Irrational Phallus Worship: The Missing Link That Helps the Tea Party Make Sense
Guns and abortion: the yin and yang, the angel and devil, the Goofus and Gallant of right wing culture warriors. The mantra has often been that movement conservatives are moved by “God, gays, and guns”, which sounds nice and alliterative, but I’d say that the expression of “God” in the equation is most likely to come out opposition to abortion rights. And, of course, opposition to gay rights is closely linked to the same sexual anxieties that create opposition to abortion rights.
I wrote a piece for the Guardian's Comment Is Free America about how much opposition to feminism is not just a motivator for the conservative movement, but it reliably turns out much more and much more frantic opposition than the vague policy proposals Tea Party leaders put out as their motivations. In doing some research on it, though, I found that hysteria over gun rights appears to be more and more tightly aligned with opposition to abortion rights. This contradiction not only proves that all claims to “libertarianism” are dime store rationalizations about what are fundamentally reactionary identity politics from the right. In the article, I made the controversial but somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the twin issues of guns and abortion are a form of phallic worship as politics: “Toting guns and making sure women who get pregnant stay pregnant – the twin favourite issues of the anxious masculinity set.”
As if to prove my assertion, Rachel Maddow actually went out and interviewed hard core Joe Miller supporters, who are as pure a set as you’re going to get in terms of Tea Partier sentiment, since more mainstream Republicans are largely voting for the independent Lisa Murkowski this election. And, barring a woman who was obsessed with the idea that there is a large, organized group called “The New Black Panthers” that is going to effectively stop white people from voting, it was abortion and guns all the way for Miller’s supporters. The connection is irrational, but highly emotional, and yes, it’s all bound up in hostile feelings towards feminism and women’s growing power, and anxieties about masculinity and power.
In his book "The Wimp Factor", Stephen Ducat argues that strong feelings about a mythical phallus are, in fact, highly motivating to a lot of men (and apparently women who identify with and support male dominance). He describes how phallic imagery appeals to men who wish to feel tough and powerful, which they associate with masculinity:
[The phallus is] the mythical, permanently erect archetypal monolith of masculine omnipotence (Amanda’s note: Thus the “God” in the “God, gays, and guns” equation) that signifies untrammeled growth, invulnerability, and freedom from all dependency…. The penis, on the other hand, even when tumescent is vulnerable.
A lot of anxious masculinity, he argues, centers around distracting from the real life, vulnerable reality of the penis and using phallic imagery and tough guy acts to feel strong and invulnerable.
Sounds like a pitch perfect description of gun nuts to me. Of course, the problem that arises when you obsess over appearing like an invulnerable tough guy is there’s always a fear that your phallic power is going to be rendered as vulnerable as the actual, real life penis is. The result is paranoia. Though there’s no real world reason to believe Obama and Eric Holder are out to symbolically castrate gun nut America by taking away their phalluses/guns, the Miller supporters Maddow interviews nonetheless believe it with all their heart and soul. It’s hard not to suggest they feel like losing an election has made them feel like they’re not omnipotent, and they can’t help but believe that a more literal taking away of their phallic totems is next.
Penises may go soft and be vulnerable, but they do have one power that links them to the mythical phallus---the power to render women pregnant, whether willing or not. If emasculation fears are driving conservatives to be gun nuts, it’s little surprise that the same people really resent legal abortion, which can also symbolize emasculation, a rejection by women of men’s power to impregnate, and therefore a rejection of men’s dominance. That actual real world feminists who actually do reject male dominance were the ones who got abortion legalized just cinches it.
Obviously, there are other ways to imagine pregnancy than framing it as male conquest of the female body, a display of male virility, and something to which women should submit as a symbol of their overall submission to the patriarchy. You could take a wholly rational view, where it’s simply the beginning of a new life and the scientific realities are the most interesting part. You could take a sentimental view, that it’s about beginnings and family and people coming together to make more people. Or you could be somewhere in between---but these alternate views share in common a groundwork that allows women to say “not right now” or even “never” without it being a big deal that threatens the fabric of society.
But for movement conservatism, this kind of rationality is an anathema. The beauty of provoking anxieties about sex and gender is that it’s a shortcut to shutting down all rational thought and allowing a bunch of impulses and fears to fill the void. A steady drumbeat of fears about emasculation can quickly be aimed towards creating fears about Muslims (to justify imperialist wars), to creating fears about racial minorities (to create the ground work for voter suppression and a rollback of the social safety net), and general anti-intellectualism to keep the fear party going.
So, in this sense, it’s not surprising to find that Tea Partiers are all about sex and gender (and race) when you actually interview them on the ground, and not about abstract policy issues they rarely understand anyway. It’s hard to get people to hit the streets to protest policy, like health care reform, that will save tax dollars while making sure most people get basic health care. But if you put an emasculation spin on it---by falsely claiming it funds abortion---then turning out emotionally overwrought supporters who don’t care about facts is a piece of cake.