TRIDENT: Are you manly enough?

  • Introduction
  • Manliness, leadership and annihilation
  • Failing the manly test
  • Breaking with virility as tough-guy model and means
  • In addition to the moral case against Trident
  • in addition to the economic case against Trident
  • in addition to the scientific and military case against Trident
  • in addition to the political case against Trident: i.e. what happens after it has been deployed?

After nuclear attack has resulted in:

  • environmental contamination
  • destroyed fertility and food supply
  • wiped out whole populations
  • created disease
  • destroyed democracy, governance, and economies
  • as well as social institutions (education, healthcare, energy, transport, clean water, for example) and the rule of law
  • as well as habitat / homes.

In addition to all the above, there is a further significant case against Trident and nuclear weapons that is not openly discussed, but which is implicit within arguments for the nuclear option:

  • the kind of leader required to authorise the use of nuclear weapons
  • the leader we can take seriously as willing to deploy our ‘nuclear deterrent’.

Are you manly enough?

Manliness, leadership and annihilation.
The virulent and rampant reactions by senior military personnel, by politicians and the media, to Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s quiet declaration that he could think of no circumstances when he would, as leader, choose to press the nuclear button, expose the extent to which assumptions about the nature of inter/national leadership underpin these aggressive, kneejerk outcries.

The language used, and the pro-nuclear ‘arguments’ presented, are as much about Corbyn the man, as about the weapons themselves. On the available evidence, the internalised assumptions about ‘successful’ or appropriate male leaders can be broadly outlined as follows:

  • the leader as manly, and manly meaning potentially brutal, a destroyer, a could-be killer
  • the leader as male, and male as inhuman: mirthless, joyless, loveless, fearless
  • the leader as compulsively competitive, pathologically lacking in empathy: invulnerable
  • the leader as decisive/certain: without apparent doubt (remember Blair’s, “I know what I believe”; Cameron and Benn’s “we have to do something” – so let’s bomb Syria).
  • the leader as dominant, as bully, ruthless, ready to wipe out all opposition
  • the leader embodying power as aggression (potentas rather than potentia) and the will to win at all costs
  • a warrior masculinity, a rampant ego geared to the annihilation of whatever stands in the way of ‘success’/winning
  • the leader as “apex predator”. See Richard Sennett’s brilliant book (2013) The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
  • Most recent and graphic evidence of the catastrophic consequences of a masculinist workplace culture (i.e. the collective expression and consequence of the above), where a concentration of these values and behaviours is legitimized, fuelled and required, can be witnessed in Adam McKay’s unnerving film (2015), The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, about the housing/banking crisis leading up to the 2008 financial crash. (See also ‘”The trouble is. . . . “ Economists, economics, and the UK Left’, in ‘Commentary 2016’ category on this blog:

Failing the manly test.
He may sport a beard, but Corbyn is characterized by those who oppose him as an MP and LP leader (whether on the Right or Left) as a ‘failed’ specimen of hegemonic masculinity, who, amongst other ‘deviant’ behaviours:

  • rides a bike instead of a big retired police horse or driving a powerful, black ‘motor’
  • doesn’t like wearing a tie or singing the national anthem
  • carries a backpack or a ‘man bag’, rather than a briefcase
  • wears beige, a baggy yellow shirt and ill-fitting jackets. And has an allotment.

By contrast, consider the aesthetic cultivated by Vladimir Putin, with the emphasis on his bare body, on visible muscle, in the gym or on horseback, and on his willingness to identify and threaten ‘enemies’, both verbally in public, and surreptitiously through, for example, demotion, imprisonment or assassination.

Apart from the daily contempt and slander directed his way by the apoplectic UK media and politicians, Corbyn is also described routinely, by friends and enemies alike, as a decent person, kind, thoughtful, principled, conscientious and non-aggressive, for example. It is made clear, at the same time, that these very qualities render him lightweight, and rule him out as a suitable national or international leader. They most definitely underline his unsuitability as a ‘nuclear’ leader, apparently guaranteeing his ‘incompetence’, as well as making him a risk to national security.

This is powerful, seductive stuff, relentlessly drip-fed into our minds:

  • the idea of non violence as a risk to national security
  • the idea that there is no alternative to institutionalised violence as foreign policy or as police behaviour
  • and if a man thinks there is, he’s ‘soft’: ‘effeminate’, a coward, a weakling. Not leadership material.

Remember Ed Miliband being challenged on TV: “Are you man enough?” He made the mistake of answering the question as given, rather than challenging the question itself. But in the circumstances, who can blame him? His youthfulness, his intellectuality, his ‘niceness’, his sensitivity and Jewish identity, all of these attributes and qualities would come to compromise his manly identity as a politician, LP leader, and would-be Prime Minister. Whatever else his perceived failings were, he just wasn’t elite, authoritative (i.e. dominant) or nasty enough. He wasn’t an opinionated, egoistic manly bruiser.

