Putin’s other war on behalf of ‘men’

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Vladimir Putin is waging two wars: one in Ukraine; the other on LGBTQ people, feminists, effete men and liberal values. Tellingly, his setbacks on the ground in Ukraine owe a lot to the fact that Russian troops are at war with a whole society, not just its male warriors. This must give Putin a lot of heartburn.

One in seven Ukrainian soldiers are women and they are reportedly as effective in combat as the men. Ukraine also has openly recruited LGBTQ soldiers to its ranks. This should hardly be a surprise. Although Ukraine is a fairly religious and conservative society, it looks like a pride march compared to Russia. Gay activists in Ukraine have been tipped off that they are on Russia’s dissident list, which is taken as code for lethal treatment. They have strong reasons to fight.

Russia’s military humiliation extends to Putin’s western apologists, who have spent years saying that the Pentagon’s diversity recruitment drive would emasculate the US military. Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the GOP Senate’s Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, every radio shock jock in the land, have all agreed that American masculinity is under threat. Putin — whether bare-chested, on horseback, or cowering at one end of a 60-foot table — is their champion knight. Indeed, the more you look at Putin’s war, the more you realise how tied up it is with America’s cultural civil war. Russia’s strongman is not just trying to crush Ukraine. He embodies the global backlash against modernity.

Its weirdest manifestation is Carlson’s new campaign on behalf of testosterone. I am not into gay porn, or any porn for that matter. But when I watched this Carlson promotional video for his new series on “The End of Men”, it struck me as homoerotic. If you don’t believe me, watch it. Among the ripplingly muscled nudes is a core message: the entire gender is at risk. Men need to stand up and be men (and tan their testicles on some magical red light, which is called bromeopathy).

My recollection of what I was told about real men, in the days they used to exist, or when John Wayne was playing them, is they didn’t give too much thought to grooming. Nor were they supposed to whine all the time or suffer from grievance-fuelled verbal incontinence. But whatever. This is a new time and real men nowadays are furious and also terrified of their own shadows.

Swampians will forgive my drift into sarcasm. This is a serious topic that is at the cutting edge of US polarisation. Putin knows his market well. Last month, he likened Russia to JK Rowling: just as the Harry Potter author had been cancelled by the LGBTQ community for alleged transphobia, the west was trying to cancel 1,000 years of Russian history.

I admit to having conflicted instincts on the western non-binary debate. Part of me says it is blown out of all proportion. Another side of me says that Emma Watson and her Harry Potter co-stars are the biggest ingrates on the planet for having excluded their creator — the woman who made them superstars — from the anniversary celebrations of her novels. To JK Rowling’s credit, she did not publicly complain about this horrific snub. But she did tell Putin on Twitter that “critiques of western cancel culture are not best made by those slaughtering civilians”.

By contrast, my instincts about Putin’s anti-western jihad are unfailingly clear. Bombing hospitals and bus shelters is not what real men, or women, or indeed any half-civilised grown-up, would do. The division here is between barbarianism and civilisation. On this point, it seems clear that the barbarians are both outside the gate and living among us. The next time you hear a male anchor complain about America’s diversified military, channel your inner Arnold Schwarzenegger and call them a girlie man. Then block your ears. Rana, I hope you don’t think I’ve gone off the reservation. I find this topic at once deadly serious and irresistibly comical and find it hard to separate the two. Where do your instincts lie?

  • My column this week says it is time to retire, or drastically revise, the overused term “liberal international order”. A rules-based world is only as strong as the hegemon behind it. America must abandon its selective approach to the LIO of which it is chief author.

  • Wednesday was a devastating day for me and all my colleagues at the Financial Times when we awoke to news of the death of David Gardner, one of the greats in our newspaper’s history. David was variously our Mexico City, Madrid, Brussels, Beirut and Middle East correspondent, and editor, as well as chief leader writer. He had one of the finest pens and most eclectic brains in the business. Beneath his trademark flannel suits and beyond his conversational repartee was a person who hated tyranny and believed that the role of journalism is to speak truth to power. To that end he played a key part in ensuring that the FT opposed the unwise Iraq war in 2003, which was co-led by his student days friend, Tony Blair. He was a warm friend and mentor to me and so many others. We have been prematurely robbed of his inimitable voice. I can’t do David justice here so do read this wonderful obituary by our former colleague Quentin Peel.

  • Finally, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves wrote a powerful rebuke of the Ivy League legacy system, which was originally conceived to keep out Jewish Americans, and which has become an entrenched tool of elite perpetuation. We debate a lot about affirmative action and SATs but not enough about the living affront of giving children of alumni a leg up to the top table. The legacy system ought to offend anyone who professes to believe in the American creed.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, I love that you’ve gone off the reservation (although I know at least a few readers will want to cancel you for saying that). But I’m happy to join you. Where to begin? First, there is so much to say about homoeroticism and traditional ideas about masculinity in the US, where Promise Keepers and the rise in Brazilian bikini waxes for both genders are just different sides of the same coin that is our weirdly repressed and artificial sexual culture. Forget about Putin — just think about American football. Could there be a game that is more openly homoerotic? Men wearing tight pants and pads that amplify their muscles launch a ball from under their groins, throw themselves on to each other in giant piles, and then slap each others’ bums and enjoy full body embraces when points are scored.

I do think you are on to something about many men being both furious and afraid. Again, different sides of the same coin. It’s easiest to see this in the decline of physical, industrial jobs, and the deaths of despair that followed. Muscles used to be good for earning you a pay cheque. Now, they are something to be developed in the gym and then shown off in TikTok videos. It’s all too easy to exploit this (à la Putin) or make fun of it (as we are doing). But it’s also something to worry about politically. When men feel fragile, and get angry, they vote for people like Donald Trump.

How to shift this dynamic? Some would say that the cultural shifts towards gender fluidity are doing it for us already. I’m not so sure. Like Ross Douthat, I think the jury is out on where all these shifts will end up taking us. One thing that is constructive is to acknowledge that men have an important role to play in families, and as fathers, not in some weird “Keep Our Daughters Chaste” kind of way, but as figures of strength and leadership. I was struck by the “Dads on Duty” movement that started in Louisiana after a spate of high school violence. Let’s put those muscles and deep voices to good use!

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘Active shooter’:
“I have not been involved in a mass shooting, but I am a true Westerner. Born in Utah and raised in California, I ride Western [in college this aerospace engineer also got conned in helping at rodeo and herding] and learned how to handle rifles when I was 12 or 13. They were a Winchester and 10-gauge shot gun. But it was in college that I really was taught by a former Special Forces soldier about guns. He showed me to handle a M16 [fully automatic and semi-automatic] and a .45. He also told me something that has always stayed with me. He said ‘John always remember these are to kill people, not animals. If you can not pick them up without realising you will be taking a life and destroying all those who care for them, then NEVER pick them up!’ To me that is what needs to be taught during those classes to get a gun ownership license.” — John Dobyns, Cupertino, California

“If a country cannot change after 20 of its six year olds were brutally massacred by a deranged teenager who had access to a gun, there is not much hope for a change. Adversarialism has seeped into every corner of life. When I went to [journalism] school 42 years ago, the goal was to set the record straight by attempting objectivity. Today only opinion seems to matter. Today’s complexity requires explanations, even if slightly left, or slightly right. That doesn’t matter, but honest explanations matter more than ever.” — John Hooker

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on [email protected], contact Ed on [email protected] and Rana on [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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