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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 15 March 2006
Manliness and Competence
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Manliness and Competence

The state of play as of Wednesday, March 15th - as even more polling shows approval for the president and his policies now at record lows - worse than any second-term president ever - and as even members of his own party are calling for the White House do something - anything, bring in some grownups - it's coming down to a real basic showdown on core values. Do you want the leader we have elected, for whatever previous reasons and under whatever questionable circumstances in Ohio, to be manly, or do you want him to be competent? It seems you can't have both.

A manly man doesn't attend to what others are saying. He's steadfast. He believes what he believes. He does what he does from instinct. Mistakes? Others can comment on those if they wish, but that's of little importance. He shrugs them off as if they didn't happen. In fact, the whole concept of "mistakes" is not exactly relevant. He does what you does, and if others say what he has done is a mistake, and has screwed things up royally (choosing that word carefully), well, that's their business. At least he did something. What have they done?

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not going that well, various advisors indicted and a few charged with crimes, with people angry at the response to crises like the destruction of a major city and most of the Gulf Coast, upset they cannot figure out how to get their medications under the new Medicare benefit that is making the pharmaceutical companies rich and doing little else, and with the disapproval ratings high, this seems to be the response - claiming that being steadfast, resolute, determined and never changing your mind is the mark of a real leader. That trumps competence. Some things are more important.

At least that seems to be the case the administration has put before us. Which is more important - manly, simple, instinctive action without all that sissy analysis and planning, or prissy timidity, worrying about getting things right? Time to choose.

Context

Iraq - authorities there find the bodies of eighty-seven men, murdered, execution-style (the Associated Press item here). These are Sunnis. This is retaliation for a bomb and mortar attack two days earlier on the Shiite low-rent part of east Baghdad, Sadr City. Fifty-eight died there, including women and children. Wednesday morning we raid a house in Baghdad and do capture a "suspected insurgent" - but we kill a few civilians, including children (we say four, the locals say eleven). The basic story is and Associated Press run a photo of one of the dead children here. The press didn't used to do that sort of thing.

All day long the news shows are burbling softly in the next room - various generals saying this is a "rough patch" and not a civil war at all. One wonders what giving it a label means. It's trouble. Where is this all leading and what can we do? The questions come up. The administration doesn't waver. We're doing the right thing. They will have a unified, secular, Jeffersonian democracy over there. It's coming. Be patient. We were right to do this. How hard could it be?

Tuesday we hear we may have to increase troop strength (here) and Wednesday we announce just that (here) - bring in the reserves from Kuwait. Seven hundred more may help. It's temporary. The Secretary of Defense said the senior commander in Iraq wants to "bulk up" on troops in advance of upcoming holidays there - but we're is still planning on drawing down troops. The president keeps taking about the "real progress" we're making in turning things over to Iraqi security forces.

But then there's this in the Washington Post - military experts and some administration officials (off the record) saying that turning over control to Iraqi forces might not make much of a difference in anything. Yes, the "Iraqi-owned battle space" is growing, but the Post tells us administration officials are warning "against assuming that American troops could come home" just because more Iraqi forces are standing up.

It doesn't work that way - Iraqi forces will still need a whole lot of support from us - "Moreover, because much of the insurgency has been concentrated in four provinces, Iraqi forces could theoretically control the bulk of the country without eliminating the bloody resistance to the U.S.-supported government."

Great - and Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out the obvious. This "let them do it themselves" build-up of Shiite-dominated security forces that we're working on is just going to make things more difficult - "When we make these forces stronger, we make the underlying problem worse, not better. We're throwing gas on the political fire."

But that's what we're doing - manly, simple, instinctive action without all that sissy analysis and planning, or prissy timidity, or worrying about getting things right.

The problem might be that while this may not be a civil war, there are two sides, each with subsets, doing the revenge executions and bombings. We have this idea that that there's a national fervor there - a majority who long for a unified Iraq that includes everyone and tolerates everyone. That was the gut-instinct concept we started with. That's our story and we're sticking to it. Ahmed Chalabi said it was so. So we train "them" to defend that noble idea. It's the right thing to do - good for them, good for us, good for the world. Multiple "thems" with conflicting aims? Details, details, details. That's for sissies, for defeatists, for women.

And anyway all this is Iran's fault. They're behind the roadside improvised explosive devices (IED's) that kill our troops.

The president on Monday explains -
Some of the most powerful IEDs we are seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran.

Our director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, told the Congress, Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices in Iraq.

Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. Such actions, along with Iran's support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran.
Yep, got to do something Iran too, obviously.

Of course there was this the next day at the Pentagon press conference -
President George W. Bush said on Monday components from Iran were being used in powerful roadside bombs used in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel had been inside Iraq.

Asked whether the United States has proof that Iran's government was behind these developments, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing, "I do not, sir."
No evidence. Details, details, details. Facts are for sissies (and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will no doubt got a dressing-down for dealing with them).

Andrew Sullivan here - "I cannot imagine it's a good idea for the president to offer what is billed as an honest assessment of what's going on in Iraq, while his chief military commander sees no proof for the accusation. We've just learned not to trust what this president says about Iran. It keeps getting better, doesn't it?"

Define better.

Well, there was this, Wednesday, March 15th, late in the day - "The United States is being reduced to a minority of one in its unyielding opposition to a proposal to create a new Human Rights Council (HRC) to replace the UN's existing much-maligned Human Rights Commission in Geneva."

We sent a man's man, John Bolton, there to tell them they were all fools and crooks and had better shape up. The Senate wouldn't confirm him and the president had to use a recess appointment to make him our UN ambassador, bypassing the girly-men in the senate. Real men don't care what the rest of the world thinks. He's there to kick ass. The rest of the world is wrong.

Mistakes? We don't make them, even if we do, as here we see that prosecutors have told the judge in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the "twentieth hijacker," that there is no point continuing the trial.

Why? There was that ruling the day before, banning some evidence and some witnesses. She was already dubious about asking for the death penalty for someone who failed to stop a crime. That's a stretch. And she told the feds they could not coach certain witnesses. That was a court order. They did anyway, so the witnesses wouldn't say anything that might cause liability for any airline. It was just a court order, and then the woman said the witnesses can't testify. Geez. Details, details, details. The guy said he was part of the plot then ended up in the World Trade Towers falling and the Pentagon in flames. He says he hates America and is part of al Qaeda. What's the problem? He's supposed to die. What's all this with rules and tainted witnesses and such. Just like a woman...

Yep, another loss for the Justice Department in its war on terror or whatever it is, but Moussaoui will still do life in prison. But that's not very satisfying. Real men think that's just crap. The guy should die.

Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author adds this -
Did they think that nobody was paying attention? They've lost Bin Laden, screwed up Afghanistan, completely wrecked Iraq, destroyed our fiscal future, left us completely vulnerable on homeland security, ignored the threats to New Orleans, messed up its recovery, thrown science out the window, attacked our civil liberties, undermined freedom of the press, you know the drill. Why is anyone surprised that they are both incompetent and dishonest when it comes to seeking justice for the terrorist murder of thousands of Americans?
No, no one is surprised. Competence is overrated. They want results. (By the way, Alterman links to the Los Angeles Times' detailed rundown of all the mistakes that preceded this one, here - these guys don't do detail and many have walked, and many were nobodies, and doing nothing much.)

Ah well. We don't sweat the details. Like what happen long ago at that Abu Ghraib prison.

Tuesday the 14th brought us something odd - a web publication, SALON.COM, probably breaking federal law. What did they do? Well, here they published the entire collection of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos. The feds have been in court trying to block their release.

On January 10, 2004, these photos were handed over to the military by Joseph Darby. The Army started its investigation the next day. Selected photos were made public. Now, for the first time, all of the photos in the Army's dossier were put on the net. Go look before they have to take them down - "Today, Salon presents an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the CID, along with information drawn from the CID's own timeline of the events depicted."

Or don't go look. Women worry about such things

The guy with the dog in the photos, Sergeant Michael J. Smith? He's on trail at the moment, laughing -
An Army dog handler charged with using his animal to terrify Abu Ghraib prisoners laughingly claimed he was competing with a comrade to frighten detainees into soiling themselves, according to testimony Tuesday at his court-martial.

The testimony on the second day of the trial was the most damaging evidence yet against Sgt. Michael J. Smith. The witness, Sgt. John H. Ketzer, was an interrogator at the prison in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He testified that one night, he followed the sounds of screaming to a cell where Smith's black Belgian shepherd was straining against its leash and barking at two cowering, teenage boys.
It's a guy thing, and Ketzer said Smith laughingly told him afterward: "My buddy and I are having a contest to see if we can get them to (defecate on) themselves because we've already had some (urinate on) themselves."

