Tough Guys Don’t Win — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on why we don’t need a butch president.
Barack Obama is not a tough guy. Everybody rolls him. He’s a wimp, a weak sister; he won’t stand up for himself or his country. Vladimir Putin, a true tough guy, blows planes out of the air, won’t apologize, walks around half-naked. Life, it seems, is like a prison yard, and Obama cowers in a corner. “It would be a hellish thing to live with such timidity. … He’s scared of Vladimir Putin,” one Fox News contributor said about the President. But this kind of thing is not confined to the weirder fringes: Maureen Dowd pointed out a while ago that former fans of Obama “now make derogatory remarks about your manhood,” while the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page runs a kind of compendium of “weak sister” pieces every morning, urging the President, at one point, to make more “unambiguous threats”—making unambiguous threats evidently being the real man’s method of getting his way.
“Barack Obama is the first female president,” The Daily Caller, a Web site co-founded by a former adviser to Dick Cheney, blared, without a trace of irony or consciousness that female might not be such a bad thing for a President to be. The Daily Caller lists seven basic “manly” traits—courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, honor, and manliness, that last one bafflingly redundant but, hey, that’s the way men are—and shows how Obama fails in regard to each. (He’s terrified of his wife, apparently, though one would think that this is actually a classic Jimmy Stewart-style American sign of husbandliness.) Toni Morrison wrote memorably, in these pages, that Bill Clinton had become, in a symbolic sense, “our first black President”—meaning that Clinton’s perceived faults were flaws of appetite, of a kind that a racist imagination traditionally ascribed to black men. “His unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” Morrison wrote. Obama’s perceived flaws are the ancient effeminate ones, of the kind that a bigoted tradition ascribed to women; above all, the criticism reflects the President’s unapologetic distaste for violent confrontation and for making loud threats, no matter how empty those threats may obviously be. (The joke, of course, is that, with Clinton as with Obama, the symbolic substitute may well precede the real thing.)
Obama—contemptibly, in this view—offers off-ramps in the direction of reason even when faced with the most fanatical opponents, who are bent on revenge for mysterious, sectarian motives, and yet he still tries to appease them. And that’s just the Republicans in Congress. Shouldn’t he be tougher with bad guys abroad? The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances. Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.
Why does this belligerent rhetoric still stir us? The American political historian K. A. Cuordileone wrote a good book a few years ago about the birth of this “cult of toughness” in American foreign policy, in which she makes the point that it was essentially the invention of liberals in the Kennedy Administration—the Eisenhower and Truman people were more inclined to talk of “duty”—who wanted to curb the suspicion that liberals were inclined to be effete. What is strange, reading through her pages, is exactly how exclusively focussed on pure appearances the cult of toughness always was. All of the arguments, the ones that led to the near-apocalypse in Cuba and, later, to Vietnam, were not about calculations made of interests and utility. They were about looking manly.
This business of looking manly even developed its own theoretical rationale, the concept of “credibility”: if we are willing to act violently in pursuit of a peripheral interest, everyone can be certain that, when a vital interest is at stake, we will be still more violent. “Credibility” is defined as the willingness to kill a lot of people now for a not very good cause to assure the world that we’ll kill a lot more people if we can find a better one. This is the logic that led to wild overinvestment in peripheral struggles like Iraq, and is, in the view of many of its proponents, too subtle for the feminine mind to grasp.
“I will do such things—what they are yet I know not—but they shall be the terror of the earth.” So mad King Lear announces—and it is, as Bertrand Russell once noted, the Tough Guys’ point of view packed into a phrase. We’ll show them! Though what we’ll show them, and how we’ll show them, and to what end we’ll show them, and what we will say to the mothers of the children whose lives have been wasted in order to show them—those things remain as strangely unsayable for the serious men as they did for crazy Lear.
We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too.
And No Religions Too — Katha Pollitt argues in The Nation that it’s time to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Passed practically unanimously, with support from Ted Kennedy to Orrin Hatch, the ACLU to Concerned Women for America, the bill was a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith. This case involved two Oregon members of the Native American Church who were denied unemployment compensation after being fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ceremony. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, which held that a law that applied to everyone and was not directed at religion specifically was not a violation of religious freedom, made a lot of sense to me, then and now. Why should I have to obey a law and my religious neighbor not?
RFRA, which required laws infringing on religious convictions to meet the “strict scrutiny” test, was overkill. There were other ways to protect Native Americans’ right to use peyote in religious ceremonies. The church could have asked the State Legislature for an exemption; after all, during Prohibition, the Catholic Church was allowed to use wine in the Mass. Or—but now I’m really dreaming—workers could have been given legal protection from losing their jobs for minor lawbreaking outside the workplace. I mean, peyote! Come on. But no, for some reason, there had to be a sweeping, feel-good, come-to-Jesus moment uniting left and right. “The power of God is such,” said President Clinton, “that even in the legislative process, miracles can happen.” Gag me with a spoon.
What were progressives thinking? Maybe in 1993, religion looked like a stronger progressive force than it turned out to be, or maybe freedom of religion looked like a politically neutral good thing. Two decades later, it’s clear that the main beneficiaries of RFRA are the Christian right and other religious conservatives. RFRA has given us the Hobby Lobby decision permitting religious employers to decide what kind of birth control, if any, their insurance plans will provide. It’s given us “conscience clauses,” in which medical personnel can refuse to provide women with legal medical services—culminating in the truly absurd case of Sara Hellwege, an anti-choice nurse-midwife who is suing a federally funded family planning clinic in Tampa for religious discrimination because it declined to hire her after she said she would refuse to prescribe “abortifacient contraceptives,” i.e., birth control pills. (That the pill does not cause abortion is irrelevant—this is religion we’re talking about; facts don’t matter.)
For some, RFRA doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t apply to state law. In April, Mississippi became the nineteenth state to enact its own RFRA, which essentially legalizes discrimination against LGBT people by individuals as well as businesses, as long as the haters remember to attribute their views to God. Instead of protecting LGBT people from discrimination—a business refusing to serve them, for example—Mississippi will be siding with the bigots, just like old times. Last year, the state passed the Student Religious Liberties Act, which gives pupils the right to express themselves freely on matters of faith without consequences. Johnny can tell his classmate Jane that she’ll burn in hell because she’s a lesbian and write all his biology papers on Adam and Eve and their dinosaur pets, and the school can’t say a word about it. That would be intolerant.
In theory, everyone can play this game. In Oklahoma, Satanists are demanding a religious exemption from compulsory abortion counseling on the grounds that the false claims in the government-mandated scripts—abortion causes suicide and so on—violate their religious belief in science. In North Carolina, the United Church of Christ is suing the state, claiming that its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage violates the right of its clergy to the free exercise of religion. “By preventing our same-sex congregants from forming their own families, the North Carolina ban on same-sex marriage burdens my ability and the ability of my congregation to form a faith community of our choosing consistent with the principles of our faith,” the Rev. Nancy Petty told Religion News Service.
But even if these cases are successful, they take us down the wrong road. People with religious objections shouldn’t have to listen to government speech. Imagine an anti-vaxxer a few years hence claiming the right not to be informed of the dangers of measles. Same-sex marriage should be legal because a clergyperson wants to perform them? What happens when a Mormon elder or a Muslim imam claims the right to express his faith by performing polygamous marriages? Even if religion were not the basically conservative social force it is in American life, expanding the religious freedom of individuals or corporations is simply not a good way to make public policy.
Doonesbury — Not funny.