by Hart Williams
The End of Manhood, by John Stoltenberg. Dutton. 311 pp., $21
While reasonable men may disagree reasonably, unreasonable men may, evidently, only manage to be disagreeable. Neither Limbaugh nor Stoltenberg would be pleased to see his tome laid beside the other's, but the similarities of approach are far greater than the polarities of viewpoint presented.
Stoltenberg is a "radical profeminist" whose book comes with words of praise from Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and the editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine. Stoltenberg promises -- self-reviewing himself in the prolog -- "Structured like a sequenced meditation, "The End of Manhood" comprises diverse voices (from erudite to earthy) and types of text (by turns antic and analytic), but always practical, here and now. I had fun writing it, and I decided to let the fun show."
Be that as it may, Stoltenberg's writing is disjointed and tenuously connected, as he constructs fallacious proofs that being a "man" is incompatible with being a human being, or, as he puts it a "Man of Conscience." Obsessed with rebutting the "men's movement," Stoltenberg fashions logical bear traps that "prove" "manhood" to be incompatible with humanity. Elsewhere, he has "fun" with such eloquent "satire" as": "Ten Ways You Can Fake It If You Fear Your Manhood Act Is Shaky".
The sorrow and the pity is that, in preaching to the converted, Stoltenberg carefully defines the "enemy," ascribes hateful qualities to him, and, by turns, moves to the eventual conclusion that ANYONE who disagrees with him is the stereotype he's generated. The term for what's being done has yet to be invented, but it is precisely "racism." He's' just moved the defining characteristics from melanin content to gender and political outlook. This, Stoltenberg implies, makes him a martyr, like all women everywhere at all times.
Rush Limbaugh does exactly the same thing. His enemy, however, is not "manhood," but "liberals." Limbaugh does have the advantage on Stoltenberg of occasionally making sense, and he's somewhat funnier. But, like Stoltenberg, he reserves his humor as a weapon to be used against his enemies, the evil "liberals." To classify either gentleman's humor as "satire" would do a disservice to the word. "See, I Told You So," comes with words of praise from William F. Buckley, Jr., Fortune Magazine, and Malcolm Forbes, Jr. in Forbes magazine.
Self-reviewing HIS book in his introduction -- is this a trend? -- Limbaugh crows: "prepare your mind to be challenged as it has never been challenged before. Don't be surprised if your brain is stimulated to the point that genuine human thought takes place. This is normal for nonliberals. You are making progress."
This reviewer's mind was not vaguely challenged, except, perhaps, by Limbaugh's continual self-congratulatory assertions of protean intellect. It is tempting to go further, but that is not the point.
"See, I Told You So," is a book that reads like Limbaugh's radio show. The use of language is close enough to the show, in fact, that it is likely it was dictated, transcribed and edited. A series of chapters on various themes -- "Punishing Achievement," "Algore: The Technology Czar" (sic), "The Case For Less Government" -the book relies on a tried and true method of logical subversion that has become commonplace in public debate: begin by finding the most outrageous positions of the opposition, use fact and reason to rebut, break at any point for tirades, claim that you are being "common sense" and logical, and then ask weighted rhetorical questions that lead to inescapable conclusions, such as "With such a great start (founding America), why did we allow liberalism, moral relativism and secular humanism to poison our nation's soul?"
Limbaugh alternates between telling the reader how smart he is and how humble he is; between how God, mom and apple pie works great, and how "Modern-day liberalism is like a disease or an addiction that literally has the power to destroy the character of the person who falls under its spell."
This the frightening banner under which BOTH authors wage their battles. Both characterize themselves as victims of a homogenous opposition. Both use the appearance of logic to make emotional and self-serving points. Both create semantic monsters -- Stoltenberg's "manhood," Limbaugh's "liberals" -- that they invoke at every opportunity, for any purpose. If you don't precisely agree with either, you're a monster. If they have been oppressed, it was by monsters. If either is unable to make his point, he launches into scathing mud-clinging (which both call "humor") about their monsters.
And this is the true monstrousness of these books: Both may have valid positions. But that is not important to them. What IS important is to pursue the opposition with witch hunt tactics; to smear and revile all who disagree; and to imply that their radical positions are the only positions that may be taken.
No room is left for moderation. And, in a nation in which public policy is, increasingly, determined by talk-radio debate, the lack of courtesy, the absence of reason and reasonableness, and the monkey-throwing-feces brand of humor is a dangerous indicator of the future. Although we should fight to the death for these gentlemen's right to speak so hideously, we should also be able to reasonably disagree -- reasonably and intelligibly.