Yale University Press, 2006, $38.99, 304 pp.
It is a source of no small gratification to me that ever since former Vice President Joe Biden was accused of smelling Lucy Flores’s hair in a sexist way, his popularity has risen. I am allowing myself to hope that perhaps the fever has broken, and that #metoo has finally jumped the shark. If so, it won’t be for the media’s failure to impress upon us the gravity of Biden’s transgressions. They have given him a #metoo Royale with Cheese: Joe hugged a widow and held a young woman’s hands while pulling in close to her face! He rubbed noses with his colleague Amy Lappos à la Eskimo!
At a fundraiser in 2012, the New York Times tells us, Joe allowed his hand to rest upon one D.H. Hill’s shoulder. “Only he knows his intent,” intoned Hill, a 59-year-old writer. Indeed. Only Joe knows whether he intended to drag, ravish, bludgeon, and dismember her, puree her entrails with a dash of lime, then emerge from the kitchen with a platter of zesty fajitas. Only he knows. “If something makes you feel uncomfortable,” she added, “you have to feel able to say it.”
Caitlyn Caruso said Joe hugged her “just a little bit too long.” They were attending an event “on sexual assault” (against it, presumably) at the University of Nevada. “She said it was particularly uncomfortable,” the New York Times reported solemnly, because she had just shared her own story of sexual assault and had expected Mr. Biden—an architect of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act—“to understand the importance of physical boundaries.” She said: “It doesn’t even really cross your mind that such a person would dare perpetuate harm like that. These are supposed to be people you can trust.”
Men reading this account will surely wish to know exactly how long it takes for a consoling hug to become a shocking perpetuation of the harm of sexual assault. Two seconds? Four? How long is too long? Only Ms. Caruso knows.
The media has done to Biden what it’s done consistently since the #metoo hysteria began. Why spoil a winning formula? “Two more women allege Joe Biden inappropriately touched them.” “How gross is Joe Biden’s touching?” “Can Joe Biden survive another #metoo moment?” But to the great sadness of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and publishers struggling to stay afloat at this difficult time for journalism, the number of women eager to share their gross feelings about being touched by Joe Biden has apparently topped out at eight.
That’s a revealing number. Biden has been known since 1969 as the archetypal retail politician. The clichés we use to describe this style of politics—pressing the flesh, kissing babies, gripping and grinning, glad-handling, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, personal contact—are a hint that retail politics involve touching people, pretty much all day long. Until recently, these gestures were considered politically obligatory, not optional. If touching a lot of aging, wobbly, unwashed flesh grosses you out, politics isn’t for you. Even if it is, Purell is essential.
Biden has probably hugged, touched, nuzzled, clasped hands, moistly empathized, or otherwise fondled as many as a thousand people a day, every day, for more than half a century. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, some nine million American women have had some kind of physical contact with him. If we applied the same zeal to searching for women who believe that Biden’s touch cured their eczema, we’d probably find just as many.
When all is said and done, we’re sure to hear from more women who think that Biden’s touch is gross. Sanders’s operatives are doubtless searching for them right now. But if the operatives are capable of reading a poll, they’ll drop it.
The number of women who are deeply offended by Biden’s behavior is minuscule, the polls tell us, and the number of women who have just had it with the warlock hunt is growing. I suspect I speak for far more women than the media would have you think when I say that after looking at one after another photo of Biden hugging women—and touching, nuzzling, clasping, head-bumping, and nose-rubbing everything in sight—I liked him more. Who doesn’t like an affectionate man, or an affectionate woman, or an affectionate golden retriever? If Biden likes himself a hug, I say: Go on, Joe; we could all use one.
I like him more now than before despite my very considerable political reservations about him, not least because, as Emily Yoffe rightly points out, Biden has no one to blame but himself for this hysterical new Sexual Inquisition. Under normal circumstances, I would not vote for him—for precisely that reason.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Once I might have rejected Biden out of hand because he plagiarized his speeches—and from Neil Kinnock, for God’s sake. Oh, how I long to return to a world in which those things mattered. But they don’t. All that matters is this: Every poll indicates that Biden would crush Trump in a general election. The repudiation of Trumpism is a necessary if not sufficient condition for the restoration of a measure of calm to American political life.
The polls likewise show that if the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, Trump will win. Or Sanders will. In either case, our growing hysteria, political polarization and radicalization will proceed apace. Neither we nor the world can take eight years of Trump. Nor can we take four of Trump followed by four of Bernie. There is no magic world where Americans can be that nuts, for that long, without paying a terrible price.
Biden is a normal politician. He falls within established American traditions. He’s not a socialist and he’s not Trump. Poll after poll indicates that Americans just want a President who’s not a socialist and not Trump. All the Democrats have to do is not screw this up. Yet somehow, with the Republic hanging in the balance, Democrats are busy getting their collective chains yanked by a Bernie operative named Lucy Flores who was mortally affronted because Biden smelled her hair.
And how has Biden reacted? By saying he “gets it.” Social norms have shifted. “The boundaries protecting personal space have been reset.” We enjoy new, more enlightened social mores. But what are these mores, exactly?
