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September 10, 2008

On Obama and Manliness

Courtland Malloy makes a point I'm not sure I disagree with:

Maybe if he had a swagger like Marion Barry or a knack for vicious hyperbole like Jesse L. Jackson Sr. or a military bearing like Colin Powell. Then, perhaps, Barack Obama could put an end to questions about his masculinity.

"Does Barack Obama have testicular fortitude?" read a recent headline on the History News Network, an online publication hosted by George Mason University.

Paul Gipson, president of a local steelworkers union in Indiana, endorsed Hillary Clinton's bid for president, saying "what we gotta have" is "an individual that has testicular fortitude."

What is Obama to do?

Obviously, it's not enough to battle your way to the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. You can vanquish a field of primary candidates. You can win campaigns in the far northwest, in places where there are no blacks to speak of. You can raise a war chest that exceeds the annual budget of a midsize town.

You can walk a fine line between being too black for whites and not black enough for blacks. But here you are, just weeks away from the presidential election, being called on to prove that you are man enough -- without coming off as an angry black man.

I agree with Mr. Malloy in one sense: I am tired of the way Americans seem to accept turning political differences into character flaws. People of good will can disagree on matters political without betraying a deficient intellect or some yet to be diagnosed mental illness:

Democrats speak up for the less prosperous; they have well-intentioned policies to help them; they are disturbed by inequality, and want to do something about it. Their concern is real and admirable. The trouble is, they lack respect for the objects of their solicitude. Their sympathy comes mixed with disdain, and even contempt.

Democrats regard their policies as self-evidently in the interests of the US working and middle classes. Yet those wide segments of US society keep helping to elect Republican presidents. How is one to account for this? Are those people idiots? Frankly, yes – or so many liberals are driven to conclude. Either that or bigots, clinging to guns, God and white supremacy; or else pathetic dupes, ever at the disposal of Republican strategists. If they only had the brains to vote in their interests, Democrats think, the party would never be out of power. But again and again, the Republicans tell their lies, and those stupid damned voters buy it.

It is an attitude that a good part of the US media share. The country has conservative media (Fox News, talk radio) as well as liberal media (most of the rest). Curiously, whereas the conservative media know they are conservative, much of the liberal media believe themselves to be neutral.

Their constant support for Democratic views has nothing to do with bias, in their minds, but reflects the fact that Democrats just happen to be right about everything. The result is the same: for much of the media, the fact that Republicans keep winning can only be due to the backwardness of much of the country.

Because it was so unexpected, Sarah Palin’s nomination for the vice-presidency jolted these attitudes to the surface. Ms Palin is a small-town American. It is said that she has only recently acquired a passport. Her husband is a fisherman and production worker. She represents a great slice of the country that the Democrats say they care about – yet her selection induced an apoplectic fit.

For days, the derision poured down from Democratic party talking heads and much of the media too. The idea that “this woman” might be vice-president or even president was literally incomprehensible. The popular liberal comedian Bill Maher, whose act is an endless sneer at the Republican party, noted that John McCain’s case for the presidency was that only he was capable of standing between the US and its enemies, but that should he die he had chosen “this stewardess” to take over. This joke was not – or not only – a complaint about lack of experience. It was also an expression of class disgust. I give Mr Maher credit for daring to say what many Democrats would only insinuate.

Little was known about Ms Palin, but it sufficed for her nomination to be regarded as a kind of insult. Even after her triumph at the Republican convention in St Paul last week, the put-downs continued. Yes, the delivery was all right, but the speech was written by somebody else – as though that is unusual, as though the speechwriter is not the junior partner in the preparation of a speech, and as though just anybody could have raised the roof with that text. Voters in small towns and suburbs, forever mocked and condescended to by metropolitan liberals, are attuned to this disdain. Every four years, many take their revenge.

I do believe, however, that some of the questions regarding Obama's toughness are not out of place. Mild manneredness and reason are one thing when it comes to an argument.

They are quite another, as Richard Cohen states, when it comes to dealing with those intent on violent confrontation. Given Obama's persistent pattern of ducking confrontations, the question is perhaps not so unreasonable after all. But perhaps his critics could be more careful in the phrasing of their questions regarding Obama's willingness to stand and fight:

...given the historic stereotypes about fear of African American men's masculinity and fears of their aggression, Obama has been successful because he embodies an earlier model of black male politicians for whom respectability and reason were tickets into full citizenship."

But not successful enough, apparently.

On Tuesday, Richard Cohen wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post that Obama's appearance on a TV talk show Sunday "had me wondering if, as a kid, Obama ever got a shot in the mouth on the playground, he'd glare at the bully -- and convene a meeting."

The problem is, of course, that while Obama may be consciously adjusting his behavior to expectations shaped by cultural stereotypes of hyperaggressive, hypersexualized black males, that's really beside the point, isn't it?

