interesting times

The Assault on Mueller

Under attack. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Patience, I guess. Patience.

On my iPhone, which I’m trying not to look at, I have three sites tucked away to check when I’m having a bad Trump day. There’s the Gallup approval chart, FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls, and Real Clear Politics’ graphic of Trump polling. They sit there like little squares of visual Xanax whenever the anxiety of living in a country run by a delusional rage-aholic gets a bit too much. And they’re all looking good. Squinting at Nate’s blurry orange and green, it looks to me as if the gulf between approval and disapproval is widening still further. Around 20 points this week. Twenty! RCP — a little less smoothed-out — shows an even starker low. And then Virginia and now Alabama. And the Democratic flood of potential candidates for 2018, especially women. And that moment Drudge (peace be upon him) called “Brokeback Virginia” when the crusty old bigot, Roy Moore, rode in on a horse to his electoral defeat, looking about as comfortable as I would be, perched up there, cowboy boots akimbo. If it weren’t all so tragic, we’d be laughing our asses off.

And yet this still feels like a phony oasis. A huge majority of Republicans stuck with Moore and Trump last Tuesday. And we’ve learned one new and sickening thing this past month: Republican tribalism demands that the Mueller investigation be aggressively smeared in advance, its findings preemptively discredited, and its lawyers smeared for political loyalties, even when there is no evidence that this is affecting the special counsel’s work. In much of Trump media, Mueller’s alleged corruption and bias are fast becoming an article of faith. Night after night on Fox, it’s an endless diatribe against the special counsel, a constant drumbeat of propaganda about a “tainted probe.” Central to it is that waddling eminence, Newt Gingrich, who is openly arguing that Mueller is engineering some kind of coup against the will of the Trump masses.

This is not just from the media fever swamps. Take even formerly “Never Trump” National Review, which this week gave prominent space to an essay that draws this conclusion: “By now there are simply too many coincidental conflicts of interest and too much improper investigatory behavior to continue to give the Mueller investigation the benefit of doubt. Each is a light straw; together, they now have broken the back of the probe’s reputation.” The House Judiciary Committee’s grilling of Rod Rosenstein this week also revealed a near-universal Republican consensus that the investigation is rigged. E.J. Dionne recently noted “the statement of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that if every member of Mueller’s team who was ‘anti-Trump’were kicked off, ‘I don’t know if there’d be anyone left.’” Jordan also declared that “the public trust in this whole thing is gone.” Ben Wittes is rightly worried that the House Republicans “are braying for actions inimical to the very idea of independent law enforcement. They are doing it about someone, Mueller, with whom they have long experience and about whom they know their essential claims to be false.”

The best news from Alabama is that the right’s strategy of constantly upping the ante, of mainlining tribalism so that the completely indefensible becomes a badge of honor, has reached an apparent limit. It took an alleged teen predator with contempt for the Constitution and nostalgia for the Confederacy to get us there, but we now know there is some kind of backstop. And so if Trump decides to wage war against Mueller, and pits his own ego against bedrock principles of the rule of law, there’s a chance he won’t quite get away with it. About a 51–49 chance. Our system of government — whatever today’s polling numbers — is hanging by roughly that margin.

And they say Alabama was a nail-biter.

Don’t Forget Testosterone!

Well, I guess I should have seen this coming:

We have to stop seeing sexual harassment and sexual assault as some sort of flattery of women gone awry. In truth, sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, or sexuality, or flirting, or courtship, or love. Rather, sexual assault is a kind of hate. The men who gratify themselves by abusing women aren’t getting off on those women, but on power. These men don’t sexually assault women because they like women but because they despise them as subordinate creatures.

Here’s a question. If sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are entirely about misogyny, sexism, and hate, how do you explain the cases of Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and James Levine? Their patterns seem very similar to many of the other heterosexual cases — and worse than many. And yet there are no women involved whatsoever. What gives?

My own suggestion of an answer to this conundrum is a combination of two things: the resilient human ability (which knows no gender) to abuse power; and the role that testosterone plays in making sex an area in which men abuse that power far more frequently than women. I’m sure that if you’ve endured a lifetime of male depredations (as many women have) it’s utterly understandable why you might see this as entirely about misogyny — and in many cases, you’d be at least partly right. But it’s also, it seems to me, about what testosterone does to men’s minds and bodies, whether there are women around or not.

I’ve been fascinated by this question for quite a while now — my interest was sparked by my own medical use of testosterone as part of my HIV regimen, and I explored the issue at length here. To experience a sudden surge in testosterone — and to see oneself almost structurally altered by it — is to wake up to forces that are so much part of the background we can forget they’re there at all. Men have ten times as much testosterone as women, and testosterone is deeply connected with aggression, power, ambition, drive, pride, stubbornness, strength, and violence. In every species, testosterone makes one gender the more risk-taking, the more physically powerful, and the more assertive, and this includes the small number of species in which testosterone is predominant among females. It is also worth reflecting (for a few seconds, at least) on the simple physical fact that human reproduction requires the male to penetrate a female repeatedly in order to orgasm. This cannot happen in reverse. In the act itself, if it is to achieve its most obvious purpose, sex and power are inherently fused.

