Entry from December 20, 2010

“Do we really need another woman as Speaker of the House.” Ouch! That was the comment of snarky Joel McHale of “The Soup” on the now famous scenes of John Boehner crying during his interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Amazing — isn’t it? — how some people can get away with politically incorrect remarks that other people would be crucified for. Of course it helps when your target is a Republican. Jimmy Fallon also did a bit on his talk show mocking the man whom some are now calling the “Weeper of the House” and whom he, Mr Fallon, imagined as being unable to answer questions about Twitter, Tron or when Kim of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” would have her baby — or even say his name — without melting into sobs. Of course Mr McHale’s comparison with Speaker Nancy Pelosi is particularly inapt, since she is as famed for keeping her emotions under control as Boehner already is, even before taking office as Speaker, for not doing so.

This contrast between the two was too much for Gail Collins of The New York Times who wrote indignantly if only typographically in her column:

We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she, or any female lawmaker, broke into loud, nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview.

(Pause). . .

And then again:

We will stop again briefly to imagine what would have happened if Nancy Pelosi, upon being elected speaker, had confessed on national TV that she was unable to visit schools in her district because the sight of little children made her break into sobs.


Ashley Parker of the Times’s “The Caucus” blog also ridiculed Senator Mitch McConnell as the “newest member” of “The Crying Caucus” for choking up on saying farewell to his retiring colleague, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. By contrast, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post wrote that she “thought the ladies of “The View” had it wrong — and did women a disservice when they lit into Boehner. They should have celebrated his tearfulness and argued for gender equity in crying.”

Good luck with that! Both Ms Collins and Ms Marcus assume — or affect to assume — the PC default position that any differences between the sexes can only be the result of now-discredited social construction. Little girls are taught that it is OK to cry, so they do; little boys are taught that it is not OK so they don’t. Except when they do. But this sort of sexual stereotyping has the perverse effect in political life of forcing women to be more stereotypically masculine, lest they be thought too weak to lead, while allowing men to be more stereotypically feminine, since they are “people who are presumed to be tough and hard-nosed, for whom crying is an attractive sign of complexity,” as Ms Collins writes.

There was an interesting illustration of the truth of this observation in Michael Kinsley’s snarky review of George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review:

George W. Bush’s presidency was not one of America’s greatest [he writes], but judging from Bush’s own retelling, it surely was the most lachrymose. In this memoir, people are constantly breaking into, or barely suppressing, tears. Among them are Donald Rumsfeld; the wife of Justice Samuel Alito; the president of Slovakia; Bush’s daughter Barbara; ground zero workers (“tears running down their faces, cutting a path through the soot like rivulets through a desert,” he writes, in a rare striking image); wounded soldiers; the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; and of course Bush himself — often.

What neither Ms Collins nor Mr Kinsley remarks upon, however, is the reason why the tears of public men and women are so interesting to the media, whether they celebrate or ridicule them. It’s the same reason that President Bush is unashamed to write about his own emotional moments and why these are singled out for special mention in the review of his book: namely, that the media just loves the idea of providing their eager audience with a glimpse into what we are accustomed to regard as a part of private life that should remain hidden from public view. Revealing to public knowledge the tears of public people makes us feel that we are privy to forbidden knowledge — or at least it borrows its thrill of fascination from the assumption that it is forbidden knowledge.

The fact that some people now feel at liberty to mock and ridicule politicians who — without any aspersions cast upon their sincerity — have learned to play this media game suggests that that assumption is finally becoming a bit threadbare. Maybe, once people have grown thoroughly used to the manipulation of emotions in the service of political advantage or the media’s self-aggrandizement, we men will be able to go back to being ashamed of them again without that perverse and more insidious sort of shame that comes from failing to conform to the therapeutic norm of emotional “openness.”

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