Tuesday, April 8, 2008

If This Be a Man

My ruminations on Eric Fassin's stimulating post on the framing of manliness in the American presidential race have started a lively thread, and I want to thank Eric and Judith particularly for their interesting comments. To be sure, contextualization can be useful, but I'm rather less persuaded than Judith is that the synchronic can be neatly separated from the diachronic.

Bush--like Reagan before him--draws quite heavily and quite consciously on a pefectly anachronistic and factitious "Western" imagery of the self-reliant master of his domain and defense of the "wimmen ' n' chillun." Though afraid of horses, he cohabits with them on a ranch from which he clears brush and mends fences. Republicans have revived the hunt, and refugees from the boardroom blast away at hobbled birds rather than flail away as their fathers did at Top-Flite golf balls. Is that because Tiger Woods has claimed the golf course for the "other America"--the people of color and the bleeding hearts--and forced the Americans de souche, as it were, to reclaim the woods and marshlands that tormented their forebears: "In America there is a widespread feeling of hatred for trees," wrote Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville's traveling companion, in a letter to his father in 1831. So quickly did forest vegetation encroach on cleared land that defeating Nature was a constant battle: "Americans believe that the absence of woods is the sign of civilization," Beaumont continued. Republicans, whose politics is predicated on the exploitation of fear, thus make a sport of confronting the ancestral fear, that out of the forest will emerge some demon in human or animal form that the civilized man must kill lest he be killed. They regularly revert to what Richard Slotkin has called "the gunfighter nation" from which they pretend to have sprung, even if their actual forebears conquered the wilderness chiefly from their counting houses, by selling mortgages on it. Their manliness is a plunge into the primitive from which they wish they had issued.

Contrast Sarkozy. He jogs. He bicycles. He sweats. He hydroplanes across broad American lakes. If he rides a horse in the Camargue, the only image he calls to mind is the Marlboro Man of the billboard, or BD's Lucky Luke, because there were no cowboys in Neuilly. His sporting image is resolutely post-modern--a simulacrum, one might say. Think cranking up the Stairmaster, not clearing the lower forty. His is the manliness of eternal boyishness, the man who refuses to grow old or grow up, the man who instinctively hated the presumptive authority of gray-haired dignity, who as a beardless boy mayor defused the Human Bomb. Tradition and convention are his enemies, as they have always been the enemies of those who dream of drawing a virginal Hexagon on a tabula rasa. De Gaulle, too, was an upstart before he was an icon, mocking the pretensions of Pétain while pulling himself up by Pétain's bootstraps, just as Sarko mocked the pretensions of Chirac while doing the same.

Sarkozy's problem, perhaps, is that he believes, rightly, that the French are a prudent people, a cautious people, and here he is trying to sell them une rupture, a leap into the unknown (he exaggerates, of course: he is really quite cautious himself and merely skipping a step or two ahead rather than hurling himself, or France, into the abyss). He knows that people will ask, Why do you dare when others, wiser perhaps, did not? So he has to make the others seem hidebound, vieux et usé, unadventurous, gun-shy. He has to show himself to be a new man, a dynamic go-getter, full of piss and vinegar and, yes, even vulgarity. He was more appealing in that guise than in his new incarnation as a wizened sage. But this too shall pass. With the Queen he couldn't stop himself from looking as pleased as punch, a kid in a candy shop.

So, Eric, I have no more of a definition of virility than you. There is the manliness of the mythified reversion and the manliness of defiant unconventionality and a thousand other varieties. Unlike Judith, however, I believe that the "transhistorical" dimension is worth exploring. The mask has always been an attribute of power, and I believe that the phenomenology of masking can be studied sui generis. Turn the concept of context inside out: for the context itself is another text, woven of the enduring props of the human comedy. But that is a subject for another occasion.

The Budget Bites

Budget constraints will limit the scope of any implementation of the Revenue de Solidarité Active (RSA), which was intended to reduce disincentives to work while supporting people who have difficulty finding jobs or surviving on what they are able to earn. The cost of the plan as envisioned by Martin Hirsch, the high commissioner in charge, would have been 2 to 3 billion euros. The scaled-down plan currently launched in experimental form in 35 départements is estimated to cost about 1 billion euros.

This is where the ideological orientation of the present government makes itself felt. In many respects, Right and Left offered similar diagnoses of the central problems facing France in the last presidential election. But the Right emphasized as remedies certain tax cuts aimed at particular segments of society, such as mortgage tax credits for new homeowners, reduction of the wealth tax, fiscal shield, and estate tax, and detaxation of overtime. All told, these measures cost 14 or 15 billion euros. Now, for want of only 1 to 2 billion euros, an important social program targeted at a very different social group--the excluded, arguably more in need of state assistance than the relatively privileged beneficiaries of the other putatively stimulative cuts--is going to be gutted. This is a pity.


I lost Internet service for six hours this morning, so I am behind in my reading, and I have a paper to finish. So the posts may be slow in coming today. My apologies.