Theory and Politics

Masculinity as a Mask?

Right on cue, I’ve discovered a new documentary that really does want to bring down the reign of masculinity. And it could not have fit more perfectly with the readings I offered below. It’s called The Mask You Live In. Yet again, the theory is that masculinity is a charade, an act – now, one that is neither worthy of respect nor innocuous buffoonery, but positively dangerous.

First, the trailer itself. It starts with a montage of young boys staring directly at you, being yelled at by fierce off-screen voices demanding that they “stop crying” and “be a man,” etc.

What passes for masculinity today is often weak and silly. But this is the fault not of boys or men but of the culture at large, which no longer offers any clear or attractive ideal of masculinity, for the reason that it simply doesn’t believe in masculinity. The cultural authorities do not believe that there is anything of value in masculinity. Sometimes this is based on a theory of the total obsolescence of gender distinctions, and sometimes on a specific rejection of masculine values (without a parallel rejection of feminine identity).

Identities are fundamentally social. They are not created or lived out in a vacuum; they are not the result of individual agency. Identities are indeed masks – personae that we adopt, and then become. If the cultural authorities reject masculine identity as worthless, there are two possible results, depending on the underlying facts. Either masculinity really is merely a social construction, something wished into existence by the cultural authorities, who therefore have the power to eliminate it. Or, radical constructivism is wrong and masculinity really is grounded in male nature, in which case masculine instincts will suffer the same fate as all natural instincts do when they are not cultivated by culture: they will decline into barbarism.

The poor state of masculinity today is a consequence of feminism. Gender is indeed a part of culture; it is an attempt to shape male and female instinct into forms that are compatible with civilization. This requires actual work; it requires re-thinking gender when a civilization changes. For several decades all the attention has been on women. This documentary continues that, by assessing masculinity entirely through feminine categories without, it seems, any awareness of the value, the purpose, the meaning of masculinity. This is the real failure, and it is an enormous, morally harmful failure, because the filmmaker (and the various experts she calls upon) look at these boys and tell them it would be better for them to be something other than what they are. It would be better for them to be feminine than masculine.

Masculinity in Advertising – Two Examples

Ads can sometimes be rich targets for interpretation, because they tell you – not what the culture looks like, but what other people think it looks like. They have to make and commit to a serious judgment on this question, since the serious business of making money is at stake.

A couple of ads have been running repeatedly on Hulu.

The first is an ad for the whiskey-flavored liqueur Southern Comfort. You can infer from the ad that the company has decided to target younger customers. The ad seems to inhabit the same universe as Napoleon Dynamite, a puzzling film that was popular a while ago. From this ad and another set of ads that have been running for a while, the Geico ads set in some imaginary gallery, we can infer that hipsters are thought to take a keen interest in pop cultural trash from about two decades ago. I have to admit that the appeal of Napoleon Dynamite, the aesthetic, mystifies me. It’s a genuine puzzle, a question that would repay reflection. I’m even more mystified when I remember that my supervisor at a summer gig teaching middle school kids, an extremely boring 30-something woman, loved the movie, to the extent that the only thing we all knew about her was that she loved the movie, and we got her a “Pablo for President” t-shirt as a parting gift.* I submit that one important feature of anything that appeals to hipsters is that it must be irony-proof: Napoleon Dynamite was such a seamless document, so one-dimensionally earnest in its attitude toward itself, that it gave no prompting to the viewer about why it appealed to him, and this lack of a meta-level protected it from being undercut by further irony.

Let me focus on the Geico ads for a bit. What does pop cultural trash have to do with irony? The most notable thing about the trash is that nobody wants it. It takes real skill to find material as bereft of value as this. For most products of culture there is at least one good thing to say, some reason it was made in the first place. When you encounter this stuff, your first reaction is to remember that there are cultural products you are glad to have forgotten. Your next reaction is to regret that someone has remembered them.

