Childish Manliness and the Anti-Woke Macho Panic

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the formative moments of my adolescence was when I first heard the (probably apocryphal) story about a commoner who was invited to a special dinner with the queen.  As the story goes, when a finger bowl was placed in front of the nervous guest, he thought it was for drinking and quickly gulped downed the water.  While the assembled royals sneered and tittered, the queen calmly picked up her finger bowl and drank it as well.

That story is so well known that there are endless variations in its telling, but that is precisely because it makes such an important point -- a point that is reflected in other life lessons and aphorisms, including (the needlessly gendered) "a man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child," or simply "Don't be a jerk!"  The idea is that growing up and being good involve learning to be part of something larger and caring about -- or at least noticing and minimally respecting -- the humanity of others.

The thoughtful queen in the story understood that the kind, truly noble thing to do was to make her guest feel comfortable, rather than saying, "Oh, you rube!  Here is what it means to be upper crust."  Whoever it was that told me that story in my teen years then shared the lesson to be learned: "There's class, and then there's class!"  Given that I was growing up in the Baby Boom-era of what we would now call toxic masculinity -- a two-word phrase that serves as evidence that a well chosen label can be powerfully clarifying -- that was a transformative moment.

Arguably, the US political divide in 2023 amounts to a sorting of people into two camps: those who would have laughed at the queen's guest, and those who would have applauded the queen's kindness.  Kindness is not in fashion on the political right.  More than that, maturity has become a liability.  These people are now all about finding vulnerable groups and kicking down at them, but what is in some sense more fascinating is their panicky refusal even to consider accepting limits in their lives.  In the end, the modern (and I use that term in only one of its meanings) conservative movement's slogan is: "You can't tell me what to do!"

In my Verdict and Dorf on Law columns yesterday, I discussed a surprising development in the right's anti-modernity campaign.  Whereas it had at first seemed that their embrace of the word "woke" was merely an updating of the hoary "political correctness" and the newer (but already stale) "cancel culture" -- all-purpose insults with zero content, making them politically useful -- the woke thing has lately become so, sooo much more than that.  To quote ten random Republicans in the last ten minutes:

"woke" "woke" "hyperwoke" "woke" "woke-ified" "wokeness" "wokester" "woke" "woke" "super-woke"

I leave it as an exercise to readers to put names and links to the quotations.  It should take about a minute.

Seriously, however, the news that House Republicans embraced a "budget" document that used the word "woke" 77 times in 104 pages tells us that this is a new era in empty conservative anti-virtue signaling.  And that even leaves aside their blunt bigotry, such as claims by one Neanderthal that a bank's failure might -- just might -- have had something to do with its board having "45 percent women, ... ‘1 Black,’ ‘1 LGBTQ+,’ and ‘2 Veterans’" (adding: "I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands").

Do any of these guys even know how boards work, or how little board members are "distracted" by such things?  The "I'm not saying" part is exactly what this guy was saying, in precisely the way that a conservative lawyer's "inartful" claim that Joe Biden's vow to pick a Black woman to fill an open Supreme Court seat meant that "we’ll get [a] lesser black woman" was only inartful in being exceptionally revealing.

As I noted above, however, my concern here is not so much with the continued de-evolution of conservatives on the issues that they sweep under the anti-woke banner.  Beyond that very real and growing problem is the idea that these men (and some women, as I note below) are angry because they have come to believe that their favorite word -- freedom -- means "I can do whatever I want, and you can't stop me!"

Almost every example of this is weird, sometimes with very high stakes (like the anti-vaxx insanity) and sometimes not.  But even when the stakes seem low, it is all about FREEDOM!!  One of these nutjobs is a person with genuine academic credentials who switched careers to make a name for himself by masquerading as an expert in other fields, making him one of the right-wing trolls whose current job is to get himself invited to speak on college campuses and then play the victim when students protest against his uninformed and hateful views.  Recently, he took a photo of one of the stickers that one sees in public restrooms that amount to public-service announcements.  This one said:

Remember, you don't need an arm's length of paper towel to dry your hands.  Use less and place what you use in the paper towel receptacle provided -- It's compostable.  Place all other waste in the garbage can.

