The Right Path, Prologue: The MRM, Manboobz, and the Possible Futures of the American Left
To begin: a microcosm.
Of all of the questions on my writings on the Men’s Rights Movement, the one I hear the most often is this: Why?
Why bother researching a bunch of people no one’s ever heard of, and probably never will? Why bother seeking to better understand where they’re coming from, if you know in advance you’re probably still going to disagree with them? Why shine a spotlight on a group that features so many who are clearly trolling just to get into that spotlight?
I actually have numerous answers all to these questions, despite the fact that I don’t really understand the inherent lack of curiosity it takes to pose them. But my primary answer to all of them is that I don’t actually think that the MRM is so fundamentally different from larger, more accepted political movements in the Internet age.
In fact, if you strip away the buzzwords used by MRM’s members as well as that specialty-niche stripe of on-line feminism that devotes itself to opposing them (more on that in a moment), what is the story of the movement, really? I would argue that it is a group of people who feel largely displaced by the shifting cultural mores of the past few generations. They believe that those changes are an attack on themselves, a moral and functional society, and humanity itself. In some cases, the slights they see against their group are quite real and deserve attention from both the press and those making policy; in other cases, the perceived slights seem more a panicked reaction to the loss of real or perceived privilege that they incorrectly translate as civil rights violations; in still others, the slights themselves seem to be entirely imagined, made up out of whole and paranoid cloth. Much of the latter two categories are allowed to fester because the group polices data strictly on the basis of adherence to dogma. All news, statistics, and academic findings that comply with the political narrative are embraced; all that contradicts the narrative is declared heresy, deviously planted by the enemy. They quickly lose patience with those more moderate members and declare them traitors or tools of the opposition, casting them into exile. Their lack of ability to change minds outside of their own echo chamber is ignored, because they are so deeply embedded inside of that chamber that they truly believe they have the political upper hand; they really seem convinced that their total victory is but the breath of angels away from becoming reality.
Now I ask you, did I not just describe today’s movement conservatism to a tee (party)?
And like the Tea Party, the MRM has its own natural political enemies — by which I do not mean those that the MRM metaphorically “hunts,” but those that exist to metaphorically “hunt” MRMs. (I know this for a fact, because I’m pretty sure I must have gotten an email from all of them in the weeks after the Daily Beast article was published.) For the sake of clarity, let us not call these enemies “feminists” (most feminists I’ve talked to either aren’t aware the MRM exists or never bother to think twice about them) but rather Anti-MRMs. Anti-MRMs typically self-identify as feminists, but they differ from that crowd in that they spend a significant amount of their free time reading MRM blogs and forums, reading blogs about MRM blogs and forums, writing about MRM blogs and forums, and cultivating communities that center around discussions of what MRM members are doing where. I confess it seems kind of an odd choice of how to spend all of one’s free time to me, but hey — everyone needs a hobby, right?
From an outsider’s perspective, the Anti-MRMs have clear strategic advantages over the MRMs. For one thing, they are more representative of the status quo and are therefore more likely to have those policy battles that the two groups disagree over go their way. Moreover, on the whole they appear to be better educated, which is not entirely surprising since the MRM is typically distrustful of most forms of higher ed. They have writers who communicate far more clearly. (A large barrier to mainstream acceptance for the MRM is that it’s often not entirely clear what point a given MRM writer is trying to make. This is a pretty typical example of what I’m talking about.) Lastly and most importantly, the Anti-MRM crowd doesn’t appear to have nearly the bats**t crazy-to-sane person ratio that the MRM does. (Unless, of course, you define people who hate the MRM but still live to follow them as if they were a hot reality television show as “bats**t crazy,” in which case ymmv.)
It’s interesting to note that when you look over the Anti-MRM sites and articles, it’s fairly obvious that they are beginning to pick up cues from their enemies. Ridiculous hyperbole is at nowhere the same levels on Anti-MRM sites, but it is there and it is growing. So too is its willingness to embrace clear falsehoods that toe its party’s line. For example, the article I am most referred to by those Anti-MRM who write to me is this piece on the MRM by activist Barry Nolan for Boston Magazine. For a while, every other tweet sent to me was a link to Nolan’s story. The Boston Mag article was even used as part of an otherwise very well-written critique of my own piece by the American Prospect. The problem with the Boston Mag article, which I had actually read early on in my MRM research, is that none of it is true; the author basically made it all up. Worse, it should be immediately obvious to anyone reading it that it’s made-up nonsense.
