Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Three cheers for phallocracy!

By Robin Lakoff

I have been listening to all the arguments, pro and con, about military intervention in Syria, and I will of course be listening to the President's speech. But to date I find much of the rhetoric from the President and his supporters, Congress, and the punditry not merely unpersuasive, but intellectually obtuse and even morally dubious.

There are several reasons why I find the discourse shocking. First, it ignores what must be the basic consideration in questions of this kind: peace must always be the default.

This means that the arguments for war must not only numerically outnumber those for peace, but they must also outweigh them morally and intellectually. That is very far from the case here.

Some of the arguments against intervention:

  1. Make war only when your own stuff – persons, property, or territory – are directly threatened. In this case, none of that is true.
  2. Avoid intervention in civil wars. They are none of your business and tend to end badly. Remember Vietnam?
  3. Do not intervene when you do not understand the culture in which you will be intervening.
  4. Do not intervene when the populace already hates you. No matter what you do, intervening will only increase their hatred.
  5. Do not intervene when both sides are despicable, especially when the side you propose to support is likely to be even worse than the current leadership, given the chance.
  6. Do not get into a war when you are in no position to afford such adventures.
  7. On the other side, surprisingly few arguments have been brought forth:

    1. The children! The children!
    2. U.S. "credibility" is at stake.
    3. The President's manhood is in jeopardy if we don't do what he wants.
    4. These arguments are not only obviously fewer than those on the other side, but are childish at best. The argument that we must intervene because Bashar al-Assad has (in all probability) used poison gas which has killed (among others) children is purely an exercise in emotional manipulativeness: a form of the rhetorical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem. Of course, the use of gas is reprehensible – but how much more reprehensible than our use of nuclear weapons in World War II or napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam?

      The "children" argument would ring especially hollow if Americans had longer memories. In 1982 Bashar's father Hafez, a member of the minority Alawite sect of Islam, in an attempt to destroy the majority Sunnis in Syria  sent his army to the town of Hama, a Sunni stronghold. With hoses they piped cyanide gas into private homes, killing everyone inside… including, of course, many children.

      The dead numbered far more than after the most recent such attack, and it seems to me that piping gas into houses is even more horrific (if these things can be weighed against each other in any meaningful way) than merely spraying people randomly with gas.  Yet our then president, Ronald Reagan, never so much as suggested that we get involved – although Reagan could be pretty pugnacious: Go ahead, make my day.

      The other arguments on the list are, if anything, even more dubious. (Dubiouser and dubiouser, one might say.) Both could be subsumed under a new category of rhetorical fallacy, as argumenta ad mentulam. (Mentula is a Latin word for "penis.") Somebody's manhood or potency is at stake if we don't act. America will look like a wimp, a "powerless, helpless giant," in the Vietnam-era phrase; the President will appear weak and lose his, you know, gravitas (where gravitas is a euphemism for mentula).

      These are purely political arguments about symbolic power of one sort or another, and as such carry no weight against a policy likely to eventuate in the loss of many more American lives and dreams, in one way or another – not to mention causing even more death and destruction in Syria than Assad and his opponents have caused already.

      But if the pundit class must weigh in with domestic political arguments, here's one I have not heard discussed: suppose (as is all too likely, given recent history) that we enter the war with no "boots on the ground," but inevitably those boots show up before very long. And pretty soon we are stuck in another quagmire from which we cannot extricate ourselves with dignity or success, with great loss of "blood and treasure" to no discernible purpose. Then … it's 2014! And which party do you suppose will bear the brunt of the blame? Are Democrats (including Nancy Pelosi) ready to trade the possibility of regaining the House for salvaging the President's mentula?

      If we are considering domestic politics, though, here is the clincher for me: It is estimated that around 90% of Americans in virtually every Congressional district are opposed to intervention. In that case, how dare Congress and the President to act as if their only job were to figure out a way to override popular objections? How dare they resort to base emotional manipulation, both of "the children" sort and "our manhood" sort, when they know there is no genuine  case to be made?

      If we are won over by this rhetoric, the United States has changed from a democracy to a phallocracy: a government of illegitimate macho power, by and for the same.