Alpha Poisoning

Well, let’s re-evaluate that, shall we?
(Image by Pablo Varela, via Unsplash)

Item 1: In a powerful New Yorker essay, Lizzie Widdicombe interviews NYU professor and psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner, whose professional work has focused on sexual harassment. The topic of the conversation was the shift, in about a year’s time, from the veneration of Andrew Cuomo (and the coinage of the term Cuomosexual) to the disastrous revelations of a disastrous managerial career.

Let’s go back to that point a year or so ago where Cuomo was lionized (and we’ll revisit that term in a minute). COVID had revealed itself to be persistent and serious. A hundred thousand Americans were already dead, and the Federal response was a combination of denial and ineptitude. So Governor Cuomo did what a governor should do. He talked directly to the people of New York. He told them what he knew, and what he did not know. He acknowledged that suffering was widespread, and urged New Yorkers to follow the best current guidance about individual safety and community protection. In so doing, he took the opportunity—sometimes quietly and by contrast, sometimes directly—to call out the Presidential administration’s callow ineptitude.

He became the hero in the white hat. But the hero is always the mirror image of the villain: another strong alpha man who knows what he wants and moves directly toward it. It can be no surprise that the same personality type can be drawn to either role.

The core paragraph, for me, is this:

She had some reassuring words for any Cuomosexuals who are in a shame spiral right now. The Governor was up to something in those press conferences. “He was radiating an erotized masculinity that has within it hostility and a little tenderness,” she said. “That combination of soft and hard—mostly hard, but also soft—is what so many women crave in some way,” she said. She called it the “retrosexual part of us”—the part that was raised with the image of a “big, square” daddy/lover figure, even if we’ve never actually had one. She noted that a lot of gay men respond to the fantasy, too: “That’s a figure that could easily be hot to a man.”

Item 2. About fifteen years ago, the linguist George Lakoff wrote compellingly about the overarching narrative frame of domestic politics. The core conflict, he wrote, was not red and blue, or progressive and conservative, or urban and rural. The core understanding for American political life (and public policy) was the tension between metaphors: the strong, demanding father and the loving, forgiving mother. Whether the policy issue is policing or abortion or public health, the father-metaphor community framed its response in individual terms of responsibility. You made your choice, and now you’ll live with the consequences. If you didn’t know better, you should have. The mother-metaphor community framed its response in collective terms of opportunity. You might have gotten it wrong, but there’s no reason to ruin the rest of your life; try it again. You’ll always be part of the family.

Oversimplified? Of course it is, it’s a single paragraph. But I think it has enormous explanatory power. Do we insist that individuals play the hand you’re dealt, or do we acknowledge that the deck was stacked against some of the players from the start? Do we start from stalwart defense of individual position, or generosity and inclusion to friends and strangers alike? Do we operate from principles or from relationships? The psychologist Carol Gilligan, forty years ago, proposed that most of what we understood about moral development was only partial, since it had all been framed for thousands of years in terms of masculine conceptions of rights and principles. Her response was to imagine that there might be room for what she called “an ethics of care,” focused not on individual rights but on collective well-being.

Let’s come back to that notion of “lionized,” used to venerate fierce heroism. It’s usually applied to men, but occasionally to women who embody the same virtues. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, who famously said that “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” The pride is everything, and all others are either dangers or prey.

Item 3. The historian Andrew Basevich, a retired US Army colonel with 23 years of service from Vietnam to Kuwait, has written consistently for twenty years about the foolishness of the notions of “American exceptionalism” and America’s “destiny to spread freedom.” He argues that our imperial enterprise isn’t much different than the Russian/Soviet version, willing to tolerate endless destruction and misery and squandering of resources in order to win some competition of ideals. The New York Times offers a review of his new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed:

“Just as the self-congratulatory domestic narrative centers on the ineluctable expansion of freedom ‘from sea to shining sea,’” Bacevich writes, “so, too, the narrative of America abroad emphasizes the spread of freedom to the far corners of the earth. ” America’s account of its foreign policy, he notes, is “even less inclined than the domestic narrative to allow room for ambiguity and paradox,” and it excludes “disconcerting themes such as imperialism, militarism and the large-scale killing of noncombatants.” 

A couple of days ago, the satirist Andy Borowitz wrote a fake-news column that said that in light of Cuomo (and subsequent to Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Eric Schneiderman), the State Assembly had placed a fifty-year moratorium on male governors. And satire aside, it’s not a bad idea.

Isn’t it time to give traditional constructions of masculinity a rest? Isn’t it time to take a time-out, and recognize that we have alternatives to individual isolation and battles of strength and winner-takes-all? Isn’t it time to be done with Fred Trump’s admonition to his children that “You’re either a killer or a loser”? Isn’t it time to recognize that “the hero” is a public face that has private flaws, as we all do? And that the model of the lone hero, the boss, the unquestioned authority, draws a lot of the wrong people to the job description?

Isn’t it time to recognize that we’re all in this together?