This sticker was affixed to a paper towel dispenser that also displayed logos for the "City of Vancouver" and "Greenest City 2020 Green Operations."  Why did this particular provocateur bother to take the photo and tweet it?  Because he had decided to say this: "Up yours, woke moralists.  Tyranny is always petty--and petty tyranny will not save the planet."  (For what I hope are obvious reasons, I am not linking to that click-bait.  Here is a hilarious one-minute response to it.)

Every part of that is simply ... odd.  Even an actual limit on paper towel use, much less a simple reminder and request, would not be "tyranny."  Would it be less tyrannical if we let "the free market" get involved and charge people by the sheet?  (Or by the square?  Do you have a square to spare?)  Seriously, however, there is no point in analyzing that kind of nonsense on its own terms, because it is better seen as a window into the childish manliness that has infected these people.

In her utterly unhinged official Republican response to President Biden's 2023 State of the Union address, Arkansas's avowedly anti-woke governor (who happens to be a woman, but that does not stop her from acting like an angry adolescent boy) included this mini-rant within her rant-at-large:

Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.  Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is—your freedom of speech. That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong.

This includes the usual projection -- We're the victims of your oppression, you super-powerful gays, vegans, tree-huggers, and composters!!  But what is notable again is the palpable sense about what really, truly grinds their gears: "No one gets to tell us what to do!  We get to tell other people what to do!!"  So even requests from the LGBTQ+ community that amount to saying, "Please respect the fact that we exist and allow us to do what you do all the time, like kiss your spouse in public and wear identity-defining clothes and accessories," is viewed as a claim that conservative White Christians "must partake of their rituals" and "salute their flags."  Yes, we can all see that Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her cohorts have had their freedom of speech stripped away -- which we can witness for ourselves, every time they appear on a big tech platform to tell us about it.

Where does this immature style of manliness come from?  It has long been an obsession on the right to look for politicians who pantomime a particular kind of machismo.  Ronald Reagan's movie cowboy image thrilled that crowd, even though it was quite literally built on public relations-driven Hollywood contrivances.  George W. Bush's PR team constantly staged photo ops with Dubya being shown "clearing brush on the ranch" in Texas.  His father, who never recovered from being called a wimp, angrily told reporters during the recount craziness in December 2000 that his son was handling the stress "like a man."  (Prior to that, he had the US military invade a country.  Because not a wimp.)

It is difficult to decide who is more pathetic.  Is it the obviously not-macho guys strutting around with their chests puffed out and screaming about being tough -- Tucker Carlson's ball-tanning obsession is in a class of its own, but the more standard macho posturing of a Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley is what I am thinking of here?  Or is it the guys who at least checked some of the macho boxes in their earlier lives -- Donald Trump's having been a decent athlete and even being arguably (in the backward phrasing) "a real ladies' man," or Governor Meatball's time on the baseball diamond -- who are obsessed with proving that they are not weak?  In both cases, the notion of manhood is so badly stunted that it almost makes one’s heart go out to them.  Almost.

Trump nearly lost in 2016 (but somehow, shockingly, did not) when he was heard to say that "when you're a celebrity," anything -- and in his mind that clearly meant anything -- goes.  What we have seen in the years since then is that the people who have been overcompensating for their insecurities for their entire lives are now so fragile that they cannot even abide the idea of other people asking them to show a bit of forbearance, an acknowledgement that we live in a society in which we reasonably ask each other to be aware of others.

Instead, manhood in their minds involves packing heat and mocking "wussy soy boys" and "beta males."  It is all about projecting the illusion of manly power, apparently because they are so worried that they are losing it.  There probably is not an old saying that goes like this, but there should be: "If you have to remind people that you're a tough guy, you're not a tough guy."  And going after weaker people, woke or otherwise, does not make you a man.