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Category: General

Lumbersexuality and a Crisis of Masculinity?

[ 168 ] December 11, 2014 |

Willa Brown published a piece in the Atlantic yesterday on “lumbersexuality” and a crisis of masculinity. By lumbersexuality, Brown means the logger fetish a certain subset of bearded hipster men have for the fashion and work life of an imagined, romanticized logger. Brown compares this desire for an authentic and highly gendered work experience to the famed crisis of masculinity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led men like Theodore Roosevelt to embrace war, boxing, football, the Boy Scouts, hunting, and other manly pursuits that changed the nation in pretty dramatic ways due to those men’s ability to enact their desires in law and popular culture.

Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that “authenticity” often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of “real” work. A bearded man on OkCupid once told me, upon learning what I study, that he’d always envied lumberjacks because they were so connected to their labor. It must be so immensely satisfying, he wrote, to take carbon and turn it into something of real use. I considered replying with one of my favorite lines from an old lumberjack ballad: “Every bone in his body was broken / And his flesh hung in tatters and strings.” Job satisfaction and the authentic nature of his occupation were not the primary preoccupations of a working lumberjack. Even that fawning Atlantic journalist eventually concluded that he “would rather see one than be one.”

Style is style. Beards and plaid may well just look good, and I hardly think that the man wearing both while coding on a MacBook Air in a coffee shop is really attempting to sell anyone on the idea that he’s an authentic ‘jack. But what middle-class urbanites are playing at is not the “true” workingman of the woods. The caulked boots and bold red sash around a lumberjack’s waist were symbols of reckless daring in a world with few opportunities, except those that often risked death. The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards—are perhaps closer to Coolidge in his chaps. They’re impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.

I don’t know. Is a bunch of bearded hipsters dressing like loggers really a crisis of masculinity? Are these guys really worried about a suppressed manhood that needs to come out? I’m skeptical. I agree with Brown that this is a middle-class romanticizing of working-class culture but I don’t think it’s that comparable to the Progressive Era. I think it’s really more about a broader desire for individualized authenticity among a larger group of people under the age of 35 or so that revolves around working with your hands, semi-opting out of the traditional work norms, and seeing the products of your work. It seems to me that this phenomenon is more closely related with women and the knitting craze and having backyard chickens than TR-style masculinity assertion. After all, do you feel like young hipster men today are really worried about what it means to be a man? Is that a big part of their conversation? I don’t see it in the public realm.

If Americans are looking to hard work as a masculine preoccupation they wish to watch or emulate, I think it is far more concentrated in working and middle-class Americans watching shows like Ice Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and Swamp Loggers. Here are “authentic” working-class people doing the sort of jobs in nature that have long defined a significant portion of working-class labor in the United States. In these shows, nature itself isn’t romanticized nor a middle-class longing for authenticity so much as a desire to be able to make a living through hard work in a society with a shortage of good paying jobs for working people and a semi-official disdain for blue-collar labor. Watching Swamp Loggers and wishing one might be a swamp logger perhaps therefore becomes as much about sticking it to the snobs who are looking down on my life as a semi-employed electrician or plumber as it is about any desires about the work itself. Maybe.

Moreover, it seems to me that the crisis of masculinity, something historians claim for basically every period in American history, is getting really played out as a way to structure the past or the present. Such a claim is strongest in the Progressive Era because Roosevelt and others were talking about it so openly. But even here, this is about upper-class masculinity. That may well conflict with working-class masculinity but the latter is never in crisis within the public discourse and usually not within the historical conversation either. I’m not sure we can call the hipster class privileged in the same way that we could about elites in the past, but certainly these are largely highly educated people articulating very specific desires here in ways that perhaps working class people don’t have the cultural capital to do. But like with our lumbersexuals, I’m not sure that a lot of what historians talk about as a crisis of masculinity, outside of those Progressive Era upper class men, really is one. Here I think it’s a very different phenomena and I think that’s largely true in the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era as well (James Dean’s father wearing an apron in Rebel Without a Cause notwithstanding)

