The Obama/Buttigieg Difference: On the Refreshing Appeal of a Post-Patriarchal Man
In the large pool of candidates for the democratic ticket in 2020, the once relatively unknown, Pete Buttigieg, continues to make a big splash. Early in 2019, few would have anticipated that “Mayor Pete” would now be the front runner in the Iowa polls.
Pete Buttigieg 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 impressed with his grounded rhetoric, and his 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 curveball.
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. It’s 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 his bombastic, caricature of masculinity as a ‘last gasp of patriarchy’. That phrase haunted me for the white-knuckling months that followed until he took office. It begged two insistent questions: What was going on in our country that this patriarchal back-lash had such traction? And secondly, if Trump was the caricature of that kind of man, then does that mean we know what a post-patriarchal man looks like?
Try not to become a man of success. Rather, become a man of value. — Albert Einstein
It’s shocking how little the topic of masculinity and men is being talked about today given the current crisis of (white)masculinity in our country. We hear about the resurgence of white supremacy — a real(and related) concern — but less so about the riveting insecurity at the base of white male identity, less about what’s actually going on in the psychology of Trump’s male base, and even less about the relative silence of progressive men in the #MeToo era. Something is brewing in today’s heightened gender wars and in the backlash against them — a man-shaped hole hiding out behind the “braggadocious” cardboard cutout in The White House.
Three years into Trump’s presidency, the rise we are seeing in blatant racist behavior is symptomatic of itself, of course, racism, but perhaps more deeply of a growing white, patriarchal fragility. Record highs in opioid addiction and suicide among men, along-side the threat posed by a steady erosion of traditional white, male norms in an increasingly diverse America is leaving many white men feeling the irrelevance of their version of masculinity. As problematic as that ‘version’ may be, it offered an identity, one now increasingly under attack. And for patriarchally raised, young men conditioned to attack when they feel attacked, conditioned to stamp out shame with the go-to-solution of violence — this country’s tragically recurrent school shootings are all but demanding that we ask what is happening with men in America today?! No doubt, Trump’s “just beat the sh*$T out of them” stance offers some kind of reassurance for so many men (and their enabling patriarchally, bent wives) relishing in the familiar at a time in our history when an alternative model for masculine self-esteem has yet to be well established.
The Irony of Men’s Double Bind
So, what about my second question? When Trump is referred to as the “last gasp of patriarchy,” does this then mean we can name what a post-patriarchal man might look like? This question has lived in me for the last three years and I’ve come to believe it is critically important that we ask it of ourselves for several reasons.
First, those of us who’ve been fired up against “white men” for the last forty years may need to first, take stock that we wouldn’t have Trump if we hadn’t mounted some sizable successes. That said, we may also want to recalibrate based on this feedback! Is it possible we have perpetuated a non-starter position with the belief that “men will only ever simply be men”? What if, in forming a ‘resistance movement’ we have reified our opponent at the expense of his humanity? In short, what if men can change? What if the question we need to be asking is what do they look like when they do? And why haven’t more of them done so?
Men Who Change (And Don’t)
In the last 100 years, a lot of ink has been well spent articulating the new-found voices of women, LGBTQI’s and people of color, all voices emerging with greater authenticity on the other side of their oppression. This drive towards greater authenticity and freedom has been deeply liberating, yet while there’s ample evidence of a crisis of masculinity, why is their such a relative dearth of voices from men forging their post-patriarchal masculinity, their values, their new real-ness.
To be sure, there is actually mounting evidence of a burgeoning movement supporting men’s growth into new self-reflective, relational, more authentic versions of themselves — men who see their value at a new level alongside their value in being allies. (See Mankind Project, Good Men Project, Voice Male, Terry Real, Tony Porter, Justin Baldoni, and more.) These men are finding ways to transcend the patriarchal ‘man box’ developing as more robust, fully human men. Compared to the chorus of voices in a feminist movement, (now in its fourth wave), the parallel movement from men is still, however, barely off the ground. What does this truly slow growth tell us?
Consider a similar silence in our current discourse around what it’s like today to be poor in America. Both the silence in our culture around masculine identity and around the impact of poverty may reflect patriarchy’s most successful triumph: silencing the hearts and voices of those who, ironically, may be the most insidiously silenced by patriarchal capitalism - economically strapped, white men. The ‘man box’ of patriarchy preaches nothing if not that men do not have needs and should not express their feelings, and that their ‘job’ in life is solely to be self-reliant, successful breadwinners. If you’re not that, you’re not a man and your voice doesn’t count, so why even use it.
The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power. He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose, he is destroying himself — emotionally, psychologically and physically — Herb Goldberg
Ok, to my fellow feminists out there, this is not a pity party, but it is an invitation to be curious about the “man box” of patriarchy and the way, on top of this man box, those of us on the progressive front lines challenging male power may have created yet another box. Men are told not to tell their story — their REAL story — through their patriarchal upbringing. They are then told by those of us in the progressive movement that we don’t want to hear their story because we’ve heard enough of it. We want them to sit down and listen. If we want something different, though, shouldn’t we make a point of making sure we name it when we see it?