Why is this material so attractive to the hipster? The first reason is precisely that it is so hard to find that finding it, remembering it, is a demonstration of cultural research skill and exhaustive knowledge. The second reason is that its lack of value is a kind of refuge. These days the purpose of irony is to provide that refuge. The lack of value protects you from the accusation that you believe in something, that you affirm something. If you endorsed something with value, you could be made fun of for believing in the worth of whatever end is served by that value. This is dangerous when you believe that there are no ends that can be cogently defended against a committed attacker. Let me take an analogy from international relations theory: everyone knows that the available technology favors the intellectual offense over the defense. You know that most of your peers are committed attackers, because they, like you, believe that it would be foolish to try to build something of lasting worth. The strongest tools available to us (the only tools, it sometimes seems) are ones for tearing things down.

Anyway, all of this is at play in Napoleon Dynamite, in the Geico gallery ads, and in the Southern Comfort commercial, which inhabits the same world as Napoleon Dynamite. Everything, and everyone, is unappealing, unattractive, unpleasant, offensive to current taste. Why is all of this conjoined? So we can enjoy the irony of acting as if none of it is true.

But the most important feature of the ad is the mockery of masculinity. We’re in a salon – not really a place for men. Yet a man acts out what he, and all of the onlookers, imagine is an impressive display of manly prowess. (Of course, we, the viewers, know better). Masculinity is revealed here for what it really is – or, what marketing agencies believe this generation thinks it is. It’s a pathetic charade, ineffectual buffoonery, taking in both men and women. But the ad is not harsh on any of its characters; it’s sympathetic and gentle. This is a show of good taste. Knowing its target is weak, the ad is not redundantly aiming to bring down the reign of masculinity. This is no call for revolution; it’s an enjoyment of the status quo, using it as a launching pad for some fun and humor. It’s a kind of minstrelsy of masculinity. (I do not intend to invoke the gravity of pre-civil rights treatment of blacks in America, or anything near it. I just think it’s an apt analogy).

The second ad is a much less self-consciously daring one for – Chase? Some bank. It shows a fit, attractive man, first wearing a suit, buying some comic books. Then he’s at a health store buying some protein bars. Then he’s at a theater buying tickets for a comic book movie. The music is manly and soaring. “So you can follow your dreams,” the voice over says, as he rockets upward – in a see through elevator, to a comics conference. “So you can save the day,” the voice over says, as he steps on a piece of a toilet paper that was stuck to the foot of a man dressed up as his favorite comic book superhero. He gets the nod, and a thumbs up, from another superhero – sorry, another man dressed as a superhero. The narrative, the filming, the earnest tone, and the serious expressions suggest that we’re meant to confuse the two, and to see these figures with the same awe and admiration as the protagonist of the ad does.

It’s a very sympathetic ad, with no agenda of critique or irony. In fact it’s a rather endearing attempt to be “with the times” in taking comics fans more seriously than they used to be. But this is a careful act. The protein bars are a little hard to make sense of; they’re probably meant to support the viewer’s taking the comics guy seriously by removing any doubts about his masculinity. He works out! A lot! At the same time it give us some insight into his state of mind – he wants to be a man! So he works out, and reads comic books. I don’t disparage this; I don’t know anything about comic books but I assume that they express ideas about masculinity. I think it’s perfectly valid to be interested in them for that reason, along with others. Comic books hearken back to a period of American history when masculinity was taken more seriously than it is now.

What does it mean to “follow your dreams”? It means to revel in the world of comic books. What does it mean to “save the day”? It means to protect the fantasy, which might have been tarnished by the embarrassing toilet paper stuck to the fake superhero’s foot. The protagonist’s act, as well as the nod from the other superhero, establish a sense of complicity. This makes the protagonist even more sympathetic – he’s not under some delusion; he knows the world he revels in is constructed, and he enjoys it anyway.

It’s an oddly touching ad, because of the ad’s sympathetic handling of the protagonist – we’re made to feel that there’s really something important and admirable in these “dreams” of his. And, because of the frank acknowledgment that it’s all a fantasy, even a fragile one. Here, again, the ad treats masculinity as a fragile fantasy, though treating the fantasy as one deserving of respect.