Nolan’s report paints a picture of MRM leaders pulling the strings that control our courts and elected officials, which is — pardon my saying so — as eye-rollingly dishonest as anything John Hembling has ever written. Nolan claims that the MRM flexed their political muscles and had David Aptaker, a candidate for judge in the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, ousted for not being anti-women enough. In fact, Aptaker withdrew his own name after the guy he was running against leaked to the press that Aptaker had perjured himself and falsified his financial disclosure forms. (The reason he falsified the disclosure forms, it turns out, is that he’d been giving money to two legislators who had recently been indicted on corruption and bribery charges.) Nolan also insinuated that MRM leaders were poised begin a takeover of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, which was as blatant a falsehood as his claim about Aptaker. True, one obscure fathers’ rights activist did throw his hat in the ring (anyone can, really), but his primary defeat was so overwhelming as to be laughable. He was never seriously considered by anyone to get any votes at all outside of his immediate family and friends.
Similarly, there is the case of Manboobz, the Anti-MRM website run by David Futrelle. Futrelle has been systematically cataloguing the most inflammatory and poorly reasoned utterances from the MRM for years. He is in no way unbiased, nor to his credit does he pretend to be. For example, if he comes across chat rooms on Redditt where MRM are supporting a particularly loathsome comment, he is happy to write about it. If there is a chat room out there where MRM members come down hard on someone for making a loathsome comment, however, Futrelle is happy to pretend it doesn’t exist and simply doesn’t report it. After all, the people who page click on Manboobz and donate their money come for a very specific product: seeing the enemy mocked. No one is going to donates money to Futrelle for saying “hey look, here’s a something an MRM member said that isn’t nearly as terrible as other things I link too, even if I think he’s wrong.”
In one very specific way, Futrelle the businessman is similar to the businessman who runs Manboobz’s version of Mordor, A Voice for Men’s Paul Elam. And since in the extremely unlikely chance that either of them ever reads this blog that sentence might well make each of their heads literally explode, let me clarify: Each runs a website that has paying customers, and the customers of each come for one singular purpose: to experience the hating of their political enemy as part of a larger community.
I bring all of this up because lately it has occurred to me that just as the MRM has followed the steps of movement conservatism at an vastly accelerated pace, so to has the Anti-MRM mirrored leftism in the internet age.
And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
As you all know, I’ve been growing more and more concerned that the American left is starting down the same road that has decimated the American right. And though the key word there is “starting,” the thought that I might be correct and that in ten years time the left could be similar to today’s right actually worries me greatly. It should worry you too.
After all, if it appears I’m being overly critical of Manboobz (or, for that matter, A Voice for Men) know that isn’t my intention. After all, there’s a pretty significant difference between David Futrelle and the Democratic Party: 300 million people aren’t relying on Futrelle to govern them in a way that keeps their country from flying off the tracks. Futrelle is just a guy on the intertubes doing his thing, and more power to him. The reason I chose to start this series with the MRM and its internet antibodies is because we don’t really have MRM or Anti-MRM folks here, and I hoped having a place to consider some basic thoughts and concepts without them being attached to our home teams might be helpful.
In this coming series of posts, I will be starting with some assumptions that I take as givens. My guess is that most people here will disagree with some or all of them. Because of this, I am stating them in the introduction. Best we get them out in the open and bicker about them now, that they don’t clutter up the threads too much down the road.
Here are my statements I take as given:
- The American right has become a joke. It is no longer conservative, in the classical meaning of that word. Rather, it has become the most radical serious political movement since the 1960s.
- Regardless of what they claim, the right doesn’t actually really stand for anything, and hasn’t in a while. Rather, it defines itself as being whatever liberals aren’t, and its position on any given issue can change on any day in any given direction based on nothing more than Barack Obama making an offhand comment.
- None of this is an inherent part of conservatism per se. Indeed, much of what the right has championed for decades is as relevant today as it always has been, such as fiscal restraint, individual rights, and the instinct to look carefully before we leap into new social enterprises. Rather, the right is a mess because of a very specific path they chose to pursue twenty years ago. This path took advantage of captive media audiences to carve out a media ratings-based system that replaced its governance-based system.
- When they were going down this path, the right set up various trail markers along the way: The systematic delegitimization of any press that did not report according to its wishes. The granting of favor to talking points over policy, to star power over competence. The casting out of heretics, followed by the decision to demonize moderates over extremists on the opposite end of the spectrum. The blind declaration that “conservatism cannot be wrong, it can only be wronged.”
