Monday, April 7, 2008

Bowling Not Alone

Eric Fassin uses Barack Obama's unfortunate excursion to a bowling alley in Pennsylvania as an occasion to comment on American attitudes toward gender, intellect, and power. He invokes such hardy perennials as Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and the "jock vs. nerd" culture of the American high school and suggests that Hillary Clinton's challenge to Obama that the two engage in a bowling match to see which should become the democratic nominee was an attempt to question Obama's "virility" and to cast him as a wimpy intellectual (much as Ségolène Royal questioned Bayrou's virility with her famous remark that he was reluctant to come up to her apartment to negotiate between the two rounds of the presidential election "comme un amant qui craint la panne").

Clever observations. I don't for a moment discount the importance of the phenomena Fassin observes. Comparative questions arise, however. Is the "jock vs. nerd" phenomenon less pronounced in France? If so, might it be because the budding intellectuals are skimmed off in early adolescence and educated in separate institutions, where the competition of the pubescent years takes a different form? These gender-derived markers are "slippery signifiers" par excellence. The voters described in What's the Matter with Kansas, who Thomas Frank believes voted against their own economic interest by rejecting the "effete" Al Gore and John Kerry in favor of the "macho" George Bush--well, perhaps they did, but perhaps they also resented the relative job security and earning power of the graduates of elite universities whose tastes and styles are closer to those of Gore and Kerry than to those of Bush.

Whether intellect is a disqualification for office in the United States is a vexed question. It's one of the supposed vices of democracy that what Tocqueville called l'homme du peuple--the "common man," or "median voter" as a political scientist would say today--resents the man of distinction and will not vote for him. Hence the "superior" must rule by subterfuge if they are to rule at all. Yet the common man voted for Abraham Lincoln, who, it is true, wrapped his superior mind in a costume of authentic homespun. I don't think it was the dazzling intellect of Kerry or Gore that turned voters to Bush, however. Perhaps the best instance of a candidate who lost at least in part because he was an "egghead"--to use the epithet attached to him at the time--was Adlai Stevenson, but Eisenhower as the victorious World War II commander could no doubt have defeated anyone. Woodrow Wilson, political scientist, president of Princeton, and far from exhibiting a common touch, nevertheless won election at a time when the proportion of the highly educated in the population was much lower than it is today. So intellect is but one factor among many.

Is intellect incompatible with virility, as the "jocks vs. nerds" argument would imply if taken to an extreme? The reductio ad absurdum is perhaps Eliot Spitzer, whose double 800s on the SATs apparently failed to hobble his libido. The case of Bill Clinton needs no gloss from me.

How different is France? Perhaps it's the multiplicity of parties rather than a fundamental difference in attitude toward intellect and machismo that makes the difference. The bourgeois parties do not deprecate intellect and taste to the same degree as the anti-intellectualist parties in the United States, but there is a populist strain in France, just as there is a populist strain in the U. S. The difference is that the system is less bipolar, hence there is less pressure on the major parties to incorporate populism and its anti-intellectual proclivities. A Mitterrand could exhibit rather recherché literary, culinary, intellectual, and aesthetic tastes (Chardonne, Jünger, Tournier, ortolans, Duby and Dufy) and yet score points against the didactic Giscard (je ne suis pas votre élève--a populist retort delivered with perfectly aristocratic morgue), while at the same time enjoying a reputation as a ladies' man and producing a second family at his funeral to confirm that there is virility after death.

If Sarkozy's reputation as "l'Américain" is undoubtedly overworked as well as overblown, the populist strain in his style might reasonably be compared with latter-day Republican-style populism in the U.S. His fondness for swagger, blunt talk, pokes in the chest, slaps on the back--all these are tricks he might have learned by studying George Bush, if they hadn't come naturally to a young man of diminutive stature and no social standing who has made no secret of the fact that, for him, part of the pleasure of politics is the possibility it affords to avenge slights, old and new. The compensatory value of a beauty wooed and won while in office is too obvious to require comment, and Carla Bruni not only distracts from Sarkozy's unprepossessing presence but adds intellectual heft to their couple: she, at least, does not regard Marc Lévy as the arbiter of literary elegance. Perhaps that's why the French in a recent poll seem willing to approve of her while continuing to punish him. (Her "sulfurous" reputation seems to have been quickly forgotten, even as she appears in the nude on the front pages of foreign newspapers--will this establish a new standard for First Ladies that other countries may find hard to match?).

For female politicians in France, however, the norm is evolving. One often hears the word "elegant" used in descriptions of Rachida Dati and Michèle Alliot-Marie. "Elegant" bespeaks a refined feminity, offering a hint of the same sexuality that male politicians try to project but without any suggestion of rapacity. By contrast, Ségolène Royal seems to go out of her way to avoid the "elegant" label. She works to make her natural allure appear more workaday. Yet, as the gibe about Bayrou quoted above makes clear, she is not averse to alluding to her sexual power when it suits her purpose, as if sexual power were an essential part of the politician's panoply, as perhaps it is, and no doubt more so in the media age than in the past.