*My theory is that she embraced the movie because she believed it to be sophisticated, for the sake of a kind of cultural upward mobility.

The Realism-Idealism Debate and the Secular Academy

This is a question that is near and dear to me. I have made some of my fundamental life choices on the basis of certain answers to it. And the question touches on a topic that is much discussed, at least in the world of political theorists and philosophers.

But there are limitations in the ways that the topic is usually discussed. In the writings of “realists,” there is often an undertone of resentment toward academic philosophers and their approach to the subject, and it harms their credibility. The “idealists,” on the other hand, tend to pursue the strategy of ignoring their critics. In general they can do that because their approach is business as usual within philosophy departments. Certainly, idealists have dealt with realist criticisms, but they tend to treat those criticisms in a perfunctory way by arguing that this is always how philosophy has been done, or by arguing that realist concerns can be incorporated into usual practice without too many ripples.

There is surprisingly little reflection on why things are done the way they are. Few have really looked for the rational in the real when it comes to academic business as usual. One of the reflections that softened my pragmatist fervor was remembering that the distance of philosophy from the “real world” is not a temporary artifact of the way we live now. There is something much deeper and unavoidable about that distance. And to understand its purpose we have to think beyond academia narrowly construed, and look back to related religious practices, such as monasticism. People choose the life of the clergy for good reasons, and monastic institutions exist for good reasons as well. It is no accident that the institution we now know as the university emerged from the milieu of these religious practices, and it has not been very long that they’ve been shorn of their religious purpose. Given the radical secularism of academia, this line of thinking is probably pretty far from the minds of those engaged in these debates about realism in political philosophy and about the social purpose of academia in general. But I think we have to pursue it in order to fully understand what’s going on here.

My suspicion is that the best explanation of the social purpose of academia is that it attempts to fulfill the same role that those earlier religious institutions did. This explanation is not available to you, though, if you deny that those earlier religious institutions had any purpose, and this seems to be the belief of radical secularists. I think that that their radical secularism forces many academics to be against themselves in this larger arena of debate over the academy. To be sure, we’ve lived with that tension for a long time, and I don’t want to deny out of hand that we may be able to continue to do so. But to the extent that we are concerned about the future of the humanistic enterprise, we may have to engage in a conscious course-correction that may not have been necessary in the past, as we lived off of the legacy of a different way of life.

“Opponents of same-sex marriage understand the expressive and distributive character of the struggle better than advocates who argue that legalization should be of no concern to those with personal objections to the practice. Legalization would implicate all citizens in a public commitment to respect and support same-sex couples.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Jeremy Kessler starts by dropping pointing out that rights are not best understood in a purely negative sense, instead highlighting their public character.

Unfortunately, after this promisingly philosophical opening, the rest of the piece is merely technical.


It’s time for more.

Blogging has changed a lot since I started doing it. In the meantime, I’ve stopped doing it. But this is a good time to pick back up again, I think. I might find a few occasions for reflection this summer. And this is a juncture in my life, an appropriate time to take stock.

I can no longer pretend to want to participate in what now passes for political debate. I don’t understand what the point of my wasting energy on that would be. People do many things for the sake of reputation. Reputation is an important currency. But I now try, and to a surprising extent succeed, at ignoring such concerns. I think at some point during grad school I realized that you could not fake your way into anything that really mattered. I am now comfortable in the belief that succeeding by my own lights is success. I’m not sure how I arrived at this point, but a recent conversation with a college senior reminded me how unusual it is. I remembered my own anxiety at the beginning of grad school, which occupied much of the first two years. Being cut off from other people did not reduce my status anxiety; it increased it. Not only did I still worry constantly about where I ranked in the grand scheme of things, but I no longer had any good feedback to back up my judgment about where I ranked. That all seems stupid to me now.