What if, in our efforts to create change we have unwittingly tightened the screws on the man box, refusing to envision — in ourselves and for our culture — the man who can change. What if, in all this din and protest, this silencing and speaking up, the voices that are being spoken by post-patriarchal men are getting missed because we are noticing them as such.
I believe in the importance of trying to name post-patriarchal masculinity when we see it because if we don’t, those of us who want to see more of it are abdicating our power; we’re shaking our fingers without claiming and naming our desired alternative. Maybe even more concerning, we are leaving a new generation of boys without an instruction manual. So, let’s not take the floor out without offering a new foundation.
What, then, is a ‘Post-Patriarchal Man’?
Post Patriarchal Masculinity. It’s a mouthful of a word that admittedly sounds far too dusty and ‘academic’. But here’s my manual. We’ve gotta start somewhere!
I see this kind of new man, sometimes ironically in some of the older, quieter men I know who, worn down by the pressures placed on them over their lifetime, have grown in wisdom and found themselves able to see and appreciate the women in their lives, recognizing the value of relationship over single-minded focus on ambition and success. These men, sometimes in their seventies and older, however, have regrettably already taught their sons the wrong lessons. The lessons of their fathers.
Nonetheless, I also see evidence in younger, millennial, and even middle-aged men who have taken the journey to figure out who they really are, motivated by any myriad of life circumstances, including maybe having gay friends or maybe because they were encouraged by women, who aware of their own value, lovingly raised the bar for the men in their lives.
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.
These men have found their way towards questioning the masculine identity they were raised to assume, they’ve wondered if all they are is the salary they bring in, if they’re more than their hipster cache, if their life purpose really lives in “success” and standing out as exceptional and above the rest, or simply in the muscle they wield or the number of women they’ve sexually conquered. They’ve wondered if the self-reliant, transactional approach to life they were raised to engage really reflects who they are or want to be. They’ve done this self-reflection — often, usefully, with other men — in much the same way many women and POC’s have done the inner work to transcend self-images internalized from the mainstream culture of their childhood.
In short, I feel like I know this kind of man when I meet him — he is a man open to his own becoming, he has an authenticity and reliability about him — he has weathered the storms inherent in questioning whether he is who he thought he was. And this is where Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg come in. They are both men who have found reassuring ways to untie the gordian knot of patriarchal masculinity — a knot that left tied risks binding us to our current, disturbing fate.
But, getting more specific, what are some of the elements of what we might call post-patriarchal masculinity? To be clear, there’s no one type of post-patriarchal man, just like there’s no single feminist or prototype for a woman. Many intersecting factors that play a role in being more authentically gendered, but perhaps what we can say is that the work of unraveling a more self-reflective, self-aware sense of self is a process, not a destination. This may be the best place to start: The stamp of post-patriarchality (-; shows in a man who is committed to a process of self-reflection and growth. (Yes, that does mean a man who is willing and able to say “sorry” and “I made a mistake.”)
But this isn’t enough. A man who gazes at his navel does not a post-patriarchal revolution make. What, happens, though, when that self-reflection changes how a man acts, values and lives differently?
1.Partnership. Post-patriarchal men have come to understand the value of partnership over domination. Partnership means collaboration, mutual respect, the ability to negotiate and approach the world from the standpoint of relationship, recognizing that real power is what gets forged between people not through the stance of domination and control over them.
Renowned feminist writer, Riane Eisler, made partnership the cornerstone of her writing for good reason. It is the single most important ingredient for change that signals a shift from patriarchy’s defining, 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 uphold democracy’s future in an ever-diversifying world. But how is the capacity for partnership (over a domineering approach to life) formed?
2. Shedding the skin of their ‘fathers’. To see beyond the familiar, self-reliant leadership of the patriarchal way, a man must be able to see daylight between himself and his (patriarchal) father. This doesn’t mean all claims to masculinity are tossed, but rather that a man looks at the relationship between him and his father with such honesty that it takes him down to his core. Such men have either chosen to, or their life circumstances have somehow forced them to, honestly grapple, then, 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. It was also an emotional thread — an inquiry that required honesty and vulnerability, and, yes, tears, facing hard truths, and, in so doing, reconnecting with himself at a deeper level. Somehow, working through the impact these men had on him and his subsequent struggle to find out what kind of man he was, had a foundational impact on who Obama became as a man, a husband and a politician.
As a gay man, I would expect Buttigieg has come about his reflection on patriarchal masculinity differently. His father was a kind, humanitarian, Episcopalian academic, perhaps himself a post-patriarchal fore-runner who planted a seed for his son. (He recently passed away.) Instead, Buttigieg has lived in the liminal zone relegated for LGBTQI Americans whose life path has forced them into a confrontation with the patriarchal gender binary. That binary proscribes that men (superior) should look and act this way and women (inferior) should look and act this way, and only men and women should love and marry one another. This heteronormative binary is another cornerstone that lives at the core of patriarchy’s social engineering.
