Gender Politics and Political Justice

Identity Politics Gets Into Our Pants

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

[T]he trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh shit!
– Michael Chabon, Manhood For Amateurs

A shaming can be like a distorting mirror at a funfair, taking human nature and making it look monstrous.
– Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

God must have a sense of humor in that he gave a man an excitable phallic shaft extending outward from his body that leads him around as if there were a ring in the end of the damn thing and some demon was yanking him into all sorts of dicey predicaments and shame-inducing behaviors. As a kid first getting to know this physiological organ I was blessed or doomed with, I recall an adolescent joke we snickered at: What’s the lightest thing in the world? A dick. You can lift it with a thought.

An ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effectsAn ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effects

God, in his ribald wisdom, gave women the key to the future in the form of a vagina and uterus. Women got an in-ee and men got an out-ee. He, then, gave men and woman the exact same brain with the same complex and mysterious circuits extending throughout their bodies, an arrangement that makes the joining of the two aforementioned physiological components an incredible pleasure. He or She (I confess: I was a sexist in the first paragraph) also enabled men and women with their powerful minds to be culture-creating creatures, which handed them a great conundrum that has been the source of conflict and narrative delight since humans first carved images on fire-lit cave walls. Non-humans — ie. animals — of course, tend not to be culture-creating creatures, and therefore they’re not susceptible to identity politics; they rely on simple and direct allure and brute strength to copulate whenever they get the biological signal to do so.

This God — I’m not a believer, so the term is used here to mean The Great Mystery — thus made the enterprise of human sexual intercourse akin to playing chess in a muddy, overcrowded pigpen. Think Last Tango In Paris and the scene where Marlon Brando makes snorting pig sounds while Maria Schneider trills like a bird. Of course, the film is a tragedy, and the male dies in the end from his own aggressive actions, killed by the woman who no longer finds his aggressiveness attractive.

I’m a 70-year-old American male with a reasonably boring sexual history who feels the wondrous pageant of life in America is becoming more and more absurd every day — thanks to things like exploding social media and runaway identity politics. For me, the current shaming cycle aimed at men for “sexual misconduct” is nothing short of grand opera tragicomedy dealing with revelations of things that have been occurring since the beginning of time, things overlooked until the 2016 election between a powerful feminist woman wily to the corrupt ways of politics and an arrogant, corrupt billionaire with a talent for being a fulcrum for a white, bigoted backlash of identity politics. I submit none of this sexual misconduct shaming cycle would have materialized had Hillary Clinton won the White House. All of it — even the grotesque Harvey Weinstein — would have remained under the proverbial rug where it has been ensconced for time immemorial.

Instead, we lost an important liberal senator, because in his former role as a TV comedian he made an awkward “fish-lips” kiss rehearsing a skit and for mocking-up a silly gag photo on a tedious, many-hour C17 flight from Afghanistan back to the US. The woman who accused him had been voted “Top Hooters girl of all time” at a Hooter’s 25th anniversary dinner and had done many such USO tours. I recall Raquel Welsh at the Bob Hope USO show in Pleiku and Hope’s gags on Ms. Welsh’s ample attributes. That was a different time; and the war then was one of the nation’s most morally reprehensible. In today’s ongoing saga of sexual misconduct, I’ve never read so many stories about men in bathrobes exposing themselves and male masturbation outside of a Dr. Ruth episode. The New York Times is still averaging two or three stories a day. This Sunday, in a huge, top of the fold story with photos, celebrity photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino are outed as abusing male models in a version of the classic casting couch ploy: If you want the job, you better do this for me. Accusations in the shaming cycle range from outright rape to exposure to bumptious kissing. If one is on the Liberal side, accused culprits tend to wring their hands and say two things: “My memory is different” and “If I offended anyone, I’m really, really, really sorry.” If you’re a conservative Republican, you either claim the charges were fabricated whole cloth for political reasons or, if you’re rich and famous, you pay a whopping fee. Heavy pressure to resign or be fired is implicit in the process. Of course the distaff version of all this has happened and was reported in The New York Times: Next to stories on the sexual misconduct of Dustin Hoffman and Russell Simmons, Andrea Ramsey, a 56-year-old Democrat running to take a Republican congressional seat in red-state Kansas was accused by a male employee of firing the gentleman ten years earlier for not responding to her wish for sex. She denied the charge by taking the “my memory is different” option, although she didn’t elaborate on her memory and she didn’t apologize. She did withdraw from the House race. The shaming cycle has also been turned by some into an opportunist political football. Dayna Tortorici, an editor of the journal N+1, writing about the white male backlash, tells of a right-wing activist exploiting sexual misconduct charges against a leftist activist — with no apparent sympathy for the victim in the account; the interest was to attack an enemy’s vulnerability. She cites an adage: “In the game of patriarchy, women aren’t the other team, they’re the ball.”

