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The Politics of Whup-Ass

September 8, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

Driving along through a depressed industrial midwestern town one evening a couple weeks ago, I noticed a new group of billboards that had recently gone up. They all featured men smiling or laughing as women or children embraced them. Usually the pictures were posed so that it looked like the man's body was physically supporting the woman or child whose arms were twined about him.

The slogan in big letters across the top read "Strength, Not Violence." At the bottom was the name of the organization that was running this campaign against domestic violence, and a number to call.

Well, I thought, even though this campaign is still using this image of a clinging dependent as the foundation of this implied reader's masculinity, this strength not violence thing is a good idea, and let's hope to God it helps. And then, about ten seconds later, I started thinking about the past four years; and then I thought, good Christ, what are the odds?

Since September 11, everything the Bush administration has done, and most of what the American news and entertainment media have produced, has been hammering home the message that strength and violence are the same thing. According to the Bush administration's foreign policy, the only way to deal with a potential threat is to hit them before they hit you.

Their line is that the only way to be strong is to strike first, strike hard, and strike alone. Asking for help, pausing to consider the consequences, searching for alternatives - all of these things are weak. As the months go by, their definition of "strength" becomes narrower, and their definition of "weakness" becomes broader.

It is now, apparently, weakness to change your mind about anything, ever, even if your initial decision was clearly wrong. And, as Arnold Schwarzenegger told us all last week, it is now a sign of weakness even to acknowledge the existence of a serious - and glaringly obvious - problem. Apparently, anyone who is at all concerned about the fact that the American economy is in the toilet is now a "girlie man."

Well, Arnold would know. He presided over a phase of American popular culture that reduced "strength" to its crudest form: musclepower and firepower fused in the same male body. Thanks to him and Sylvester Stallone, on any given summer we can now enjoy any number of movies featuring a rock-hard, steroid-inflated, supernaturally indestructible hero who uses his gigantic limbs and/or a small portable arsenal to lay waste to as many people as he can reach while saying almost nothing.

I suppose it says something about us that he is now being talked about as a potential Presidential candidate, even though it would require a Constitutional amendment to make him eligible. Because apparently, in the Republicans' world, the only tool a strong leader should ever need is a big ol' can of whup-ass.

I am not such an idealist that I would deny whup-ass a place in the political realm. I look forward to laying down a little of my own whup-ass once a week here in this column. My definition of 'whup-ass,' however, is a little different. It is not, in my world, the exclusive province of heterosexual men, girlie or otherwise. And it is not necessarily linked to your ability to beat the stuffing out of people, or to the number of guns you own.

It has more to do with being able to detect and destroy the bullshit being industriously shoveled over the problems nobody wants us to know about, being willing to confront the reality underneath no matter how frightening or disturbing it may be, and being willing to tell the truth even if nobody is going to believe you.

From my perspective, the candidate with the most whup-ass would be the candidate who can actually save the economy, end the war on terrorism, and learn from his mistakes so as not to make them again. And from my perspective, what you need in order to accomplish those things is not so much pectoral muscles and automatic weapons as intelligence, integrity, honesty, and courage.

None of those attributes are part of the conception of "strength" being promoted by the Bush campaign and the Republican party in general. The idea that a strong president should be mentally sharp went out the window sometime during Ronald Reagan's second term, and now ignorance is a strength instead of a weakness. (Ah well. Orwell warned us.)

"Integrity," under the Bush administration, has been redefined as "resolve," which in layman's terms appears to mean "refusing to ever admit that you made a mistake or to try alternative approaches once it's clear that the one you're currently using is a total fucking disaster."

Honesty was this administration's first casualty; and without honesty, "courage" now seems to consist mainly in starting wars that we don't know how to end and then boldly sending the children of other people off to fight them.

As for compassion, empathy, sensitivity, and all the rest of that bullshit, well, nobody needs that but women and girlie men.

It's obvious to me, anyway, that this conception of "strength" is tragically, dangerously limited. We do need compassion, empathy, and sensitivity, because without them we will never learn enough about the world we're now at war with to figure out how to stop fighting it.

Instead of bleeding the Bill of Rights dry in the hopes of achieving perfect invulnerability, we need a government that can face up to the fact that vulnerability is the price of freedom, and acknowledge, as Clinton did in his convention speech, that we cannot defeat terrorism by trying to "jail, kill, or occupy" all of our potential enemies. We need people who are not in love with war, who can imagine their own strength, and America's strength, coming from something other than violence.

We need this more than ever now because the world needs a solution to the problem of terrorism, and confusing strength with violence makes it impossible for us to find one. Karl Rove demonstrated this beautifully last week by making a breathakingly ignorant comparison between America's 'war on terrorism' and the British approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland:

"This is going to be more like the conflict in Northern Ireland, where the Brits fought terrorism, and there's no sort of peace accord with al-Qaida saying, 'We surrender.'"

