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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Kavanaugh hearing a triumph for toxic male anger

Stephen H. Provost

American hasn’t been made great again. It’s been sucked down into a sinkhole fueled by toxic male rage. The Kavanaugh hearings illustrated that beyond a reasonable doubt.

The problem goes much deeper than partisanship, tribalism or any other “ism.” It rests on one tragic but glaring truth, and one alone: Toxic male anger works.

Viewers, even those on the right, were moved by Christine Blasey Ford’s honest and credible testimony during the September 27 hearing. But when Brett Kavanaugh sat down to testify, it was as if nothing Ford had said mattered. Senators didn’t address the sexual assault Ford said Kavanaugh committed against her. All they cared about was the self-righteous anger he exhibited.

Even some liberal talking heads on cable news spoke favorably of a performance by a man who:

  • Engaged in hyper-partisan accusations unbefitting a nominee to any court.

  • Repeatedly refused to answer questions directly.

  • Sought to excuse drinking and crude behavior based on his immaturity, yet at the same time tried to whitewash it by touting how mature he was for his age (if one can call studying and playing football at an all-male prep school signs of maturity). I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. And you shouldn’t be able to excuse a crime by touting how many good things you’ve done. Bill Cosby, anyone?

“It’s all about me”

But most of all, Kavanaugh made it all about him, just like he probably made it all about him in that upstairs bedroom. (I say “probably” because he hasn’t been convicted in a court of law – which might happen if anyone ever conducted an impartial investigation. It’s no surprise that Kavanaugh refused to even call for an investigation, because he was obviously afraid of what an investigation could uncover. So was the committee. How disingenuous is it to say “I’ll do whatever the committee decides” when you know damn well the committee wants the same thing you do?)

In unleashing an angry, accusation-filled tirade against his enemies, Kavanaugh did exactly what the man who nominated him does in virtually every situation: refused to apologize or even acknowledge any degree of responsibility. This, predictably, earned high praise from the bloviator-in-chief. And it also cued Republican senators to follow his example. They’d appointed a sex-crimes prosecutor as their surrogate to question Professor Ford, not wanting to look like they were bullying a victim of a sexual assault. But when it came time to “question” Kavanaugh, they grabbed the microphone and went off on one tirade after another on his behalf.

Do they care about Brett Kavanaugh? Hardly. Because in their eyes, it’s all about them. Their re-election. Their power. Their egos. Their fear that someone who looks and acts a lot like them might actually be held accountable for doing something they find abhorrent. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s too similar to something they’ve done or wanted to do themselves.

Red herrings

This wasn’t about presumption of innocence – it wasn’t even a court case. It’s not about the fact that it happened a long time ago and that “people can change.” To that latter point, a Slate headline noted that “Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony made it easier than ever to picture him as an aggressive, entitled teen.”

It also made it very easy to picture him acting that way on the bench, making it all about him or about the people who look like him, while focusing his toxic male anger at those who dare to be different or to suggest that he might be wrong.

If Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth, she had every right to be flame-throwing pissed as hell at Kavanaugh and his apologists. Yet there wasn’t even a hint of anger in her testimony. Instead, she said she was “terrified” to be testifying, repeatedly deferred to the committee’s judgments and used words like “collegial” during her testimony.

Kavanaugh’s self-righteous explosions, which sent emotional shrapnel flying scattershot around the hearing room, provided quite a contrast. And you know what? They’re what won the day, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s even more unhinged testimony that left at least this viewer wondering why he seemed to be taking this so personally.

None of Professor Ford’s collegiality, cooperation and civility mattered – not a whit. It was all blown away by the destructive force of Category 5 Hurricane Brett.

Who we are

We were left with one inescapable conclusion: We, as a society, like toxic male anger. Because it works. In the short term. For us. Or at least for enough of us like it to elect a bully to our highest office and repeatedly look the other way when he runs roughshod over our traditions, our ethics and our fellow citizens. Christine Blasey Ford’s collegiality and civility? Signs of weakness - at least in the minds of far too many.

They excuse bullying and assault as “boys being boys” because they don’t dare give it their full-throated endorsement – even though that’s what they really want to do. If you doubt me, just look at how blatant racism, sexism and jingoism has come out of hiding. We thought we were on track to beating it. But like a stubborn and virulent disease, it was just lying dormant. We’d merely sent it underground.

Toxic male anger sends our soldiers off to die on foreign soil. It gives us negative campaigns at election time that make some of us want to turn off the television for a month until it’s all over. It excuses the excesses of drunken frat boys to the extent that it doesn’t matter what they do as long as the person from our side of the aisle gets elected. (A poll found that Republicans, by a 54 to 32 percent margin, thought Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if the accusations against him were true.)

We celebrate anti-heroes and vigilantes in our movies: people who break the rules so our side can prevail. Because our side is “right,” even righteous. We tolerate white supremacists and empower bullies in the hope that they might be on our side.

