Thursday, March 23, 2006

Musical Inspiration

So I'm having lunch at my favorite local Indian restaurant, chillin' out over lentils, chicken, goat, potatoes, spinach, and naan, while traditional Indian music plays in the background.

At least I presume it's traditional. Not like I could tell if it wasn't. But if you've ever been in an Indian restaurant, you know the kind of tranquil, string-plucking music I mean.

Anyway, between bites of samosa and chicken tikka masala and sips of my mango lassi, I'm suddenly seized by the urge to leap onto my table, scream "SITAR SOLO!" at the top of my lungs, and start strumming some air-sitar.

Y'know. Get my "Hindu god...of rooock!" mojo going.

I resisted the temptation, of course. No sense disrupting everyone else's meal with my musical interlude. Besides, they usually expect you to tip extra for leaving footprints on the tablecloths, and I'm too stingy for that.

Nevertheless, the need for some air-sitar hung heavy over my head.

Needless to say, there was a pretty Indian girl at the next table.

Pretty girls make me want to do the oddest things.

. . .


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Too Butch For His Own Good?

Coming on the heels of my last post, this seemed too apropos to pass up:

Over on the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus has a column up today entitled "Man Overboard," which postulates that the big problem with the Bush administration is an overabundance of "manliness," as defined by conservative professor Harvey C. Mansfield. She goes on to say that the administration could use some more femininity - and presumably, she doesn't mean Secretary Rice's latest wardrobe.

Does she have a point? Is Bush too manly?

Hmm. I don't think so.

But that's because I don't want the president's flaws to be seen as endemic to men or masculine behavior in general.

Now personally, I find the Bush administration to be arrogant, overzealous, narrow-minded, reckless, manipulative, deceptive - and perhaps worst of all, incompetent. They prize ideological loyalty over experience in their political appointments; and turn a tin ear to all dissent or criticism of their policies. They have a fixed notion in their minds as to How Things Should Be Done, deliberately ignore or reject any viewpoint which contradicts their own, select people with their same narrow viewpoint to run things - and then act surprised when problems crop up which other people predicted. The fact I disagree with their policies is nothing compared to the monumental inability to govern effectively they repeatedly display.

Pretty much everything which has gone wrong in the last five years - from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the insurgency in Iraq to the expensive conundrum of the Medicare bill to the attacks of 9/11 - has, to some extent, been predicted by others, often within the government itself: predictions which the Bush administration - in its blind devotion to its own absolute certainty - silenced, rejected, or ignored. And while it would be grossly unfair to have expected the administration to be able to prevent all of those problems, a clear pattern of behavior has consistently emerged: the president and his administration don't listen to dissenting voices, often to the country's detriment.

It is highly ironic, to say the least, that the president and his administration have turned their attention towards encouraging democratic reforms in other countries, even as they repeatedly squelch all attempts at honest public debate in this one; that they are critical of the actions of despots and tyrants overseas even as they openly flout the rule of law at home; and they proudly proclaim themselves the defenders of freedom and liberty in the world while seeking to erode the very freedoms and liberties their predecessors - of both political parties - worked so very hard to achieve.

They have even betrayed their own conservative roots: paying them only lip service on hot-button topics like gay marriage, stem-cell research, and abortion; while bankrupting the country with the largest budget deficits in American history and embarking on an ill-fated, quixotic quest to remake the world to their liking. "Big-government conservative" is a paradoxical term, but I suppose it plays better in the red states than "hypocritical compulsive spender."

A century ago, they would've been consummate snake-oil salespeople: they have done a remarkably good job of peddling their wares on an all-too-gullible public; unfortunately, those goods have turned out, by and large, to be utterly worthless.

IMHO, of course.

So what's all this have to do with Marcus's assertion about the administration being too manly?

Simple: because I'm a guy, too.

And personally, I resent having the administration's traits identified as inherently "masculine" - at least in the sense of somehow being genetically encoded - because I sure as hell don't want people to think I am predisposed to sharing those qualities with Bush and Cheney simply because we share the same mismatched pair of chromosomes.

I don't want anyone to think "fat-headed idiocy" is inherent in my genes. That sure as hell isn't part of my personal definition of masculinity.

Personally, I don't like "gendering" behavior too much. But if we need a definition of "true" manliness, let's try this one on for size:

Real men know the difference between tenacity and stubbornness, between loyalty and blind obedience, between idealism and zealotry, between self-confidence and arrogance, between courage and belligerence. Real men know there's a time for planning and a time for action, but there's never a time when you stop thinking. Real men know when to take charge in a crisis and when to pause to listen to others - not because they're weak or indecisive or cowardly, but because they know they need to make informed decisions. Real men know that they're human, which means they're flawed, which means they aren't always right, which makes them humble. Real men know what they don't know, which means they know they need to learn from others. Real men make the public good their primary concern and never let their own pride and ego get in the way of doing what's right.

And real men don't start fights - they end them. Because real men know there's nothing inherently brave about sending other men to fight and die on their behalf; only that sometimes - sometimes - it's necessary.

Bush is too manly?

Not from where I'm sitting.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's It Mean to Be Macho, Anyway?

I loved James Bond* when I was growing up.

"Wait!" you cry out, "Why on Earth would you write about him for Blog Against Sexism Day? James Bond is a sexist misogynistic relic, how can you possibly love him?"

I'll get to that.

See, I did not love Bond, as you might expect, because he was the alpha male of action who bedded every beauty who crossed his path.