Still, if people really do want to be lumbersexuals, might I suggest something about the impact of sex and logging life among early twentieth-century loggers? A crisis of masculinity or not, this is all about having an authentic experience, defined of course by the person having the experience. Now as we know, I have been declared an expert on loggers’ sexuality by some of America’s finest intellectuals, such as Robert Stacy McCain. So let me share a story. This is the first paragraph of Chapter 1 from my logging manuscript:

In 1917, a new logger came into an Oregon timber camp. His new boss assigned him to a typical bunkhouse, crowded with eighty other worker in bunks. Those eighty men shared one sink and one towel. Unfortunately for his bunkmates, this new worker had untreated gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe his infected body. In the wet mountains the towel never dried and the gonorrhea culture stayed alive. Not knowing of their new coworker’s disease, the men continued to use the towel. Soon, an outbreak of gonorrhea set in the workers’ eyes.

This was reported by a Red Cross doctor investigating conditions in the timber camps that led to so many loggers becoming Wobblies and going on strike. The combination of loggers purchasing the services of prostitutes because they were too mobile to marry and unsanitary conditions led to this horrifying and disgusting outbreak of eye clap. So if lumbersexuals really want an authentic experience of early 20th century logging, I have lots of suggestions on how to do so.

Enact the Best Policy You Can And Hope (And Fight) For the Best

[ 78 ] December 11, 2014 |

My epic column on the various terrible arguments about the ACA being a mistake advanced by Democratic public officials is up. (Remarkably, the Harkin comments seem to be getting renewed attention this week by people determined to demonstrate that the “Obama could have gotten Congress to nationalize the health insurance industry but didn’t. even. try! is, sadly, not a strawman.) The brutal truth is that good policy has never been a guarantee of good electoral results:

Again, it’s worth putting things in historical perspective. The problem with waiting for the perfect, risk-free time to pass major reform legislation is that there’s never a perfect time. There have been three major periods of progressive reform legislation in Congress between the Civil War and 2008. (The fact that there have been only three should give pause to those who think that Obama, Reid, and Nancy Pelosi are worthless sellouts because they failed to completely transform the American political economy in Obama’s first two years.) In 1966, Great Society Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate, a preview of the crack-up of the Democratic coalition that would (with a detour created by Watergate) lead to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1938, New Deal Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, and this tally doesn’t account for the failure of FDR’s efforts to defeat anti-New Deal Democrats in the primaries. In 1874, the Reconstruction-era Republicans lost 93 (out of 293) seats in the House and a net of seven seats in the Senate, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Does this mean that Lyndon Johnson shouldn’t have signed the Civil Rights Act? That FDR should have waited until he didn’t need Southern segregationists to pass New Deal legislation? That Republicans should have nominated Andrew Johnson rather than Ulysses S. Grant in 1868? Of course not.

The perfect response to these kind of arguments was made by Pelosi: “We come here to do a job, not keep a job. There are more than 14 million reasons why that’s wrong.” This is exactly right. The window for progressive reform in the United States is always narrow and treacherous — you get the best you can get when you have the chance. The unpopularity of the greatest progressive achievement passed by Congress in nearly five decades is unfortunate, but misguided Monday-morning quarterbacking isn’t the right response.

There was an additional discussion of recent results that got cut because the piece had already exceeded the usual limits, but to be clear I’m not advancing a completely deterministic or structural theory of electoral outcomes. Choices matter at the margins, and in 2010 in particular the Democrats performed to towards the bad end of the plausible spectrum of results. But there was no politically viable course of action that could have been worth a swing of 50 House seats in 2010 or saved the Senate in 2014. The federal elections that were close enough to be affected by legislative choices since the passage of the ACA, the Democrats won.

There is a dark side to the historical perspective — we don’t know what will happen to the ACA. It might not only endure but be eventually built on and further improved, like most of the central programs of the New Deal. It might at least hang in there, like most of the key programs of the Great Society. Or conservatives in the judiciary, hostile statehouses, and eventually Congress might roll it back as happened with Reconstruction. The fight is far from over. But the solution is not to wait for the perfect circumstances, because they don’t exist.

The upper middle class

[ 99 ] December 11, 2014 |

Chris Rock, New York magazine interview:

For all the current conversation about income inequality, class is still sort of the elephant in the room.

Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see the Virgin Airlines first-class lounge,* they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?

*Offers spa treatments, “expert mixologists,” and, at Heathrow, a “lodge and viewing deck” with an “après-ski vibe.”

Once a social system has moved all or nearly all of its members above the level of brute starvation, wealth and poverty soon become inherently relative concepts, but that doesn’t make them any less real. One of the consequences of living in an extremely rich country which features increasingly extreme wealth stratification is that people who would have been considered rich fifteen minutes ago are suddenly part of the “upper middle class.”

Take, for example, what has happened to economic relations within the American university. It’s well known that American colleges and universities must increase their operating budgets every year at rates faster than inflation because of reasons, and therefore it becomes inevitable, given the contemporary economic structure of the country as a whole, that these institutions will spend enormous amounts of time and money currying favor with super-wealthy potential donors. Giving money to a “non-profit” educational institution provides the masters of the universe with sweet tax breaks, while allowing them to indulge in the ego-gratifying pleasures of plastering their names all over various buildings and centers and even whole schools and colleges.

And so it has come to pass that the highest-paid people within universities (aside from some football and men’s basketball coaches, which is a subject for another day) are those employees who are responsible for, respectively, kowtowing before the great and the good, and investing the proceeds gathered up by successful administrative mendicants.

Thus the highest-paid employee of Columbia University is this guy, who runs the school’s endowment, and who was paid more than five million dollars in FY2013 for his trouble.

Meanwhile the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, had to scrape by on a hair under $3.4 million in total compensation. (Bollinger was one of 36 presidents of American private colleges and universities who were paid more than one million dollars last year).

Bollinger got into academic life more than 40 years ago as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s law school. By 1979 he was a full professor, and was pulling down $31,500 per year ($103,000 in 2014$). The following year the university’s new president, Harold Shapiro, earned a salary of $75,000 ($215,000 in 2014$).

Now the thing is I bet Lee Bollinger doesn’t feel very rich, despite the fact that he makes, in real, inflation-adjusted terms, more money every two weeks than he did in an entire year back when he was a full professor at an elite law school, before he got into the administrative rackets (Bollinger was provost at Dartmouth and president of Michigan before ascending to his present position).

After all Bollinger’s job consists largely of hobnobbing with people who “earn” more in two weeks than he makes in year. And some of those people make less in a year than some other people make every two weeks.

Which is how an academic who makes three and a half million per year ends up feeling sort of “upper middle class.”

Today in America’s Internal Colony

[ 68 ] December 11, 2014 |

Taxation without Representation:

The developments capped a roller-coaster 24 hours in the worst possible way for advocates of the District’s marijuana measure.

Late Monday, congressional aides had floated the possibility that the spending deal would include a provision sought by conservative House Republicans to block the voter-approved measure.

By midday Tuesday, it appeared negotiators had found middle ground to legalize possession of marijuana but to allow no further action by D.C. officials to create a regulatry system for legal sales and taxation of the plant.

But many warned that the partial constraints might prove to be a worse outcome, potentially leading to chaos for lawmakers and police officers trying to rewrite and enforce city drug laws.

For conservatives, it’s always about keeping big government out of the lives of everyday people and allowing them to set their own decisions. Right? That’s what they say anyway and surely we should believe them.

Artists in the Mist

[ 110 ] December 11, 2014 |

Hey, folks, I don’t think we’ve ever done a formal “artists in our midst” thread, so I wanted to do one today. Show us your photography, paintings, pics, poetry, plays, etchings, or dinosaur erotica. Do we have artists in our midst? Don’t be shy–show us your stuff.

The Nicest Man in Texas

[ 92 ] December 11, 2014 |

Rick Perry is a very nice man:

Despite a significant rise in income inequality in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is arguing that it’s not something the state ought to be worried about.

“We don’t grapple with that here,” Perry told The Washington Post in a recent interview, while acknowledging that the state’s richest residents have seen the greatest spike in earnings.

“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he added, an apparent reference to Mark 14:7. While Perry takes the message from the Bible to mean poverty is hopeless and therefore not worth grappling with, Jesus Christ was actually delivering a different lesson: “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good,” the Son of God advises in the King James version of the Bible.

