I always like going out with my friend S. Last night we went to dinner and then saw Public Enemy, which I enjoyed in parts, and in parts wished that the camera man had taken his anti-spasm pills before filming the big scenes. We did not go out to the cineplex to see nude descending a staircase, starring John Dillinger - and so I was not happy with the camera work that got so jiggly in the film’s big action scenes that in the shootout, it actually was almost impossible to follow how Dillinger escaped. We needed Weegee here, not Boccioni. We wanted to see a summer movie with a lot of Thompson machine guns in it, and we weren't entirely satisfied.
Anyway, over dinner before we saw the movie, we talked about men and women and history. I proposed an overheated thesis, which S. agreed with in part, or at least thought had some redeeming bits of plausibility. So I thought I’d write it down.
My thesis was that the Cold war male was cast into a situation of perpetual wars – WWII, the Korean War, the first war in Vietnam, Algeria, the second war in Vietnam, etc. – as well as having the nukes leaning over his shoulder. In that context, the cold war male was expected to be heroic and aggressive. And of course the target of aggression was the Cold War female. Now, in other generations in which war figures so heavily, destitution or sacrifice also figures. Yet one of the brilliant things about the capitalist-war machine is that war brings affluence. Given this, the aggressive cold war male’s status became tied to himself as both provider and cocksman. It is important to bring in, here, as a necessary supplementing social factor the fact that rise in the divorce rate in the post-war era was male-driven.
The result of these combinations was borne by the cold war woman and the cold war children. It was, I think, an amazing generational experience for the children to see how the marriage broke up and the provider, the heroic provider, didn’t provide. Not only was there a lack on the emotional level, but even on the promised level of affluence. These were the children of the deadbeats.
My idea is that this was devastating, on the unconscious level, to the imago of the male. Hence, the generation that was born at the end of the cold war and is having children now, both the males and the females, have to cope with the ruins of masculinity – for the father role has been thoroughly trashed. One way of coping is through a new image of passivity. However, as we all know from Freud, passivity is not the opposite of aggression.
On the social level, these are all factors in the great turning inward. It isn’t just that unions were battered to death, or the party system became so entangled with entrenched power that, in almost all the developed countries, there is no longer an organized opposition to entrenched power – it is also that the aggression, the heroic cast of the Cold war, which was oriented in so many ways to the world outside of the private sphere – as though the tips of those ICBMs were pressed up against the back of millions of heads – has now been so discredited that there’s a sense of exhaustion about public matters. Who would have predicted, in the early fifties, for instance, that the summer in which the American political establishment was gingerly debating the first step towards the socialization of medicine, that the public’s eyes would be riveted on a bunch of celebrity deaths? Or on anything that reminds one of cocooned private histories.
Obviously, I, a son of the cold war indeed, am ambiguous about the discrediting of the heroic male. There’s a definite dialectic loss there. And yet, who had it coming? Nemesis stalked the entire cocksman and coldwarsman culture, and saw how shallowly that hedonism was rooted, and how many crimes it accumulated, how much misery it shed. The strategy of hiding one’s head like a turtle, however, is not the answer.
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