It may help us to understand him if we're inclined to psychoanalyze him. But the bottom line (for those of us to whom a strong national security posture is important) is that we require assurance that he won't back down if America is confronted. Plenty of white men (Jimmy Carter, anyone?) have followed that path and the results were infelicitous for this country. We need not impugn Obama's manhood.

We have every right to question his judgment, and on such questions, elections are decided.

Posted by Cassandra at September 10, 2008 08:27 AM

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Obama doesn't believe individual Americans should have the right or power to defend their lives, their property, or their loved ones.

So how does he apply such issues of security to himself? By arming himself with weapons he can control, such as his brain, or by arming himself with power he has stolen from the people, by relying upon the institutions of America, paid for by American blood and treasure, to protect him and his family?

One way is honor, the other way is cowardice. One way is honest, the other way is exploitive of people with weaker legal and security protections than Obama.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 10, 2008 11:24 AM

Nuanced responses to aggressive behavior and stentorian sermons to the naughty boys who populate the geo-political nation-states won't cut it. People don't necessarily obey laws because they love civility. More likely they obey laws because they fear being tazed, as in "Don't taze me 'bro'"

BHO doesn't need to wear a codpiece on the world's stage. He does need to adjust himself occasionally to dispel fears that he has a pair and isn't afraid to use them.

Palin, who has a pair, would stand up to Putin and exclaim, "NUANCE this!" and Pootie would believe her.

Posted by: vet66 at September 10, 2008 11:27 AM

There's a difference between "manhood" and "testicular fortitude" (which I feel is a bad way of saying "guts"). Clearly women lack the components required for testicular fortitude (and "ovarian fortitude" just doesn't sound right), and yet women can have "guts" in spades. As much as I dislike her politics, I believe Hillary Clinton would be able to stand toe to toe with any world leader and square off against them... in short, she has "guts". Sarah Palin has "guts". I don't think anyone could honestly question the fact that John McCain has "guts". Joe Biden, I am less sure of. He's always struck me as a bit nutty and off the cuff to be "gutsy" so much as "random". But Senator Obama? I just don't see it.

For a long time, Grim has chided Senator Obama on his complete lack of guts for standing up for his friends when they become inconvenient. To the point where so many folks have been thrown under the bus that I'd worry about corpses getting wrapped around the driveshaft. Grim referred to it as a lack of character and faithfulness. I think it really is about "guts". Not Senator Obama's "manliness", but his toughness. And those are not the same thing.

I'd hardly call Governer Palin "manly" in any sense of the word. But she's tough, she's got "guts". I realize I'm going in circles here, but I'm trying to clarify what I see as a distinction in terminology. And those are always difficult to explain even in person, much less in typed words.

Posted by: MikeD at September 10, 2008 11:39 AM

I agree with you.

Obama doesn't project toughness.

Or resolve either, which is distinct from manliness. He projects indecision and an unwillingness to commit to unpopular or risky courses of action.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2008 11:47 AM

Putin would eat his lunch.

Posted by: spd rdr at September 10, 2008 11:54 AM

...and then send him out to bring back coffee and a donut.

Posted by: BillT at September 10, 2008 01:25 PM

Last week I asked in Obama had courage. Didn't get a satisfactory answer.


Posted by: vanderleun at September 10, 2008 01:29 PM

...seem to accept turning political differences into character flaws.

Let's say that looks like this:

"Barack Obama supports slowing the development of the future combat system, non-funding of the military's needs as determined by the QDR, etc.; therefore, he is unpatriotic."

OK, fair point.

On the other hand, as we discussed yesterday w.r.t. Gov. Palin, character counts.

So if what we are looking at is a political difference that we are reading as a character flaw, that's one thing. If it's actually a character flaw, however, that's something else.

Cohen, for example, has no policy differences with Barack Obama. He's not reading Obama's politics as character flaws.

This particular character flaw -- a lack of manliness -- is what turned me against the man in the first place. In spite of our disagreements on nearly every possible policy position, I wanted very much to like and respect the man. I insisted on doing so, right up to the point that he broke his word and broke faith with an old friend for political advantage.

Presumably the policy or political stance of the candidate didn't change: but the one who was willing to stand up for an old friend I liked and could even admire, while the one who turned his back on his friends for political advantage I cannot.

I think Obama's problem is character. That's seemed so to me from that moment, and nothing we've learned since has much changed that impression except to reinforce it. We've seen that he undercut a senior civil rights figure in his state senate race by having her name removed from the ballot, so he could run unopposed -- yet he's continually pointed to the civil rights era as the most inspiring time. He worked closely with William Ayers and launched his political career from his house, but when asked about it pretended he barely new the guy. He says he left community organizing to better help the poor, but among his first act was to hook up with Tony Rezko, who got him big donations while he underbuilt public housing and wouldn't turn on the heat in the winter unless sued.

