Make Love and War? Sex and Syria …

5 September 2013, 1417 EDT

Among the more famous anti-war slogans in the US is the 1960s’ declaration of “make love, not war.” I found myself thinking about that phrase when a student sent me a link to the Daily Show on Monday – where Jon Stewart made some insightful comments about sex, gender, and the presumably impending military action in Syria.

And yes, I used the words “insightful comments” to describe something Jon Stewart said. Those of you who know me know how hard that was to say. But his description works for me …. and suggests that “make love not war” is actually a false dichotomy.

After playing a group of clips of policy-makers suggesting that the US needs to intervene after Syria crossed its “red line” of chemical weapons use not to look weak, Stewart suggests:

Oh right, we have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade. And the ‘red line’ that they crossed is actually a dick-measuring ribbon. Why does holding back look like weakness? Isn’t it maturity? Like when a guy is picking on Clark Kent and he doesn’t do anything, even though he knows he could throw that guy into the sun. I’ll tell you what would be real weakness – Clark Kent laying waste to a town because someone called him a pussy … [Obama] is saying the only way to keep America’s penis from looking small is to take a somewhat ineffective action purposefully designed to accomplish very little. They’ll call it ‘Operation Just the Tip.’

Though Stewart phrased it differently than perhaps I would have, his argument suggesting that bellicose foreign policy can be an attempt to prove (heterosexualized) masculinity is one that gender scholars in IR and foreign policy have made for a long time (e.g., Cynthia Weber’s Faking It in the late 1990s). While this is not the first time that mainstream comedy has taken up the question of sex, gender, and foreign policy (e.g., Robin Williams’ “Night at the Met”), it is certainly both the very public and the very resonant with feminist critiques of American foreign policy. 

In it, Stewart, like feminist scholars before him, suggests that “make love not war” (or, alternatively, “fuck don’t bomb,” which seems to actually be more appropriate for the content of that statement in this context) is a false dichotomy – because war policy-making is about fucking. I don’t mean this directly – war policy-makers do not talk about fucking (apparently, only Jon Stewart and I do) – but indirectly – in that performance anxiety (and even castration anxiety), sexualized intrigue, and bully masculinity are consistently evident in policy discourses. Stewart points them out, and suggests that the very ridiculousness of  those positions are a solid foundation from which to oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria. On that, and on the lock-step relationship between (a particular take on) fucking and war, Stewart and I agree.

Particularly, Stewart’s discussion (however comedic) communicates that states (particularly the United States) use a particular, dominant frame of masculinity to measure the worth of their foreign policy behaviors – a standard which is not only problematic on its own terms, but also a problematic proxy for masculinity. While the US is concerned with its “penis size,” Stewart argues, real people get hurt. He also suggests (through an extended discussion of ‘Operation Just the Tip’) that there is something perverse about the very phallic fascination with state masculinity, regardless of the actual impacts.

Particularly, Stewart then goes onto suggest that real men don’t beat up on weaker men when their masculinity is threatened. He argues that there is nothing glorious about the “big guy” beating up on the “little guy” to prove that the “big guy” is actually big. In fact, using the analogy to Superman, he suggests that it is a responsibility of the “big guy” to be restrained and mature in his use of his power. This is a very different sort of discourse of policy behavior than current US foreign policy is using – and one that, informed by gender analysis, I believe could be importantly transformative.

While that’s a nice start, Stewart shares some of the other assumptions I see as problematic in US foreign policy, including but not limited to the assumption that some standard of masculinity is the appropriate way to judge policy, and the taboo and intrigue that talking about sex has. Still, there is definitely an importance to the language that Stewart uses to voice his objection to intervention in Syria. I think the next step is to deconstruct the male/female and masculine/feminine dichotomies, especially when it comes to their role in US foreign policy. But perhaps that’s for another day …

Either way, it seems like this is (yet another) situation where its important to talk about sex.