If “occupy” as a word was for two centuries deployed as slang for sex as I documented here, sexual violence, gendered ideology and the recoding of the sexes are found to be intertwined with capitalist accumulation, growth and its primitive accumulation of the female procreative power. Masculinity and its vicissitudes under industrial advance is a particular territory whose meaning is constantly contested, challenged, refashioned or rectified. What sort of gender constellation are we negotiating–now that this word has come back into style with all of the sexual meaning deeply buried, 10 years after Peggy Noonan’s article from October 12, 2001 “Welcome Back Duke–From the ashes of Sept. 11 arise the manly virtues” called for the rehabilitation of a certain vision of American masculinity?
This astonishing article by the former Reagan speech writer deserves a re-read a decade after the 9/11 shadow casts over the world grows slightly dimmer while different revolutionary subjects emerge to break apart the ossified manichean logic of the previous decade. What is shocking on rereading this article is that Noonan barely manages a few words that challenge her defense of a “new” manliness. She could have written how there are women who are as strong as men, were as physically heroic as men, were as courageous and brave as men, but she doesn’t because this would contradict her provocative argument for gender essentialism–Indeed her mea culpa at the end of the article (in which sometime back in the 1970s she refuses the help of a nice man who was chivalrously offering some muscle power to her) proves her point that assertions of female equality are partially at the root of the perversion of sex roles over the past 30 years. Also to blame is the fact that most “men” are not her “true men”– we should group the effete, the academics, the self-conscious, the Woody Allens (“Jews”?), the “small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing”–all these types from the late 20th century together with women who refuse to acknowledge a gentlemen as corrupted. In her vision of a transcendent patriotic now, women become passive vessels into which men will pour the undiluted musk of a purer manly heroism: Occupy Me/Us/Culture with your manhood.
The main tension worth unpacking in this essay is that in order to accomplish this move of rehabilitating the Man, Noonan is forced to dig up long-dead ghosts of the past (most importantly the blue-collar worker) many of which her master Reagan is credited with entombing. If the destruction of the organized working class, the neoliberal offensive against public unions and industrial sectors and the decline of cultural forms that represented the working class represented in some way the previous 25 years of American history, here is Noonan, flirting dangerously close to reminding her readers of the labor theory of value, disguised by the bright dyes of red, white and blue:
I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who do construction, men who are cops and firemen. They are all of them, one way or another, the men who put the fire out, the men who are digging the rubble out, and the men who will build whatever takes its place.
And their style is back in style. We are experiencing a new respect for their old-fashioned masculinity, a new respect for physical courage, for strength and for the willingness to use both for the good of others.
You didn’t have to be a fireman to be one of the manly men of Sept. 11. Those businessmen on flight 93, which was supposed to hit Washington, the businessmen who didn’t live by their hands or their backs but who found out what was happening to their country, said goodbye to the people they loved, snapped the cell phone shut and said, “Let’s roll.” Those were tough men, the ones who forced that plane down in Pennsylvania. They were tough, brave guys.
Noonan swerves dangerously close here to glorifying the worker with all his sweat and callouses– a path that perhaps runs parallel to a Stakhanovite ideology of a certain type of socialism. The hammer, the sickle, the man who toils for his country aren’t so far away. As a side note: This is one perversion of Marxism that thankfully was being deconstructed by the 1960s by Negri, Debord, and many others. Let us not forget Debord’s section 97 in Societe of the Spectacle, where he critiques the failure of social-democratic organizations and their leaders:
The sometime worker Ebert still believed in sin — declaring that he hated revolution “like sin.” He also proved himself to be a fine herald of that image of socialism which was soon to emerge as the mortal enemy of the proletariat of Russia and elsewhere, by precisely articulating the agenda of this new form of alienation: “Socialism,” said Ebert, “means working hard.”
A labor theory of value, however, is going to lead one to view “working hard” and “hard work” in a specific way, although what one chooses to do with this knowledge may of course vary from a self-negating pride or glorification of labor to a choice of sabotage, revolution, and the doctrine of “workers against work.” In any case, Noonan chooses to broaden her vision of masculinity by specifically including the heroism of the suits. This is the America after all which not too many years before celebrated the midlife crisis and eventual resurrection of the sports *agent* Jerry McGuire. Noonan slyly critiques this era and its artistic representations of work that melodramatically focus our pity on a barely interesting American man who eventually succeeds by making millions trading in athletic flesh–not to mention her implied critique of the two 1990s topoi of non-work, both ironic and privileged: “Seinfeld” and “Friends”. Where are the manly men? Can one critique the rise of the post-worker, the service worker and the computer functionary without resurrecting the labor theory of value and the revolutionary theory that inexorably follows its logic?
It may seem that I am really talking about class–the professional classes have a new appreciation for the working class men of Lodi, N.J., or Astoria, Queens. But what I’m attempting to talk about is actual manliness, which often seems tied up with class issues, as they say, but isn’t always by any means the same thing.
Besides the contradictory fact that Astoria (I have no knowledge of Lodi) has a growing gay population, is incredibly diverse (Egyptian, Yugoslavian, Mexican, Bengali, Brazilian, Irish, Greek, Italian), and contains as many stylish slackers in cafes as it does the authentically working class– Has such a vision of ahistorically idealistic identity politics ever been so simply uttered? What can one possibly mean by “Actual manliness”?
Here’s what I’m trying to say: Once about 10 years ago there was a story–you might have read it in your local tabloid, or a supermarket tabloid like the National Enquirer–about an American man and woman who were on their honeymoon in Australia or New Zealand. They were swimming in the ocean, the water chest-high. From nowhere came a shark. The shark went straight for the woman, opened its jaws. Do you know what the man did? He punched the shark in the head. He punched it and punched it again. He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark, he did not share his sensitive feelings about the shark, he did not make wry observations about the shark, he punched the shark in the head. So the shark let go of his wife and went straight for him. And it killed him. The wife survived to tell the story of what her husband had done. He had tried to deck the shark. I told my friends: That’s what a wonderful man is, a man who will try to deck the shark.
Who is the wife, who is the husband, and who is the shark? “And it killed him”
If the “Duke” is back, John Wayne and all the imperialist, pro-war, anti-Communist propaganda that goes with it, what happens to this vision when the wars of the past 10 years are seen to be tragic failures, barely comprehended by the American public who mostly just wanted to see Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices pay for 9/11. The Duke failed to make a triumphant return (I think here not only of imperial failure, but also Wayne Kramer’s brilliant Running Scared from 2006, in which the abusive step-father obsessively watches his 8mm version of John Wayne’s The Coyboys over and over in which the Duke is shot in the back and dies on screen [A rarity in Wayne's Western oeuvre] –At the end of Running Scared in a showdown on an ice rink The Coyboys reappears on screen and the celluloid burns up, a la Persona.) What we have instead of the thoughtful toughness, that true grit of a masculinity that has yet to shake off the dusk of the frontier is….the rent-a-cop…
In Part 2 we will try to interrogate the modern police at the intersection of contemporary masculinity