Spoon‘s 2007 Album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a fine record with some great tracks–“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” among them. There’s also “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which has a nice little shuffle-along guitar riff as well as these poignant lyrics:
Here come the man from the stars
we don’t know why he go so far
and keep on marching along
beating his drum
Clubs and sticks and bats and balls
for nuclear dicks with dialect drawls
they come from a parking lot town
where nothing lives in the sun
Don’t make me a target (3x)
When you reach back in his mind
feels like he’s breaking the law
There’s something back there he got
that nobody knows
He never claimed to say what he says
He smells like the inside of closets and stairs-
The kind where nobody goes
Don’t make me a target…
It seems pretty clear that this song is about Bush Jr.–the shock at seeing him in the presidency (“the man from the stars / don’t know why he go so far”), his “dialect drawls,” his supporters from the suburbs and strip malls (“parking lot town”), the administration’s constant lies (“He never claimed to say what he says”), and, of course, Bush’s constant war-mongering (“marching along / beating his drum / clubs and sticks and bats and balls”). Leave it to some folks from Bush’s home state (at least, until Spoon’s Britt Daniels moved to Portland) to drive home the point (see also Jim Hightower, the Dixie Chicks, and the great Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace). And any song about Bush is about history, as in what-a-historical-fuck-up-this-presidency-has-been sort of history.
But there’s more here, and it’s loaded into the phrase “nuclear dicks.” This calls to mind Robert Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, in which Dean connects American foreign policy (up to Vietnam) to a hyperventilating, testosterone-dripping masculinity that permeated the White House beginning sometime in FDR’s administration. Dean argues that the context of the masculine imperial brotherhood consisted of both prescriptive and proscriptive elements. A particular set of experiences crafted the ideal member of the imperial brotherhood: family money; a private prep-school and then Ivy League education; and volunteer military experience, preferably in an elite group (like Kennedy’s torpedo boat adventures). These ideas of what a man should be were coupled with rules of what a man should not be: homosexual, effete, and/or weak, along with the usual rejection of all things smacking of socialism. This proscriptive element was reinforced and institutionalized during the Red and Lavender Scares, when conservatives jealous of power and liberals worried of losing it both acted to purge the federal government of anyone tainted by “homosexual tendencies,” directly or indirectly. Dean argues that these proscriptive purges, along with the prescriptive construction of ideal masculinity, produced the arrogance and ignorance of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations vis-á-vis Cuba (Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, etc.) and Vietnam. Top administration officials reaffirmed their masculinity through aggressive foreign policy, blinded to any possibilities (such as that suggested by George Ball) that ran counter to the masculine narrative that the imperial brotherhood had so carefully constructed and followed. Dean insists that his narrative is meant to portray only the context within which decisions about the Vietnam War took place, but his argument often bleeds into a causal explanation. Dean “imperial impulse that animated Vietnam policymaking” (235) and “the personal attributes…valued by the imperial brotherhood meant conformity to Cold War orthodoxy and willingness to direct acts of violence against unseen foreigners” (202), indicating that the masculine ideal caused (“animated”) the Vietnam War, rather than just set the context for it. Dean doesn’t quite pull this part of the argument off, I think, relying on gender-dynamics-cause-history assumptions that I’ve never quite bought into.
That said, there is a good argument to be made that realpolitik is characterized by overt masculinity, and I wonder if it’s to do with the senselessness of the particular foreign policy in question. The Cold War was certainly permeated by masculine swagger (“I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.” — the immortal words of LBJ), as is the current War on Terror (Bush’s flightsuit package, for instance). In both cases, the enemy is an illusive product of imagination–the black-suited Communists roaming the jungles of Vietnam, poised to rip apart the fabric of the American economic system; or “terror”–not even an ideology, by the way, but a tactic or, at most, a strategy–which has been used as the justification for wars against mountain militiamen in Afghanistan and the professional army of Iraq. Perhaps, then, it is in the most futile and silly foreign policy that we see the most excessive masculinity–when presidents use military force not to protect democracy or even valuable markets, but to be Big Men. And the United States gets made a target, all so that little men with dialect drawls can swing their nuclear dicks.