Jeralyn Merritt, the noted defense attorney from Denver says this -
This abuse was carried out in the name of the United States of America, a country that occupies a position of trust in the world - and in which it has caused war to be launched on foreign soil. The abuse may have been carried out by "a few bad apples" but it wasn't their idea. The Untied States owes it to every citizen on the planet to find out who, at the highest levels, authorized this torture. Those are the persons who must be held primarily responsible and sanctioned for their acts.

When Bush's presidency is over, the historical review of his tenure will be shamed by this above all. As it should be.
And spoken like a woman. She doesn't get it.

How is this all playing with the nation?

Well, Wednesday brought the new Pew poll -
Currently, 48% use a negative word to describe Bush compared with just 28% who use a positive term, and 10% who use neutral language.

The changing impressions of the president can best be viewed by tracking over time how often words come up in these top-of-the-mind associations. Until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was "honest," but this comes up far less often today than in the past. Other positive traits such as "integrity" are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as "excellent" or "great" terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys.

The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is "incompetent," and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: "idiot" and "liar." All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago.
But he's manly. Being called a liar and an idiot with the NASCAR crowd means the guy is just fine, a good ol' boy. You could be called worse - careful, thoughtful, cautious, open-minded.

The day also brought the news whole bunches of people in the president's party were urging that things be changed. Bring in some new folks. Stop this slide in the polls. Get some competent advisors and lawyers and planners. You can read all about it here - White House Dismisses Speculation Of Staff Shake-Up (Reuters).

What problems?

The Grand Unifying Theory of Manliness

Wednesday brought this, something noted by Dana Milbank in the regular list of weekly political events -
Wed - Will they serve beer? The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, hosts Harvey C. Mansfield, who, "Drawing from science, literature, and philosophy ... examines the layers of manliness, from vulgar aggression, to assertive manliness, to manliness as virtue, and to philosophical manliness. He shows that manliness seeks and welcomes drama, prefers times of war, conflict, and risk, and brings change or restores order at crucial moments. Manly men in their assertiveness raise issues, bring them to the fore, and make them public and political - as for example, the manliness of the women's movement." 4 p.m., 1015 15th Street NW, Sixth Floor.
Yep, the neoconservatives have their theorists telling us about what we should do in the world - remove pesky governments and remake the benighted so they're more like us - and the manly have this guy.

Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard. He studies and teaches political philosophy. He's written on Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties, on Machiavelli and the invention of indirect government, in defense of a "defensible liberalism" and in favor of a "Constitutional American" political science, whatever that is. He has also written on the discovery and development of the theory of executive power, and as a translator of Machiavelli and of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. He has been at Harvard since 1949, and on the faculty since 1962. And of course he completed a book on manliness.

That would be Manliness, Yale University Press (February 6, 2006) ISBN: 0300106645

Amazon at the link about quotes Publishers Weekly, not thinking much of it -
Harvard government professor Mansfield delves into philosophy, literature and science to define manliness and to argue that it should have a place in an increasingly non-gender-specific society. Throughout, Mansfield clearly states his intentions, and though he may have convinced himself he accomplished his goals, readers will be skeptical; when, for example, he sets out to "elevate manliness from aggression to assertion and thereby discover its connection to politics," he jumps from Hemingway to Achilles before posing a question that has little more than a thin patina of importance: "In our time there are many who say that heroes lack humanity and few who will admit that humanity needs heroes. But at all times heroes have to assert themselves. The question is, what is in it for us?" Similar murky questions and non-sequitur lines of logic continue throughout: "Man has fearsome powers of wisdom and fire over beasts. All beasts fear fire, which perhaps represents the Promethean gift of technology." This clunky chain of supposition is followed by a brief foray into The Jungle Book. But Mansfield's theories on gender equality are likely to create the most conversation: "women are the weaker sex," "women's bodies are made to attract and to please men" and "now that women are equal, they should be able to accept being told that they aren't, quite" all appear on the same page. Mansfield set out to write a provocative book, but ended up penning a juvenile screed.
But this juvenile screed got Mansfield a trip to DC to talk to the big-time conservative foundation.

And Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal back on March 4th said nice things about him in Calling All Hombres: A Harvard Sage Makes The Case For Manliness.

Riley opens with this -
"Defend yourself." That's the lesson Harvey Mansfield drew for Larry Summers the week before Harvard's president was forced to resign. Mr. Mansfield, a 73-year-old government professor and conservative elder statesman of the university, went on to suggest that Mr. Summers's capitulation to those he offended (when he said women might be biologically less inclined to succeed in the hard sciences) is not simply a craven kowtow to political correctness, but proof, also, of a character flaw. Indeed, Mr. Mansfield continued with a mischievous smile, "He has apologized so much that he looks unmanly."