And so it is no big surprise that gay male sexuality, for example, has more in common with straight male sexuality than most of us want to acknowledge — because we’re afflicted and blessed with the same psyche-forming hormone. Many gay men, especially younger ones, want to get laid any time all the time, and will drop anything at any moment to get it. Gay men also objectify other men in exactly the same way straight men objectify women (“locker room talk” is by no means an exclusively straight phenomenon, except with gays, it’s other men whose body parts get scrutinized). If you want to know what handsy can really mean, check out the middle of the dance floor. And yes, the gay male sex drive leads us into blind alleys, and horrible blunders (as well as some of the greatest loves humans can ever know). We can often see sex as an act rather than as a relationship. We can be blind to the feelings of others. There’s a ruthlessness to the hierarchy of beauty and youth in many parts of gay culture that would be instantly recognizable to any woman. On the apps, where most gay sexual socializing now takes place, we broadcast desire with all the subtlety of a Breitbart op-ed.

The absence of women, moreover, removes most obstacles to getting laid any time you really want to. So gay men are particularly vulnerable to drowning, or at least getting swept up, in the undertow of testosterone. Gay men, like straight men, risk jobs, relationships, marriages, you name it … for a quick and ready lay. And when we’re really horny, most of our brains disappear out the window in an obsessive pursuit of the nut, seconds after which we come to, shake our heads, and wonder “How on Earth did I end up here?” This has never been better expressed than in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, and I don’t usually get a chance to air the Bard, so check out this small slice of genius:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

“All this the world well knows.” Except today’s debate about men and women seems to have missed it.

I’m not praising or lamenting this. I’m just recognizing it. It excuses nothing with respect to abuse, assault, harassment, and so on. There’s a bright line here and I see little moral difference between Spacey’s foulness and Weinstein’s. But testosterone helps explain why male power primarily gravitates toward sex, why sexual abuse occurs much more often among men, and why separating sex and power from male sexuality is to miss something important. It is always about both. If we are to have a conversation about men and women, work and play, power and love, then ignoring nature — pretending that this is all about social power dynamics or even hatred — is a very misleading thing.

You could see the gay world, I suppose, in part, as men’s revenge on men. That isn’t all it is, of course. It’s as varied and as complicated as any human community. But we gay men may see testosterone’s power more clearly than most, and recognize in its worst expressions much less about the hatred of women than about the sometimes pitiable weakness — and occasionally glorious strength — of men.

When Buddhists Attack

The more we learn about the Myanmar government’s genocidal attack on its Muslim minority, the worse it appears. Here’s an incident featured in a helpful, if terribly grueling, AP investigation:

The men broke down the door. There were five of them this time, F remembers. They slashed the boy’s throat, and killed the man. Then they turned to the man’s wife, and to F. And her nightmare began again. They stripped off the women’s clothes and threw them to the floor. F’s friend fought back, and the men beat her so viciously the skin on her thighs began to peel away. But the fight had gone out of F. She felt her body go soft, felt the blood run between her legs as the first man forced himself on her, and then the second. Three men savaged her friend. When it was over, the women lay on the floor for days.

The rapes were systematic, and on a massive scale, and the genocidal campaign of terror has forced half a million from their homes. My point in this is not just to keep some perspective in an age when Omarosa’s tantrums are on the front pages, but to note something absent in the discussion around these atrocities: No one has mentioned Buddhism as a cause for this mass murder. No one has demanded an explanation from leading Buddhist practitioners for this act of religiously based atrocity; no one appears to have plumbed Buddhist teaching to find some justification for it; and no one has argued that Buddhism is a religion of mass murder.

Because it isn’t.

But when Buddhism becomes a tribal identity, and when this is fused with even minor ethnic variations, the evil planted in our DNA takes over. The ethnic cleansing wasn’t unprovoked — Rohingya guerrillas initiated this round of conflict— but the response was hugely disproportionate, and almost blind with mad rage. Arguably the most peaceful religious practice on the planet can become an instrument for mass murder and rape, once it moves from the personal to the political.

This is not to ignore the obvious truth that the religion most prone to this hideous tendency at this point in global history is Islam. It is to note that it really doesn’t matter what the doctrinal content of that religion is once tribal passion floods the frontal cortex. It is not Islamophobic to worry about how Islam is currently expressed in some parts of the world and in some unhinged fanatics within it. It is Islamophobic to believe that mass violence is somehow inherent in Islam in a way it isn’t in other faiths. Think of a Buddhist monk, meditating for years, performing good works, emanating peace and loving-kindness. Then think of those Buddhist rapists, slitting throats, repeatedly violating women, consumed with near-bestial hate. Yes, this is humanity in the throes of religion. All of it.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: The Assault on Mueller