Twilight of the Pale Patriarchs
There’s always a scene in the grittiest vampire movies where the old bloodsucker is sleeping peacefully in his coffin, looking as innocent as the undead can look, and the handsome hero plants a pointed stake in the vampire’s sternum and takes a big swing at it with his mallet. Whether or not the blow turns out to be accurate and fatal, the vampire always wakes up when he’s pierced. His eyes pop open, his mouth opens on those awful canines dripping blood and saliva, and with a savage snarl he tries to sit up, as the audience draws a deep common breath. It’s a crowd-pleaser, if you like this stuff. And if the thing climbs out of the coffin, 20 minutes of premium violence are guaranteed.
Excuse a rare display of optimism on my part, but I’m suggesting a useful metaphor for the presidential election of 2012. After Mitt Romney collected 75% of the white male vote and lost, I fancied that I could hear a strangled snarl and imagine that the bloodthirsty, near immortal thing with the stake in its chest was the white patriarchy — the high-testosterone, low-melanin monopoly that has misguided and misruled this country, and this violent Western civilization, throughout recorded history and long before.
I’m not claiming a clean kill. The monster’s heart is still beating, though the stake that was struck on Nov. 6 pierced its coat, its shirt, even its undershirt — a sleeveless “wife-beater” of course — and possibly enough skin to leave a bead of blood (someone else’s) on its deathly-pale breast. It may yet climb out of the coffin. But the damned thing felt this one. Forty-five percent of the votes that re-elected Barack Obama were cast by minorities. The president won 55% of the women’s vote — though the huge question is what the other 45% were thinking when they voted for Romney, chained as he was to a platform that ignored and insulted women as recklessly as it dismissed the non-Aryan and the poor.
But the point — that sharp, whittled point of the vampire-slayer’s stake — is that three out of four white men rejected the president and it didn’t matter. He didn’t need them. When the dust settled, there were an unprecedented 20 women in the Senate and 78 in the House of Representatives, far short of a fair gender distribution but edging closer to 20% of Congress. As recently as the early 1990s, the norm was a marginal 5 or 6 percent. The Democratic caucus in the new House of Representatives, a 200-strong minority, will include 61 women, 43 African-Americans, 27 Latinos and 10 Asians. Fewer than half — 94 — will be male Caucasians. Neither the president nor the secretary of state is a white man, nor are four of the nine Supreme Court justices, though what we might accurately label Clarence Thomas, besides an African-American, is always up for debate.
All this is causing acute chest pain for the patriarchy, as well as the Republican Party that incorporates its demographic and its agenda. Though Republicans subsist on militant denial, the future is there for them to see, too, and the future is not bright for what columnist Gail Collins of the Times (in a nod to New Yorkers’ favorite red-tailed hawk) likes to call “the pale male.” The demographics are fatal: By 2043, according to the Census Bureau, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority in America, and of course less than half of the Caucasian minority will be male. We can predict fairly confidently that each generation of aging white men will be a little less rigid and arrogant than its predecessor. Voters under 30 chose Obama decisively, 60 to 36 percent. Mean old men, the heart, soul and checkbook of 21st-century Republicanism, are not a renewable resource.
One perceptive male reader, elated by the magnitude of the sea change that this election represented, wrote to enlist me in a quixotic campaign to eliminate men from politics altogether. “Male Rule has proved to be an abject failure,” he argues, “a downward spiral of death and destruction that’s eliminating both the human experiment and the possibility of any life-supporting habitats.”
This provokes no objection from me — never on a day like this one, the Ides of December, when yet another deranged male (mass killers are never female) with yet another assault rifle has just massacred yet another classroom full of innocent children. But what my reader seems to be proposing is an estrogen test for political participation, a biological gender barrier that would automatically eliminate all the testosterone-stoked machismo that has created the most violent affluent country in the world.
I wish it were as simple as that. But I’m obliged to call his attention to my home state of North Carolina. Women here have made great strides toward sharing political power; currently our governor, one of our senators and three members of our congressional delegation are female. US Sen. Kay Hagan defeated another woman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, to win her seat. Very few states can boast as much gender distribution at the top of the political pyramid. Unfortunately it has not, at the moment, produced a net gain in enlightenment or humanity for the state of North Carolina. We seem to be slipping in the other direction.
Hagan is a responsible senator. The other Democrat, Gov. Beverly Perdue, might have had a more illustrious term in office if the Republican legislature hadn’t hounded her mercilessly, eventually discouraging her from running for reelection. The three women who represented North Carolina in the 112th Congress hail from an entirely different species. Like the original vampire, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, the late Sen. Jesse Helms — the physical embodiment of the white Southern patriarchy in the Carolinas — seems to have sunk his fatal fangs into any number of female victims before his crypt was sealed. How else do we account for three of Washington’s most intransigent high-heeled hard-liners, a Tea Party trio that rivals Michele Bachmann for intolerance and resistance to logical discourse?
It’s only an archaic code of courtesy toward women, especially older women — for me there are fewer all the time — that restrains me from an even more contemptuous assessment of the obtuse, often comical Rep. Virginia Foxx. In addition to her shrill homophobia, Far-Right voting record and bewildering attempts to explain herself, there’s speculation that she no longer plays with four suits of 13 cards each. A meltdown in one of the House elevators last month found our gracious legislator shrieking “Members Only! Members Only!” at a terrified staffer who was actually entitled to ride — the sign Foxx pointed at while she screamed only barred non-Members during voting on the floor of the House. An acute embarrassment who feeds the worst stereotype of the befuddled Southern reactionary, Foxx arrived on the political scene at about the same time that Jesse Helms left it. If Jesse has been reincarnated as a woman, she’s the one he became.
