Alpha male charisma

The Atlantic had a couple of very pertinent articles in its most recent issue. The first, “Trump’s Intellectuals” by Peter Beinhart, discusses the recurrent desire of people (or is it just men?) to get rid of corrupt alpha males through the agency of an even greater alpha male.

In the contemporary iteration, anonymous posters on a short-lived website, “Journal of American Greatness” “made a highbrow case for overthrowing America’s existing political order and replacing it with the raw, dynamic, intoxicating energy of Donald Trump”, Beinhart writes. According to these conservatives, the American political elite is depraved, decadent and corrupt. Trump would ride in as the “saviour” to sweep it all clean so the “will of the people” could regain its sovereignty.

This is a belief in nothing but primitive and animalistic alpha male competition. Older even than the human species, it’s how the great predators operate. Have human beings really not advanced beyond this? After thousands of years of violence and killing, have we not yet figured out that a system in which the most brutal and powerful man rules is not a system beneficial to any but a handful of priviledged players?

It may be that the young, virile and powerful lion who takes down the pride’s male (and then kills all his predecessor’s offspring) is a perfectly normal lion, but in the case of human beings such an alpha male is a psychopath.

Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler are just a few of the most recent names that spring to mind (recent in the entire history of humankind). Each of them was more than willing to destroy millions of lives in the service of their personal mission to remake a part of the earth in their own image.

There’s a powerful myth at work here and it’s linked to the  desire for male heroes. Both women and men seem to crave some powerful “knight in shining armour” to come to the rescue, kill the bad guys and restore order. Heroes let ordinary men off the hook, don’t they? But for some men, the desire to be a hero can become an obsession. It’s a terribly pathological desire, this need to be an idol.

When we talk about heroes, knights, alpha males and saviours, we’re also talking about charisma. And The Atlantic has a brief article called “The Charisma Effect” a few pages after the Trump article. Its author, Matthew Hutson, misses entirely any connection between gender and charisma.

He begins by noting that people want more than intelligence and integrity in a leader — they want someone with charisma. He says scholars have struggled to define the enigma of charisma. It seems to me pretty easy to distinguish the first and most important attribute of charisma. It’s masculinity. More men are more frequently called charismatic than women. Routinely these days political commentators are casually describing Hillary Clinton as having as much charisma as a turnip. Doesn’t this deserve questioning?

We don’t see women as heroic. We don’t see them as knights in armour, or as saviours. Because of that, we don’t see them as charismatic. Charisma, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Who we find charismatic says everything about us and very little about the object of our perception.

Personally I find Clinton very charismatic. But then I love intelligence, frankness, attention to detail and a restrained demeanour.

I don’t find alpha males remotely charismatic. My question is, are there enough people in America today who think maybe instead of replacing one alpha male with another, maybe they should shove them all aside and give a bunch of women the keys to the White House and all its associated corridors of power? That would be a real change, wouldn’t it?

“The Walrus” at Sea

The December edition of Canada’s only magazine of ideas, The Walrus, is disappointing for its multiple examples of ‘masculine blindness’. This month editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is glad his privilege allows him to eschew introspection for video game playing, journalist Russell Wangersky laments the “24/7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually  into my newspaper’s well of ideas” from online anonymous commentators without once acknowledging that women get far more, far worse than men. It was his comment that he was once threatened with a rock through his window that got me. Does he not know that women with public voices get daily onslaughts of rape and death threats?

Then there were the memoirs, two of them. I love memoir. It’s my favourite form of literature and I’ve studied it in all forms and permutations. Memoir, as others have said before me, is open to the charge of self-involvement and narcissism. Who, after all, thinks their own life is interesting and important enough to write about? The best thing about memoir is the way it overcomes this. The single most important quality of memoir is the introspection of the author-as- narrator. It’s through that introspection, the self-questioning, that readers can glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being. The details of memoir can be foreign to many readers, but the quest for meaning that occupies the introspecting narrator is universal.

In this case, both memoirs were written by men, white men. Privileged male voices occupy too many of The Walrus’s pages. But there is a difference in degree when the subject is the self, rather than some aspect of life outside the self.

