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U.S. could use more girlie men

Published August 20, 2006

Deadwood is one of my favorite programs. Set in a South Dakota gold mining camp in the 1870s, it grittily explores the way human beings organize themselves when consigned to a lawless territory that attracts miscreants, varmints and vultures.

A recent episode had an especially insightful moment when all the leaders of the camp were called to an important meeting without an invitation proffered to the female owner of the camp's only bank. Alma Garret could have all the money in the world, but because she has two X chromosomes (a distinction more graphically described in the show), she wasn't about to have a voice in camp affairs.

The writers were right. Testosterone-laden Deadwood is not a welcome place for women. When the law is determined by the number of gunslingers on your side, women don't flourish. But neither do men, certainly not men of learning or ability. Which is why Deadwood, as its name suggests, is doomed.

I mention this because I've been feeling lately that the world has suddenly gone all male - Deadwood-male to be exact. And this is not a good sign for civilization.

Although I consider myself a feminist, I'm not the man-hating kind. Men have clearly been at the forefront of nearly all the great advances in science, medicine and humanist thought.

We understand the physical forces of the world thanks to Isaac Newton and the natural ones thanks to Charles Darwin. There wouldn't have been an Enlightenment without John Locke or Voltaire. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela remind us that compassion and a taste for social justice are found in both sexes.

I also believe that men and women are more similar than they are different.

Still, those who would glorify violence and the law of the streets are thought of as masculine for a reason. Dirty Harry never said, Let's talk about it.

Fighting terrorism has steeped us in a social psychology that is palpably different from our 50-year battle with the Soviet bear. There is something more aggressively mano a mano about fighting Islamic extremists. And that difference has been exploited by our leaders to justify knocking down the rules of civilization, such as the Geneva Conventions, as being too effete. The claim is we must respond to the terrorists' lack of humanity by throwing out our own standards. The result is a vicious cycle of ever-deepening depravity (Let's talk secret CIA prisons).

Yet this dirty, street-fighting paradigm has fit perfectly with George Bush's swaggering cowboy approach to geopolitics. Bush likes his enemies in black hats and hiding in the brush. For Bush, justice gets meted out when the good guys take matters into their own hands and don't wait for lawyers with fancy words like "due process."

But what you never see is that when the hero rides into the sunset, the real work of rebuilding a society is left behind.

The Deadwood hero leaves bodies in the thoroughfare, while the reality hero tries to prevent the bloodshed in the first place. The Deadwood hero is a vigilante, while the reality hero understands the inherent value of a society dictated by the rule of law. The Deadwood hero is impulsive, aggressive and macho, while the reality hero is a rational consensus-builder with an intelligent plan of action.

Under a curtain of fear from terrorism, we have been manipulated into thinking that our national security depends on casting our lot with a Deadwood hero, when in fact it lies with the other.

International affairs professor Gary Bertsch at the University of Georgia - he is also director of the Center for International Trade and Security - puts it forthrightly: "The Bush administration has relied on hard power (militarism) rather than diplomacy (soft power) and it has been very costly. It is reshaping the view that the rest of the world has of the United States as a responsible power."

Bertsch says it is in our national interest to put much more emphasis on dialogue, give and take and negotiation over military dominance. Otherwise, he warns, our allies will soon no longer regard the United States as a model to follow.

Deadwood societies are anti-intellectual havens of selfishness and triumphalism, where warfare and violence are extolled and the feminine ethos of cooperation, understanding and forbearance are disparaged as weak. There is little doubt that many Muslim subgroups fit this mold. Their men would rather shoot guns at ancient enemies than build a modern society. But it is also true that our nation has adopted more of this aspect under Bush than we would like to admit.

Almost nothing could be more damaging to our future prosperity or security. A Deadwood society will never foster positive social change or human advancement. Its focus on force will evoke more violence. Its contempt for intellectuals will silence reason. And if we continue to inch down this road, our fate will be just as bleak as that of the residents of that muddy street in that grimy town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 20:21:09]

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