Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Two types of masculine spectacle: Donald Trump and the Edwards family of Surry, Virginia

The conservative (somewhat) Republican commentator David Brooks, whose persona on television and in his New York Times column is gentlemanly, thoughtful and wise, writes on the morning after the Iowa caucuses that the present political situation can be explained, in part, by a growing appetite for “masculine spectacle.” He compares Donald Trump’s aggressive and bombastic behavior to that of professional wrestlers, whose performances are partially faked to dramatize a primitive story line of conquest and dominance. Brooks suggests that the current cultural trends, with traditional notions of male and female identity increasingly being challenged, reinterpreted, or undermined, has resulted in a climate of confusion about masculinity and fear of disempowerment among many men, particularly in the working class. (I would argue that it’s a problem among the privileged classes of men also, though less visible because hidden under various veneers.) Trump’s public behavior, Brooks observes, arises not only out of his megalomania but out of his canny marketing instincts. He grasps the anger that many socially and/or economically insecure men feel, and he taps into it very effectively with displays of contempt and outrage sprayed in all sorts of “politically incorrect” directions. This, he implies in his performances, is the way that “real men” behave. Alas for polite, reflective, “low-energy” Jeb Bush, who stands no chance in this arena.

In the same issue of the New York Times, there is a vivid portrait of a very different sort of masculinity, written by the reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg. I grew up in Tidewater Virginia where the legendary Edwards Virginia Smokehouse just burned to the ground, sending shock waves throughout the area and beyond. The family business was founded in 1926 by the grandfather of the current president and “cure-master,” Samuel W. Edwards III. The Edwards family’s sustainable methods of raising hogs and smoking meats are respected throughout the United States, with foodies comparing their ham to the best of Italy and Spain. (The Smithfield Ham leviathan just a few miles down the James River is now owned by the Chinese, to the utter disgust of all true Virginians.) The Edwards retail shop, like the smokehouse, is in Surry County, Virginia, across the river from Jamestown. I paid a ritual visit to the store just a few years ago; it was as authentic as the Cracker Barrel stores are phony.

The Times article describes how Sam Edwards III, “a big man with an easy manner,” inherited the business and learned the art of smoking ham from his father, Sam Jr., who in turn was taught it by his father, SWE Sr. Mr. Edwards III escorted the Times reporter through the property. He said, “I look at it like this is life. As heartbroken as we are, I’m a plodder. I’ll just keep going on.” He vows to rebuild and to continue to pay his workforce if he possibly can. His lifelong friend and hog breeder Tony Seward said, “He’ll be the one that’s going to get me through all this.”

Last week, young “Sammy” Edwards IV, age 26, went through the charred remains of the smokehouse with the maintenance manager, J. C. Judkins III, looking for the brass skeleton key to the original smokehouse built by SWE Sr. When they found it, scorched but intact, Sammy cradled the precious object in his hands and Mr. Judkins, “a burly man in a knitted cap,” fought back tears. “It’s not one of those things you can find words for,” he said. “This is all extended family.”

The reporter, Ms. Stohlberg, concludes:

Mr. Edwards [III] is more stoic than tearful. Yet there is an image he cannot get out of his mind: a photograph taken as his company burned down. Part of the sign that read EDWARDS had dropped off, leaving only four letters: D-A-D-S.

He wondered, he said, if his father and grandfather were talking to him.

Which “masculine spectacle” do you prefer?

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Here are the links:

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PS. If the Edwards family are Trump supporters, don’t ever tell me.