A 2-year-old’s tantrum

But toxic male anger isn’t on anyone’s side but its own. It’s the same amoral force that fuels the tantrums of 2-year-olds who have yet to learn right from wrong. The 2-year-old has an excuse. We don’t, because we do know right from wrong and we resort to it anyway.  

None of this is to say that all men are toxic or that the solution is merely to elect a bunch of women. Gender stereotyping won’t solve anything, and to suggest that males are a slave to toxic anger is an insult to those who aren’t. (It’s also to ignore the fact that such anger appeals to, and is employed by, any number of women – if it weren’t, the current occupant of the White House would have zero female supporters.)

Nor is it to suggest that anger doesn’t have a place. It’s a human reaction. But if we make it the driving force behind our most important decisions, as we did in the Kavanaugh case, we’ll end up with a country run by 2-year-olds.

If we aren’t already there.  

We've sacrificed our principles on the altar of tribal loyalty

Stephen H. Provost

Note: I consider this is the most important essay I’ve ever written. Read it. Be pissed off. I don’t care. Someone had to say it.

Call it the “H” word: Hypocrisy.

Some days, it seems like every other post on social media condemns the opposition for this cardinal sin. It’s little wonder in an age principle has taken a back seat to tribal identity and the quest to win at any cost.

Republicans, those free-trading, anti-Russian patrons of the Moral Majority, are foursquare behind a protectionist president who adores tariffs, loves the Russians even more and breaks the commandments like they’re going out of style. Oh, and about the so-called 11th commandment, voiced by none other than GOP patron saint Ronald Wilson Reagan – “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”? They’ve brushed that under the rug, as well, to placate a president who routinely does just that.

But it isn’t just Republicans. Democrats do it, too. Only white people can be racists, and only men can be sexists – or so they say – as though bad (and good) behavior somehow morphs into something else depending on who’s doing it.

This hypocrisy transcends party or ideology. It goes to something more fundamental: We’ve exchanged broad principles for narrow judgments that benefit us ... and to hell with everyone else. These days, we view identity, not the nature of an action, as crucial in determining whether that action is right or wrong.

Violence is wrong, but it’s OK to “punch a Nazi” – without due process (another principle we enforce selectively). A hate-crime murder is worse than another murder? Maybe it is worse to hate someone than to simply have no regard for that person’s life, but tell that to the guy who just lost his daughter to the robber who shot her in the head because he wanted her purse.

Oh, and by the way, it’s just fine to condemn things like assaulting women and defaming your enemies, as long as their guy is doing it. When it’s your guy, you try to ignore it, make excuses and, if none of that works, flip the script by blaming the victim.

Whither the Golden Rule?

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”* Remember that one? It’s part of Jesus’ Greatest Hits, probably the lead track on Side 1. Confucius, Seneca the Younger of Rome and Hillel the Elder in the Talmud (among others) all said something similar, so you can’t beg off by dismissing it as Christian dogma. A whole lot of non-Christian folks have said the same thing.

Under this principle, if someone treats a white person unfairly, it’s just as bad as if someone treats a black person cruelly – because it isn’t the victim’s identity that matters. The behavior is cruel no matter who the victim is. Bringing the victim’s identity into it takes the focus off of the behavior, which is where it should be.

This is what apologists for sexual assault try to do, too. These sleazeballs say the victim was “asking for it” by dressing “too provocatively.” They flip the script, attempting to make victims responsible for an act of violence committed against them, because of the victim’s identity. As a woman. As someone who has the audacity to express some degree of individuality and expect not to be assaulted for it. Imagine that.

When we condemn people based on identity rather than action, we strike at the heart of principles – like the pursuit of happiness and freedom of expression – that this country was founded on. When we abandon principle for the sake of identity, those principles get discarded, too. What’s left is a dictatorship, or the building blocks of one.

But people are scared to death of invoking principles because they know it can come back to bite them. What if they have skeletons in their own closet? It’s much safer to demonize (or canonize) someone else based on his or her identity than it is to invoke a broad principle that can – perish the thought – be applied to little old you.

Political precedent

Politicians get away with this all the time. Case in point: Republicans who refused to vote on a Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Democratic president for nearly a year, saw nothing wrong with trying to force a hasty vote on an unpopular Republican nominee facing serious questions about his character.

But when principles are thrown out the window, character goes right along with them. Identity is what’s important. This guy is a Republican nominee. He’s golden, regardless of what he might have done. That Democratic guy? We had to block him because he was a Democrat. Republicans are doing the same thing in defending the current president against ethical charges after impeaching a Democratic president facing ethical charges of his own – a president whom, naturally, Democrats defended because he was a Democrat.

