I think it was the idea of “testicle tanning” that made me close the MacBook, rub my eyes, gaze over the treetops of Silver Lake and hear Europe calling me home. With the empirical rigour of Gwyneth Paltrow, a guest of Fox News host Tucker Carlson was touting it as a testosterone-booster in a world that scorns that hormone.
Don’t envy the young men of America. To their left: problematisers of masculinity. To their right: a cartoon version of it. If most end up charting a sensible course, they won’t have the ambient culture to thank. And of the two pincers in this movement, the right is much the harder to forgive. It thinks it is helping.
To explore the conservative world over which Carlson increasingly reigns is to see constant striving for macho effect. But not always the achievement of it. Consider the reverence for the kind of strongmen who have had more work done than Joan Rivers. Or the jargon of “red pill” vs “blue pill” thinking: a cinematic allusion not to Cool Hand Luke or Raging Bull, but to The Matrix, for heaven’s sake. Or that other trope of the alt-right: the delineation of all males into alphas and betas, and the almost touching belief that only the former get to have sex. Nothing could betray more innocence of the world of the night.
If the right see machismo where it isn’t, they also miss it where it is. Over the course of his life, Emmanuel Macron has: asked his secular parents to have him baptised, formed a romance with his teacher that survived their geographic separation by scandalised relatives, bought his way out of a civil service contract to enter banking and dislodged his political patron in the Elysée with a new party that he named after his own initials.
If anyone possesses the equipment that Carlson’s guest proposes to zap with red light, it is Macron. But on the shallowest grounds — his intellectual airs, the mostly false sense that he is “globalist” — his image among the US right has always been one of classically European effeteness. It would be easier to take if they didn’t spend the rest of the time talking up the virtues of courage and independence from the herd.
In a 1981 essay, Gore Vidal invented the label of “American sissy”. He applied it to those who peddled a try-hard and ultimately unconvincing kind of virility. Theodore Roosevelt (all that hunting) and Ernest Hemingway (all that fishing) were cited as classics of the type. One insinuation was that such outward ruggedness is, like conspicuous patriotism, often a clue that something nearer the opposite lurks underneath. The other — and the Sage of Amalfi was too coy to spell it out — was that real manliness lies not in physicality but in a free and impudent spirit. The spirit it takes to, say, publish a gay novel in 1948, and mock a Washington ruling class that one was born into.
It is that richer notion of masculinity that US conservatives have thrown aside for footage of men launching spears and slurping raw eggs. The continent to which Vidal self-exiled for much of his life is, I wager, now easier than America to be young and male in. On the left, “Anglo-Saxon” wokery, as some there see it, is less pronounced. (Sometimes for the worse: Europe can be more chauvinist than its liberal American admirers perceive from afar.)
As for the right, even in its populist form, it has always taken the pleasure principle too seriously to embrace the eat-clean-and-lift-weights ethos that has seduced the Jordan Peterson generation. European conservatism often throws up the kind of man that Republicans find hard to place. Boris Johnson, Jacques Chirac: neither can be pictured roughhousing in the woods, as per the trailer for Carlson’s The End of Men documentary. Yet neither could he write off as beta. There is a lesson here: about crooked timber, about humanity.
Still, the impressionable will watch. I have met them on campuses and get emails from them. Many will, I sense, sign up to Carlsonism not out of conviction, but as a refuge from a new left that strikes them as hostile. It is no less of a dead end for that.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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