In defense of my liberal apostasy, let me tell of my personal experience with sexual misconduct when I was a reporter over 30 years ago for a Philadelphia newspaper. (If all this is too-much-information, feel free to move down three paragraphs or stop reading entirely.) I was sitting at my desk talking with a female freelance photographer I liked. We’d been talking for a while, following a job we’d both worked on together. Without even an “excuse me,” the 50ish foxy mainline blonde who was the editor of this business publication came over and perched herself atop a desk at eye level directly in front of both of us and provocatively spread her legs. We could see her panties. Thanks to the unanticipated excitement of the moment, I have forgotten what she came over to say. My photographer friend quickly remembered she had another place to be and said, “See y’all later!” Again, I forget the rest. Eventually, the woman fired me — alas, not because of anything sexual, but because by then I was too much of a leftist sympathetic to the underdog and was not sufficiently inclined to do the sexy boardroom battle stories she wanted. I wanted to write about black Philadelphians boycotting Coca Cola products because the Coke plant exhibited racist employment habits.

The persistence of this shaming cycle has provoked in many males the rewinding of tapes to reexamine one’s own sexual history. In my case, going back 30 years, I feel I did assert myself too much upon one woman whose name I have forgotten. In her case, I was aggressive and took too long to realize she just was not interested. I don’t think she was harmed by my fumbling efforts, and I was always embarrassed later when our paths crossed. On a comic note, there was the date in the late 1970s I took to see Taxi Driver; on the ride home I told her I understood the Vietnam vet played by Robert DeNiro. Until that moment, things seemed to be going nicely. All of a sudden, she seemed to pull away; I dropped her off, and we never went out again. Which brings up my youthful stint in the United States Army. In Vietnam and in Mexico I paid a pittance for sex with young women politically and economically forced into prostitution; this is something I’m not proud of and something I’ve confessed to in some depth for a serious film on the military and prostitution, a film by an Academy award-winning filmmaker with whom I worked as a cameraman on a trip to Baghdad. In 1975, I published a short story called “Polyorifice Enterprises” centered on the epidemic of prostitution in Vietnam, some of it supervised by the Fourth Infantry Division where I served outside Pleiku. Joseph Heller said his novel Catch 22, my bible at the time, was a mixture of his experiences as a bombadier and his experiences working in advertising in Manhattan. Similarly, my story was about prostitution in Vietnam overlaid with the details from a pitch meeting I’d landed in looking for work; it was for vacuum cleaner salesman jobs. In both cases, it was a case of mixing war with commerce, something that seems a very American satiric cocktail.