In The Roughneck Diaries, Don Gillmor recounts his experiences as a young man when he divided his time between studying literature at university and working as a roughneck on the oil patch. He tells several anecdotes about the hardship of life as a roughneck and eventually decides the dangers are too great. That’s it. End of story. So what? How can I relate to this? How can a young immigrant, a woman, a disabled person, relate? We can’t relate to the details. What we can relate to is the meaning the author/narrator makes of it. Gillmor doesn’t go there.

Where he does go, though, is into portraits of prairie oil patch workers and support staff. He describes the driller who was “mean as a snake” and enjoyed destroying farm crops for the sheer perversity of it. There is a doctor who was “cinematically drunk” and whose medical care should have been grounds for lawsuit. There are all the workers who get drunk before they start their shifts and drunker when they finish. There is not a decent, thoughtful human being anywhere in sight.

Gillmor makes no attempt to understand these men, who are stuck in their lives of backbreaking physical labour without access to ‘the finer things’ that the author cherishes and will return to. His lack of empathy is most evident in his description of the woman who fell asleep at the wheel, sending both of them to hospital. The narrator wasn’t badly hurt, but the female co-worker spent a week in hospital. Gillmor expresses no compassion whatsoever.

I can’t imagine that Albertans reading this article feel anything but resentment at being so callously denigrated. As for me, I consider longingly how much the author could have said about masculinity at that time in his life when he stood between two modes of masculinity, sampling each. And what he could have said about privilege, when he was surrounded by men without it. And what he could have said about the erosion of humanity in the lives of men without options.

Without any of that, this memoir emits the sour perfume of entitlement and superiority.

But I’ve left the worst memoir for last. I don’t actually believe that Richard Kelly Kemick’s Playing God is memoir. I think it’s fiction. The premise is too good. I can just imagine a creative writing teacher giving the prompt – think of the weirdest thing that a man could collect and make up a story about a man who collects it.

This is not sufficient reason, of course, to call the author a liar.What makes the case more compelling is that the author-as-narrator is a poseur. Throughout the story, the narrator postures. This is the antithesis of memoir, where the honesty that comes from self-questioning is essential.

I don’t like the narrator. He verges on the sociopathic. I wouldn’t want to meet him. And nowhere does he give a reader any reason to care about him.

What I especially don’t like about him is his total lack of empathy for anyone, his self-involvement and his striking misogyny. All three are evident in his admission that he’s been selling his wife’s clothing to pay for his hobby, collecting figures for his Christmas village. An honest narrator might confess to feelings of guilt, but Kemick is gleeful that he got “a whole $23 dollars” for one of her tops.

No introspection there.

His misogyny forces itself onto readers most bluntly when he says of his relationship with his wife, “it had been just one month since I’d stopped getting the milk for free”. Is this meant to be a joke? Are we supposed to laugh? It’s been a few decades since people have found misogynistic jokes about ‘the wife’ funny, hasn’t it?

Before this comment, Kemick has treated us to his view of his mother. He thinks she likes his Christmas village, in part because “the woman is insufferably supportive of everything I do”. Well, I guess we need to excuse her for caring about him. And “the woman”? Who refers to their mother as “the woman”? It turns out though that the narrator suspects his mother of taking over his village for herself, and believes she completely misunderstands him. He was forced to listen to her “confuse my post office and library, gloss over my recreation area, and completely fuck up my all-embracing vision”. Poor thing, his mother doesn’t understand him.

And lastly, when an elderly woman buys a piece that he can’t afford, he says “I say a small prayer for the elderly woman: I ask that the distillery turn her village into Sodom and Gomorrah and that her smiling citizens, hopped up on liquor and lust, eat one another.” Right, nice guy, eh?

The narrator then goes into a litany of all the horrible village gifts he’s received over the years, from people who wish to give him thoughtful gifts, of course, pieces for his obsession. They’re all wrong. This is not a man who ever says ‘it’s the thought that counts’. This is a man who says “village gifts are kind gestures offered by those who have no fucking clue.” Kemick is a child-man who offers nothing of himself to others and then complains that they don’t understand him.

