The Obama/ Buttigieg Difference: On the Appeal of a Post-Patriarchal Masculinity

Amidst the rapidly growing pool of candidates for the democratic ticket in 2020, the relatively un-known, Pete Buttigieg, is making an un-expectedly big splash. “Mayor Pete” distinguishes himself in many ways — he’s the youngest candidate, an outside the beltway democrat from a red-state and, of course… he’s gay. People are also impressed with his grounded rhetoric — a down-home, reasoned and whip-smart common sense. Likened by more than a few to Barack Obama, Chris Cillizza writes: “Don’t look now, but (another) skinny kid with a funny name is turning heads in the presidential race.”

Like Obama, Buttigieg does have that remarkable ability to focus his sizable intelligence, (he’s a Rhodes scholar with a philosopher’s reflective interest in all-things-civic), on our complex political reality in readily, relatable ways. Also like Obama, he has that unflappable capacity to sound reassuring with every answer he offers, coming off cool no matter the curve ball.

But, I think there’s another reason why Buttigieg reassures us. Of all the candidates, he has something Obama had that’s essential to our future and yet that’s rare among men in leadership today: what I would describe as a post-patriarchal masculinity.

The “Last Gasp of Patriarchy”

Shortly after Trump’s election, when heads were reeling trying to make sense of what just happened, articles came out describing Trump’s bombastic, caricature of masculinity as a ‘last gasp of patriarchy’. That phrase haunted me for months until he took office. It begged two burning questions: What was going on in our country that this extreme form of back-lash had such traction, and what would a post-patriarchal man even look like?

It’s shocking how little this is talked about given what I believe is the current crisis of (white)masculinity in our country. We hear about the resurgence of white supremacy — a real concern — but less so about men’s insecurity, what’s actually going on with Trump’s base, or what might help us understand why its happening now ? The racist behavior is symptomatic of itself, of course — racism — but, more deeply still, it is symptomatic of a growing patriarchal fragility. Record levels of opioid addiction and suicide among men, along-side the threat posed by a steady erosion of white, male norms in an increasingly diverse America, is leaving so many white men feeling the irrelevance of their version of masculinity. Racism is, of course, one of many weapons that prop up patriarchal superiority and Trump’s “just beat the sh*$T out of them” stance promises to combat the growing vulnerability offering the ‘reassurance’ of the familiar for many men (and their enabling wives)at a time when an alternative model of masculinity has yet to be well established.

The second begged question in describing Trump as the “last gasp of patriarchy” spoke directly to this. What does a post-patriarchal masculinity actually look like?

Given the amount of ink that’s been (well) spent over the last fifty years sharing the shape of new voices on the other side of oppression — for women, LBGTQs and people of color — the dearth of writing about what post-patriarchal men look like, their values, their more authentic sense of themselves, their voice, is telling.

The radio silence here is joined by the silence around what it’s like today to be poor in America. To me, both silences reveal the great heist of the true-life stories that belong to those who may have been most insidiously silenced by patriarchal capitalism — the voices of economically strapped, white men.

I am someone who believes in post-patriarchal masculinity. I see it in select men, many of them older, quieter men who have grown over their years, but are past the prime when people really listen to them. I also see it younger, or middle-aged men who, through life circumstances or a choice of their own, (maybe encouraged over the years by the women in their lives who have loved them and raised the bar) have taken the journey to figure out who they really are. These men have questioned the masculine identity they were raised to assume. They’ve done so in much the same way many women and minorities have who have come to see, and transcend, the falsely adopted self-images they internalized from the mainstream culture of their childhood.

My journey as a feminist has had many chapters — all of them have involved seeing through something I was raised with and coming more fully into who I am. Men can do this too, and they need to be doing it more — for all of us. We also need to be recognizing the men who are doing it. Men who are changing.

And this is why I think it’s important to acknowledge, talk about, name and support those men we might consider post-patriarchal role-models, men, I believe, like Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg. Both men, I would suggest, share the reassuring capacity to point to a way out of the gordian knot of patriarchal masculinity that’s binding us to our current, disturbing fate.

What Makes a Post-Patriarchal Man?