Nope, I loved him because he was smart. More than that, though, he was educated. Refined. Sophisticated. Snappy dresser. He knew his wines. Could play a mean round of golf. Went to the opera. His knowledge of obscure subjects was sometimes encyclopedic. ["It's a Stradivarius - they all have names."] He could travel anywhere in the world and blend in as effortlessly as he slipped into his latest black tux.

And who doesn't dig the accent?

He was never the strongest guy around and he was always outnumbered. Which meant he triumphed through his wit, charm, and cunning, not through brute force. [Though the toys, obviously, helped out a lot.] He took on evil masterminds with their armies of thugs and always came out on top, his good humor - and usually his tux - still intact.

In short, he made being smart, educated, and sophisticated seem cool. He was a dapper English gentleman...but he was still a badass.

And I'm not sure I can express just how important that was to a shy, introverted, scrawny, smart little boy.

See, most heroes in America are of the blue collar / working class persuasion: Cops. Gumshoes. Cowboys. Athletes. Soldiers. Boxers. Gangsters. You get the idea. Sometimes they were clever or streetwise; but few were what one would call "well-educated." They were rough-n-tumble guys, with flinty stares and weathered faces, ready to throw down at a moment's notice, with no use for "book learning" or "turning the other cheek" or any of that other sissy, "girly" nonsense.

Educated guys - when they show up at all - they're usually the wimps. The geeks. The dorks. The pariahs. Weak, effete, cowardly - you probably know the type. If they're lucky, they're the sidekick or a trusted (though secondary) ally or mentor; if not, they're relegated to comic relief, the butt of abuse.

Even when the main protagonist is, say, a scientist or engineer in a scifi story - where you might expect the brain to reign supreme - he usually proves his worth through his physical courage or acts of violence, not his education. In fantasy stories, the main hero usually isn't some powerful mage with vast knowledge of the arcane, it's the brawny warrior...who's usually on a quest to shove three feet of steel into the powerful mage's guts.

You get the idea.

So when you're a little boy and the only thing you've got going for you is your brains - which you keep being told doesn't matter to "real" men - well, it leaves you wondering just what your place in the world is.

"Second-class citizen" is the usual conclusion.

So to find a hero who's smart, who's witty, who's educated - and who succeeds because of all those qualities, not in spite of them? Hell, it's like finding an oasis of cool in a desert of testosterone.

Plus he was the alpha male of action who bedded every beauty who crossed his path. What's not to love?

[Admit it: up until that line, you were wondering, "Does he mean he 'loved' James Bond in that sense?" weren't you? Hey, I like the ladies - Ursula Andress is permanently seared across my psyche, same as many a young lad's - don't see anything to apologize for there.**]

Of course, I've come a long way since I was a kid. My tastes have evolved since then, while Bond hasn't, really. And I've discovered other smart, educated heroes over the years. But he was the first to tell me it was cool to be a smart guy. And in a lot of ways, he is still the benchmark I use for judging heroes.

So what does all this have to do with Blog Against Sexism Day?

I'm getting to that.

See, the overwhelming majority of blogs today will be about all the bullshit women have had to put up with for ages. And that's totally appropriate, because that's where the focus should be. I've seen and heard about all the crap women have had to endure from men and have been pretty appalled by it. But I've got nothing to add to that conversation that others can't express far better. All I can say is: I'm so sorry, but don't give up hope - we aren't all pricks.

But I still wanted to take a moment to point out: it isn't just women who get shafted by gender stereotypes in society. It's also the smart scrawny boys, who are told they don't matter because they don't have buff physiques. It's also the gay boys, who grow up being told that being a fag is, at worst, an unholy abomination; and, at best, a good way to become an interior decorator or fashion designer. [And man, how much must it suck to be a gay man in America who doesn't look fabulous and have a great wardrobe?] It's also the pacifists, who get called cowards for not wanting to fight.

In short: it's everybody who gets marginalized for not slipping neatly into their pre-defined, gender-based grooves. It's women who don't act feminine...but it's also guys who don't act masculine.

Hell, just the funny looks I've gotten from admitting I dislike football...

I'm a guy. And I know I get a pass on a lot of things because I'm a guy. And I know women are placed under a lot of pressure because of their gender. And I know I'll never experience it***. So this isn't some woe-is-me rant about how feminism has "oppressed" men or some crazy-ass conservative bullshit like that you sometimes hear from aging dinosaurs.

I don't mention this issue because I think it's more important than all the shit women go through - it's not. I mention this because I doubt anyone else will. And in the great and noble effort to improve women's lot in life, it's the sort of detail that can get lost in the background. To me, sexism is about the unfair social demands, attitudes, and constraints placed on someone because of their gender - which means it affects both men and women. [And, of course, everyone who doesn't slip neatly into either category: these days, gender isn't an either-or question.]

Women get it worse; but that doesn't mean men don't get it at all.

I don't have any grand vision or proposal here. I guess I'm just saying: while engineering the great social changes necessary to redefine women's roles in society, perhaps we can spare a few moments to work on men's roles too? Maybe reconsider what it means to be a guy?

Pretty sure my fellow outcasts would be grateful for the effort.

*Connery, of course. Moore was a creepy middle-aged guy by the time he assumed the mantle. Though I concede a soft spot for Dalton. But that's neither here nor there.

** Of course, if you presume that means I only like the ladies - well, that's on you.

*** Well, not without some major surgery, which is hella expensive. Besides, my ass is too fat for dresses - what would be the point?