Maybe it’s that I am, after all this time, finally on an ineluctable career path. Sure, many unknowns lie in wait for me, ready to upset my poise. But for now, at least, I think I know where I’m going, and I may do better or worse, but I will still be traveling the same path. Even the unexpected is no longer a real source of fear. I have already encountered the unexpected many times. It produced intense anxiety in me because it upset my belief that I had an all-encompassing theory that would predict all the relevant events. I no longer pretend to myself to have such a theory. The solution is never intellectual. Most of these obstacles are more like hammering at a boulder, knowing that you’re stressing it, believing that at some point – probably well after you’ve forgotten why you’re hammering, well after you’ve gotten used to hammering for the sake of hammering – it will simply crumble before you.

I just finished Ross Douthat’s Privilege. Before that I read a book by Shamus Khan, also called Privilege. I finished them both in 3 or 4 days. I suspect that these books are the reason I am now blogging. I feel a desire to speak back, in kind. I am deeply sympathetic to the message of both books, which often addressed the same things in the same ways. After reading them it’s hard not to reflect on where one stands in relation to the elite. I suppose Douthat’s book is a reminder of how much is going on above my head. The Porcellian, and all of that. The Yalies I briefly orbited in the New York days, people who had their shit just a little bit more together, people who were like me but just a little cleaner, a little nicer to look at. What is surprising to me is how little I care. I know now that there are people out there who are better than me – people who have more pleasure, more knowledge, more skill, more luck. I know better that there are limits to what I can do. All I can do is struggle to overcome those limits – not out of pride, but out of a desire to do the things I do better. I’ve lived long enough, and my work habits have improved just enough, to have lost the fear that I will simply fall off the face of the earth. I’ve reached some kind of equilibrium between pride and ability. The thought that there were people out there who were better than me used to be an arresting thought, a thought that was too painful even to complete in my consciousness. That is no longer true. There are now determinate answers to the question of how much I am capable of. They may not be the final answers, but we have some ballpark figures.

Invidious comparison belongs in the earlier social domains of high school and college: the days in which everyone might go on to do something, but in which no one has yet done anything. Even the greatest accomplishments of people at that age tend to draw attention more as indicators of some as-yet-unrealized potential, rather than as great achievements in their own right. I’ve already heard enough stories from my professors about the supposed superstars from their own time in grad school, people whose names I wouldn’t have recognized otherwise because they went on to mediocre careers. Status anxiety creeps back in when you compare yourself with people with whom there is no basis for comparison. They are in different fields; they have different values; they are ships passing you in the night. The anxiety comes from trying to find standards that could provide a basis for commensuration, which really amounts to precipitately abandoning your own standards.

Surely much of the complacency comes from the fact that I do have a relatively stable set of values now. First, I attend to the distinction between the transcendent and the mundane. I believe that much of the trouble of earlier years came from seeking transcendence in this life. But another word for transcendence is death. Until we die, we are stuck here on this miserable Earth, crawling through the mud. That is the life God gave us. My earlier struggles were understandable, since I had to try to come to some knowledge of the transcendent. But that was destined to be a relatively brief period in the span of my life. Now it reveals itself infrequently; to encounter it is a rare gift. But it is all the more precious to me as a result. We cannot live every day on that plane. But the memory of it hovers over everything I do. That is the hardest trick to pull off: remembering God while you crawl through the mud of this life. It is not an intellectual achievement; it is a matter of habits, of practices. I am not bitter about my alienation from the transcendent, an alienation I only expect to intensify in the coming years. I accept it as the only way life can be. To expect differently is a great failure of humility.*

Second, I have changed what I think of the goals of my life to be in accordance with my acceptance of the mundane. A mundane life can only have the mundane goals of an embodied creature, made from dirt and eventually returning to the dirt. I’ve come up with a relatively short list of goals, things that can be achieved in the span of a lifetime, and that I am sure are worth achieving. I have to fulfill my duties to my parents in their old age. My parents are the ones I love, and they are also the ones who need me. I have duties to my brother and sister, to be a resource to them to the extent that I can. And I hope to begin a family of my own, and to make it a great family. For me there is no alternative to adopting the intergenerational perspective. What I can’t achieve, my children will achieve. And we will be on this Earth for a long time still. That is where the real contest of values will occur. Some values will last, and will guide the hearts of multiplying generations. Others will crumble into the dust. Time is the only judge that matters.