- The left is nowhere close to the right, and liberals are quite correct when then say that this difference in scale is important. However, I believe that liberals are still going down that same path that the right pioneered, and I believe I can see them approaching those same trail markers. I’ve often said that more than any other group in my lifetime, today’s right reminds me the left in the mid-80s. Today’s left is beginning to look a lot to me like the right in the mid-to-late-90s.
- The left might not ever go as far into the wilderness as the right, and it would be best for the country if they didn’t. As I’ve said before, the nation needs a set of professional, governing adults to get s**t done while the right figures itself out. But even if the left doesn’t go as far out on their limb as the right has its, this path still brings trouble — to the left more than anyone. Standing for something solid and concentrating on competence and anti-corruption could easily be the ticket to the left having power and influence for a generation, and they could use that power and influence as a springboard to make the kind of huge progressive advancements that this county has not seen since the days of FDR. Sweeping obvious incompetence and corruption under the rug, coupled with a growing strategy of simply relying on the right to be so bats**t crazy that they’ll bail you out election after election is a way to lose the White House as soon as 2016 and the Senate as soon as this fall.
As you can see, we have much to discuss.
Later (hopefully this week) I’ll be putting up a post that more exactly lays out the path I believe the right took over the past 20 years. It will be somewhat old hat to long-term readers of mine, but it’s probably necessary to restate here in this series. After that I’ll take a look at what is probably our society’s most vulnerable minority and how the shift away from “good governance” and toward “making the right look bad” on the left — combined with the specifics of the Affordable Care Act — will be putting that minority at risk in a way it hasn’t been in generations. Then I’ll try to zoom out and show the reasons I see the greater landscape changing on the left, and why I believe they are in serious danger of giving in to the path’s seductive call and embracing those same trail markers the right put up to guide them.
First, however, let me put this post to bed with an answer that I’m sure has been going through all of this site’s liberals’ heads since midway though this essay: Why on earth did the Anti-MRM crowd remind you of today’s left?
As I said, I got a lot of emails from the anti-MRM crowd last fall, many of whom identified themselves as Futrelle readers, all of whom were polite and cordial even as they ripped me new a collective “new one” for bothering to listen to the people I interviewed. The majority of those, as I say, referenced Barry Nolan’s Boston Magazine article as an example of why shutting down the MRM was so important. At first I wrote back to people explaining what my research on the article had found. I’m not sure why, but when I first started on my replies I thought they would let that argument go. They didn’t.
Almost everyone I talked with criticized me for even researching the Boston Magazine article. It was typical of the press, I was told, ignoring the greater problem of the MRM and focusing on Nolan. (This despite the fact that I didn’t once mention Nolan’s article in my own.) Didn’t I see that no matter what Nolan had done, the MRM was so much worse? Wasn’t the price of one man with his heart in the right place telling tall tales small indeed, compared to the benefit of getting Massachusetts voters on the right side of the issue? They asked me all these questions and many more as well, but mostly they all came back to one statement:
I look forward to discussing this with you all over the coming weeks.
 How laughable was it? I’m so glad you asked.
The MRM activist Patrick McCabe — not to be confused with the brilliant Irish writer who penned Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto — was just one of four Democrats running in the primary, but he was certainly the one campaigning most aggressively. When local papers and voters groups invited Governor’s Council candidates from his district to sit down with the editorial staffs or answer questionnaires he was the only one that ever bothered. The other candidates just referred people to their websites, most of which had little or no information. Despite this, McCabe came in fourth out of four and managed to get but a third as many votes as the candidate who came in third. This is not that surprising, according to those who cover that district that I spoke with last year.
If you have ever sat on a city council, school board, neighborhood association, or some other open-to-the-public government forum, chances are you know someone like McCabe. He is a single-issue citizen who shows up to every meeting and with passion and zeal, repeating the same talking points and making everyone on the council or board silently wish their meetings were closed to the public. Every public forum has one, and in Massachusetts 2nd District that guy is Patrick McCabe.
Coincidentally, McCabe is also one of the people who contacted me after the Daily Beast article, and he did so repeatedly until I was forced to ask him rather firmly to stop. His reaching out was quite friendly at first, but they quickly became more and more hostile and, frankly, unhinged. I finally asked him to stop contacting me after he began demanding that I contact the Washington Post and have them change the way they covered the National Organization for Women.
Believe me: he was never at any time a viable threat to take over any elected seat in Massachusetts, nor would he be in any other state of the union. And there is simply no way that Boston Magazine would not have known this.