Sue Myrick, who retires this month, is another ultra-conservative whose specialty has been hysterical outbursts against American Muslims. The most recent female to join the delegation is a pure Tea Party creation, Renee Ellmers, who celebrated her election to a second term by proposing to rename one of Raleigh’s historic federal buildings in honor of Jesse Helms himself. To the chagrin and amazement of every Tar Heel who votes to the left of Kaiser Wilhelm — that includes at least the 48% of us who voted for Obama — the traditionally progressive Raleigh News and Observer has endorsed her proposal.
These ladies make it harder to convince me, at this point, that eliminating testosterone is a straight path to salvation. I’ve never understood Republican women. But what have we done to deserve a trifecta of twisted sisters in the House of Representatives? It’s Ellmers, a registered nurse from Michigan, who has now crossed the line and bared her gleaming canines at North Carolina’s cowering Democrats. By embracing the legacy of Jesse Helms, she aligns herself with the most extreme faction of the white supremacist revival, evident now in North Carolina and nearly everywhere south of here, that began to uncoil itself the minute Barack Obama was elected president.
When you hear that name Helms, you know the White People’s Party — the new Republican Party (89% white) — is once again on the march. Ruthless player of the race card in election after election, supporter of apartheid in South Africa and death squads in Central America, Darth Vader to the civil rights movement, Jesse Helms was everything North Carolina should be striving to forget, not remember. He was an ignorant man whose beliefs were perfectly compatible with the beliefs of his father and grandfather, back when women did as they were told and a white man could kill a black man without fear of punishment. He never changed his mind and he never apologized. If you believe as I do that racism is a disease, Jesse Helms was an invalid all his life. He forfeited the right to be included in any general amnesty for the dead — or the undead.
No self-respecting journalist would mince words about Jesse Helms. But over the years I spent so many words trying to articulate my shame and dismay that he existed. So very many. This time I’d prefer to pass the sharpened stake and the mallet to another writer, the late Christopher Hitchens. In an obituary he wrote for Slate, headlined “Farewell to a Provincial Redneck,” Hitchens dismissed our dreadful senator as “a senile racist buffoon.” (Before senility, of course, he was a wily racist buffoon.) “The way to mark Helms’ passing,” Hitchens concluded, “is to recognize that he prolonged the life of the old segregated South and the Dixiecrat ascendancy and that in his own person, not unlike Strom Thurmond, he personified much of its absurdity and redundancy.”
I second every word of that. To raise Helms from the dead, even as a name to adorn a federal building, is an unspeakable perversion of civic pride. This was the man who called civil rights activists “moral degenerates,” who said that UNC — as in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — stood for “the University of Negroes and Communists.” This was the boor who sang “Dixie” in an elevator to humiliate Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Imagine schoolchildren of another generation touring the federal building and asking “Who was that man with his name on the wall there?” Imagine the teacher who has to tell them. Better to dedicate the building to the memory of Christopher Hitchens, though my first choice would be the late Rev. William Finlator, Helms’ Raleigh contemporary and adversary for 50 years, a brave man who was right even more consistently than Sen. Helms was wrong.
The white patriarchy is doomed, make no mistake about that. A few more solid whacks and that pointed stake is going to hit a coronary artery. Barack Obama, pants-suited Hillary Clinton in his wake, was the first not-quite-white foot in the door they can never close again. That’s why the South, ruled by a dynasty of Big Daddies since colonial times, hates the president so intensely, though not all of his enemies are smart enough to understand why they hate him. In the foreseeable future, the eclipse of the pale male will mean fewer wars, fewer guns and massacres, less emphasis on violent sports and entertainment, a safer and saner America. I think. But in Connecticut it was the maniac’s mother who bought all the guns. Twenty years from now, I don’t want to wake up from my nap at the nursing home and see someone planting a “Re-Elect Sen. Virginia Foxx” or “Renee Ellmers for Governor” sign on the lawn. (Early polls — incredibly — make Foxx the favorite to run against Kay Hagan in 2014.) I don’t want to die in the shadow of the Tea Potty, hounded by Jesse Helms handmaidens in a state where the patriarchy has changed its sex but not its politics.
I’d gladly sign away my right to vote, based on the dangerous demographic I represent, if it would guarantee that madmen won’t shoot my grandchildren with assault rifles, or send them to be blown up by IEDs in pointless desert wars. Maybe I’d like to hang on to some kind of veto power, in case feminists in Washington decide that even old men need to be surgically altered. Maybe men who could prove we never voted for a bigot could be used to break ties. But I’m not going to commit myself to the anti-testosterone party until someone can explain Virginia Foxx and Renee Ellmers, and reassure me that there’s no more like them in the women’s locker room. It could be just the South, and some lingering curse of the Jim Crow culture, but what about Bachmann and Palin? Ann Coulter? When it comes to the mysteries of gender, I think the scientists have a lot of work still ahead of them.
Hal Crowther’s most recent book of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.