The conservative Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote a treatise praising this kind of manhood in 2006, as an antidote to America’s post-9/11 blues. “The most dramatic statement of manliness would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning, where nothing else has meaning unless the man supplies it,” he wrote. The ultimate aspiration of the sovereign man is to have his speech operate like the speech of a god, where his word instantiates truth.
This is why toxic masculinity is not a separate issue from political authoritarianism generally. The sovereign man is not subject to the law because he is a source of law for others. The spectacles of subservience we have witnessed since Trump was elected are testament to that equivalency. Once obedience to the word of the sovereign sets in, becomes normal, we are on the road to an authoritarian state.
When Marie Yovanovitch stood up straight and walked with unassailable confidence through flashing press cameras to testify before Congress, after being told not to, the spell was broken. The curtain was drawn back. She showed us that Trump’s word is not law, but the blustering of a man in love with a fantasy of his own power. That blustering doesn’t become law if those around him refuse to treat it as such. The American public witnessed a simple act of moral courage.
What is moral courage? In 1961, Hannah Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to observe the trial of Adolf Eichmann to find out. While I don’t equate our current situation with fascism in Nazi Germany by any means, I do find her insights about moral courage eerily relevant to our constitutional crisis and battle over impeachment.
Reporting on the trial of a man who had blithely, efficiently and dutifully sent 11 million people to their deaths, Arendt confronted what she called “the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil.” She discovered that Eichmann was just a rule-follower, driven by narcissism and a desire to advance his career. He was incapable of independent thought, and behaved morally only as long as the orders he received were moral. When The Führer’s word effectively became law, morality itself consisted, for him, of doing what Hitler ordered.
After his arrest he insisted that “what he had done was a crime only in retrospect, and he had always been a law-abiding citizen, because Hitler’s orders, which he certainly had executed to the best of his ability, had possessed ‘the force of law’ in the Third Reich.” Of the German people in moral collapse, Arendt suggested that they were very good at following the rules as well, and when Hitler’s word became law, they were still good at it.
Arendt’s conclusion was that moral courage required an ability to “judge without banisters,” that is, to judge the unique and specific case in a situation that is radically unprecedented, with no universal rule available under which to subsume it. Moral courage, she taught us, is about exercising independent judgment in a situation where the rules collapse.