At a couple of points I thought the memoir might transcend the narrator’s whining. He says of his flawed village “Mine is a city that understands the true weight of mortality – its fleeting and fragile nature – and has grown accustomed to closed-casket funerals. Mine is a city that embraces the true spirit of Christmas only because its citizens so desperately need a holiday from the lifelong process of dying.” That’s good! Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t actually display any compassion for real people.

His entrapment in isolation is most revealed in his final comments. He and his wife are thinking of having a child, and he’s afraid that he’ll be “heartbroken when Litia loves this new thing more than she loves me.” The only insight he has into himself is that he will observe his wife and child from the trap of his own fears. Okay. He has revealed his core vulnerability.

But he ends the story by backtracking away from that insight, that honesty. He plugs the whole village in and “Here I am, surrounded by my city and its inhabitants, feeling like a god. And I bless them, every one.”

Judgmentalism and blame don’t belong in memoir. What we love about memoir is that we can see someone overcome the wrongs done to them by others, or the harm done by circumstance. This involves taking personal responsibility, not for the harm that has been done, but for the healing that must follow.

That The Walrus has included one memoir without the qualities of introspection, honesty and personal responsibility could be a mistake. That is has included two in one edition points to editorial blindness.

The Walrus was started to bring something like Harper’s and The Atlantic  to Canada. In fact the original idea was a partnership with Harper’s. Look at what has happened to that magazine in the last 12 years. One has only to look at “Easy Chair” to see the single biggest difference between a world-class magazine of ideas and The Walrus. Rebecca Solnit.

“The Time has come to speak of many things,” says the walrus. Yes, but  men need to stop speaking all the time and listen. The masculine view, by itself, is just too limited.

A Man and His Hero

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff, philosopher, author and erstwhile candidate for the Canadian Prime Ministership, writes about heroes in a way that requires rebuttal. “The Hero Europe Needed” is a deeply gendered article and in his failure to recognize that, Ignatieff presents social constructs as essential truths and fails to find his way to a much more interesting and necessary story.

Ignatieff has failed to define his terms. He uses the term “heroic” synonymously with “courageous”. They are not synonyms, since “heroic” requires a societally-located approval that courage doesn’t. Courage is a quality that all human beings can aspire to, one we can attempt to cultivate in themselves. We can use the adjectival form to describe ourselves and others, as in “she is courageous”, or I wish I were courageous enough to …”. A man or woman who aspires to courage is a person we can perhaps trust. But a man who aspires to heroism – a man willing to suffer and perhaps die for a societally-approved cause — is someone we should immediately contain and put away, perhaps in manacles.

Heroism is a label looking for a referent, not a human quality that we ought to attempt to cultivate in ourselves. To be a hero is to be a savior, it is to be one who does what others lack the courage to do and thus to be unique and to be required by the weak. Heroism requires weakness in others. While anybody can become courageous, heroism can only be a label we pin on someone other than ourselves. To call someone a hero is to idealize that person.

When Ignatieff says “Heroism is essential to politics” he is saying something other than what he intends, which is simply that courage is essential to politics. But his words say that politics require there be someone we can label as heroic, someone who functions as a savior of the weak, someone we can see as mysteriously “other”. When Ignatieff says “we are short of heroes everywhere these days”, he actually means we are short of people who use their courage to further certain societal aims. Such a person can be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and the medal “hero” pinned to his chest. We can push such a man to the head of the line and the rest of us can cease trying to be courageous.

This leads me to the second term that Ignatieff has failed to define. The word “we” as he uses it seems to refer to all of us, all humanity. But the word ”hero” is a strongly patriarchal term, one that powerful men encourage young men to pursue. It’s a masculine ideal that enables powerful men to persuade young men to die for them. Men are taught to be heroes, saviours of women and children and other helpless beings, superior to other men — and to seek heroes.

When he says “seeing a hero in disarray delivers a jolt” what he is really saying is that reality jolts idealism. “We’d much prefer to remember the triumphant images” is tantamount to saying we prefer the image to the reality. I wouldn’t; I would like to be excluded from Ignatieff’s “We”, and in fact I am because it is primarily a construction of masculinity to look for a man worthy of being labelled a hero.

