Wimps, wussies and W.

MARK DERY is a cultural critic who teaches in the department of journalism at New York University.

SO THERE’S a smoking crater where Don Imus used to sit. That’s fine with those of us who never understood the appeal of his grizzled-codger shtick, which always sounded like Rooster Cogburn reading “The Turner Diaries” anyway.

But if we’re going to administer a ritual flaying to every blowhard who channels the ugly American id, why has a hate-speech Touretter like Ann Coulter escaped the skinning knife? She called Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot” at the Conservative Political Action Conference; insisted on “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch” that Bill Clinton’s “promiscuity” is proof of “latent homosexuality”; quipped on “Hardball Plaza” that Al Gore is a “total fag”; and wrote, in her syndicated column, that the odds of Hillary Clinton “coming out of the closet” in 2008 are “about even money.”

Obviously, racism — slavery, lynching, institutionalized discrimination — has taken a much greater toll, in this country, than homophobia. According to the most recent FBI data (2005), most hate crimes (54.7%) were racially motivated; only 14.2% were inspired by the sexual orientation of the victim.


But there’s another reason the media haven’t given Coulter a prime-time water-boarding: Her problem is our problem. As a society, we view racial epithets as Class A felonies, whereas homophobic slurs are parking violations (if that). Coulter laughed off her Edwards crack, saying, “The word I used … has nothing to do with gays. It’s a schoolyard taunt, meaning wuss.”

Got that? The term “faggot,” helpfully defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “offensive slang … a disparaging term for a homosexual man,” really means “wuss,” a schoolyard pejorative applied exclusively to guys — guys who are “unmanly,” according to American Heritage. Not that it means you’re a fag or anything. Which is just British slang for “cigarette” anyway. So why are you looking at me like that?

Coulter’s chop-logic reminds us that homophobia is so ubiquitous as to be invisible in American society. Only people whose idea of formal attire is a white sheet with eyeholes would dare to use the N-word in public, but homophobic smears reverberate throughout pop culture. Little wonder: Asked in a 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project study if homosexuality should be accepted by society, only a razor-thin majority (51%) of Americans answered yes, in contrast to 83% in Germany, 77% in France and 74% in Britain.

Our tradition of demonizing political opponents is founded on homophobic innuendo. Camille Paglia derided Al Gore for his “prissy, lisping Little Lord Fauntleroy persona” that “borders on epicene.” John Kerry was deemed too “French” — meaning too much of a girlie man — to be commander in chief. Now Edwards is too heteroflexible; only Straight Guys with a Queer Eye get $400 haircuts, right?

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of American masculinity when Newsweek branded his father a “wimp,” a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to look like a wimp is the key to Dubya’s psychology: the you-talkin’-to-me pugnacity at news conferences; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that moved G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on “Hardball,” for Freud’s sake — “what a stud.”

Doesn’t all this machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it produces Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”


The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it’s maintained by frantically repressing every man’s feminine side and demonizing the feminine and the gay wherever we see them. In his book, “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity,” clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat calls this state of mind “femiphobia” — a pathological masculinity founded on the subconscious belief that “the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman.”

OK, so maybe I’m overstepping the bounds of my Learning Annex degree in pop psychology. But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermachismo are far worse than a few politicians slimed by pundits. The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.’s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes — all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that confuses diplomacy with weakness and arrogant rigidity with strength. It is founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is but on a neurotic loathing of what it secretly fears it may be: wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don’t pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.