Yet the Biblical shoulder-shrugging is consistent with what Perry said while briefly running for president in 2011, when he proposed a tax plan that would have helped wealthy Americans while potentially raising the taxes of lower- and middle-income people.

“I don’t care about that,” Perry said when asked by The New York Times about the effect on income inequality. “If that’s what comes, I’ll take that criticism.”

Have to give him credit though. This should raise his standing in the 2016 Republican primary.

Today in the Machinery of Death

[ 16 ] December 11, 2014 |

Robert Wayne Hosley was executed Tuesday night:

Holsey was represented at his murder trial by an alcoholic lawyer who was under investigation at the time for stealing from a client and who drank a quart of vodka every night of the trial.

He was sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of a police officer. The Georgia supreme court refused to stay the execution and the US supreme court also declined to intervene.

Even in a capital system that has seen its fair share of incompetent and negligent legal representation, the story of Holsey’s 1997 trial stands out as particularly egregious. His attorney, Andy Prince, had a history of heavy drinking since the age of 14.

Every night during the trial he drank the equivalent of more than 20 shots of vodka. He was also under police investigation at the time for having stolen more than $100,000 from a client – a theft for which he was convicted soon after Holsey’s trial ended, sentenced to 10 years in prison and disbarred from practising the law.

As a further indication of his mind not being entirely focused on Holsey’s life-and-death legal struggle, shortly before trial Price was arrested for disorderly conduct and accused of threatening to shoot three black neighbours to whom he was shouting racial slurs. Price was white and his capital client defendant black.


Holsey’s current lawyer, Brian Kammer, has argued that Price’s alcohol-sodden incompetence was not merely academic – it effectively put Holsey on death row. A key piece of information about Holsey, that should have been emphasised at the sentencing phase of his trial, was that he was intellectually disabled with a level of functioning equivalent to a nine-year-old.

Why should a little thing like the lack of effective counsel get in the way of a good execution?

Back from Brasilia…

[ 5 ] December 10, 2014 |

Thoughts from the day of no sleep:

  • Some cities acquire charm through age and decay. Brasilia is not one of these cities.
  • There’s a great deal of very interesting thinking on the future of warfare going on in Brazilian military circles. More on that later.
  • The hard sell is definitely the order of the day in the shopping mall, but fortunately it founders on the language gap (“Eu nao falo Portuguese”). In the local outdoor market, vendors were friendlier, much less aggressive.
  • Watching Andy Dalton fumble in Portuguese was every bit as entertaining as you would expect.
  • The food…IMG_2933
  • And the drink…IMG_2961


[ 23 ] December 10, 2014 |

Worth remembering who influenced Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, the CIA, and all the other architects of American torture:

The United States knows quite a bit about waterboarding. The U.S. government — whether acting alone before domestic courts, commissions and courts-martial or as part of the world community — has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it.

After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war. At the trial of his captors, then-Lt. Chase J. Nielsen, one of the 1942 Army Air Forces officers who flew in the Doolittle Raid and was captured by the Japanese, testified: “I was given several types of torture. . . . I was given what they call the water cure.” He was asked what he felt when the Japanese soldiers poured the water. “Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning,” he replied, “just gasping between life and death.”

Nielsen’s experience was not unique. Nor was the prosecution of his captors. After Japan surrendered, the United States organized and participated in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, generally called the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Leading members of Japan’s military and government elite were charged, among their many other crimes, with torturing Allied military personnel and civilians. The principal proof upon which their torture convictions were based was conduct that we would now call waterboarding.

In this case from the tribunal’s records, the victim was a prisoner in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies:

A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession.

The United States (like Britain, Australia and other Allies) pursued lower-ranking Japanese war criminals in trials before their own tribunals. As a general rule, the testimony was similar to Nielsen’s. Consider this account from a Filipino waterboarding victim:

Q: Was it painful?

A: Not so painful, but one becomes unconscious. Like drowning in the water.

Q: Like you were drowning?

A: Drowning — you could hardly breathe.

Here’s the testimony of two Americans imprisoned by the Japanese:

They would lash me to a stretcher then prop me up against a table with my head down. They would then pour about two gallons of water from a pitcher into my nose and mouth until I lost consciousness.

