John McCain and the Cult of Masculinity

While musing about the media's incredible crush on John McCain, Ezra Klein hit on what I think we all understand, but sometimes forget: the media loves a tough guy. We've seen this meme repeated over and over again, from the silly idea that Rudy Giuliani was a viable presidential candidate to the smell of Fred Thompson, the media is in love with the idea of the tough-talkin', straight-shootin' caricature of manliness.

McCain fits this mold precisely. For one thing, McCain has actually been tough, in the most honorable sense of the word. One can criticize a lot of things about John McCain, but the guy managed years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. That takes courage, both to endure and to exit. That McCain left that camp and continued a productive life afterward is to his great credit.

But that is only part of why the media loves McCain. The other part is his persona. He's the type of guy who, as Klein notes, threatened to "personally beat the shit out of" of a reporter who had talked to his first wife in 2000.

That line was reported by Tucker Carlson, who follows it with a statement that is revealing, not just about Carlson, but our society, and its bizarre relationship with "toughness."
It's impossible to imagine Chris Shays threatening to personally beat the shit out of anyone. But it would be a lot easier to like him if he did.

I think many of us initially nod our heads along with that, but why? Why is it that a threat of violence is considered a net positive personality trait?

Ezra thinks he knows.
The qualities we most admire in others are those we don't have, or fear we don't have, in ourselves. The press isn't impressed by smart, cerebral candidates because the press is full of smart, cerebral, people, who sort of believe they are smarter and more cerebral than the politicians they cover. [...] What very few (male) reporters feel comfortable with is their personal physical courage. Their ability to fare well in a bar fight, or make a credible threat to someone stalking their wife, or endure five years of torture in a Vietnamese prison camp. McCain has something that they don't understand, and that they want. And it's one reason they like him. Because not only does he possess those qualities, but he also appears to like them.

I think Ezra is partly right -- I think that is something many, perhaps most men fear.

But why?

I'd be lousy in a bar fight. I'm a big guy, but I have pretty much no training in self-defense whatsoever. Moreover, I was never a fighter, not even as a kid. I could probably talk a good game if I was trying to scare someone away who was threatening my daughter, but I know I'd be better off trying to have that discussion with the police, and not the person in question. If I was in a POW camp, I feel it's even money I'd crack.

This doesn't bother me. I've never been in a bar fight, and I can't imagine any circumstance in which I would be. If I have a problem with someone bothering me or a family member, I'll call the authorities. And I'm not going to be in a POW camp any time soon.

And so what? I live in a civilized society. America in the 21st century has its problems, but an anarchic, kill-or-be-killed nation we are not. Unless I specifically go out looking for a fight, I almost certainly won't find one.

And so what value "toughness," of the "ready to fight" variety? In civil society? There is none. Oh, toughness has its place, but mental toughness, spiritual toughness. The ability to hang in there in times of trouble, to bear up under burdens, to endure problems -- this is a valuable thing.

But that is not what we think of when we call John McCain tough. Nor do we think of his time in Vietnam, though we say we do. No, when we say John McCain is a tough guy, we're talking about him threatening violence, talking about him cursing out fellow senators, talking about him being a belligerent fool.

And this is held up as something men should aspire to and admire.

But what this ignores is that the bullying and aggression McCain shows don't ultimately reflect well on him. His bitter letter to Barack Obama made him look like a small man, his threatening a journalist makes him look like a punk. Melissa wrote up a wonderful post on the zillion hotheaded moments in John McCain's recent history, from "Bomb Bomb Iran" to laughing about "How do we beat the bitch?" These are not qualities one would want in a boss, much less a president.

Ezra is right that a number of media types think McCain's toughness is admirable, but it's because we as men are told that hotheadedness is admirable. We are taught that fighting is okay, because boys will be boys, that bullying is to be expected, that real men don't show pain, real men don't show fear, real men don't cry.

But that's never been true. And moreover, in a civil society, that certainly isn't true.

McCain is not an admirable masculine figure. Whatever bravery he showed in Vietnam has long since been eclipsed by his willingness to throw his allies and opponents alike under the bus. And while a solider or pilot may need aggression to do their job, it is not something a 71-year-old politician requires.

No, McCain is an example of the twisted view of men as warriors, full stop. We are more than that. And as long as we worry that we do not fight or swear enough, we forget that there is more than one type of man, and more than one way to be tough.

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