On the eve of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court I found myself turning to the beginning of a chapter titled “America” from Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set the Boy Free. In remembering touring the U.S. with The Smiths, Marr writes of “…an alternative not only to the music scene… but to the obvious jock culture that championed all things mainstream and macho and marginalised minority groups. ….there was a whole generation of American boys who were dissatisfied with the model of masculinity they had been expected to conform to and that was irrelevant and totally out of date.”
I was reminded that before there was an alt-right, there was the original alt ethos. That ethos went beyond the anger of punk and forged a new path. It built on the foundation laid from the Beatles to Bowie and bands like The Smiths reached a measure of popularity while Brett Kavanaugh was enjoying so many bottles of beer at Yale.
The alt-ethos championed a model of person-hood that blended masculinity and femininity without apology, by which I mean explanation. It also blended and juxtaposed moods. It wasn’t for those who needed clear categories. It called out bullies in such a subtle way that they didn’t notice.
As I think about that ethos and the things that inspired my friends and me as we went off to college in the mid-80’s, I’m struck with the way that things don’t usually move steadily upwards. We sang along with Band-Aid, watched in disbelief as Bush got elected in spite of the Iran-contra scandal, and were propelled to “rock the vote” in ’92. After spending all of our formative years under Republican presidents, we heaved a sigh of relief. But the dynamics of power are hard to dismantle, and all human heroes have feet of clay in the end.
So we found ourselves desperate to buy Clinton’s argument about the meaning of “is,” to find away to dismiss the power dynamic between him and Monica Lewinsky, or to separate private acts from political ones. Deep down, we knew then that all prevalent forms of masculinity were toxic, but we resigned ourselves to the necessity of accepting “character flaws” related to testosterone. We didn’t realize what seeds had been sown.
Human nature renders us complacent and complicit. We deny its nasty core while enjoying those things we can celebrate. And who can blame us for wanting to see the cup half full at least some of the time? Suddenly, we are careening down hill wondering why we didn’t see beyond the myths that equality of the sexes and a color blind society had been basically attained.
Those were such enticing lies. Their half truths gave them the power to lull many of us while galvanizing those threatened by that progress. Fortunately, however, those who were appalled by the prevalence of blindness to their truths started to speak out, and they won’t fundamentally be denied.
I don’t hear anyone denying that rich boys under the influence of alcohol are likely to mistreat young women. Everyone agrees the scene described by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is plausible, even those who maintain it must have been someone other than Kavanaugh in the room.
We also can’t deny that both political parties have excused their heroes on whatever technicalities were at hand when it suited a larger goal. Complacent and complicit. We want to use power when it’s ours.
So while we are in a dark time, a time of disillusionment because we got a hateful misogynistic rich kid for a president instead of the first woman, and a contemptuous, entitled, self-absorbed rich kid for a Supreme Court Justice, I am taking some comfort in the fact that the beginnings of a way beyond stereotypical maleness – bullies, frat boys, etc.- started a long time ago.
I’m also wondering where the threads of that movement have gone and how they might be woven more tightly together. We will need to do that weaving if we are to be able re-knit our fractured society.
And we must start by listening to the boys from Manchester, which is to say, working class poets and whatever their equivalents, over the speeches of those to the manor born. Marr and Morrissey rejected the models of what a young man was supposed to be and created something wholly different. As they became men they had a really good time together sharing music and lyrics, musical genius was born, and a generation of misfits heard their stories being told. “16 clumsy and shy...”
How that dynamic stands in contrast to the “two friends having a really good time with one another,” described by Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony. Those boys, whose lives were characterized by academic and athletic competition, were having fun at the expense of someone less powerful. Their team of two subdued an “other” who they did not seem to recognize as a victim. Their uproarious laughter is hardwired in her memory, sealing her trauma.
What is at stake for our society is not merely the future of masculinity, though this must be worked out, but the future of what we value most. Will we remain enthralled by power, and excuse bad behavior in the pursuit of our goals? Will we give in to the temptation to laugh derisively at those we want to discount, discredit, and dismiss?
As a Christian, I’m challenged to follow the way of Jesus, who, at the moment of his betrayal, told Peter to put away his sword and healed the soldier’s ear. It’s hard to be a real Christian if that is the model. It’s easier to attack the other side with snarky memes on social media.
The way of Jesus is a way through and with the dead, the epitome of powerlessness. So “meet me at the cemetry gates” where we can gain some perspective and begin to envision a new kind of person-hood, one in which there is not merely a new model of masculinity, but something that goes beyond male and female, slave and free.
*Cemetry Gates is a song by The Smiths from the album The Queen is Dead, released in 1986.