Niall Ferguson, Ted Cruz, and the Politics of Masculinity

What happens when our most vexing policy debates turn on the question of quien es mas macho

Niall Ferguson dismisses economist John Maynard Keynes's work as the product of an "effete" sensibility more interested in talking ballet than building a family with his wife.

Daily Caller writer Matthew K. Lewis blasts coverage of the gun control debate and declares, "Newsrooms should also hire a few journalists who aren't effete liberal p*ssies."

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dismisses fellow Republicans who considered voting for a de minimis gun-control bill as "squishes."

Welcome to the place where public policy-making runs smack into the culturally charged policing of the boundaries of masculine identity.

Pussies. Squishes. Effete elites. This isn't policy talk oriented toward coming up with the greatest good for the greatest number, reducing human suffering, or even securing the nation against foreign threats. This is something else -- something far more primal. This is about perceptions of manliness, and about policy as an affirmation of masculine identity.

While identity politics is often seen as being a form of argument involving minorities, the reality has always been that identity politics in America is little more than a recent instantiation of the core human desire to be part of a group, and the fact that groups ceaselessly contend for power against each other. White men once were seen as the American norm from an identity perspective, in that they were the only ones who held the franchise. They remain the dominant class in virtually every significant remunerated field of endeavor. But today I think we see more and more expressions of cultural identity from white men qua white men, as they seek to claim a place of their own in the multicultural firmament. Sometimes this identity is described as being Southern, or rural; other times, as Lewis puts it, it's about "redneck" culture. He contrasts this with having "a cosmopolitan background," a.k.a. hailing from a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse urban community.

But masculine identity-politics games are far from being just another thing white people like, or something specific to a rural American upbringing, in whatever region. Cruz is Hispanic and pretty cosmopolitan, having attended two Ivy League institutions and possessing personal ties to America, Canada, and Cuba. Ferguson, a Harvard history professor who came over from the U.K., is no country bumpkin, and it's hard to imagine his time at Cambridge and Oxford had much in common with Lewis's at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

What they all share is a philosophy in which a certain construction of masculinity is, in style and substance, superior to the that of their opponents, whom they see as somehow soft, feminized, and lacking in legitimacy. Ferguson quickly backed away from his remarks about Keynes, who though married was gay. But so what? Acknowledging that dismissing Keynes as a childless effete was a stupid thing to say only reveals how ingrained and normalized the desire to question the masculinity of opponents is.

Lewis stuck with his insult against members of the press that they are pussies. By his use of asterisks I think we can all be certain he did not mean that they were kittenish; he meant that they are like women. That they are weak. Inferior. Because women are weak and inferior; they are vulnerable where men are impenetrable. Indeed, much of the argument for unfettered gun sales in the wake of the Newtown shooting has hinged less on arguments about sport than on questions of self-defense, and, in particular, on the idea that women need guns to protect themselves from rape and intruders and so on. A world where the threat of violence by men is best met with the fact of violence by women, and in which the only solution to the threat of force is greater force. And not, for example, more prosaic changes -- which studies suggest have contributed to the nation's drop in crime -- such as the proliferation of cell phones and the move toward unleaded gasoline.

The argument of gun culture is an argument against a vision of masculinity that is seen as feminized, but it is also an argument deeply skeptical of the ability of government to provide security, and one that valorizes the gun-owner as a heroic, or potentially heroic, individual. No wonder that teased and bullied boys with mental issues seek a solution to their masculine identity conundrums in turning arms caches against innocents, seizing for a brief moment the power over others that they have always lacked.

And this is where we get into the really sticky part of the politics of masculine identity, which is that force, when not opposed, does tend to succeed. People who are weaker do tend to get hurt more. It is not just the predators of the savannah who prey on those who are most vulnerable. The rule of law stands in opposition to the rule of force and the natural inequalities between man and man. But not around the margins, where the strong too often are able to dominate, exploit, punish or control the weak, leaving it to the state to pick up pieces that can never really be put back together again.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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