I hesitate to write about current events for this blog unless I feel that those events are somehow paradigmatic. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with the beatings of leftist protestors by Tea Party activists in the last weeks before the midterm elections: a particularly vicious head stomping in Kentucky, and a similar attack in Washington. I deeply fear political violence, even in the rare cases in which it is justified. Political violence is the failure of society: after just one blow, everyone’s lives and rights are only as secure as their own power to protect them. Unlike Jon Stewart, however, I won’t simply attribute this violence to general incivility. As the political blogger Josh Marshall notes, these acts have a distinct character that is not simply reducible to fanaticism:
What stands out to me though is how each one of these seems to be a nutshell symbolism of the boiled down essence―the precipitate―of blue and red state America, almost to a degree we wouldn’t buy from a writer if we found it in a novel. . . Each time it’s middle-aged or retired right wing white guy in violent encounter with early-twenty-something Dem woman with either cropped hair or more or less crunchy appearance.
It’s not just right wing activists attacking left wing activists. Middle-aged men are attacking young women. Rarely is violence against women so public.
There is no necessary connection between misogyny and the Tea Party’s radical libertarianism. However, that kind of libertarianism does seem to attract men prone to extreme misogyny. Consider a particular sub-culture within the odious Men’s Rights movement: MGTOW or “Men Going Their Own Way.” What is a MGTOW? As a facebook group for men who self-identify as MGTOW explains:
MGTOW (”Men Going Their Own Way”) is a way of life which refuses to defer to women in defining the worth of men. Instead, it focuses on positive male aspects, inviting men to go their own way in life. The one piece of MGTOW advice I’ve followed the closest is “live for yourself.” Go your own way for your own reasons, for your own prosperity, and for your own happiness. What this translates to practically (for me) is that having a relationship should be peripheral and complementary to a life where you’re already satisfied.
In practice, the MGTOW or “ghost” lifestyle involves avoiding long term relationships with the opposite sex, with the possible exception of mail-order brides, foreign women who can be easily dominated. It is distinct from the PUA (Pick-Up Artist) lifestyle, but it is often linked to it. Both lifestyles have poisonous attitudes towards gender relations and relationships in general: all relationships are defined by power, and it is in your interest to maximize your power within those relationships. As a man who identifies as both a MGTOW and a PUA puts it:
Game is largely about social dominance. A woman will test a man with ‘shit tests’ before sleeping with him to see if he is a true alpha or if he is faking it. If he fails to demonstrate alpha power he will never be boyfriend material. Does this sound a little like feminism? They ‘shit test’ men in general and then treat us with contempt for pandering to them. This is like the poor Niceguy who runs around women as an errand boy and yet is called a wimp and a creep behind his back.
It’s not difficult to see how this worldview might lead someone to libertarian politics, but in any case, MGTOW explicitly connect their views on gender to their views on government. The third plank of the MGTOW Manifesto calls for “a limited government.” The ultimate goal is not only “[to] instill . . . masculinity in men” and “[to] instill . . . feminimity in women,” but “to take away everyone’s ‘right’ to vote on other people’s affairs thus rendering it impossible for political organisms and ideologies to impose their personal will on everyone else.” A MGTOW sees the welfare state as the political manifestation of an evil feminine ideology. MGTOW frequently quote works that contain gendered descriptions of tyrannical government:
“The ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ has been transformed into a socialized Big Brother nanny state.”
“The government is like women. They love to spend what they didn’t earn themselves.Women got the vote. And then voted for entitlement, and more government and police to replace husbands and fathers.”
“When women got the vote, it was inevitable that government was going to become more powerful, more intrusive, and more ‘protective’ (ie. more coddling), because women are hard-wired to treasure security more than uncertainty and danger. It was therefore inevitable that their feminine influence on politics was going to emphasize (lowercase ‘s’) social security.”
Just as a MGTOW sees women as controlling succubi that destroy the independent life to which a man is entitled, he sees government as a tyrannical scheme that limits a man’s freedom through oppressive taxation and legislation.
Few of the Men’s Rights arguments carry much weight. It’s ridiculous, for example, to claim that a country that has only ever had 38 female senators is matriarchial. As for the libertarian arguments, let’s apply Lenin’s favorite analytical technique: when someone says “Freedom,” ask “Freedom for whom? To do what?” What sort of “freedom” are the MGTOW calling for when they bemoan women who have the temerity to reject their advances? What sort of “freedom” calls for limited government, but also calls for men to “[u]se any rights to the benefit of other men as well as themselves?” The “freedom” the MGTOW demand is a freedom to dominate others and to ignore obligations to society. It is a freedom that has more to do with a twisted reading of Nietzsche than with Locke.