Perhaps this seems like a quaint insult, but Mr. Mansfield means something very particular by it. He would like to return the notion of manliness to the modern lexicon. His new book, "Manliness" (manfully, no subtitle), argues that the gender-neutral society created by modern feminists has been bad both for women and men, and that it is time for men to rediscover, and women to appreciate, the virtue of manliness.
And on it goes -
Mr. Mansfield's contention that women and men are not the same is now widely supported by social scientists. The core of his definition of manliness - "confidence in a risky situation" - is not so far from that of biologists and sociologists, who find men to be more abstract in their thinking and aggressive in their behavior than women, who are more contextual in their thinking and conciliatory in their behavior.

Science is good for confirming what "common sense" already tells us, Mr. Mansfield allows, but beyond that, he has little use for it: "Science is a particular enemy of manliness. Manliness asserts something you can't scientifically prove, namely the importance of human beings." Science simply sees people as just another part of the natural world. But what manly men assert, according to Mr. Mansfield, is that "they are important and that their party, their country, their society, their group, whatever it may be, is important." As examples, Mr. Mansfield offers Arnold Schwarzenegger (predictably, since he's no girly-man), Humphrey Bogart, Donald Rumsfeld and Margaret Thatcher - yes, women can occasionally be manly. (Both Clintons are manly in their own ways - Hillary is "formidable," while Bill is the "envy of vulgar men.")
That's an odd list. And science is a particular enemy of manliness? Curious, that explains a lot about the administration's stance on global warming and teaching "intelligent design" (the first isn't happening and the second should be required). Science deals with facts, confirmed by observation. Other things are more important - asserting yourself.

This is the key to it all.

There's more from Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe, March 12th, here, opening with this -
Who is not just a man, but a manly man? And who today can even say the words ''manly man" without smirking?

These questions are at the heart of ''Manliness" (Yale), the new book by Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, who has long shouldered a reputation as the campus's most outspoken conservative.

In answer to the first question, Mansfield nominates, among others, the marshal played by Gary Cooper in ''High Noon." When the town's sniveling semi-men slink away from the task, Cooper boldly goes out to fight the thugs arriving in his town. As for the second question-well it just shows how wanly gender neutral our society has become: Manly men scare us.
Maybe. Maybe the president scares people. Of course it may not be the manliness, just the incompetence, as noted in the pew poll.

But there is the main argument -
For better and worse, men are more willing than women to stick out their necks for causes, ideas, and people. They possess a greater taste for the physical and intellectual combat that has led to mankind's (yes, mankind's) greatest achievements. ''I don't think we need to preserve manliness," he said in an interview. ''I think there is plenty of evidence that manliness is around us. But women need to come to terms with it - society as a whole does." The gender-neutral society is by definition a mediocre one, with male greatness viewed as threatening to the social order and men and women crammed into boxes they don't fit in.

... Mansfield allows that women can sometimes do manly deeds -Thatcher prosecuting the Falklands War, for example, or Grace Kelly picking up a rifle at the climax of ''High Noon." But Mansfield says it should be obvious they are doing something unusual for their sex. Forcing manly men to wash dishes, or to curb their aggressive ways in politics or business out of deference to ''sensitive" women, does violence to nature and gelds modern society.
Ah, bring the guy to Washington! He can explain Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to us all. They're heroes.

You can read Mansfield himself here in the essay her turned into a book.

Samples -
Manliness can be heroic. But it can also be vainly boastful, prone to meaningless scuffling, and unfriendly. It jeers at those who do not seem to measure up, and asks men to continually prove themselves. It defines turf and fights for it - sometimes to defend precious rights, sometimes for no good reason. Manliness has always been under a cloud of doubt - raised by men who may not have the time or taste for it.

... Though the word is scarce in use, there is an abundance of manliness in action in America today. Young males still pick fights, often with deadly weapons. What we suffer from today, is a lack of intelligent criticism of manliness. Feminism has undermined, if not destroyed, the counterpart to manliness - femininity - and with it the basis on which half the population could be skeptical of the excesses of manliness.

... Manliness is a quality that causes individuals to stand up for something. It is a quality that calls private persons into public life. In the past such people have been predominantly male, and it is no accident that those who possess this quality have often ended up as political rulers and leaders.
The Bush presidency explained, the frat-boy king.