And from the second prisoner: They laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. . . . They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was almost impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water.

As a result of such accounts, a number of Japanese prison-camp officers and guards were convicted of torture that clearly violated the laws of war. They were not the only defendants convicted in such cases. As far back as the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for using the “water cure” to question Filipino guerrillas.

The Bush Administration’s respect for human rights during times of war: worse than during the conquest of the Philippines.

But America is awesome, so whatever.

“They Should Have Made Sure Ed Brooke and John Chafee Were On Board Before They Went Forward.”

[ 26 ] December 10, 2014 |

Ah, Bob Kerrey, the Democratic senator from Nebraska who makes Ben Nelson look good.

Of course, I blame Obama for not creating bipartisan comity by joining with receptive congressional Republicans to pass the Republican agenda, as Kerrey so sagely suggested.

Relatedly, I’m glad Atrios salvaged this classic from the archives.

The Opium Power

[ 37 ] December 10, 2014 |


The aftermath of the Civil War brought on America’s first drug epidemic. The massive amount of pain caused by the war, both spiritually and physically, led to a wave of opium usage. Dealing with dead loved ones, the pain of being shot, PTSD issues, missing limbs–all of this created the need to numb that pain. While morphine and other opium derivatives certainly did the job, they also caused a lot of problems and it didn’t take long for commenters to note that this was an enemy that needed to be fought. That this coincided with the rising temperance movement certainly didn’t dissuade this campaign. It also shaped it in odd ways. On January 6, 1878, the New York Times published an article titled “The Opium Habit’s Power.” Most of it consisted of the usual opium is bad stuff. But then the author compared it to alcohol. And in that section of the article, it sounds almost like an endorsement of opium:

Far from disordering the mental faculties as wine and spiritous liquors do, opium, in its immediate effect, strengthens the mind, composes what has been agitated, and communicates calm and serenity to all the faculties. Alcohol robs a man of his self-possession, deprives him for the time being of his intellect; opium, on the contrary, controls the passions, and imparts additional vigor to his thoughts. Liquor generally arouses the animal, the brutal part of man’s nature, but opium subdues this completely and in its place awakens the diviner part and brings into full activity all the nobler emotions of the human heart. The writer knows of a case where an habituate was constantly under the influence of opium, at times taking potential doses, yet on no occasion could anyone detect this fact either in his manner or his conversation, and whatever may have been his trials, sufferings, and anguish, he was always able to perform his professional duties, without giving the slightest evidence of his infirmity.

So, like, where do I get some of that? This piece reminds me of the gentlemen’s guides created during this era that told everyone where the brothels were by supposedly warning men not to go this particular building which has these particular bad ladies. Given that it is the Times, it probably isn’t actually endorsing opium, but it sure takes a rather odd way of doing that.

“The Occasionally Repulsive Gift That Keeps on Giving”

[ 60 ] December 10, 2014 |

The above quote is how Michael Powell describes the NFL in this Times article on the horrible treatment of the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleaders, a problem experienced by these workers through the NFL.

Supervisors ordered the cheerleaders, known as the Buffalo Jills, to warm up in a frigid, grubby stadium storeroom that smelled of gasoline. They demanded that cheerleaders pay $650 for uniforms. They told the cheerleaders to do jumping jacks to see if flesh jiggled.

The Jills were required to attend a golf tournament for sponsors. The high rollers paid cash — “Flips for Tips” — to watch bikini-clad cheerleaders do back flips. Afterward, the men placed bids on which women would ride around in their golf carts.

A not-incidental detail: The carts had no extra seats. Women clung to the back or, much more to the point, were invited to sit in the men’s laps.

For these and more humiliations, and for hundreds of hours of work and practices, Alyssa and her fellow cheerleaders on the Buffalo Jills received not a penny of wages, not from the subcontractor and certainly not from the Buffalo Bills, a team that each year makes revenue in excess of $200 million.

I’m sure if more cities would fund the stadiums of billionaire owners, they’d finally have enough to pay cheerleaders a living wage. Or, you know, any wage. The Bills are only team to pay the cheerleaders nothing, but most pay them horribly.

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