monument to socialism.
Lenin is supposed to have quipped that capitalists would sell the rope with which they would be hanged, but that is not what has come to pass. Capitalists may, however, sell the former subjects of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the sound system and liquor to make a nightclub out of that old wreck on a remote Bulgarian hillside.
I advise them to ask for cash up front.
It is not a new book, but I recommend Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. It is an interesting book and an excellent read. We have forgotten, or are forgetting, about Reagan’s peacemaking legacy, and his at times genuinely radical proposals for achieving peace. And, because we do not have peace, one cannot help but appreciate that our current confrontation with the Russians would have been easier going if not for Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. I am not quite the idealist Reagan was: It should not be too difficult to understand that nuclear disarmament is in the strategic interest of the nation with the world’s most powerful conventional forces.
As Jay Nordlinger often observes, Vladimir Putin’s critics in Russia are some of the bravest people in the world. God only knows what will become of Boris Bondarev, the Russian diplomat at the United Nations who resigned his position in disgust over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and had the guts to say so in public in very plain terms. The Washington Post reports that the Russian diplomat “told the AP he had no plans to leave Geneva.” That would be my advice — Gstaad is full of Russians this time of year.
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