What’s the Story? Political Violence and Masculinity

When men engage in this “look at me, godammit” public violence, there is a menu of predictable responses. The man was mentally ill. The man was the captive of a dangerous narrative. The man was a racist. The man was a xenophobe. The man was enabled by The Great Leader and his malignant monkey tweets. All of this may be simultaneously true. But for now, let’s drop the predicates and begin with “the man.”

In Borderline — Reflections of War, Sex, and Church, I wrote, “War is implicated in masculinity. Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women. . .” masculinity here being a telos, a story, a set of norms, a comportment, and an ideology pertaining to men and women. Women, because femininity is masculinity’s defining opposite . . . what masculinity is not.

It is a story, because human beings are storied. We reconstruct ourselves “into” stories well before we reconstruct ourselves into concepts or a set of propositions. And living into a story — about what men are supposed to be or become — involves an ending, mainly one that involves the thing that survives us for a moment after we shuffle off this mortal coil . . . reputation. That makes the masculine story teleological.

Masculinity is a set of norms applied by cultural consensus to biological men, as femininity is a set of norms applied by cultural consensus to biological women. This is true well before any counter-cultural consensus that portrays masculinity as a kind of personality expression divorced from power, “butch” and “femme,” e.g.; and that is why sexual minorities are vilified by the same consensus that applies masculinity to males and femininity to females.

Non-binary people “queer” the pitch of compulsory heterosexuality — the ideological and political basis of the masculine-feminine binary. They threaten the order of compulsory heterosexuality — a term well defined in the canonical essay by the same name penned by Adrienne Rich in 1980 (Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence).

In Borderline, the main thesis is that war creates particular forms of masculinity that through dissemination by conquest become hegemonic in all societies that are fundamentally based on warfare.

Violence itself is in many respects efficacious, and that very effectuality leads to its political and cultural establishment. It’s a kind of historical Catch-22 if you have issues, as I do, with war. Violence makes for effective power, and effective power makes for its own reproduction.

All war is inescapably an obscenity, perhaps men’s most defining obscenity. Participation in war as a combatants overwhelmingly tends toward the moral degradation of that combatant. There are exceptions, but this is certainly the rule. War always lowers the moral bar for us all, but for combatants in particular. Historically, and still quite overwhelmingly, combatants are men.

The warlike character of modernity is inflected in the whole gamut of particular masculinities, and that warlike character has become hegemonic throughout the world. Therefore, each society within modernity shares between itself and others certain transcultural traits that are performative of a hegemonic masculinity — the masculinity of conquest. Conquest masculinity.

War is violent conquest, counter-conquest, or re-conquest. In war, that conquest is aimed ultimately at territory and people, but we understand conquest in war-metaphors as well. A politician or business mogul might announce his intention to “conquer cyberspace,” for example. Non-military people use conquest metaphors in everyday speech. The entire culture is completely micro-toxified with militarism.

Hegemonic white masculinity in our era, since the long sixteenth century until the present, has aimed that teleology of conquest at three targets: colonies to sustain accumulation, (objectified) nature to extract cheap feedstocks for accumulation, and women . . . women who are defined into Nature (and objectified) within the culture-nature dichotomy . . . women who provide even the little white man with his own little white man colony of women and children . . . and women whose unpaid work and enculturation to the care of others sustains accumulation.

Conquest defines that masculinity, and builds on prior masculinities, forged in war, that valorize armed combat as life’s most virtuous (read — masculinity-probative) practice. War reproduces conquest masculinity, and conquest masculinity reproduces war.

“That’s some catch . . .”

The most common comeback to my thesis about masculinity is some variant of biological determinism. Men talking about lions and bulls and primates and testicles and so on to justify their power.

I would remind them here that in 1990 Lisa Share and Robert Sapolsky, neurobiololgists studying baboon troops for the physiological symptoms of stress, observed a troop that had been run by violent large males. All members reflected the stress initiated by the bullying males with outbursts of violence at each other. Then the troop ran across some beef that had been left at a facility. The meat was infected with bovine tuberculosis. The dominant males always ate first, and they consumed all the prized meat.

Then they all died horribly. Pretty rough justice.

Share and Sapolsky returned to observe the same troop again in 1993, and the troop had replenished its male-female balance — female baboons adopt adolescent males into the troop. But the troop was surprisingly cooperative and pacific even with replacement males. The culture of violence had ended with the deaths of the dominant and violently-enculturated males. Share and Sapolsky wrote a study on this, called “The Emergence of Peaceful Culture in Baboons.” My point is that even among these “lower” primates, biological determination has already lost substantial ground to cultural determination. I hope our transformation as human males — speaking as one — is perhaps not so rough a justice.


David Clines developed a quickie checklist for hegemonic white American masculinity.

First — do not be like a woman.

Second — be successful.

Third — be aggressive.

Fourth — be sexual.

Fifth — be self-reliant.

Now. Think of the public persona of Donald Trump. Just add “be white.”


Nancy C.M. Hartsock, wrote in 1985 about the masculine sexual sadism that eroticizes the degradation and humiliation of women, a sadism grafted onto the sexuality of many if not most men. Money, Sex, and Power was the title of that book, and it also addressed the masculine teleology of reputation. Referencing both the Heroic Age and psychoanalysis, she wrote, “the highest good for the warrior-hero is not . . . a quiet conscience, but enjoyment of public esteem, and through this esteem, immortality.”

At the end of the day, or the end of a life, what shall they say about me, and what do I want them to say about me?

“He was not like a woman, he was successful, he was aggressive, he was sexual, and he was self-reliant. He was . . . a real man.”

If your goal is to be “not like a woman,” women are de facto devalued. They are anti-value, what you despise in yourself more than anything are precisely “feminine” traits. These traits constitute a threatening pollutant to masculinity. This precognitive sense-of-the-masculine is far more powerful than we give it credit for. Remember that the latest bump in the polls for Republicans — now the open party of white male supremacy — came after Republican leaders joined in an attack on women.

Every day, the real man’s reputation is on the line; so if there is no war to be a warrior, the daily maintenance of one’s reputation is accomplished with aggression in posture, gait, facial expression, clothing, the threat displays in one’s gestures, one’s t-shirt logos, bumper stickers, big metallica trucks, scary tattoos, and through the symbolic probative violence of macho language during all-male rituals and confabs.

This male playacting is Methodist, not the Protestant confession, but method acting. The actor inhabits the role, but the blocking and the scripts are predetermined. This is why the story is so critical. For those men — the core of the Trump-cult phenomenon — who still, wittingly or by long habituation, make masculinity their central vocation.

When you know the story, you’ll know the man.

And many men make masculinity their vocation. It determines how they relate to every other aspect of their lives.

Timothy McVeigh’s story was The Turner Diaries. Paul Ryan’s story was Atlas Shrugged. For Hitler, it was Jünger’s Fire and Blood. Donald Trump likes martial arts movies, gangster films, and spaghetti westerns. Cesar Sayoc followed theatrical wrestling. Robert Bowers, we don’t know yet, but we do know he spent a great deal of time watching television. The specific stories will tell the tale.

And all of it . . . all of it is a war story.



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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”