Well, that’s a big question. Without enough research — or enough of their own voices out there — there’s no way to authoritatively answer, and, besides, any new form of identity that allows for authentic self-expression is necessarily a process, not an arrival at a named destination. That said, in the research I have done over the last two years, (both personal and academic), I would be inclined to point to three, key characteristics:

1. Partnership. Post-patriarchal masculinity understands the value of partnership over domination. Partnership means collaboration, coordination, the ability to negotiate an approach the world from the standpoint of relationship, recognizing as powerful what gets forged between people not the stance of domination and control over them. Renowned feminist writer, Riane Eisler, has made partnership the corner-stone of her writing for good reason. It is the single most important ingredient for change that signals a shift from patriarchy’s cornerstone, dominating practices. Partnership, when it shows up in leadership, means being able to hold the complexity of multiple points of view with confidence and sensitivity. It is the tension point that any leader today needs to effectively live in, and act from, in order to up-hold democracy’s future in na ever-diversifying world.

2. Shedding the skin of their “fathers”. By this, I don’t literally mean letting go of their fathers, nor do I mean that all claims to masculinity are tossed. Rather, men who exemplify a post-patriarchal sensibility have honestly grappled — in a way that takes them to their core — with their own patriarchal inheritance. This was clearly a deep thread influencing the development of Obama’s moral character, which he wrote about in his autobiography, (and was well-portrayed in the movie, Barry). Obama wrestled with his absent and aloof yet, as he eventually saw it, insecure father, and with the approach to authority and power he encountered in his step-father. Somehow, working through the impact of these men on him, and his subsequent struggle to find out what kind of man he was, had a foundational impact on who he became, as a man and a politician.

As a gay man, I would expect Buttigieg has come about his reflection on patriarchal masculinity differently. His father appears to have be a kind, humanitarian, Episcopalian academic, perhaps himself a post-patriarchal fore-runner who planted a seed for his son. (He very recently passed away.) Rather, Buttigieg has lived in the liminal zone relegated for LGBTQ Americans who have been forced into a confrontation with the gender binary (e.g. men should look and act this way, women should look and act that way) — this binary is the second cornerstone practice that lives at the core of patriarchy’s social engineering.

I do not know Buttigieg’s “coming out’ journey, but as a veteran LGBTQ activist, I am familiar with the strength of character and courage it takes to weather the prevailing cultural winds of “normal” gendered behavior. It is impossible to do this authentically — let alone as someone with a background in military culture, which Buttigieg has — without developing a reflective awareness of patriarchy and its often traumatizing, shame-invoking prescriptions for what is acceptable in “men” and “women”. Like racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes live in us as powerful restrictive mechanisms that once deeply seen, felt, witnessed and personally overcome, can yield an empathy with others who have been similarly on the receiving end of patriarchal oppression.

Buttigieg, like Obama, has a way of communicating that clarifies his confidence, but it’s a confidence as a different kind of man, one who doesn’t define himself around his fight against an old order he clearly sees as empty.

In a recent Politico interview, Buttigieg shared: “If we are in any way emulating this president, we’re already losing. Look, I’m comfortable hitting back when hit, I’m comfortable dealing with bullies, I’m comfortable dealing with incoming fire, but I also believe the moment we start making all our thinking about how we’re going to serve it up to President Trump, it gets us into a mind-set where it’s almost as though he’s the one we’re trying to impress.” That ability, when built into one’s character — to step in as needed, but to elect to step out with clarity and confidence to focus on what really matters — is hard won in the killing fields of Donald Trump. It exists only in those, I would suggest, who have honestly faced and survived the legacy of patriarchy, full on, in themselves.

3. Respect for the Feminine. On the flip side of becoming self-aware around masculinity, is an appreciation of the feminine. In fact, as I see it, these two things are intrinsically connected. Once the ability to be compassionate about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a dominator hierarchy is forged, a sympathetic resonance that’s built on sensitivity allows for seeing the systemic impact of any and all actions. (Our current President seems deaf to this basic systemic reality, that change actually has impact on people in ways we need to be sensitive to.)

Importantly, I do not write here “a respect for women” — though that is surely important, but different.

In saying a respect for the feminine, I’m referring to what I call elsewhere in my writing the “deep feminine”, or the “human-feminine,” those qualities that Trump is so eager to eradicate in himself or diminish in others — inter-dependence, vulnerability, sensitivity, connection, embodiment and tenderness.