There's a lot that's weird about this statement, but the truly astonishing thing is that it shows that "Bush's Brain" not only has no idea what's happened in Ireland during the past 25 years, but also doesn't have a single fucking clue about how to actually win a war on terrorism.

Rove, apparently, stopped following the news sometime in 1981, when Margaret Thatcher was still refusing to negotiate with the IRA hunger strikers, preferring to let ten of them starve to death and then quietly give them most of the concessions they were striking for a few days after the strike was finally called off. Apparently Rove never got to the part where it was revealed that even while Thatcher's government was maintaining their hard-line posture in public, they were also looking for ways to negotiate with Sinn Fein (and, by extension, the IRA).

In 1993, evidently, Rove was too busy slithering through the swamps looking for something he could slime Clinton with to notice that John Major's government had invited Sinn Fein and the IRA to negotiate, provided they would agree to a cease-fire. Eight months later, the IRA took them up on it, and over the next five years, with the help of President Clinton and the Mitchell commission, the various parties managed to work out the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 - which is, guess what, a peace accord. Rove, meanwhile, was busy chortling over the Whitewater and Lewinsky investigations, and no doubt missed the whole thing.

The power-sharing agreement currently in place does not satisfy extremists on either the republican or the unionist side, but enough people now have enough of what they wanted, and the community support these extremists had been drawing on before the agreement is drying up. Sectarian and political violence is still a reality in Northern Ireland and probably will be for a long time; but it will probably never return to the levels of the 1970s and 1980s. The message of the Good Friday Agreement is not so much "We surrender" as "Everybody wins."

In Rove's fantasy world, none of that happened. Thatcher and her successors held the hard line for 30 years, there were no negotiations, nobody ever showed any sensitivity or grasped any nuances, Clinton was never President, and now somehow through the magic of whup-ass, everything's fine.

In fact, Northern Ireland is the worst example Rove could possibly have chosen, because what it really shows us is that Arnold's kind of whup-ass does not solve problems. Unfortunately, at least in America, it does win elections.

The other day I had a long and highly depressing conversation with my brother. He's a 37 year old white man making six figures working on Wall Street and living in Manhattan. In many ways, he's an unlikely Bush supporter: he has no use whatsoever for organized religion, believes in small government (the smaller the better), has no problem with gay marriage, and will admit if pressed that Bush is neither the best president we've ever had nor the sharpest tool in the shed. And yet he voted for Bush in 2000 and is doing it again this year.

Why? Well, two reasons. The simple one is that my brother likes tax cuts. The more complicated one is that the Republican party has been very successful at branding a particularly powerful and attractive version of masculinity, and therefore being a Republican has become integral to my brother's sense of self.

In fact, my brother has constructed his masculinity much the same way George W. Bush constructed his - by pretending to be a Texan even though he was raised by an affluent family in the northeast. Because they are both foundational to his guyness, my brother is as attached to his cowboy boots as he is to cowboy diplomacy. For a lot of straight men in this country, you could only get them to relinquish either one by prying it out of their cold dead hands.

The Kerry campaign is getting plenty of advice these days, and they clearly don't need mine. But looking back on it, it strikes me that Clinton's success in 1992 depended in large part on his ability to project an alternative version of masculinity that was as powerful and as attractive as the Republican version that had been used to beat Dukakis into the ground four years earlier. Part of Clinton's magic was that he convinced American men that you could feel everyone's pain and still kick ass.

Kerry's personality appears to be pretty different from Clinton's, and the same approach won't necessarily work for him. But since we are apparently stuck, at least for this election cycle, with the politics of whup-ass, what we need to do is redefine what it means to kick ass and take names, so that Kerry's not stuck making a choice between either adopting the Republican agenda wholesale or becoming a girlie man.

I'm convinced, and of course I'm a lunatic so we must bear this in mind, that the key to it all is honesty. Bush has managed to conceal enormous personal defects and compensate for gigantic political blunders by pretending that they all spring from his simple, homespun, plain-spoken, straight-shootin', regular-guy authentic self. Bush's "authentic" guyness is, however, as constructed and cartoonish as Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique; it's a pure illusion spun from media fabrications, and is already beginning to unravel.

If Kerry can project his real self, he will also be projecting his own version of what it means to be a man; and one can only expect that it will be a lot healthier and more convincing than the crap the Republicans have been selling. Because the beating that Bush's policies have taken - and that America has taken along with them - over the past few years proves one thing beyond a doubt, and it is that the truth can kick a lie's ass any day.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More whup-ass is available at the Adder's Lair.


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