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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, February 12, 2005

IMAGES OF MASCULINITY

Forgive the clunky verbiage -- I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff, but it’s been on my mind.

Socially popular self-representations of masculinity change over time. Like any fashion. In the Seattle City Hall there has been a wonderful photo of the Seattle City Council from sometime in the 1890s. Men in suits and ties not far different than what we wear now; beards and moustaches bushier and more prevalent than is currently common in mainstream politics; hats, which went out of fashion about 40 years ago. What’s really different -- they’re all reclining in the grass, leaning on their elbows, in some Whitman-esque poses. Not campy, not humorous -- just one of the ways that men represented themselves at that time.

I grew up spending summers with my grandparents and a lot of Grandpa’s cousins and siblings, who either lived in the neighborhood or visited every year. Grandpa, the oldest of his clan’s generation, was born in 1907; his youngest cousin was probably born around 1920. My grandparents’ friends came around a lot too. And in recent months I’ve really been thinking about how their personae differed so strongly from those of my parents’ generation and from my own. They weren’t Whitmanesque loungers like the men of the 1890s Seattle City Council; still, the WASP educated middle class of their era presented itself in a much grander style than is usual now -- bearing more erect, visage more cheerful, rhetoric more florid -- a feeling of joie-de-vivre exuding more often than not.

I’ve been re-reading Alan Lerner’s memoir, “The Street Where I Live.” Lerner wrote the books and lyrics for “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” and other standards of the Broadway and film musical. He was born in 1918, and his tone is in the grand style. I only connected his tone to my grandparents’ generation the other day.

The generations of people who have grown up after the second World War have a much more self-effacing way of self-presentation. My parents and their friends are lower key than my grandparents and their friends were; my generation is more self-effacing still. I’ve written speeches for political events over the years, and I can get the florid rhetorical style rolling a little bit, but when it’s come time to deliver them, my tone has been low-key and deadpan.

For me and a lot of my male friends, the record cover of Let It Be by the Replacements epitomized our style. On the sloppy side of casual, self-deprecating, ironic.

Lerner’s memoir talks about his activism in the Stevenson campaigns, and how showbiz people are almost all liberals. The rocker generation pooh-poohs the previous generation as fuddy-duddy and reactionary, but it’s Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” that expanded Social Security and passed the Civil Rights Act and the Environmental Protection Act and tons more progressive legislation, and it’s the rocker generation that’s dismangling it all. (Emphatically redundant typo I’ll keep -- “dismangling” rather than “dismantling.”)

The rocker generation’s stupid political prejudice against the older showbiz style showed up in Eric Alterman’s comments section a week or so ago. Out of nowhere, for no reason, a writer speculated that Barbra Streisand, even though she’s been a liberal Democratic activist for decades and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the D’s, probably pulled the lever for Bush in the privacy of the voting booth, because Bush’s tax cuts are so good for her bank account. The absurdity and ignorance of the prejudice astound me -- and apparently Alterman sympathasizes with the dig, because the comment was one of the few that he posted that day out of the hundreds he receives.

Contrast Streisand and Lerner’s activism with Bob Dylan’s studied apathy. In his memoir, Dylan says he doesn’t even vote. Whether he’s marginally richer or poorer than Barbra Streisand, he’s definitely in the class of people whom the Republican Party serves. And yet Dylan remains an icon of white liberalism. I wanna say, Get outta town! You’re pulling my leg!

I’ve been poking at this theme on and off for a while, but lately it’s struck me more and more that Dylan’s downwardly-mobile self-presenatation has been a bad influence for humane politics. The myth of America has always been upward mobility, aspiration, self-improvement. Dylan’s example has made three generations of white middle-class entertainers ashamed of being middle class. From this perspective, it’s no wonder that the R’s have won the affection of so much of the striving white blue collar class. The ignorance and condescension in post-Dylan rock’s pose are maddening.

I wonder whether a grander, more florid, more joie-de-vivre style wouldn’t make for a more effective progressive politics. After all, the wide dissemination of opportunities for joy-in-life is what we’re working and hoping for, isn’t it? Isn’t the aspiration for wider prosperity a good thing? Isn’t it what we want?

The party of humanity wants things to work. We want government to work. We want the economy to work. We want our international relations to work. We have hope for us all and for the future. The conservative vision is of a dog-eat-dog world, but I’ll tell you something.

People aren’t dogs.
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