We can only guess, because the rules are a moving target, one becoming more exacting by the day. But they seem to be these: Physical contact of any kind between an unmarried man and woman—or a girl past the age of puberty—is streng verboten. The exception is the straight-armed handshake. Nancy Pelosi literally said this: “Join the straight-arm club.” At least on that point our new sexual mores are more liberal than the Taliban’s. Not by much, though. An Eskimo nose-rub, such as the one Biden offered to Amy Lappos in 2009—since which time she has been nursing her trauma—is an affront to virtue. “There’s absolutely a line of decency,” she said. “There’s a line of respect. Crossing that line is not grandfatherly. It’s not cultural. It’s not affection. It’s sexism or misogyny.”
Is she serious? Apparently so. But whose culture is she talking about? In my culture, that gesture is affectionate and grandfatherly. According to Wikipedia, the nose-rub is “a non-erotic but intimate greeting” that is “usually interpreted as a friendly greeting gesture in various cultures.” Māori, Hawaiians, Mongolian nomads, Bengalis, Cambodians, Laos, Thais, Vietnamese, Timors, Sabus, Sumbas, Ibans, Scandinavians, and Arab tribesmen like to rub noses no less than Eskimos. I would swear that until Amy Lappos declared otherwise, We the People thought it was quite darling to rub noses.
If only Biden had the brio to say that #metoo is an oppressive hysteria, that he intends to lead the Democratic Party out of this self-destructive insanity—indeed, that the Democratic Party will never be the party of purdah and Puritanism—he’d be impossible to beat. Alas, he does not.
It is strange that none of the men who have discovered in #metoo a wonderfully useful weapon for clearing out the corner office appreciate that inevitably the weapon will be turned against them. Biden certainly didn’t, but neither does Sanders, even though there is no amount of money I would not bet that soon—quite soon, probably—Bernie will be soundly #metooed (Consider that: It has become a verb). I have every confidence Biden’s operatives are working on it now.
What prevents these men from appreciating this point? That’s an interesting question. Now that the hysteria has—perhaps—peaked, it is one worth asking seriously, along with several other questions about our year of living hysterically. Among the most important are these: Might we consider taking human nature into account as we construct our new, more enlightened social and sexual mores? And if these mores can only be imposed at the expense of liberal values, which one must go?
Let us begin retrospectively. In 2006, the political philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield wrote Manliness, a gentle, meandering book that defends modest assertions. Manliness has both good and bad qualities, he proposes. We should not forget the good ones. They include confidence and the ability to command. The manly man is good at getting things done,
and one reason is that he is good at ordering people to get them done. In politics and in other public situations, he willingly takes responsibility when others hand back. He not only stands fast but also steps up to do what is required. In private life, in the family, this ability makes him protective of his wife and children because they are weaker. Being protective (as opposed to nurturing) is a manly form of responsibility in private life analogous to getting into politics in public life. In both, there is an easy assumption of authority.1
These virtues, he writes, are not unique to men. If John Wayne is “still every American’s idea of manliness,” Margaret Thatcher is every Briton’s. Nor, of course, is manliness always a virtue. Mansfield spends many pages assuring his readers he has grasped the ways these qualities may be put to sinister use—or as the Zeitgeist would have it, the way masculinity may be toxic. Nonetheless, he concludes, these qualities are sometimes good, and they are, he offers, more frequently found among men. Women too have their fine qualities, he assures us, but they are not the same qualities, and the “observable facts of plain biology” suggest these differences are innate, more a matter of nature than nurture:
Nature seems to have put the equipment of aggression in the hands of males rather than females. Men have more strength, size, and agility than females, who in turn have greater dexterity, delicacy, and endurance (they live longer). It is no small help to an aggressive disposition to have the means to express it in powerful fists, a sturdy chest, a head to butt with, and feet that can kick. Imagine the frustration of having a male’s desire to fight implanted in the yielding body of a female—an anomaly occasionally seen.2
Ahem. My career in Muay Thai, which I took up passionately for several years in Istanbul, aids me in putting Mansfield’s modest propositions to the test. Of course he’s right. My enthusiasm for slugging people is an anomaly. It is, he says, “a considerable fact that almost any man can beat up almost any woman.” Consider it considered. But almost is not the same as every. Were Mansfield and I forced into a cage match, I would flatten him: I’m younger, more aggressive, and more accustomed—I hope—to hitting men than he is to hitting women.
Indeed, Mansfield cheerfully acknowledges, some women have manly talents, and he is content to see them exercise these talents. But he is not content with the assumption that these talents are evenly distributed. This, he argues, is the fatal conceit of what he calls our “gender-neutral society.”
This society emerges from a double predicate. The first is the liberal principle of equality of opportunity, to wit: a woman with manly talents should have the same opportunities to exercise them as any man. Mansfield has no quarrel with this principle; indeed, he sees it as self-evident. The second, however, is the belief that if women fail to exercise these talents in numbers equal to men, it is a priori evidence of unequal opportunity, however subtle its form. Specifically, this principle asserts, pernicious sexism, which must at all costs be extirpated, is the cause of any observable difference between men and women.
