HOWARD JACOBSON: It's a bad time to be a man
PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 October 2018
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HOWARD JACOBSON'S brilliant essay on toxic masculinity
Men! What to do about us? That’s not a question I ever expected to hear myself ask. I have not, I hope, been a fatuous defender of my sex. My gender, right or wrong, is not a principle that’s guided me. But I have ridden out at times – as preposterous as Don Quixote – to defend our good name.
If that meant arguing with women, well arguments are good for all sides. Argument is the breath of life. There is a kind of merry war between Signior Benedick and Beatrice, says Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing. “They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” That was me: a merry warrior, enjoying the boisterous give and take of wit.
Not always how this or that Beatrice saw it, but it was how I did. So am I sentimental about myself? Yes. Or rather, I was. Now I would like to unsay much of what I said.
In the matter of gender I have of late lost all my mirth. It hasn’t been a good time for men. I don’t capitulate to the politics when bonfires are being made of miscreants’ work. It’s one thing giving up on one’s gender, it’s another giving up on one’s profession.
Difficult as it sometimes is to admit, you can hate the man and love the art. Some horrible people have written wonderful books. If art were nothing but the extension of who we are and how we behave we wouldn’t value it as highly as we do. But in art we overleap our natures. That which we make when we are deep in the labyrinth we call art, when powers not our own direct us, will always matter more than what we say and do when we are our mere, banal, above-ground selves. So don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Throw out the baby, keep the bath water.
Leave the vexed question of art’s impersonality out of it, however, and yes, this is not a good time for men and I am not the merry warrior I was.
I had thought I had supped full with horrors. After the elevation of Trump I believed I would never again know astonishment and horror, outrage or disbelief – fill in the words yourself or we’ll be here a long time. A lot of them begin with a d – disillusionment, despondency, depression, and yes, all right, disdain.
Disdain for the man but equal disdain for those who didn’t feel disdain for him themselves. This way madness lies, of course. People will never judge as you do. And it is arrogance to believe they should. But Trump! At whom even that solemn body the United Nations laughed aloud. Trump!
We must understand the frustrations that drive decent people to make indecent choices. When you are at the hard end of everything, when the cognoscenti condescend to you and the powerful preclude you, is it any wonder you’ll make a cult of a clown? Whoever denigrates those who have denigrated you, becomes a hero.
What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem, asked the poet Yeats in his poem The Second Coming. Many of the undermined around the world cannot wait to hear its tread. But can a sense of disempowerment adequately explain their impatience? Why choose the frying pan as the only alternative to the fire? Why leap from one instance of masculinist thuggery into the embrace of another? For they are still, almost without exception – these jesting, somehow-or-other democratically elected ruffians – men. And they must answer to something voters of both sexes should be ashamed to crave.
To the mystery of why a single, sentient human being would cast a vote for Donald Trump must now be added another: how anyone could have watched Brett Kavanaugh’s defence of his good name on television and not thought ‘this man should never be a high court judge.’ I am not, notice, saying he did assault Professor Christine Blasey Ford.
It is possible – often it is necessary – to believe two conflicting testimonies at the same time. It isn’t hard to see why many found Ford convincing.
Some people have that about them that invites trust. You can’t see where, on their face or person, a lie might be concealed. Even in an age characterised by gross gullibility, no shame attaches to believing her. But it doesn’t follow from that that her memory couldn’t, in one way or another, have let her down. Kavanaugh might not have done what she describes him doing. What was extraordinary about his testimony, however, was how plausible, in general, he made her accusations seem. If she vividly described encountering an overbearing man, he still more vividly enacted one. One could only too easily imagine how, even as a boy, a man so belligerent and thin-skinned, possessed of so grand a sense of entitlement, and so accustomed to getting his own way, might have brushed aside any attempt to deny him.
To be absolutely clear: this doesn’t incriminate him. I am speaking only of the impression of marauding maleness he was unable to conceal. Having been accused of being one kind of man he was naturally at pains to show another. He pulled out all the stops, detailing his sporting prowess, his academic achievement, the esteem he enjoyed, the friendship of good women, God, fatherhood. He blubbed, he sniffed, he gasped for air. Professor Christine Blasey Ford wasn’t to be the only one who showed emotion.
Here he was, a grown man making grown men weep with him. But entitlement will out. With every sniff and grimace, it wasn’t sorrow or confusion we witnessed but petulance and menace, as though a prize bull had been cornered and in its fury knew only to kick out. The overriding impression, from start to finish, was not of a moderate person angry at being falsely charged – and God knows, that would make the mildest of us angry – but of a bellicose and partisan princeling whose hitherto unchallenged right to everything was suddenly in question. How easy it was, therefore, to reimagine the scene Ford had already painted, with a man of that sort – I only say a man of that sort – in it. The imposition of male weight; the refusal to take no for an answer, when ‘no’ is a word he’s rarely heard; the laughter at a weaker person’s struggles; the indifference to a woman’s wishes or terror.
Women will tell you there’s nothing all that uncommon about such an event. For a man, unless you’re a culprit or an accomplice, it’s an experience you can only have at second hand. But this time, as Kavanaugh seemed to unfurl his very nature to the world, we were able to picture for ourselves what it would be like to shrink from a dominating and insistent will; to be mocked; to lie trapped beneath an unyielding force.
A better judge of himself, someone more accustomed to gauging the impression he was making, would have kept the raging beast on a shorter leash. That he didn’t, or couldn’t, should be enough in itself to disqualify him from the nation’s judiciary. Innocent or guilty of assault, he struck me, as he struck a retired Supreme Court Judge and hundreds of American law professors, as unfit by virtue of temperament for high office. What, even in a Trump administration? Well, now we know a little more of what a Trump administration truly means.
I would wish sometimes that women would give the word ‘patriarchy’ a rest. I don’t mean the concept, I only mean the word. It’s bad politics. You can hear the university in it – gender studies, year 1. Outside the academy, it doesn’t pay to be too academic. Be too academic and that’s Trump re-elected for another term. Patriarchy with the definite article – ‘the patriarchy’ – is even worse. It conjures a secret society whose membership is the entire male sex.
I have never watched Game of Thrones but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it features an axe-bearing brotherhood called The Patriarchy, whose marauders communicate by secret handshake, like the masons, man to man. But here again I choke on my own derision.
Looking at the Republican forces mustered in defence of Kavanaugh, their minds locked, their teeth bared, their eyes as red as those of wolves in the night, that was what I saw – The Patriarchy. This is not a good time to be a man. Only women can fix us now.
This article was first delivered for BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View