Of course, the acerbic James Wolcott of Vanity Fair says here that he has discovered the "sacred text" that inspired and animated Mansfield and his crowd, and "provides their vision of a future patriarchal society in which the warrior within every man is restored to his lounge-recliner throne" -
Indeed, it is not a text at all, but a cult film that illustrates what awaits civilization if it sinks into the abject sissyhood and surrenders to female sovereignty. And the radical hot beef injection that it will take to restore civilization to primitive glory.

I speak of John Boorman's 1974 sci-fi low-budget beefcake extravaganza Zardoz, starring Sean Connery, who, in Pauline Kael's classic review, "traipses around in a loincloth... playing the only potent man at the discotheque." He struts around the movie with prowess and assurance, but his face registers the doubts of an actor wondering how he got roped into this thing. Kael: "[H]e acts like a man to agreed to do something before he grasped what it was. He hangs in there stolidly, loyally, his face saying, 'I'm wrong, but I'll do it.'"

Uttering lines like "Stay behind my aura" probably made Connery question his very raison d'etre as an actor, not to mention his decision to quit making Bond films.

Set in the year 2293, which'll be here before you know it, Zardoz posits a "stately yet cranky vision of a future society dominated by immortal, hyperintelligent women - soulless, heartless, sexless." And this was before Hillary Clinton appeared on the scene to shrink all those chipmunk testicles out there! "The men are immortal, too, but, being impotent, they are passive and effete."
Ah, that's it! This movie just scared them! So that's why they formed the Project for the New American Century a few years later! Hollywood does have an influence on politics after all.

Of course there are other views of manliness. While Mansfield was speaking to the conservative think-tank in DC, in Cleveland they were inducting Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, and explains here, there is another model.

After a long discussion of the music, and the classic My Funny Valentine recording, he notes this -
Davis became a matinee idol in the mid-1950s when dark-skinned men were beginning to break through the barriers that kept them from being seen in romantic roles or thought of as superb interpreters of love songs. Davis shared this moment with Sidney Poitier and Nat Cole, but his persona included something that neither of theirs did. Following Charlie Parker, in whose band he did some of his earliest work, Davis was moody. He gave the impression that he was not even interested in being known, especially by white folks. The trumpeter was not given to any aspect of the minstrel tradition that has dogged the Negro artist for over a hundred years and has most recently restated itself in the jigaboo antics of rap videos.

It was not that Davis did not smile as much as the fact that Davis, like Parker, did not consider smiling part of his job. The glowering black trumpeter was there, in those little murky clubs from one end of the country to the other, leading a band and making beautiful music in circumstances that were about as opposed to artistic statement as one could imagine. Drinks were sold, people talked, drugs were pushed, prostitutes circulated, and the cash registers rang. At their worst, those circumstances could be as wild as any in the Old West, which is why some of the joints were referred to as "buckets of blood."

Miles Davis, however, tamed those savage surroundings and made it clear that if he didn't feel respected or comfortable he would leave and the paying customers could have it out with the club owners. But if he stayed and felt like playing, his music did not hold back on the lyric quality. That element gave a charismatic frailness to his ballad interpretations. It was a sound that rarely arrived full-blown in American popular art, though it was strongly alluded to by actors such as Leslie Howard, who was often cast as a dreamer just a bit too soft for the world. There was an atmosphere of inevitable doom surrounding such characters, most of whom might be called "gallant fools." Through such types a basic idea was sustained in popular art: Romance was itself a form of heroic engagement and falling in love with an idea, a cause, or a person was an act of bravery.

By bringing that to his music, Miles Davis remade the expectations of the audience. As we hear throughout My Funny Valentine, the trumpeter taught his listeners that a whisper could be as powerful as a shout. A gallant fool, yes, but free of the maudlin Jell-O that usually came with the white American idea of the poetic soul. Davis was just as free, it seemed, of the pool-hall and street-corner braggadocio of the Negro hustling world. Little, dark, touchy, even evil, Miles Davis walked onto his bandstand and made public visions of tenderness that were, finally, absolute rejections of everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men in either the white or the black world.
That same rejection of "everything silly about the version of masculinity that might hobble men" could be useful now. It's messed up the country and the world no end. But Mansfield is the cultural hero now.

So listen to Miles Davis.

Miles Davis, 1957

Posted by Alan at 22:23 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006 22:38 PST home

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