That’s it. None of the Promethean fantasies that fuel the ravenous egos that drive a capitalist society. These are the ends defined by bonds of love. They are irrefutable by argument; they cannot be touched by it. Everything else in my life has a merely derivative value. I do have personal duties of dignity and self-improvement, but these mostly overlap with the dictates of prudence. The rest is about happiness, and about the means to all these things. The domain of instrumental reasoning is more vast and more important than I wanted to acknowledge as a young person. The means to a good thing are good.

The importance and pleasure of work cannot be overestimated. Excepting family, nothing else has been faithful to me. I value work mainly for a single property of its products, which is that they have durable worth. And in almost every instance the worth of the product of work is vastly outweighed by the worth of the effect of producing it on me. Every effort makes me a more powerful and efficient instrument.

I have spent long stretches of my life depressed, at a loss to figure out what was at the bottom of my misery. And at some point in the past couple of years I discovered the answer, which is that my failure to work hard enough was direct proof of my unworthiness, which I recognized unconsciously. And I found that nothing lifted my mood more quickly or decisively than simply doing the things that had to be done. The pain and suffering of doing them was completely irrelevant in the emotional calculus.

I’m not a man in step with the times, but this is not a tragedy. Nothing need prevent me from living out my values, and my values allow me to concede a great deal to the times. They positively require me to succeed under the constraints that face me. Above all they demand that nothing get in the way of my doing what it takes. Life is a gamble. Another, clearer way of saying this is that human life has no intrinsic worth. All of the worth comes from what we do.

* I’m remembering now how much what I’m saying accords with the message of David Foster Wallace’s well-known commencement speech. He was a great man.

Why We Need Philosophy

I’m looking back to things I wrote in 2007, and all these writings are skeptical of the possibility or utility of philosophy. This was a very urgent question for me at the time. (I shouldn’t pretend that it has gone away.)

Richard Rorty published an article expounding his views about the irrelevance of philosophy to democracy. My theory about philosophy has been that it is the seedbed from which other disciplines grow. It’s a view informed by Rorty’s ideas about philosophy as “abnormal” discourse, discourse in which the terms of success are not agreed upon. It is always possible to secure such a meta-consensus on a set of issues, and when this happens a paradigm emerges in which regular progress is possible.

Perhaps political philosophy fits this model. A period of revolutionary ferment culminated in dramatic political changes, and these have remained stable enough that the only task left is to work out the details. These are matters for legislative politics and law. Constitutional law parses the major questions of political philosophy through the details of a particular constitutional tradition, which is the legacy left to us by that period of revolutionary change.

But this apparent stability of our legacy is a local illusion. Liberalism was not the last word in political philosophy, though it seems that way to those situated in a particular time and place. Democracy, Marxism, social democracy – these are all major innovations, and their legacy is represented in the canons of political theory.

Moreover, our current arrangements are not stable. Perhaps we will muddle through without any institutional change. But doing so has already had great costs, and those costs may at some point outweigh the benefits of avoiding change. Will philosophers drive these events, or merely interpret them after the fact? Maybe that is up to the philosophers. I prefer this way of thinking about it: events are not finally in anyone’s control, but the philosopher is the one who makes sense of them. In this respect, those whose actions shape our new institutions will be the first philosophers of the new order, though they might not be the best. That honor goes to whomever makes the best sense of the spirit that animates that order, and leaves us with an enduring statement of it.

Vanity and Pretension

I just wandered into the periodicals section, glanced through the shelves, and grabbed a recent copy of the Journal of Philosophy. Let me report to you that metaphysics is alive and well!

I used to get a great kick out of pushing my comprehension to its limits by trying to make sense of language I could barely understand. The early stages of language acquisition, not the ones that lead to sophisticated expressive ability. It seems that I get a perverse enjoyment out of wasting mental energy.

