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.

Armed groups of men have always been a major force in world history, whether sanctioned by the state or not. The idea that the moral power of grieving parents could overcome the identity gifts -- the sense of security -- that arms give to the men who cherish them is not just ahistoric; it misunderstands the fundamental dynamics of how power works in human society, and the politics of masculine identity in America. Even in a democracy, the only thing that can overcome force is force.

Luckily, violence is not the only form of force. There are other ways of creating change.

Public shaming also has a power. Ferguson apologized because he was subjected to a great deal of criticism from people in his own world, people whose opinions mattered to his sense of group belonging. Cruz is getting some blowback from people in his own party who think that he's acting like an immature jerk (not my words), though I doubt that will slow or stop his rise as a public figure unless it turns into high-level on-the-record shaming from his squishy party colleagues or cuts into his fundraising ability. Majority Leader Harry Reid has sought to help define him during these early days of Cruz's tenure in the Senate, calling him a "schoolyard bully."

Recognizing the role guns play in the cultural construction of a certain kind of masculinity, and how much the policy conversation around them is about identity politics more than anything else, does suggest one path forward. The gun conversation can be changed by the one type of force more powerful than an organized group of people with arms -- the power to make people feel ashamed of themselves and ostracized by the group they care most about.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns has tried, without much apparent effect, to address the macho argument, putting forward a slate of senior military types to argue for reform. Meanwhile, slowly, on Twitter and elsewhere, we are seeing glimmerings of the new argument from shame, as people highlight of incident after incident in which small children have killed small children. Even if no new gun-control laws are passed, if it becomes beyond the pale socially for parents to store guns sloppily or allow their children to access loaded guns without their permission, it would be progress. If people developed a culture of more carefully locking up their guns and more carefully restricting access to them, it would be progress.

That means shaming parents, and holding them accountable for negligence when their children kill each other -- or anyone -- with unsecured guns. It seems cruel to punish a mother or father already doubtless grieving and guilt ridden, but such laws are on the books in some states. America has undertaken more vigorous shaming campaigns for far less harmful social behaviors than keeping a sloppy hold on guns, such as getting pregnant as a teen, or smoking, or letting babies ride in cars outside of car-seats. And it would mean asking gun owners to rethink how they store, share, and sell their legally purchased weapons. After all, according to the FBI, legal gun owners are the second-largest source of guns flowing to criminals, with 37 percent of them coming from family or friends of the individuals locked up in state prisons. Gun shows, in contrast, were the source of less than one percent of the firearms held by those who committed crimes.

Greater federal regulation of guns will only be possible once gun owners are less afraid of the government than the disapprobation of their own communities. I don't expect that to happen any time soon, because I don't believe that a small group of grieving mothers -- even with strong political backing -- has the power to transform a conversation that's at core about how millions of men define themselves. Only the men of the relevant communities can do that. But if gun-owners can change their own cultural norms enough -- if they can get a better get a grip on their own legal weapons and keep them out of the hands of criminals and children -- we might at the least have in the future fewer grieving mothers.