Recently, sensitive to the groping misconduct shaming cycle, I received some first-hand experience as a victim of groping. For years, my wife and I have attended a Christmas nosh at the apartment of a gay friend and his husband in Center City Philadelphia. He was a combat Navy corpsman in Vietnam and is a hard-working member of our Philadelphia Veterans For Peace chapter. This year’s nosh was well attended. At one point, as I passed by some men toward the kitchen to pour myself another scotch, someone grabbed my ass. I looked back, and it was a fellow I’d met before who I had had some good conversations with. I made a big joke saying, “This guy just grabbed my ass!” (The only other time I’d been accosted like this was one night 30 years ago feeding the homeless in a rat-infested Philadelphia alley. I was talking with some homeless men, when a rough-looking fellow sidled up to me close and covertly grabbed my genitals. Surprised and quite offended, I shoved him hard and he fell against some garbage cans. He did nothing more, so we left it at that and I went about my business.) In the case of the Christmas nosh, it was much more civilized; in this man’s mind, albeit not welcome on my part, his action had been friendly. I ended up sitting down and talking with him and we laughed it off. Any interest in me was his business; assumptions he may have made about me were his assumptions. I’m happily married to a lovely woman, and thanks to people like my VFP friend I’ve gotten over the homophobia I once harbored. As with women, sometimes the only way to see if your feelings are welcome and will be reciprocated is to take the risk of crossing the intimate boundary space we all have and are all personally familiar with. Because of its timing, the more I thought of this incident, the more I wondered what to make of it. The fact this 50ish man seemed to have some kind of attraction to a 70-year-old married man (my wife was there) was not my problem. But, then, did it somehow mean I was a homosexual, because someone thought of me in that fashion? If it’d been in Texas, from what I hear I would have had to punch him in the face and, if possible, beat him without mercy. But this was cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Then, even employing the Texas rule, would violence have cleared up any questions about who I am? To some, just talking about this stuff is tantamount to being a “faggot.” If it had been in a prison context, where rape is a major issue, a violent response would have been in order. I’ll never forget the heroin addict I read water meters with as a kid telling me of his stint in Raiford Prison in Florida. For some reason he had been in the hospital and some huge black dude tried to kiss him. He grabbed the glass water pitcher and smashed it into his face, effectively thwarting the advance. The dirty little secret of military rape, I was told by a man who works in the VA, is that male-on-male rape exceeds male-on-female rape among our troops.

In the midst of all this lies a fundamental question: What the hell is identity anyway? Is it something permanent and frozen like a 30,000-year-old fly stuck forever in amber? When it comes to things like this, I turn to the poet Walt Whitman, who, as everyone likes to emphasize, swung in all directions and made a name for himself singing “the body electric.” Uncle Walt poetically/metaphorically (and we must presume, in many cases, literally) saw himself as copulating with life itself. “Who need be afraid of the merge?” he wrote. Then: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the/journeywork of the stars.” For me, the idea most relevant to sexual misconduct shaming, as all feminists seem to agree, is the one famously raised years ago by the feminist Susan Brownmiller, that the offense is not about sex, but about power and the abuses of power — human corruption as expressed in assumptions of male superiority. Football players famously pat each other on the ass on the field, but that’s not about power or sex; it’s about brotherhood and the existence of all those pads that leave the gluteus maximus the only place one can feel that pat of solidarity. Rape and violent sexual assault are crimes of violence on the books; so the issue, here, is enforcement and listening to victims. The corruptions of male superiority come in when someone with power expects a person of lesser power to give up their independence and sexual dignity in order to obtain something that the powerful person has to give. Harvey Weinstein and the classic Hollywood casting couch has always been with us; what’s new is the credence given to his accusers. As for the man who grabbed my ass, using it as an example, there was nothing from him I wanted, so he had no leverage over me. It was between me and him and all I had to do was say, “No thanks.”


What interests me is whether the current shaming cycle focused on male sexual misconduct is an Identity Group Movement about the empowerment of women vis-a-vis men — or is it part of a larger, more inclusive and diverse political movement focused on a more just distribution of power and wealth? It would be sad if it turns out to be just the former. How will it feed into the midterm elections in November and the presidential election in 2020? Due to the Clinton/Trump debacle in 2016, how much does desire for a woman president drive the movement? And how much do ideas of diversity and economic justice that include ignored working class white males drive the politics? How can these impulses work together?