The feminine also shows up in the powerful places in the life-cycle at birth, infancy and death. While these qualities often exist in the domain of women, they don’t belong to women alone. (In fact, they are often rejected by women, some of them, Trump’s supporters, especially when they see them in men). They belong to life, to all of us, and, no doubt, show up most evidently in our natural world — a planet that’s facing crisis because of the inability — exemplified in Trump’s patriarchal masculinity — to enact respect.

I believe that AOC and supporters of the Green New Deal — like Buttigieg — get all the ways that the ‘deep feminine’ is impacted in our communities, our bodies and on our planet, by our continuing refusal to pay attention to the great “No!” our climate is trying to communicate. Its a “No!” related to, and that logarithmically multiplies, the “No!” of the #MeToo Movement.

In an age of resurgent, peak-patriarchy where we are all paying a great price for male fragility and where references to “toxic” masculinity abound along side a #MeToo movement that shows ample hunger for something different from men, the presence and acknowledgement of new kinds of men offering a grounded, compelling alternative is essential.

We know these men when we see them. They aren’t ordinary and familiar. They are men, but they have a quality about them that gives us hope, something, I believe, in an age of archaic and in-effective masculinity, we need to recognize and hold up.

These men offer the collaborating, partnering role models for a new masculinity and a post-patriarchal future — a future we all need to be able to craft and live in together.

But haven’t we had enough of men?

I hear the detractors now, those who are surely saying “Enough of men! Especially the white kind, it’s time for others to take over!” I get it, and I don’t entirely disagree. But, I also feel we take this stand at our peril.

By vilifying an entire segment of the population, we perpetuate the very abuse done to us. We may not like all of them, but then, why be like them? We would be right to heartily challenge systems of belief that justify oppressive actions without demonizing a whole class of people.

We need to start actively seeing that there’s a difference between patriarchal men and post-patriarchal men. Figure out what we see when we see it and name it.

And even so, we just can’t keep side-stepping the issue of men. Trump was elected because no one was paying attention to the crisis of patriarchal masculinity in our culture. It’s bad, folks — so bad, in fact, we got him. Can we afford to not pay attention to that?

With our more progressive, ‘enlightened’ politics, shouldn’t we be the ones capable of extending our hearts far enough to at least try to understand what’s going on? The more we fail to do this, the more we dig in splitting sides and dividing the world into two, the more we dig the ditch that justifies the other sides’ rejection of us.

Besides, too many men still have their hand on the trigger (literally) and no house of power will fall without enough of the very people who hold the house up getting on board with the effort to bring it down.

As Democrats and progressives, we say we are stronger ‘together’. We need to mean it. To me that means defining the new values we ascribe to and asking anyone and everyone who shares them to come along for the ride. And if one of those values is to not categorically put people in a box, then we have to walk that talk with men, also.

Beyond “post-Trump”, the task of creating a post-patriarchal future.

In a recent interview, “Mayor Pete” shared that, in this day and age, any platform that aims to “Make America Great Again” inherently includes a false promise. He said this because he understands that the world is changing.

It has changed. A lot. And part of that change is that patriarchy’s offer of an identity to men today is a false promise.

Today’s problems may be the most complex we have ever faced as a democracy; they exemplify a dangerous heightening (and quickening) of the very problems that have dogged us as a nation from the days of our founding. We don’t solve those problems just with more power for more people, and we don’t solve them with re-instituting an idyllic bi-gone era, we need a new and viable version of (and for) (white) masculinity. …Among the many challenges, then, is the one that asks us not to throw in the towel on the value of a good man.

I’m not endorsing Pete Buttigieg, but I’m really close. And what I can endorse, is the value of the man I see in him. If a man is going to take leadership in these times of peak-patriarchal backlash, let it be one of the men who’s created something new in himself against the strong, prevailing winds of patriarchal conditioning in his life. Someone who, on the other side of the “last gasp”, is going to step up with a refreshing new voice that sounds honest in that-way-we-somehow-find-ourselves-trusting. A voice that says ‘It’s time for compassion, respect and partnership. Let’s get to work!’

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