“The Gloves Come Off”

The phrase “the gloves have come off” gained some notoriety in early 2003 when it was uttered by a White House official in respect of the impending invasion of Iraq. The commentariat at the time found the phrase perturbing in its implications. Consternation was voiced in many places about the abandonment of the instruments of law and treaty, the bonds of common principle, the exercise of diplomacy, the common ties of decorum and propriety, shared scruple, rights, or just plain old decency.

The implications of taking the gloves off seemed even more disturbing when set within the framework context of a statement recorded from G.W. Bush’s then policy advisor, Richard Perle,

“No stages. This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq, then we take a look around and see how things stand. That is entirely the wrong way to go about it … If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to … piece together clever diplomatic solutions … but just wage a total war against these tyrants, I think we will do very well. Our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” —

As it turns out, the phrase “the gloves have come off” is today not just literally true, as in the broad popularity of the sport of  extreme or “ultimate” fighting, but has become iconic of what I’ve come to call The Big Ugly, as something that encapsulates in the proverbial nutshell the whole mood and direction of post-modern nihilism, the decadence of the Modern Era, and the danger of a new Dark Age as even described by cultural historian Jean Gebser and others (Jacques Barzun, Jane Jacobs, Morris Berman, William Irwin Thompson, etc).

I spent the entire day yesterday monitoring campaign developments in the present Canadian federal election (which mercifully concludes tomorrow). In the news was the smear campaign launched by the right-wing Sun Media against the NDP’s Jack Layton, who the polls show has been very rapidly closing on the heels of the governing Conservative Party. The smear took the form of innuendo and a mere insinuation of a past case of sexual impropriety, but one which lacked any kind of evidence to support it. There was, in fact, no impropriety discovered or charged to Layton’s account. That, however, did not prevent the Sun Media chain from pursuing its ugly smear campaign against Mr. Layton in an apparent devious attempt to forestall and weaken the momentum of his party’s surprisingly strong challenge to the ruling minority Conservatives. A good many people, even some conservatives, expressed disgust with the Sun’s tactic.

And, as it turns out, the sources for the Sun Media article are themselves now under investigation for criminal breach-of-trust.

It was interesting to observe this tactic of perception management in action. Although the Sun strongly implied there was a case of sexual impropriety on Layton’s part, it did not or could not support the charge. Instead, it employed innuendo, relying upon the fantasy of its audience and readership to complete and close the circuit of logic and to follow the so-called “train of thought” (and so railroaded into arriving at the desired destination).  The tactic achieved its intent in some cases — even though its “success” as such in impugning Mr. Layton’s character and reputation seemed restricted to die-hard Conservative supporters and the poorly educated. What had been only insinuated by the Sun evolved into the fact of Layton’s imputed sexual misconduct in some commentaries, the “fact” being only supplied, however, by the fantasy of the reader and not by any evidence provided by the Sun.

This kind of short-circuiting of reason and perception by propaganda or perception management, and the abandonment of the requirement of credible evidence, is one of the most disturbing things about our post-modern, post-Enlightenment condition. In all my years living in Canada and through elections of one form or another, I don’t recall this kind of total abandonment of political decorum and scruple. Where the prize is power and “winning”, truth and the quality of reasonableness often become expendable as being mere hindrances, obstacles, or impediments.

The Sun itself was guilty of misconduct and of an impropriety. The “ties that bind” — the consensual cultural values or mores that constitute what we call “propriety” and which mediate between individuals (all of which constitute what we call “culture”) — are being dissolved and cut away. Someone has taken the polite out of politics and the civil out of civilisation. Culture war is the war on culture and on propriety. “The gloves come off”, and that is nihilism itself, particularly when it is practiced by misnamed “conservatives”.

What is even more revolting is that the Sun Media itself routinely mixes sexuality and politics, apparently on the principle  that “sex sells” and that the regular “Sunshine Girl” can be counted upon to lure or seduce readers for its reactionary ideas (or simply to infect a reader with its feeling of politicised resenttiment). One can question the propriety of using sexual allure and seduction as a selling point, as is often done for automobiles and alcohol. But there is something grotesquely hypocritical (called “cognitive dissonance” in the neutral language of the day) about imputing sexual impropriety and misconduct to a political opponent when one so freely indulges in it oneself.  Sun Media’s programmatic formula (also noted by others) has been short-skirts, proud boobs, and reactionary politics.

This mixture of sexuality and politics has a deeper undercurrent, though, one mediated through a common root source in the sense of potency and power. The “organs” of the reactionary parties of early 20th Century Europe often freely mixed pornography with politics, virility with violence.

It is sometimes said that big things come in small packages, and “the gloves have come off” is just such a little thing, easily overlooked, that nonetheless comes with a big and weighty payload. “The gloves have come off” exactly parallels that expression of reactionary and fascist nihilism that swept Germany during the Kulturkampf (culture war) of the 30s, encapsulated in a famous line (somewhat embellished now) from a Nazi playwright: “whenever I hear the word “culture”, I take the safety off my revolver”. Translated, that says “the gloves come off”.

In that simple phrase — “the gloves come off” — I hear the voice of the Beast, and perceive the outline and shadow of The Big Ugly.

And maybe this, our contemporary nihilism, is even an unfortunate necessary step towards the equally necessary and urgent  creation of new values and new forms of propriety and culture.


One response to ““The Gloves Come Off””

  1. Scott says :

    An well-penned article by Matthew Hays critiquing The Globe & Mail’s endorsement of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party appeared yesterday in the pages of the Globe. Although it neglects to mention quite a few major failures of policy, poor judgement, and other shortcomings of the Harper government over the past few years, it touches on some of the major sticking points that about 60% of the Canadian electorate have with the “new” Conservatives.

    You can read Hays’ “Anyone but Harper: A dissenting endorsement” to get an idea, anyway, why this election is so controversial and so explosive.

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