Yet however ridiculous and offensive the arguments of the MGTOW can be, I find some of their writings quite moving. The voluminous blog and forum posts of MGTOW are characterized not just by political polemic, but confessions of deep-seated pain. These men feel alienated from women who reject them, a society they feel does not value them, and a government that they feel they have no control over:
“While I love this place, if I let it be my only outlook on life I would have eaten a bullet by now, as we focus too much on news reports of insane feminists, corrupt politicians, and the many ways men’s lives are fucked by dealing with American women rather than the things that make each of us happy…”
“I never had a single date in high school. I asked out a couple of girls on a date, and all except one said no followed by lame excuses. One even became angry at me and treated me like dirt for the rest of my senior year. As for the one girl who said yes… We arranged to meet up at a central meeting place on the high school campus where she inevitably has to pass by after her last class. On the day and time that our date was supposed to happen, she HID BEHIND A WALL (her head was peeking out so she could check to see when I’d leave) AND THEN RAN AWAY when she saw me coming toward her from a distance.”
Whether or not their pain is justified, it is undeniably real. A patriarchal society that defines male sexual conquest as success and female rejection as humiliating failure has made these men miserable. Ironically, these men have resorted to coping strategies that they would likely classify as “feminine” in order to alleviate this misery; for example, joining communities that encourage them to openly share their feelings. Even as their political principles promote sociopathic individualism, they seek the comfort of community.
What tortures these men, ultimately, is a narrative about what it means to be a man. And to combat that destructive, subconscious social narrative, nothing is more useful than a cultural production that actively seeks to bring the basic assumptions of that narrative under scrutiny. For this reason, these men should be answered not only with vigorous feminist critique, but with the greatest American cultural production of the last decade: the Sopranos.
Consider the last episode of season three, “Army of One.” Tony faces two crises in quick succession. In the previous episode, Jackie Aprile, Jr., the son of Tony’s deceased best friend, tried to rob a card game of Made Men in an effort to make a name for himself among the Mafiosi. The robbery is a fiasco; the men, members of Tony’s own organization, demand Jackie’s head, and Jackie goes into hiding as Tony tries to peaceably resolve the situation while maintaining his own credibility. Eventually, with Tony’s tacit approval, Jackie’s own stepfather arranges to have him killed. At the same time, A.J., Tony’s son, has gotten himself expelled from his private school for stealing the answers to an exam. Tony’s conclusion is that “the place was too loose, too easy.” Tony then goes on a tirade about how he works so hard to pay for “a six thousand square foot house, big screen TV, food on the table, video games, all kinds of scooters and bicycles, Columbia University and for what?” When A.J. pointedly responds by saying “Sucks to be you,” Tony slaps him across the face and promises “a new regime.” He then plans to send A.J. to a military school.
The Sopranos tricks you into sympathizing with Tony in the moment. As you watch the episode, it’s easy to see from Tony’s perspective. Jackie’s troubles are due to a decision Jackie himself made, a decision that puts Tony in an impossible situation. And in the midst of all of this stress for Tony, A.J. can’t manage just to stay out of trouble? The truth, however, as only Carmela has the courage to tell Tony, is that Tony and his macho, individualist ideology are indirectly responsible for the fates of both A.J. and Jackie, Jr. Jackie, Jr.’s robbery, for example, is modeled on one Tony pulled off successfully, a robbery that catapulted Tony into the ranks of the Mafia elite. As for A.J., why would A.J. follow the rules when his father is a law unto himself? Even Tony, in his limited way, has an inkling of the truth. When the headmaster of a military academy explains to Tony and Carmela the army’s current motto, “Be an Army of One,” Tony responds by asking, “This Army of one thing, what happens when each army of one decides, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going over the top of the foxhole,’ or, ‘Why don’t I just blow the lieutenant’s head off?’ Because, y’know, they’ve been told, y’know, you’re an army of one.” The individualism and militancy prescribed by a patriarchal society is ultimately a recipe for sociopathy.
There is another way, as Carmela points out: “Why be an army at all?” The intense tragedy of this episode is that even within the episode, the alternatives to Tony’s brutal mindset are everywhere. When A.J., in response to the prospect of him going to military school, has a panic attack―a malady that afflicts Tony and afflicted Tony’s father―Tony blames it on “that putrid, fucking, rotten Soprano gene.” But the illness that fells both Tony and A.J. is not biological. It is the result of a society that demands impossible things from men: A.J. ought to subject himself to inhuman discipline, Tony ought to kill without remorse and never show weakness or empathy. This is a society we have chosen. This is a society that inevitably results in, as this episode unflinchingly insists on showing us, a young man lying in a coffin―a needless, unjustifiable tragedy.
Alternatives are available. In the ending, Uncle Junior serenades a family gathered together to openly console each other in their grief. We can choose, following Carmela’s metaphor, to put down our arms, to give up some of our freedoms in order to find strength, support and love in an understanding community. Instead, we choose to live accordingly to the worst aspects of what we deem “masculinity”―sociopathy, violence, stoicism. We blame ourselves for not being “tougher,” for not being “alphas,” for being “niceguys”; we fail to ask why we have to be armies at all. The song Junior sings at the funeral, “’Core ‘N Grato,” again and again laments the singer’s “ungrateful heart.” But the truth is, the heart has nothing to do with it.