Every now and then, he does something right and I'm glad to praise it. I like the way he stands up for his wife -- even though it's in a sense unfair to let her speak for the campaign, but insist she be immune from attacks. I liked the way he stood up for Gov. Palin's daughter last week, by pointing out that her story and his own mother's were similar, and asking people to avoid her children.

Those are good qualities, and I wish we saw a lot more of that. Still, the man really does have a character problem, and it's right on this front. He won't fight for what's right, even by his own lights: he abandons old friends, his 'white' grandmother(!), and also principles for political gains. He won't fight for anything in the face of opposition, but tries to worm his way around it and change the subject.

It's good that his wife is an exception to that general rule about him. If he has that same kind of loyalty to anything else -- person or principle -- I haven't seen any evidence. That's not about policy differences.

It's about character.

Posted by: Grim at September 10, 2008 02:12 PM

I tried to make that point, Grim.

But I think it's a fair point (for liberals who don't believe in war) that a lack of enthusiasm for fighting/violence does not necessarily equate to unmanliness. You may disagree b/c that is bound up in your definition of manliness, but some men do define it differently (and I think to be fair you have talked about honoring Quakers for standing up for their convictions even as you point out that they only get the be secure in those convictions b/c someone else is willing to fight for their 'right' to be pacifists).

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2008 02:18 PM

...but then again, judgment. Not necessarily character. One can be mistaken and not be dishonorable.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2008 02:19 PM

And wrt Obama, I've always thought the problem with Obama was character, and I've said so.

For me, it truly wasn't a matter of policy differences (which is more of why I didn't go after Clinton so much, not that her character was so sterling either) but that what I perceive to be Obama's character issues alarm me far more. The man stands for nothing, and that won't do.

You can't lead from behind, or if no one knows what you stand for. There's nothing to follow.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2008 02:21 PM

Well, indeed, I don't care whether he stands up for his friends and principles violently or not. I just care that he does (or doesn't).

I like Quakers. I have pointed out that they get to survive in their path only because of fighting men -- but it's also the case that a truly committed Quaker doesn't care. He is as ready to go to his death as to his dinner (as Scott put it).

That's real, deep courage. An enthusiasm for violence is not necessary -- and indeed, not related, since such an enthusiasm can arise out of fear.

Posted by: Grim at September 10, 2008 02:25 PM

There, you both nailed it on the head. It is entirely possible to have guts and be completely opposed to violence. The Quakers are an excellent example. To take the abuse of townies and never strike back is NOT cowardace, it is guts. They're taking humiliation to stay true to their beliefs. Of course, that's not to say there are not cowards amongst the Quakers, they are men and women like the rest of us. There is no population of heroes or saints anywhere on the planet. Only individuals.

Posted by: MikeD at September 10, 2008 02:27 PM

Guts? I agree. Along the same vein of stamina or resolve to stand up for your convictions. He might have both of those, but as of yet I really haven't seen much in the way of conviction from him to stand for. Just expediency and making nice for making nice's sake.

Posted by: Kevin L at September 10, 2008 02:47 PM

I think you are confusing the Quakers and the Amish. :)

There was something I read recently about a man who had recently passed away, who was a practicing Quaker during WWII. He was a Conscientious Objector, but volunteered for the Army anyways, as a Corpsman.
The end of the story was, although he was harassed in Basic, etc. for his non-violence, he eventually earned the CMH, due to extraordinary courage under fire in rescuing his fellow soldiers and performing his tasks.
He was awarded the CMH by Harry Truman, who remarked that "this medal is a greater honor than being elected President", knowing the CO status of the man in question.

Barack does not have to exhibit martial qualities to be elected President, or to be a good President. I respect reason and logic more than over-willingness to exhibit agression or assertiveness. But as Grim says, the question is character.
He could have defended Jeremiah Wright to a point, but parted with him on his racial views, saying something like,"I knew he felt this way and spoke this way on some issues regarding race, but he was also adamant in his belief in Christ and the redemption of men." Since the original Jeremiah Wright exposure, all kinds of YouTube videos have appeared with him speaking as the kind of generous Christian that Obama could have defended. But I think Obama wanted this swept under the rug (or under the bus) ASAP.

Makes you wonder, don't it??

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 10, 2008 03:09 PM

"We need not impugn Obama's manhood. We have every right to question his judgment, and on such questions, elections are decided."

I don't see Obama as being very manly. The thing is, neither will anyone else who matters, people like Putin and Ahmadinejad.

That is the crux of the matter, IMO...

Posted by: camojack at September 11, 2008 01:32 AM

Violence isn't to get rid of social humiliations.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 11, 2008 11:10 PM

Leadership is the key,some are born with it,you
can feel it,almost smell it.Those are the one's
you would follow into hell with 5 gallons of gas
and a match.The others you would pour the gas on
and light the match...your choice

Posted by: Gator at September 12, 2008 12:10 AM