The evidence and arguments that have been made over recent years, in particular since the illegal Iraq war, that the West’s aggressive foreign policy actions (invasions, wars) have exacerbated the situation in every country we have deployed our military might; that these actions have fostered lethal hostility towards the UK, and helped create the conditions for young men to take up arms against the West, these all get sidelined or suppressed in the media and by politicians. Media and political discourse construct the impression of national consensus about the UK’s right to go to war, and about the UK being right about everything all the time, despite evidence nationally, that there is considerable opposition to this perspective.

Breaking with virility as tough guy model and means.
Corbyn’s unwillingness to authorise widespread nuclear damage and destruction is decried as ‘hapless’, i.e. unmanly. However, his declared position has opened up a space for national discussion and debate about the renewal of Trident, which has been lacking for too long. This constitutes an opportunity, indeed the necessity, for reviewing our national priorities and policies, including foreign policy more broadly, as well as how we situate ourselves within the EU and the international community, for example regarding migrants, refugees, climate change, energy and water supply, Palestine, as well as the rise of racist and misogynist fundamentalisms (religious and political), and the reconfiguring of our economy in the light of these major international and global challenges. (See ‘”The trouble is. . . .“ Economists, economics and the UK Left’ (2016), and ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’ (2014), both on this blog.)

Here, I am suggesting that equally essential to these debates and the transition they represent (and not as mere add on), is the need to acknowledge and challenge the dominance of the men and masculinities that perpetuate and benefit from these patriarchal social and political practices, which are heterosexist, and also act as a constraining and destructive model for women in leadership positions.

Over the years, an endless stream of (mainly American) films has represented and promoted these men and their violent masculinity: teaching audiences, training fans, grooming us for social compliance and battle. The cover of the Guardian’s G2 (28 01 2016) shows a still from one of the latest, Michael Bay’s (2016) 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The image is a classic, frontal ‘line up’ of three American soldiers sporting beards, wearing T-shirts, bodies adorned with weapons, and frowning as they stride towards the camera. These, it seems to suggest, are ‘real men’ doing real men’s work. Hard men. Ready for the strike / the kill.

Above the image, the question is posed: ‘Could Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie take down Hillary Clinton?’ (Is that a gender issue, I wonder?) Underneath, the main headline, in big, black font, reads: ‘Fighting dirty’. And the report itself (Steven Rose, 28 01 2016) is entitled, ‘Take down’.

The Trident debate is not just about technological weapons of mass destruction; nor is it just “an important defence debate,” one being “reduced to parochial bickering” within the Labour party, according to Rafael Behr (‘Trident is a destructive weapon – just look at the Labour party’. The Guardian, 10 02 2016).

I am adding in a reference to Behr here, to reiterate the force of the “political-corporate-media establishment” identified and attacked by Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian, 30 01 2016) as a result of the disclosure of Google’s sweetheart tax deal with the Tory government. Freedland meant his readers to understand that The Guardian is no part of that toxic nexus. . . . But particularly since the Tory-led coalition government (2010-2015), its political coverage of the Labour party, the trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters, and now Momentum, has left many of The Guardian’s loyal, intelligent, politically engaged readers and subscribers seething: increasingly feeling abandoned, short-changed and cheated.

So, for more sophisticated critical analysis of relevant evidence and arguments, as well as a bit of human depth, rather than shallow, ‘witty’ media shock tactics, don’t look to Behr (amongst others). Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, there has been an extra intensity and ferocious edge to Behr’s ‘reporting’, I assume because of Corbyn’s longstanding public support of Palestine.

By contrast, in Liverpool last night, a range and depth of democratic, critical sharing were in evidence at Merseyside Momentum’s well attended (c100) public meeting on ‘The truth about Trident’ (09 02 2016), led by scientist, Dr David Hookes. This was the first in Merseyside Momentum’s series of wide-ranging Political Education events planned for the coming months. The bulk of my statement here was presented as a short afterword to David’s presentation prior to general discussion from the floor. There was, for your information Rafael, no “parochial bickering”. Don’t insult us, don’t show contempt, and above all, don’t underestimate the people beyond and outside the political-corporate-media establishment, who are busy working out ways of both surviving government policies, and stopping this government doing further damage to people’s lives, our institutions and our society. But perhaps Behr was referring to the PLP. . . .

The Trident debate goes beyond conventional restrictions and unexamined internalised assumptions and prejudices. It could be the basis for a new politics, not just a new economics: a new (or renewed) vision of what kind of society we want to be and how the UK can contribute to a revitalized EU, and international and global justice / sustainability.

In this presentation, I have argued that the Trident debate is also about the sexual politics and gender issues that have implicitly and lethally underpinned discourses of nuclear deterrence and military adventures so far. It’s time to change that. And Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour party, has opened up the public space for the necessary, society-wide debate, along the lines suggested by Dave’s presentation and the lively and thoughtful discussion that followed. Our combined efforts, for example via Momentum, can act to encourage the Labour party to develop and enact policies based on credible, up-to-date, practical evidence, as well as re-affirming the humanitarian, ethical and internationalist core values at the heart of the historical Labour project. But without an acknowledgement of the role of sexual politics and gender issues within these debates, none of this will be possible. It will just be more of the same. And we know where that gets us.

val walsh / 10 02 2016


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