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The Era of Male Guilt: Three Lessons from #ShirtStorm


So a team of scientists landed a space probe on the surface of a comet for the very first time ever, and that’s not really news. What’s news is that one of the guys who did it was wearing a tacky shirt.

No, really. Heather Wilhelm has a good overview of the ensuing imbroglio, dubbed #ShirtStorm on Twitter. Since the shirt in question had cartoon images of scantily clad women, you see, it was deemed off-putting toward women in science.

Let’s stipulate that scientists and engineers have a tendency to not be able to dress themselves in a way that is fit to be seen in public. That’s why, back in the day, the guys at mission control used to wear a pretty basic uniform of white dress shirt and skinny black tie. It didn’t make them look suave or hip. All it did was make them look like the kind of guys who could calculate interplanetary trajectories with nothing but a slide rule. Which, ultimately, is way cooler.

The irony here is that the wearer of the offending shirt, astrophysicist Matt Taylor, seems to be some hybrid of geek and hipster. Note all the earmarks: the beard, the big glasses, the “sleeve” tattoos on his arms, and the retro “kitsch” of an obnoxiously colored, comic-book-themed bowling shirt. So he was trying to be stylish after a fashion—and it is, in fact, the current fashion—and he still got into trouble.

In one respect this is all a tempest in a teacup. Who cares what shirt the guy was wearing while he landed a spacecraft on a comet? But our culture does care, and it made him care, reducing him to a tearful televised apology. That’s what makes this a cultural turning point.

There are three big lesson we can learn from #ShirtStorm about the brave new world of feminist grievance-mongering that we have just landed on.

1) They’re not just going after the frat boys.

To be targeted by accusations of misogyny, you don’t have to be a beer-chugging “bro” who spends his Spring break judging wet T-shirt contests. Now they’re coming after the geeks and yes, even the hipsters. Come to think of it, these are much softer targets and much easier to reduce to a sobbing, apologetic wreck. The hipsters are obsessed with demonstrating proper “progressive” credentials; they want to be nonconformists just like everybody else. The geeks, for their part, have usually spent their whole lives trying to avoid settings where they face a lot of social pressure or where anyone will give them a hard time about what they wear. So neither group will put up much resistance to the new orthodoxy.

It can’t be a coincidence that the feminist outrage brigade just went after Mark Zuckerberg for explaining that he always wears a plain grey T-shirt because he doesn’t want to have to think about what he wears. Which is offensive to women, apparently, because girls are obsessed with clothes all the time, as everyone knows.

Wait, is that an old sexist cliché being promoted by feminists? Of course it is, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get to that point, it’s important to make a second observation.

2) The new orthodoxy is total.

This is not about women being able to have careers, or stopping guys who beat their wives, or some other topic where you might expect equal rights for women to naturally arise as a direct issue. Now it’s about every minute little part of every area of your life.

This is “political correctness” in its purest, original form: “the personal is the political.” There is no area of life where proper behavior and even esthetic taste cannot be dictated by political concerns. You need to be told what you can wear, what songs you can listen to, what video games you can play (which, so far as I can tell, is one of the issues in GamerGate), what you are allowed to say to a woman as she walks down the street (if you are allowed to say anything at all), and so on.

Boris Johnson was bang-on in his reaction to Matt Taylor’s tearful apology:

It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-Sung, before they were taken away and shot. It was like a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution when weeping intellectuals were forced to confess their crimes against the people.

There is one final lesson that makes the comparison to totalitarian show-trials complete.

3) There are no logically consistent rules.

If there were some rule of common sense to all of this—or any rules at all—that would be one thing. The feminist orthodoxy would constitute a new sexual etiquette, and while we might question whether the new rules are necessary or whether they’re excessively Victorian in their restrictiveness, we would at least know how to comply with them. But the modern feminist creed is notable for its glaring irrational inconsistency.

After all, the feminists just went crazy with adulation over a televised performance in which Beyoncé showed way more skin than the girls on Matt Taylor’s shirt. I’ve noticed a string of articles recently in which feminists gush about how great it is that women are showing us their breasts. (Who knew that Joe Francis was a feminist pioneer?) By these standards, Matt Taylor’s shirt should hardly be noticed. And it turns out that the shirt was made for him by a female friend. In another context, we can assume that this would be praised as a form of female “empowerment.” But a guy wears it to talk about his comet probe, and the world explodes around him.

You are entitled to suspect that the double standards and the raw unpredictability are not a mistake.

To be so sensitive that everything sets you off is a sign of weakness. But it is also a perverse attempt to convert that weakness into strength. If no one can really know what will set off the feminist offense brigade or who will find himself reduced to a blubbering apology on television, then everyone had better be on guard and seek to protect himself by preemptively making obeisance to the powers that be.

Which is to say that this is a power play. It reminds me of what Shelby Steele has written about the phenomenon of “white guilt”: the presumption that all white people are complicit in the crimes of slavery and segregation and are therefore guilty until they prove themselves innocent. And they can prove their innocence by embracing whatever political agenda the guardians of racial grievance choose to decree.

So call this new system “male guilt.” Every man is presumed sexist until proven otherwise, and his only hope is appease the self-appointed arbiters of offensiveness.

This will all acquire a laser-like focus very quickly, because accusation of sexism will soon have an urgent, concrete purpose: destroying all opposition to Hillary Clinton’s presumed presidential campaign. As Stephen Miller observes: “If you want to know what #ReadyForHillary will look like for 4 years… This is it.”

While #ShirtStorm has abated, it is just the beginning. Mark it down as the opening of a new era of male guilt.

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