Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Que es Mas Macho?"

The header for this post is from an oft-repeated line from Laurie Anderson's wonderful 1986 movie, Home of the Brave. In this case, the source is as relevant as the tagline.

After Sarah Palin energized a certain subset of the arch-conservative base, it became popular to wonder if an Obama victory would bring the kind of vermin from the walls that Bill Clinton spurred with groups like the Michigan Militia. So far, the racism angle has remained in the background, and Obama's centrist slant has made it hard for the conspiratorial right to assemble complaints about the UN, socialism, New World Order, or the war in Afghanistan. Heck, a Pakistan invasion might be more likely under Obama than McCain!

Instead, wackos have been gathering at the center of the Venn diagram where cars, nationalism, the environment, and machismo converge. And the results might not be pretty.

Let's begin with the UAW campaign of late January to "Buy American." We all know that this was attempted in the late 1980s, when union organizers took sledgehammers to Datsuns in parking lots. It was stupid and jingoist then, and remains so today (check out response 220 in this link - the commenter has the audacity to invoke John Lennon). But when the UAW members opened the Pandora's box of working-class resentment, they found that many at the Detroit auto show said they wouldn't even buy a Volt (currently in deep trouble due to the financial meltdown), because electric cars and hybrids were for gays. Real men were proud of their large carbon footprint. In fact, some argued that industrial working-class jobs were inherently more manly than service or professional jobs. UAW leadership realized that this view could short-circuit the effort to canonize the line worker, and to depict the financial and corporate "Masters of the Universe" as the powerful men behind the scenes. Worse still, it reinforced the unfair image of industrial worker as a Neanderthal lout swinging a lug wrench around.

A recent article about a Colorado Prius owner who went on a road-rage rampage against pickup trucks spurred page after page of online responses, as readers reiterated the Michigan mantra that Priuses were for wussies. After all, readers said, caring about conservation and watching one's carbon footprint was such an effeminate activity. Real men loved to overconsume, to super-size everything, to drive their SUVs to their 5000-square-foot mansions, and all this talk of recession-inspired downsizing was just so much emasculation.

This kind of thinking is wrong on so many levels, it circles back on itself and becomes right in its own perverse self-referential domain. Testosterone to a certain extent is indeed responsible for wars, imperialism, and "livin' large." To wilfully engage in self-denial might be seen as a form of castration. But whether you are one of the wacko global-warming deniers or not, to try to make an argument against cutting the waste and carbon production in your own life is lunacy of a new order we have yet to experience. To say that caring about the environment turns you into an "emasculated metrosexual" is an observation so addle-brained, it represents a new breed of Know-Nothing Party. To reject the notion of sustainability is as foolish as rejecting the scientific method (and there are a growing number of people, particularly conservative Christians, that see the scientific method and rational discourse as satanic).

Should we care about a new reactionary underground that overtly rejects sustainability, right-sizing, and green transportation as a threat to masculinity? It's tempting to say that NASCAR fans can keep spending extra money on their big vehicles and off-road ATV fun, and drive themselves into extinction. Just remember, we once thought that we could keep the militias in their paintball-war compounds, but some, like Timothy McVeigh, decided to walk off the farm.


Greeley's Ghost said...

Loring, I think it's more complicated than that in one regard but the solution is pretty simple.
Small cars in general have always been seen in some circles as wussie-mobiles. But Detroit built especially big cars in the 1980s and 1990s to respond to consumer demand. The motivation wasn't to suck all the oil out of the Ghawar field; the motivation was to create safer cars. That's what people wanted. In addition, safety belt laws enacted by the Nanny state prompted many families to buy bigger vehicles or more cars. Separately, there's the whole "we have more shit" problem in which the daily baggage ratio per child soared in the 1990s as we bought all manner of extra this and that to make Johnny and Mary constantly happy whereever we traveled. God forbid they go without something for an hour.
There may be a reactionary underground that rejects these things but it will be irrelevant. When unemployment hits 12 percent, gas prices head back up to $5 a gallon and our grid delivers weekly rolling brownouts, people will change their habits.
Some of us live sustainable lifestyles because we believe in it (and frankly it's a less stressful way to live). Most people don't until they're forced to. It's human nature.
Perhaps the same media that has told us for a generation we can have it all after this commercial break, will gather it senses and become a rallying point for the sustainability movement. But I doubt it.
A nuclear winter economy and drought will change everyone's habits. (I was a teenager in California's epic '70s drought and have kept those habits every since; my old man was a wealthy fellow who was a cheapskate until the day he died because he was teenager during the Depression).
The good news is that Priuses will be macho in the same way that real men eat quiche. It's just going to take epic times to get us there.

Loring Wirbel said...

Which reinforces my belief that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a good hanging/depression/warming/apocalypse. And isn't it funny how the survivalists will always swear to us that there will definitely be a race war as soon as we are resource-short, and it never seems to materialize?

Greeley's Ghost said...

p.s. a real sustainability ethos requires reflection and time, which our society has in very short supply. It's OK to print out documents to read if that's easier on the eyes, but you need to spend time and thought collect older printed-out documents so you can print the new ones on the backside, etc. etc. etc.
As much as I would love for our society to slow down and become more thoughtful and reflective, I'm not sure it's going to happen any time soon.
So I start with myself. I visualize that small farm I'm going to get and live sustainably. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

prestomeco said...

Whoo boy. I'm at a conference so I will have to keep the first reply short but will try to follow up. Sadly I think that's a fair repressntation of the dominant mind set - but I'm not sure about
1 - what percentage of the male population this relaly applies to - even among the blue-collar set.
2- whether much of this consumer machismo is simply a mindset generated by decades of toxic marketing or if it's fundamental to the core of certain male cultures.
3 - are there ways to make thinking about our children's future as a fundamental masculine value, and conversley, overconsumption as a wimpy way to get thorough life for people who are lazy and selfish?
4 - Not so long ago, one of the measure's of a guy's prowess was how handy he was and how much he could do with limited resources. I wonder if that ethis still exists in any substantial percentage of our adult male culture?

I'd contend that frugality is damned macho - I wrote a piece that touched on this when I recently reviewed "The World's Fastest Indian", a movie about a real-life guy who broke the World Land Speed Record in the late '60s on a 40-year-old mototcycle. There was one fucking macho dude.

More later,


Ruth said...

So, men who drive Priuses have brains, and may need balls to face smack about emasculation.

Cool. Sounds like the right kind of manly to me.

wretch said...

35 years ago Earth Day was a joke. Now recycling, composting, and other green practices are going mainstream.

It takes time to change the attitude of a majority of people, and some people will never make the shift. Fer crying out loud, there are still a bunch of whackjobs out there mourning the death of The Confederacy...

More stuff like this:
... will slowly, but inexorably change minds.

My buddy John Voelcker over at Spectrum has been writing about a shift in attitudes in Detroit that's got him convinced that Hell might actually be freezing over. I'll ask him to chime in.

wretch said...

(forgive if this duplicates; I think I wiped out my first attempt to respond)

More stuff like this:
...will eventually, inexorably change minds.

My buddy John Voelcker has been writing about the automotive market for years, and he detects such a shift of attitude in Detroit w/r/t green that he's wondering if Hell froze over and nobody else noticed.

Loring Wirbel said...

You forget, I know that rapscallion Voelcker, and have been admiring his wonderful IEEE Spectrum stuff forever. But he isn't living in mid-Michigan, where he would have to face the wrath of Khan!