“Anarchists’ rally disorganized. Film at eleven!” – old gag
Have you ever gone to a restaurant for lunch or dinner and seen someone sitting at a table entirely alone? Did you watch him surreptitiously, certain that at any moment his companion – spouse, friend, child, lawyer, what have you – would emerge from a rest room and join him? And when fifteen, or twenty, or thirty minutes had passed and he remained completely, bafflingly alone, what did you think then? Was he a disease carrier, or a misanthrope, or perhaps some exotic kind of expert on meditation?
Did it occur to you that he might be alone by choice? If it did, what did you do then? Did your subsequent action – or lack thereof – depend in any way upon your table companion(s)?
The loner was almost certainly a man. If his solitude disturbed you, you’re more likely than not a woman. Give it a few moments’ thought.
Politics is a people subject. To improve one’s understanding of it, one must seek a deeper, fuller understanding of people. People vary greatly, which makes drawing any conclusions about them a protracted and tentative process. While that might not serve to explain the political fractiousness that pervades America today, it’s a starting point for some off-the-beaten-track considerations.
Some people are comfortable with solitude: “He likes his own company,” as my father used to say of me. Solitude relieves one of any need to be sociable, or to entertain. Certainly it minimizes interpersonal frictions.
Those who prefer solitude don’t join groups. They pursue what matters to them independently of others. They develop reputations that aren’t always fair. The gossip about them is frequently mean-spirited.
On the other hand there are people who absolutely cannot tolerate solitude. One way or another, they must be in company…even if the company is doing its utmost to ignore their presence. Such persons suffer agonies when, for whatever reason, they’re alone far from home. They wouldn’t do well as some company’s field representatives.
They who abhor solitude are made indescribably uncomfortable by others who prefer it. The possibility induces a formless anxiety in them. They’ll go to considerable lengths to dispel it.
However, they’re naturals for political involvement. Not as strategists or tacticians, mind you; simply for the sense of belonging, of being surrounded by others who, for their various reasons, have chosen to be there at the same time. They’re likely to be involved in non-political groups as well, of course, but their involvement in politics is practically obligatory. There’s no other group-coalescing influence that can bring people together for no reason other than to be together.
Do you doubt that? Consider the wide variety of persons you’ve encountered in political gatherings… that is, if you’ve ever been to one. Subtract political affiliation from their reasons for being there. How many do you imagine would remain in one another’s company voluntarily?
My own involvement in organized politics came to an end when I realized that I couldn’t endure the company of those around me any longer. That wasn’t because I prefer solitude, but because I had an epiphany, a flash of illumination that soured me on the whole enterprise: No other reason or influence would have made me choose to be with them.
Single-issue politics is like that rather often. When the single issue is an overpowering desire to be left the BLEEP! alone, it creates the most uncomfortable tensions imaginable. A great many men feel that desire a great part of the time.
Many years ago – I hesitate to say how many – I was in a comedy club of sorts, where one of the performers issued a pronouncement whose full significance eluded me for a long time. He opined, in roughly these words, that “Men need three things. We have a need for toys, a need for sex, and a need to be left the BLEEP! alone!” (His follow-up was equally memorable: “Gals, do you know why your man hangs on to the remote control? Because it’s the only socially acceptable thing he can have in his hand all day.” Food for thought.) It got a lot of laughs, embedded as it was in a comedic discourse about the sexes.
Yet while it was funny, it was also largely true. Once he’s satisfied his survival needs, what else does a typical man really need or want? Sex, yes; evolution urges that upon him for much of his life. But beyond that, something to do with his hands, and time and space in which to do it!
Which tends to explain why a healthy man’s involvement in politics – the qualification healthy requires that we exclude the cadres of political professionals and aspirants to office – is grudging at best.
I’ve learned so much from the great Clive Staples Lewis that it exceeds my ability to praise him. It’s often seemed that every sentence he writes contains an insight of value. At the moment, one particular passage from That Hideous Strength is on my mind:
“There are no servants here,” said Mother Dimble, “and we all do the work. The women do it one day and the men the next. What? No, it’s a very sensible arrangement. The Director’s idea is that men and women can’t do housework together without quarreling. There’s something in it. Of course, it doesn’t do to look at the cups too closely on the men’s day, but on the whole we get along pretty well.”
“But why should they quarrel?” asked Jane.
“Different methods, my dear. Men can’t help in a job, you know. They can be induced to do it: not to help while you’re doing it. At least, it makes them grumpy.”
How true! We Y-chromosome bearers are constitutionally disinclined to work closely with others. We can do so at need, but it “makes us grumpy” and sometimes worse. It’s often followed by a period of “therapeutic solitude,” in which we can reassert our priorities and preferences. (Now reflect upon those horrid performance review forms you’ve had to fill out. Nearly all of them ask whether the subject of the review “works well with others.” Do you think that was put there by a man?)
Politics is inherently collectivist. It demands collaboration with others, at least to the extent of agreeing on priorities. And men hate having to do any such thing. It’s the reason for the failure of many modern marriages. (Time was, women respected this difference between the sexes and were sensibly reluctant to trespass upon it. Time was.)
There’s a vector emerging from this. Yes, a vector; it has both magnitude and direction. And it won’t resist a full and devastating elucidation much longer.
Another citation from C. S. Lewis, this one from The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape – “a very experienced devil” – is advising his nephew on how to use his “patient’s” fellow congregants to induce contempt in him:
When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
That’s a scene from a church service, of course, but the same dynamic can take hold in any sort of gathering. It’s particularly pronounced in gatherings of the unwilling and the reluctant. We look for justifications for our desire to be somewhere else: “I am not like these others.” Men in particular maintain our reserve as best we can for as long as we can, and depart as soon and as swiftly as we’re able. Could you really believe there’s any stronger reason for our dislike of meetings?
The sense of obligation, which often arises from a perception of things going badly wrong, is a major factor in men’s participation in politics. That sense wars with our contrary desire to be anywhere else. It accounts for quite a lot of political disaffiliations. It certainly participated in mine.
Think of this, if you will, as a meditation upon the forces that countervail calls to political involvement. He who most wants to be left alone to pursue his own priorities has a terrible time with politics. Politics, after all, is one reason he can’t pursue his own priorities, part of the time. It could well be the strongest such reason. So invitations to participate in a political activity run directly against his inclinations.
There’s no help for it. In the very nature of things, there cannot be a coherent political movement whose primary goal is “Get the bastards to leave us the BLEEP! alone!” The individualism of the desire is masculine; the collectivism of a political approach to satisfying it is anti-masculine. A healthy man will never gravitate to it of his own accord. He’d rather go to the shop, or the garage, or his basement workbench and get some work done.