About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Friday, August 17, 2012

I am a fake man

When I was young and relatively clueless about the social realities of patriarchy and intersectionality, I was already annoyed by the myth of the 'Real Man'. I thought - and still think - it is dumb to say there can only be one type of real man, implying anyone who doesn't meet these standards is somehow not worthy of respect. What angered me even more was that so many women bought into it. True, for a while lady magazines ran with the 'New Man', the guy who does household chores and watches chick flicks, the Metrosexual, who is basically the non-gay flamboyant man, or the Übersexual, the man who is even too flamboyant for gayness. These cycles alternated with cries for the return to the 'Real Man', but the key message was the same: there's only one way to be a man, only one way to please the ladies. 

Needless to say, to my teenage self, this was incredibly confusing. What's worse, I blamed women for this confusion, not the overarching social structure where it's actually other men who dictate what being a man is all about. Men have a disproportionate amount of power in all facets of life, in the past more strongly than they do now, but it's still undeniably here. So, it's not really a surprise many women buy into the idea of the 'one way to be a man'. Needless to say, the image of the ideal woman is an even bigger bag of cultural schizophrenia: mother, whore, free, demure, object, agent, etc. I'd probably drink myself to death if I was a woman, with all that pressure piled on me.

The past decades have seen an ebb and flow of women's rights, but mostly a steady flow forward. One bad consequence: as women pour into spheres traditionally dominated by men, men retreat. In fact, they label those now mixed spheres as 'female', call it a day and move to a sphere where they still dominate. This is now why, as opposed to a few centuries ago, the arts, teaching, libraries or dancing are tolerated as part of a man's life at best, derided as being unmanly at worst. The worst consequence is that it has made certain groups of men anti-intellectual and hostile to culture. I mean, we live in an era where a buffoon with questionable points of view like Newt Gingrich is considered an intellectual, and Donald Trump is seen as a successful businessman.

By the way, make no mistake, even the arts are still dominated by men. The most famous contemporary writers, directors, chefs, teachers and bookkeepers are men. It's just that these areas of life are less overtly hostile to women than, say, construction or engineering.

So, the image of what a 'Real Man' is, has considerably narrowed within macho circles, especially among the less educated. Hand in hand with an increased focus on bodily ideation (companies discovered that men can be made to feel just as insecure about how they look, news at 11), society has created a subset of caricatures that hyper-emphasize traits like assertiveness, self-confidence and pragmatism until they become aggression, arrogance and dullness. This is a problem, and a problem that guys need to address. No amount of whining about certain women who actually like guys like that is going to help - and by the way, women who do like these caricatures are often caricatures themselves.

Instead of trying to expand or change the definition of a 'Real Man', as some magazines and writers have attempted in the past few years, we simply need to do away with the idea that there is a 'Real Man'. It's horseshit. What's more, it implies a form of misogyny, too - 'unmanly' men get ridiculed with gendered insults that carry the underlying assumption that women are weak, governed by emotions and have a low self-image.

A few months back, on my smoke break I encountered a colleague who, when he saw that I hadn't shaven for a week or two, snidely remarked that I had 'finally decided to become a real man'. I replied that I hadn't felt any lack of manliness in me before that. Admittedly not a brilliant comeback and a bit of a 'you had to be there'-moment, but I do think that's the spirit in which remarks like that should be addressed. Don't try to redefine what a man is. Just don't play that game.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Ah, the elite!

Across the board, the left is often accused of being elitist. This criticism is expressed in two ways. First, there are terms like 'limousine liberal', 'champagne socialist' or 'gauche caviar' which describe politicians who claim that their political origins lie with labour and emancipatory movements but lead the luxurious lifestyle of those they criticise. Second, it attempts to paint left-wing politicians as being removed from the reality on the ground, safe in their ivory towers of academia, out of touch with what 'the people' really want.

I'll take on the latter first. In my lifetime, I can't recall an instance of hearing a mainstream left-wing politician claim to speak for 'the people' at all. Rather, it's usually the domain of populist right-wing parties. In addition, with the catastrophic breakdown of the world's banking systems and economies due to the adherence to neo-liberal policy orthodoxies and the vicious ways in which the "1%" keeps interfering with international politics, I don't think the right gets to say that the left is somehow removed from reality. What they really mean, and what a real anger is that the right can tap into, is that the left always appears as though it knows what's best for the people, even if it is against their will. That suspicion is not entirely unwarranted. But it consciously conflates the notion of a parliamentary democracy with freedom of speech with the idea that somehow, the people are always right. If that were true, homosexuality would still be illegal, women wouldn't have the right to vote and gruesome death penalties would still be normal. An avant-garde advocating piecemeal social progress and greater equality for all is not a bad thing, as long as it's kept in check.

As far as the idea goes that left-wing politicians betray their own principles by having their own drivers and leading a comfortable, wealthy life, I'm not so sure why that's a problem. Apparently, the right gets away with it - it's even expected of them. It's ridiculous to assume you must be poor to champion the cause of the less fortunate. However, that criticism does hit a very important point, and one that frequently gets overlooked. With professional politicians coming more and more from the same class, ideas stagnate and politics become more a question of clan affiliation and byzantine networking. When was the last time, in Europe, someone who truly was 'from the people' (i.e. lower middle or working class) held a position of power? Both right and left love playing up the image of the outsider, but true outsiders are extremely rare.

It's been since the '70s that new political movements broke any ground in the West, with the greens. Ever since, there have been plenty of fresh ideas to solve the challenges that we face, but precious few of them have trickled down (or rather, up) to the leading class. Why? Since the '80s, social mobility has steadily been eroding. Well-off people's life expectancy has skyrocketed, and with it, the amount of time they have to hold on to power and groom others to follow in their footsteps, often their very own sons and daughters. Some countries have introduced voting thresholds, ostensibly to keep out extremist parties, while other systems are locked in a two-party struggle that has led to unhealthy amounts of partisan bickering over non-issues.

It's painfully obvious that each time the system gets adapted, it serves the interests of the ruling caste of politicians. It's disingenious that a lot of them claim to keep speaking for the people, though not as disingenious as the media, who willingly participate in whipping up controversies where there are none, or focus on distractions. What good is freedom of speech if not every voice has a chance to be heard equally? What good is voting if perceptions get skewed by corporate-owned media with a vested interest in 'business as usual'? The left is elitist - sure, there's some merit in it. But coming from the right, it's like the West lecturing China on neo-colonialism.