Friday, February 17, 2006

The Shootist
The Shootist
Stan Goff

Right-wing diehards are trying very hard to "move on" about Dick Cheney shooting his rich hunting buddy. But there are moralists from left of the midline who are making the demand to back off on Cheney's mishap, albeit in a more oblique way.

"He has committed many worse crimes," the grievance goes. "Why should we focus on this?"

I'll tell you why.

This is the age of postmodern politics -- the age of impression management. This is the time when the narrative is used to trump reality. No doubt perfidy has always characterized politics, but the good old days of no-bullshit thuggery and patrician patronage has given way to the construction of puerile caricatures. And many thought that Bush was the mediocre narcissist who liked to dress up in flight suits and caper across the decks of aircraft carriers.

This incident exposes Cheney himself as just another costumed buffoon, and not the Darth Vader figure he and his desperately insecure admirers seemed to relish.

Gender is the elephant in the political living room, of course.

This is an administration who ran election campaigns that would make a Louisiana police chief blush; and they did it by constructing George W. Bush -- a besotted pampered frat boy from a wealthy political dynasty -- as a cowboy.

Dick Cheney has constructed himself as a hunter... consistent with his supposedly intimidating predator image.

These are hegemonic masculinities, but only in the most theatrical sense. The cowboy and the hunter are idealized archetypes from a mythical past.

One need merely note the symbolic exhibitionism of consumer masculinity all around us to see why this has been so politically effective. Gym-rat WWF musculatures that don't exist in nature, SUVs the size of small tanks jacked up on giant wheels, t-shirts that declare "Insurance by Smith and Wesson," and as we scale the class ladder the more subtly stated accoutrements of masculine dominance, from the "corrective" tailoring of the man's suit to the Valexta briefcase. Masculinity itself is more often than not a game of dress-up, a pose, the ultimate life sentence of tough-guy theatricality for men.

In an era when even the American male working class is as commonly found in an office cubicle as a factory, when we spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in our homes with televisions on, drinking in this cognitive data stream of fantasy gender-norms, when we live in places called Fox Run with no foxes, Deer Park with no deer, Sleepy Hollow
that is in fact a bulldozed lot built over with masonite boxes, its little wonder that even the old oppressive masculinities -- at least actually connected with where one lived and what one did for a living -- have given way to costume-consumer masculinity. It is also little wonder that people can successfully run for king of the country in this reverse-drag as one of the mytho-erotic archetypes.

Cowboy. Hunter.

The Bush campaign mounted a billboard in Texas during the Bush-Kerry contest. One one side of the billboard was a pair of cowboy boots. On the other, a pair of shower shoes -- also known as... flip-flops. The designer of this billboard had tapped directly into the American white male psyche, and these two sets of footgear were positively wading in gendered (and racialized) subtexts. The archetypical impressions defeated the comparative military records hands down.

Cowboys and hunters, lest we forget, in the American mythology are white archetypes, too.

The Republican Party snatched the mantle of "party of white supremacy" from the southern Democrats with Nixon's Southern Strategy. But it was also the mantle of white male supremacy. This has been its core organizing principle ever since -- even though it has to code this principle to avoid throwing its constituents into open polarization with the rest of society.

White men with big hats and guns have seldom been a welcome sight to Black men or women.

Dick Cheney loves photo ops with guns, whether accepting a Dan'l Boone muzzle-loader at an NRA Convention or having the cameras chase him around while he shoots farm-raised animals on hunting preserves. Cheney shot 70 confined, semi-domesticated pheasants in one day at the Rolling Rock Club and Game Preserve in Pennsylvania, a place for men who wear those power suits to demonstrate their ability to kill and dress up like "woodsmen."

The fact that this is a country where a large number of men -- many who vote Republican -- actually do have more than passing familiarity with firearms, and actually know the basic safety measures that are required to properly handle them, is now a problem for Dick Cheney. Many of us learned firearms in the military, and since the mid-eighties there have been very sharp penalties in the military for "accidental discharges." The military learned, slower than most, that there are two simple rules that will prevent the accidental discharge of a weapon and the collateral damage that can result.

(1) Never place your finger on the trigger until you have aligned the sights on a target.

(2) Never point the weapon at anything until you have identified it as something you intend to shoot.

However pathological the macho death-cult of guns is in this country, the people who have taken the trouble to learn anything about firearms at all now know that Cheney is what my dad used to call a pig-hunter and a fool that traipsed around after his "one beer" lunch on the quail preserve with his finger on the trigger. He's no more a hunter than Bush is a cowboy.

He's just another stupid, pampered, autocratic narcissist like Bush -- bullshitting his way through high office -- and leaving bodies in his wake with as little concern for them as he does for 70 pheasants. In the age of postmodern politics, when the impression is sovereign, the gendered spell is broken for a moment when the costume slips.

That's why I relish every jibe and joke, and I hope people milk this incident for all its worth. I oppose male power, and white power, and the reign of narcissists. With every grant of legitimacy, we grant power. Ridicule is a potent political weapon. It is a form of resistance.