But this is not correct, he argues. Traditional gender roles are not mere social constructs. All things being equal, you will still find that women are more likely than men to enjoy home-making and child-rearing. You will still find that men are, on the whole, more eager than women to clamber up the greasy pole. In our insistence that men and women be more alike than they naturally are, Mansfield argues, we are making men and women alike confused and unhappy.
The revolution that made the gender-neutral society, he argues, was astonishingly sudden, successful and bloodless. Almost overnight, the patriarchy collapsed:
From one angle, the attempt to create a gender-neutral society, never before recorded in human history, has been an amazing success. It has aroused virtually no open opposition. There were segregationists to defend the Old South and its unjust ways, but the universal order of patriarchy found no spokesman to set forth an ideology on its behalf, let alone defenders to mount a countermovement. There was no George Wallace, no Bull Conner, no massive resistance to oppose the women’s movement.
Mansfield is correct to note that this is astonishing and too little noticed. Why was the women’s movement so suddenly and readily accepted? It succeeded, Mansfield argues, because it appealed to the liberal principle of equality, and in that sense, it was long overdue. Liberalism “is the dominant opinion of our age,” he writes, thus the women’s movement won an “easy victory.”
But Mansfield senses a bait-and-switch. Although it followed and in many ways resembled the civil rights movement, he notes, the women’s movement was led not by liberals, but by women of the Left. Feminist luminaries such as Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, and Betty Friedan found much to admire in longstanding Marxist criticisms of the liberal society as faulty and hypocritical. As Mansfield puts it:
Liberal principles gave everyone a formal right to equality but deliberately refrained from examining whether formal equality was made actual. Under formal, liberal equality, the feminists said, women were at an actual disadvantage.
In theory, he writes, gender neutrality—the kind Americans were ready and eager to accept—means “abstracting from sexual differences so as to make jobs and professions (especially the latter) open to both sexes.” This is the natural application of the principles of a liberal society. But “for some feminists,” he writes, including its most notable intellectuals, it was not enough to set aside sexual differences: “pressure in favor of gender neutrality must be applied.”
For this, America was not quite so ready. Indeed, Mansfield doubts that any society will ever be ready, for men and women are simply different. Women, he suspects, just aren’t as manly as men. The insistence that they must be has caused women to be unhappy with their womanliness and men to be unhappy with their manliness. The unhappiness of men, he notes, seems to take the form of bewildered, passive-aggressive resistance. The pressure in favor of gender neutrality, furthermore, risks undermining liberal values, for “human beings cannot actually live that way, vigilantly stifling every thought or impulse due to one’s sex.”
Thirteen years later, two things are clearer. It is now incontestable that men are very unhappy. Their unhappiness now takes forms vastly more dramatic than those Mansfield described in 2006. And it is also starkly obvious that Mansfield was right: The second predicate of the gender-neutral society is incompatible with liberalism. What Mansfield clearly didn’t conceive, in 2006, was that by 2019 liberalism itself might no longer be “the dominant opinion of our age.”
Mansfield’s book is meandering, and not as manly as it might be. He is less compelling than the most prominent contemporary exponent of this case, Jordan Peterson. Peterson makes these arguments more confidently, decisively, and aggressively. Perhaps this is why the two men have been received so differently. Or perhaps they have been received so differently because, since 2006, the conflict between liberalism and the second predicate of the gender-neutral society has become aggravated, even as liberalism loses its power to compel public enthusiasm.
There was no great reaction to Mansfield’s book in 2006. The reviews, largely, were amused and patronizing. Walter Kirn of the New York Times portrayed him as a quaint old fart. Peterson, however, seems to scare the hell out of people. The New York Times’s Nellie Bowles was given roughly ten times the space to write about him as Kirn was given to write about Mansfield. In “Jordan Peterson: Custodian of the Patriarchy,” she writes that Peterson is “working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality.” How so? She does not explain.
Peterson says, again and again, in interview after interview, that he does not reject mainstream or liberal efforts to promote equality of opportunity. He rejects extreme and illiberal efforts to establish equality of outcomes. He is very clear what he means by this, and nothing he says should shock or discomfit men and women of liberal dispositions.
Nevertheless, something about Peterson really riles people up—even though no one can quite say why. His lectures are undemanding and entertaining, suitable for easy listening during a light recovery-day workout. His arguments are neither more shocking nor less modest than Mansfield’s. He is a liberal defending the principles of a liberal society. For his pains, he’s been called a closet authoritarian, an outright authoritarian, and a fascist.
Many things have changed between the publication of Mansfield’s book and Peterson’s emergence on the scene. The rise of incessant rage, directed at everything, may account for some of the difference in critical reception. But probably, it is more than that.
Men and women seem angry at each other in a genuinely new way. Something is out of whack. Mansfield’s diagnosis of the problem is probably right: The tensions between the values of a liberal society and the second predicate of the gender-neutral society have become impossible to reconcile or ignore.