We seem to be headed toward a globalized cultural terra incognito noted for two huge realities: One, the United States as we’ve known it is declining from the status of undisputed Top Dog in the world to the status of Big Dog among other Big Dogs, some who used to be third world developing nations — as the pussy-grabber-in-chief would say, former “shithole countries.” And, two, men as an Identity Group in America seem to be in crisis. Whether one likes it or not, gender is becoming more nuanced and complex. John Wayne (birth name Marion Morrison) is dead. A significant gray zone is growing between men and women. Following President Obama’s commutation, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has just announced she’ll be running in the Democratic primary for the US Senate seat in Maryland held by two-term Senator Ben Cardin. It should be an interesting forum for her brave and moral decision to reveal secret details of the cruel, militarist debacle in Iraq. Her voice could also be an eloquent expression of the need in this nation for a feminine, more nurturing and forgiveness-oriented counter to the vengeful, hyper-masculine impulses toward violence and war that tend to saturate our crazy culture. It will be interesting to follow her campaign.

Furthermore, the qualities of masculinity and femininity are becoming less and less linked exclusively with men and women, respectively. In a highly-regimented, high-tech, computerized world, hard, frontier-taming manhood becomes less necessary. This leads, as extreme reaction, to hypermasculinity and, on the other end of the masculine/feminine continuum, to the laid-back metrosexual male with manpurses and skin creams. Of course, females face a corresponding continuum of super femininity on a pedestal, at one end, and Seal team tough gals on the masculine end. In the political realm, think Hillary Clinton versus Melania Trump; and you won’t find a more ridiculous cartoon of masculinity than Donald Trump. In a militarist, highly regimented, some would say virtual police state, the hypermasculine male reaction can cross the line of acceptability and lead to crime and violence. Some men overcompensate for the masculine crisis and become obsessed with pumping up their masculinity as muscle. In some circles, it seems the more irrelevant masculinity is to our life styles in such an affluent, regimented culture, the more narcissistic and cartoonish it can become. Look what it did for an Austrian kid who eventually became governor of California. Hasta la vista, baby. If power is the real issue, not sex, it makes sense how huge muscles, huge trucks and the obsession with huge guns can be potency crutches. Sometimes an obsession with masculinity fuels greed — or is it the other way around? It certainly makes wars more likely. Think the misogynist men in ISIS versus the hyper-masculine icons of Seal Team Six; there seems to be a lot of truth in the idea that going to war with someone over time necessarily makes one assume some of the enemy’s characteristics. N+1‘s Dayna Tortorici put America’s white male masculinity dilemma this way: “Combine male fragility with white fragility and the perennial fear of falling and you end up with something lethal.”

So, coming full circle, it makes sense that arrogant, unnecessary masculinity in conjunction with the repression of the feminine half of life can lead to charges of sexual misconduct from women (and men) who don’t wish to participate in the overcompensation rituals of men with egos larger than their penises. It has somehow translated into a female Howard Beale moment: American women are mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore. A couple thousand years ago, Aristophanes wrote a play about this called Lysistrata. In it, women refuse men sex as a means of ending the Peloponnesian War. As a dedicated anti-war peace-activist, that plot always appealed to me. But, revisiting the question what is this current shaming cycle really all about and where is it leading — I wonder whether ending abusive wars and militarism and undermining economic injustice is the goal. Hillary Clinton was seeking power equity with males, which is a good goal; but she was a lousy candidate when it came to ending militarism and injustice.

The pursuit of dignity and justice for everyone from whatever shithole corner of the world they may come from is a good goal. Overcoming everything that reductive, insulting adjective implies should be a rallying cry for 2018. And the greedy masculine cartoon who glibly employed that metaphor needs to be chased into obscurity, whether that obscurity be prison or a golf course in Florida.