Over and over it happens, like incurable migraine. A public figure slips up and says something that One Doesn’t Say, something that upsets one tribe or other of the sacred and sensitive — blacks, Jews, women, homosexuals, American Indians. The offender is always a white male. The press attack him like hyenas dragging down a crippled zebra. Invariably, he apologizes profusely, squirming and abasing himself. Invariably he says he didn’t mean it, though invariably he did. Invariably he reminds me of nothing so much as a puppy who knows he shouldn’t have wet the rug.
It is positively kinky. It is D&S, domination and submission, which is sadomasochism without the whips but with the same delight in abasement and abasing.
Truth has nothing to do with these curious performances. When the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, said that men were better than women at mathematics, he was stating a fact, well settled among those in the field and consonant with historical performance and current experience. (And if he had been wrong, so what?) Yet he spent weeks publicly writhing and licking the feet of any woman who couldn’t outrun him.
It wasn’t honest apology. It was something much more twisted.
Nor are justice and decency even innocent bystanders. Just now someone called Don Imus, a radio jock whom I have never heard, is wriggling on the rug and ritually whimpering. It seems that he described some black girls’ basketball team as nappy-haired hos. Offensive, yes, but if a black woman had said something similar of a white boys’ basketball team, if there were any, nothing would have happened. These little circuses are about power, humiliation, and nothing else.
Note further that many of these submissives did not need to submit. I doubt that Larry Summers would have faced destitution if he had simply said, Facts are facts. Would you like to examine the evidence? Instead he willingly — I am inclined to say eagerly — groveled. It would hardly have been worse if he had paraded about in diapers. (I can only assume that he didn’t think of it.)
What is really going on here?
A couple of decades back in Washington I stumbled onto a social club of hobbyist sadomasochists. An interesting group — nice folk actually, utterly harmless, and safe around children, but they enjoyed whipping each other. Although their parties looked impressively wicked, they were less dangerous than driving in rush hour.
They flagellators were heavy on Catholics and Jews, which they explained as having something to do with a sense of guilt, and heavy on programmers. They were highly intelligent. (Maybe you can’t be twisted unless you have something to twist.)
I of course had heard of sadomasochism, but hadn’t thought about it much, and regarded it as a kink that a few people had and everybody else didn’t. The people in the club had thought about it. They believed that dominance and submission constitute a profound well of human behavior, present to some extent in all. They insisted that the same drives that led them to paddle each other were easily discerned in people who had no idea why there were behaving as they were.
I asked them what proportion of the population had such tendencies to any great extent. They didn’t know. People do not readily reveal their sexual fantasies. However, they pointed to the popularity of kinky books like The Story of O, to clearly sadomasochistic overtones in all manner of movies and literature, and to the large amounts of kinky porn on the web. More to the point here, they said that the need to dominate or submit (or both at different times) doesn’t always take overtly sexual form.
I shortly lost touch with them, but began watching for evidence. It was there. For example, I remembered some committee hearing I had attended on the Hill — probably of the House Armed Services Committee. One of the members burst into slavering, flowery, sycophantic praise of the chairman. There was no obvious reason for it. I found it embarrassing. The chairman then slapped him down, humiliatingly, in front of a room full of people. At the time it struck me as truly strange. Men usually don’t treat each other that way without blows being exchanged. Later I decided that kinky was the right word.
There is much of this in the military. It is one thing to have a boss and follow orders. It is another to stand at rigid attention in front of your boss, feet at a forty-five degree angle, thumbs along the seams of your trousers, motionless, staring straight ahead, and waiting until such time as your boss says, At ease.
It isn’t discipline. It is D&S.
In the more usual example, either blacks are humiliating white men, whom they do not like, or women are humiliating men, whom they do not like. (Yes, yes, degrees and exceptions.) Note the efforts here and there to remove urinals to make men sit down to pee, or the recording in the men’s room of the restaurant warning men, in a female voice, not to drive drunk.
Of course outright, non-hobbyist sadism runs strongly through human behavior, as any reader of history must notice. The burning alive of witches and heretics, often while fully conscious, was long practiced by Christianity. Such things drew large crowds. Bullfighting is an ornamented form of torturing cattle. Frequently, torture has been engaged in for the sheer fun of it, as in the case of American Indians. Beheading has always been a crowd-pleaser. Railroading Don Imus is hardly in the same category, but the underlying drive is the same.
The press, without whom none of this would happen, are not just hypocritical. They positively revel in watching the victims crawl. Their indignation is bogus. I have known all manner of reporters and editors. Few of them are shocked, appalled, horrified and so on at slurs. They are not delicates. After forty years in a big-city newsroom, they know the score.
They also know that a lot of the alleged slurs aren’t. For example, when a white football coach says that blacks are better runners, it is (a) true and (b) a compliment. Yet when this happened, the response of the press always was a delighted Gotcha! after which they dog-packed the guy.
Finally, I notice that the ideal male of film and print of today is the metrosexual man, hairless, slender and adolescent, and chipmunk-faced — never John Wayne. Humphrey Bogart would have said, Can it, sister. Not Larry Summers, who seems more comfortable on his knees. We begin to make a Weimar bordello look staid.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.