As an LGBTQ activist in an earlier chapter in my life, I’m familiar with the strength of character and courage it takes to weather the prevailing cultural winds of ‘normal’ gendered behavior. It’s impossible to choose a life path outside of patriarchy’s normal gendered mandates without developing a reflective awareness of its conditioning through often traumatizing, shame-invoking prescriptions for what is acceptable in ‘men’ and ‘women’. I do not know the details of Buttigieg’s ‘coming out’ journey but know that this step in one’s life requires a deep self-reckoning about one’s values, one’s loves and what one is willing to risk to be real. For many — let alone someone with a background in military culture, which Buttigieg has — coming out amounts to a deeply heartfelt awakening. Surviving it with any degree of happiness requires self-compassion.
Like racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes live in us as powerful restrictive mechanisms that once deeply witnessed, felt and personally overcome, can generate empathy with others who have been similarly on the receiving end of patriarchal oppression. Whether honestly reckoning with one’s real father, or with the authority of the rules of patriarchy, then, the daylight that can form is the crack of this reckoning is the space where compassion, for a different kind of man, can come in.
3.) Letting Go of The Master’s Tools. Getting space from the old father to become a newer, self-reflective man also means letting go of some of the worst of the master’s tools moving forward. Letting go means letting go, it means not getting tangled in the need to prove oneself to a competitor one no longer sees as worthy.
In a recent Politico interview Buttigieg shared this about Trump: “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 mindset where it’s almost as though he’s the one we’re trying to impress.” Buttigieg, like Obama, has a way of communicating that clarifies his confidence and vision, but it’s a confidence as a different kind of man who doesn’t get caught up fighting against an old order he clearly sees as empty.
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, those who’ve something true within themselves, a foundation they can count on where they no longer fear The Father’s rejection or feel they have anything to prove.
4. Respect for the ‘Feminine’. There was a time when the traditional patriarchal man was raised to respect the feminine. Then, there was a time when that patriarchal feminine was challenged by Betty Friedan and a second wave of feminism that exposed the stereotyping of women as weak, domesticated dependents. So, what do I mean by feminine here?
One way to answer this question is simply to look at all the things that the ‘last gasp of patriarchy’ himself seems to revile or, alternatively, feel so threatened by. They may as well be the signposts pointing to the essential, universal feminine long disavowed by patriarchy: qualities of vulnerability, compassion, empathy, and especially those that reflect our dependence on, and intrinsic connection to, the natural world. They are all things that define us as human and that Trump works so hard to deny in himself and diminish in others.
Relatedly, I use this word here to refer not just to women, but to the qualities of life that become available to women and men when we recognize we live an inter-dependent existence, inter-connected, each unavoidably impacting the other, and, as such, all inherently vulnerable.
Barack Obama, a black American man who reckoned with his father and Pete Buttigieg, a gay man who reckoned with his sexuality in the face of homophobia both know what it is to be vulnerable. When someone develops the ability to be compassionate about being on the receiving end of a dominator hierarchy, a sympathetic resonance gets born, be it for other humans, for children, for animals, forest eco-systems, white factory workers or immigrant mothers fleeing violence.
Supporters of the Green New Deal, like Buttigieg, see systemic impacts, they get how this ‘feminine’ that needs respect is impacted in our communities, our bodies and on our planet, and by our continued refusal to pay attention to the great “No!” our climate is trying to communicate. This “No” is related to the “No” of the #MeToo Movement in that it demands sensitivity, respect and empathy for the experience of others. When we see this empathy in a man, not compassion that simply comforts but an empathy that drives action, perhaps then, we can say we have seen the post-patriarchal daylight.
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 understands that the world is changing, changing a lot, (one wildfire, hurricane and arctic blast at a time). Part of that change, also, is that patriarchy’s offer today of an identity for men is itself 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 these problems just by beating the Republicans, we don’t solve them by creating an opponent we put in a box against whom we define ourselves, and we certainly don’t solve them with re-instituting an idyllic bi-gone era that was never ideal for everyone anyway. If there is any hope of uniting this country, of forging forward in a better America and, no less, a livable future sensitive to the needs of our planet, we need a new and viable version of, and for, (white) masculinity.
We sense that ‘normal’ isn’t coming back, that we are being born into a new normal: a new kind of society, a new relationship to the earth, a new experience of being human — Charles Eisenstein
Among the many challenges we face, then, is the one that demands we don’t throw in the towel on the value of a good man. I believe many of us know a man like this when we see him — somehow something in us says “yes!” I think it’s why Buttigieg is leading in the Iowa polls.
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 and true in that way-we-somehow-find-ourselves-trusting. A man with a voice that says in these perilous times, ‘It’s time for compassion, respect and partnership. Let’s get to work!’