Boz said...

Very interesting analysis, though I'd add that when Clinton's possibility of winning is barely statistically significant, she can say whatever she wants.

MYOS said...

Very interesting analysis indeed.

I've been struck by the fact Royal wears skirts. Somehow, I've got the impression that American female politicians don't [ie., they may but my image of them doesn't include any wearing skirts]. I've also noticed she wears kind of "inappropriate" jewelry (dingly earrings, funny necklaces) on the other end of the spectrum from pearl necklaces. On the other hand I'm not a specialist in jewelry and it could be the rage among French upper-class women to wear puka shell thingies.
I've heard several male acquaintances say it's difficult , even if gay, not to be "taken in" by her and they can't quite say whether it's feminine guile or charisma. ;-)

Rachida Dati has an open "closet" at Dior and shows it. She works near Place Vendome and shows it. :-) On the other hand, I don't think it's related to displaying feminity, but rather, displaying wealth and status symbols.
A magazine reported one of her little back dresses cost 5,000 euros (implying it was scandalous). The silk-summer-dress-with-fishnet stockings-and-high-leather-boots outfit isn't my style so I can't judge whether it's elegant. In any case I doubt you'd see Hillary Rodham Clinton in that get-up on Newsweek's cover. :-)

Leo said...

Back to the "common man" vs. the intellectual. I don't totally follow your line concerning Sarkozy. It seems to me he consciously and continuously played the common man side when deriding the "intellectuels des beaux quartiers" against those who suffer from violence in the suburbs. Also his choice of words (not meantioning "casse toi pauvre ...) Although not strictly an anti-intellectual attitude, it does smack of populism. This is was reinforced by the social analysis of the presidential election results.

Unknown said...

Yes, absolutely, I agree. Indeed, I'm arguing that Sarkozy represents a French-style populism, and that this populism was the key to his victory. But Carla, for whom many intellectuals have a soft spot and who is said to be a woman of some taste and discernment--she comes of a highly cultivated family--lends some of her luster to Sarkozy. or so he might hope.

Anonymous said...

isn't Sarkozy rather more confrontational than bush? I can't imagine bush poking anyone in the chest with his finger. he's jovial and friendly in person, only serious on camera when he's addressing issues of great importance. no?

Unknown said...

No, not at all. Bush has quite a nasty streak. For example, when confronted by Sen. Jim Webb on the war, Bush uttered some angry words, turned on his heel, and walked away: the equivalent of "casse-toi pauvr'con," and to a Senator and veteran, no less. He is affable as long as he is not challenged, but so is Sarkozy.

Unknown said...

A few conceptual points seem important here. First, I don't think that it's possible to make a transhistorical argument about the relationship between intellect and virility in either country, as their meanings are contextually situated. Second, virility even at a given moment has complex, intersectional meanings. Thus, in Eric's post, race is absolutely central to his analysis. In this post virility appears to be roughly aligned with sexual potency (Mitterand's second family; Spitzer's affair; Sarkozy's babe), but in fact these different expressions of these political men's sexual potency are quite different. For example, Mitterand's (and the media's) respect of the rules of 'private life' is in direct contrast to Sarkozy's ostentatious public display. And, in the latter case a lot of the media language surrounding Sarkozy's flamboyant display figures him as devirilized, because unable to exercise sufficient French-style self-control. In other words, an excessive display of purportedly virile (sexual potency or aggression) traits can, in fact, be devirilizing. Finally, two characters seem to be missing from the analysis here of the fate of the egghead in French politics, namely Juppé and Jospin.

Leo said...

Judith, you are right on the money with almost your comments, especially with Sarko's boyish far from manly behavior. I would however not consider Jospin nor Juppé as eggheads. For me the real egghead today is Gordon Brown. And he is not much of a success either...

Unknown said...

Many thanks for starting this transatlantic discussion !

Much to be discussed, but only two points for now :

1. I don't have a definition of virility, and so would be reluctant to say that Elliot Spitzer's or Bill Clinton's sex lives indicate virility. In fact, virility is what is at stake in much of this. Hence my suggestion that Republicans have managed to impose their own definition of manhood for a while.

2. The comparison between both cultures (French and American) requires a historical approach : how "the French" relate to intellectuals (vs. "Americans") is subject to redefinitions. It is true that French presidents have often displayed cultural interests (they all seem to be potential writers!) while American presidents have tended to hide it (Bush père tried to appear as a country music fan, rather than an opera lover - if not velveeta rather than Brie). But this can change - and that's what's happening with Sarkozy : he is not just in bad taste, even tacky (bling bling), and unintellectual - he is showing it off, thus redefining the rules of the game in his own image. He is imposing a Monaco-family style to the Presidency, thanks to Paris-Match and others.

Well, thank you again, Art - and all my admiration for your incredibly prolific blog writing (I feel much less "virile", with only three posts in over a week...).


Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment. I take it up in the main thread, here.