But for some reason I seem not to enjoy this challenge as much anymore. My mind feels tired. Maybe my ability is being overused. (Or maybe it’s just the hunger…fasting is hard.) Academia consists of innumerable little private conversations, all merely adjacent to one another. The difficult thing is figuring out why to prefer any one of these to another. I suppose ease of inserting yourself into the conversation, and the power of the discourse. But inserting yourself into any of them is very difficult, more difficult than you can know at the outset. So power is really the only variable I can think of that provides a basis for choosing between discourses.

I suppose when I was younger the appeal was created by the sense of possibility, the discovery that it was possible to say things I had not previously imagined. Perhaps there were also two other, more basic things. A pleasure at being able to exercise a capacity I was looking to put to use. And a relief at knowing that minds were being exercised at this level, that my mind would never want for work.

Now it’s harder not to wonder where it’s all going, what the point is. “Because it feels good” is not an adequate reason to engage in intellectual activity. Does Flexner answer this question? Let great minds run free? It all just seems rather antisocial. Perhaps this is the “spirit of science,” the reason it has entered symbiosis with an individualistic capitalist society. Perhaps that’s where I run against my limit. I can only go so far with you in this.

I’m starting to think that success in any area of life requires you to embroil yourself in vice. In my line of work, I think it might be hard to get anywhere without heavy doses of vanity and pretension. I used to possess these in spades, but they seemed like character flaws to me, so I sought to get rid of them. That I get to say what I have to say, that everyone recognizes how smart I am, no longer seems that important to me. What’s so good about being smart? Intelligence is morally neutral, needed for great evil just as well as great good. Self-aggrandizing narcissism, along with a keen interest in the opinion of others, leads you to assert yourself against them, and this appears to be a precondition of becoming “great.” This isn’t a goal that I can adopt, overtly or in secret, though I remember that it once was. Perhaps my vanity has been punctured enough times by now that I recognize it as something I can live without.

Arguing About Politics

I can’t remember the last time I had a serious argument about politics. Well, I did when I went back home, with my father and a couple of my friends, one a lawyer, the other a consultant. But I don’t have arguments about politics with my fellow grad students. That seems disgusting, since in a sense we argue about politics for a living, at least if you call this living. I can’t quite figure out why it is.

One hypothesis is that we don’t really know anything about politics.

Another hypothesis is that any time a political topic comes up around grad students, chances are someone in the room will be an “expert” on the topic, meaning the rest of us are too insecure to risk exposing our ignorance by venturing a comment. Or, the expert will weigh in with their academic knowledge, effectively killing the conversation without actually informing anyone about the issue we were concerned about.

Scanlon on the Free Will Problem

Here’s an interesting interview with T. M. Scanlon, centered on the implications of the free will problem for morality.

My response to this is that philosophers (of social science, philosophers in general) have already done a lot to dispel the attractions of the kind of reductionism that makes this a problem, at least in the way that Scanlon poses it. So when Scanlon says, “if causal determinism were true,” I’m not sure what he means. If deterministic scientific knowledge enabling us to predict human behavior were available, the character of many fundamental problems in morality and law would change more radically than Scanlon seems to contemplate. But no such knowledge is available, so the prospect of doing without our “folk psychology” attributions of intention, etc. is not in sight. This is fine, because as Chomsky famously suggested, scientific psychology might never outperform the novel.

The Dignity of Humanity

Let’s start with a fascinating quote from Kant:

“I am an inquirer by inclination. I feel a consuming thirst for knowledge, the unrest which goes with the desire to progress in it, and satisfaction at every advance in it. There was a time when I believed this constituted the honor of humanity, and I despised the people, who know nothing. Rousseau set me right about this. This binding prejudice disappeared. I learned to honor humanity, and I would find myself more useless than the common laborer if I did not believe that this attitude of mine can give worth to all others in establishing the rights of humanity.” (AK 20:44)

For me, the question is: what justifies Kant’s faith in the inherent dignity of humanity, which makes us all moral equals? What secular justification can be offered for this belief? All contemporary thought on human rights and democracy depends on the answer.


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