Loyalty is valued over conscience, and winning is esteemed more highly than playing by the rules. So much for what we used to teach our children: “It’s how you play the game.”

When you have no principles, its easy to argue that principles should be invoked selectively, because they’re no longer important in their own right. They’re weapons to be employed in fallacious arguments to destroy the opposition. But the more they’re used in this way, the less credibility they have. People aren’t stupid. They see what these politicians are trying to do, and they don’t like it.

The unfortunate byproduct of this, however, is that the principles themselves become tarnished because of how they’re (mis)used. When principle no longer carries any weight in an argument, people turn to something that does: identity politics. The term is most often associated with the left and conversations about race, but it’s far bigger than that. The right does it just as much and, sometimes, even more blatantly, dismissing anything negative as a product of the opposition’s “fake news” machine.

The right demonizes the mainstream media, regardless of whether the reporting is principled and the content is accurate. The left, meanwhile, demonizes white males, regardless of whether they’re advocates for equal rights or anti-immigrant, chauvinist pigs. What we don’t want to look at here is the fact that both sides are engaged in the same behavior: They’re putting identity ahead of principle.

The Fallout

This is how we get things we say we hate: things like negative campaigning and officeholders who refuse to apologize for anything they’ve ever done, no matter how questionable or even heinous. This is why we have to have a #MeToo movement instead of a society that respects women from the get-go. It’s why neo-Nazis feel emboldened and some people feel like it’s OK to pop them one: because we’ve abandoned our principles.

We’d rather demonize than apologize, because “the other’s” identity as our enemy is more important than our own principles. This is how armies behave during wartime: They churn out biased propaganda and dehumanize the enemy, so a soldier’s conscience – the seat of those principles – doesn’t get in the way of killing. The fact that we’re doing this during peacetime, against our own fellow citizens, illustrates just what’s happening to us.

We’re not just hypocrites, we’re heartless ones.

This is what happens when we mortgage our principles on the altar of our bitterness for the sake of mere convenience. If this is the kind of identity we want as individuals, or as a nation, history will judge us a colossal failure.

* Note: I like to add “if you were in their shoes” to this principle.

Read more political essays by Stephen H. Provost in Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.



White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

Stephen H. Provost

White guilt is a better look than racism ... but that’s not saying much.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by white people about privilege the past few years, and the more I see of it, the less I think it does any good. Hand-wringing in general isn’t the best way to get things done, for one thing.

So, it’s not surprising that all the guilt and self-flagellation over racism isn’t accomplishing much. If anything, the battle for equality has taken a few steps backward since it’s become fashionable among whites to bemoan white privilege. Take a look at who occupies the White House, at Charlottesville, and at racists emboldened by the president’s ambivalence become more vocal/active.

None of these racists are people who would have been the least bit guilted by talk of white privilege. They’re people who were just waiting for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and promptly declare that they were all for it. Hand-wringing doesn't do anything to keep them from spreading their hatred.

Why are privileged whites spending so much energy guilting other privileged whites – energy that could be spent fighting against police brutality, discriminatory prison sentences, unequal pay and other very real, very damaging consequences of racism? And why do they seem to be wallowing in their own guilt?

Guilt is a human response designed for one thing only: to alert us that something needs to be fixed. That we need to do something differently. The Civil Rights movement alerted us that we needed to fix our warped ideas about race back in the 1960s, and occasionally, we need reminding of that, now especially. But hearing a reminder is different than wallowing in guilt, because wallowing is the exact opposite of what guilt is supposed to promote: action.

The real problem with white guilt over white privilege is it puts the focus ... on white people. Sounds pretty egotistical to me. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people who are getting beaten up by police or bypassed for jobs? Shouldn’t we be trying to empathize with them, rather than becoming so wrapped up in our own “awareness” that we forget to be aware of the actual problem? The actual problem is not white privilege. It’s racism.

Mesmerized by the mirror

The problem isn’t that white people have it too good; it’s that people of color aren’t given the same opportunity to reach those heights. All this talk about white privilege might even be a form of racism in itself – because it keeps the spotlight on white people. It’s a lot easier to say you’re “looking at yourself” than it is to look at the results of poverty, poor health care and discrimination. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should look at what’s happening in the communities affected by racism. That’s where the problem is.

That’s where we must focus our attention.

I know if I have a problem, I’m a lot more interested in getting it solved than hearing someone express regret. If someone served you a dish that gave me food poisoning, how would you feel if he spent the next 20 minutes bemoaning what a terrible cook he was rather than giving you a ride to the doctor?

Awareness is a good thing. So is self-awareness. But any protracted infatuation with white guilt on the part of white people is self-centered and distracts from the real issue: People are being treated unfairly, and they’re suffering for it.

Want to help someone with food poisoning? Take her to the doctor. Want to end racism? Improve the lives of those affected.

Don’t waste time gazing mournfully at your own reflection.