As a woman invisible, and even negated, within Ignatieff’s masculine “we”, I am particularly irked by his statement that “we tend to think of heroism as mysteriously individual . . . but it is in fact a social virtue”. The truth is that men tend to look for and even create men who are uniquely different from other men, singular men who can be idealized and looked up to as representatives of what it can truly be to be a man. Men almost never make a hero of a woman; women even more rarely make heroes of their own gender. The desire to hero-worship is primarily masculine. It starts young, when boys are encouraged to regard sports stars as heroes. It seems men are conditioned to behave as sheep around a shepherd. Is this a “social virtue”?

If anything heroism, if one holds it up as a personal ideal, is a vice, rather than a virtue. It requires a vast sea of weak “others” who need rescuing by the singular, superior man. I don’t think of heroism at all most of the time, and when I do I see the desire to be a hero as the masculine pathological equivalent of women’s tendency to caretake and enable. Both men and women want to be saviours, women of men, and men of the weak.

In failing to define his terms, in failing to recognize that his perspective is part of the construct of masculinity, Ignatieff ignores the more interesting question of why men want to see men such as Havel as a hero and why they are so disappointed when they turn out to be merely human. Havel himself seems to have been aware of the dichotomy between real and ideal image, and to have seen the dangers of conflating the courageous and the heroic: “He realized that for all his determination to resist evil, he was no superhero, but only a frail human being .”

We cannot be seduced by our own courage, but we can be seduced by the label “hero” if it is applied to us or if we are so blind as to think we can apply it to ourselves. Ignatieff brings this up when he says Havel was seduced by “global celebrity” and by the need to feel “indispensable” and to have “confirmation that he still mattered.” The masculine need to hero worship is destructive. It often destroys the men it labels heroes – just look at the sports fields and stadiums for the corpses of “heroes” left behind by the frail and too often tawdry men forced to occupy those bodies until they were finally unveiled as the flawed men they actually were.

This article would be far more interesting if it focused on the ways in which one courageous man was seduced by the masculine desire to be seen as a hero, abetted by the masculine desire to shoehorn someone into that role. Then Ignatieff would be using his intelligence to deconstruct masculinity, and that’s something the world needs far more than it needs a hero.

It seems more than coincidental that at the same time this article appeared in The Atlantic, a short story on the subject of heroism appeared in Harper’s Magazine (March 2015). In “No Slant to the Sun”, T.C. Boyle tells the story of a recently retired man, Sten, who thinks of himself not as retired but as “ pre-dead,”and whose masculinity is in question now that he is merely one of thousands of interchangeable old people who tramp around the third world in tourist expeditions, thirsting for life as they approach inevitable death. When he returns to his tour group after taking a leak in the bush, he witnesses the group being robbed at gunpoint by three local young thugs, who appear not to be scared by what they’re doing. “Why would they be,” he asks, “This was easy pickings, old people, seniors so frightened and hopeless they could barely twist the watches off their wrists, let alone defend themselves”.

When one of the thugs turns his back on Sten, he is furious at being taken for “nothing, less than nothing, just old and weak and useless.” In this fury, he attacks the thug, crushing his larynx and killing him. One of the women in the group thanks him, telling him “You’re a hero, a real hero”, but no one would look at him: “He wasn’t one of them, not anymore – he was something else now.”

Tellingly, Sten tells us he was only doing what he had been taught to do as a young man in the army, and “does anybody ever forget that?” he asks. Indeed, the various conditioning that goes into the construction of “masculinity” can never be forgotten, although it can be overcome by those men who find a reason to deconstruct what society has made of them.

Sten, whose name makes an obvious reference to his character, shows contempt for people who don’t know how to hold a gun. The robber thug holds his weapon like “A shoe. A book. A used CD he’d found in a bin at the record shop. He didn’t respect it. He didn’t know it.” Later, when he has “immobilized” the thug and one of the other tourists picks up the dropped gun, he held it like “an umbrella, a checkbook, a pair of glasses.” Real men know how to handle a gun.

Mr. Ignatieff was a liberal when he allowed himself to be pushed to the front of the line as a leadership candidate for the Canadian government. He was defeated by the conservative Stephen Harper, who I’m pretty sure knows how to hold a gun.