The Manly Thing: The Seventies, Then and Now, Kent Southard
My favorite Jerry Ford quote, I guess the only Jerry Ford quote that ever stuck in my head, came from the 1976 Republican primary race where he was being challenged by Ronald Reagan - he was reported to have said Reagan's hair was 'prematurely orange.' I like this for a couple of reasons, for one it seemed to indicate that Ford might have been a bit sharper a tool than generally assumed, and it succinctly got to the essential fey kitsch quality at the heart of the Hollywood cowboy butchness of Reagan's far right. Butch as lifestyle, given full flower now three decades later in our time of monster trucks driven by suburban guys who won't cut their own grass, and pointless wars pursued because it is the manly thing to do.
This was also the justification for Nixon's war in Vietnam, those of us present at the time may recall. Whereas that war may have begun under Kennedy and Johnson under a pretext of containing Communism, under Richard Nixon the continuation of the war became justified as a matter of 'national honor' and saving face. In other words, we weren't to be un-manned. Such were the lessons of Vietnam when Ford moved into the White House and found Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al. rattling around in the basement, the few Nixon remainders that weren't currently in prison. As young men in sudden political career apogee, they were to find in their proudest personal moment abject humiliation, first in Nixon's resignation, then by Ford's election defeat. The American public just didn't fully appreciate yet that they were the ones that stood for true manliness; they were deeply wounded, and not about to forgive.
With George W. Bush and his Iraq war I don't think we're at a moment of 60's-70's redux exactly, rather the nation took a shape then that remains intact, with economic, social, and cultural divides and structures that simply continue to produce the same results.
What I remember from that time was that the nation had become, finally, completely corporate. The counter-culture with its improbable communes and unfocused individualism, were simply somewhat sad reflections of a society that no longer had viable small towns, family business, or true respect for the individual and family. There was little in the way of gainful employment other than with a corporation, there was scant place to live other than the corporate plantation of the suburbs, mental horizons seemed to narrow and lower and harden according to lines that seemed most convenient to management.
I recall a conversation I had in the late 70's with the woman that was my sister's mother-in-law at the time. She was an upper-middle-class moderate Republican, a college math professor. We were talking about Vietnam somehow, and she remarked that for her and hers 'it had hardly seemed to exist.' The remark seemed completely un-unselfconscious, and it said everything there was to be said about the Vietnam war in America. For her class, the class of management and professionals, the war hadn't even risen to the level of inconvenience - it was simply something on television for a few minutes in the evening, and like everything else on television was reduced to the same weight as the local weather and 'Petticoat Junction.' It was the same economic-social divide that allowed me as a high schooler to be quite the young conservative until Nixon, in a move to make the draft more 'equitable,' decreed that in 1971 college freshmen that were 19 couldn't get a deferment. And that was me. And my draft number was 14. Fortunately for such as myself, the National Guards and Reserves seemed to simultaneously open up their enlistment. Imagine.
For the corporate management and professional classes then, the conditions of employment require complete focus on the demands of conformity to the extent actual citizenship is no longer possible. To those classes underneath, the conditions of employment require having smoke blown up your ass in various ways subtle and unsubtle.
Such was the makeup of Nixon's 'silent majority,' the silent and the silenced. Such were the lessons of Vietnam taken forward by the apparatchiks of empire, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, also by the emperor in training, George W. They perceived that corporate employment rendered much of the population ethically inert; and that while the Vietnam war had been 'lost' because the mass media had created a wall of criticism that eventually carried public opinion with it, without which public opinion of its own wasn't sufficiently stirred to take action against their masters.
And so in our present situation, it seems to me that the Bush regime has from the beginning been trying to establish precedents in a 'unified field' way taken from their lessons from Vietnam: wars launched without legal justification other than the needs of empire, and the destruction of the rule of law at home, are accompanied by a silencing and corruption of the media in order to make it all possible. It's probably this corruption of the media that has shaken many of us boomers to the core - there seems to be nothing left to do our fighting for us. With the late, sublime Peter Jennings replaced with the happy-talk master Charlie Gibson, ABC News for one is a dark shadow of its former self. Such recent prime time features as 'Christian' high school football movies and 'Christian' gyms leave little doubt as to where its marching orders are coming from, and would have been unimaginable under Jennings.
Hard-right religion is a big part of the kitsch, the smoke blown up the ass, given to the other-than-professional classes in substitute for real purpose, power or place in our society. The kitsch quality of this 'religion,' its moral weightlessness even at its highest ranks, is evidenced by any number of recent headlines - the Rev. Ted Haggert, with his Colorado mega-church and West Hollywood lifestyle, Mary Cheney's baby, the Bush twins frolicking naked in Argentina, the 50% of evangelical men (and 25% of women!) who are self-described porn addicts.
That much of male culture in America, in a parallel to the Stockholm Syndrome, maintains a strict kitsch-ification only helps the powers that be. Uselessly huge trucks and SUVs, mandatory hard-right attitudes, complete lack of skepticism regarding corporate motives and dictates, and uncritical acceptance of whatever snake oil the economic cheerleaders are pushing this week, are held to be landmarks of mainstream masculinity.