December 10, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Real men in the age of the covid
What Ted Cruz and deer hunting tell us about truth and power.
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Gird your loins for a piece inspired by Ted Cruz. Yeah, you’d think I’d know better. In my defense, however, this piece isn’t really about the most hated member of the United States Senate. It’s about truth and what it means to be a man in the age of the covid.
Our story began last week when Cruz posted to Twitter a picture of himself holding up the head and rack of a recently shot eight-point buck. “A beautiful day in South Texas,” he wrote. Replies were a mix of admiration and disdain. The photo captures almost perfectly a kind of conventional wisdom benefiting Cruz so long as it isn’t scrutinized all too seriously. Real men hunt. Republicans hunt. Ergo, real men are Republicans.
Ted Cruz’s critics are right. He is, indeed, performing “manliness.” But they’re right for the wrong reasons.
This conventional wisdom, understandably, attracts critics. They point out that Cruz is a product of the Ivy League two times over, that he’s an attorney, that he’s argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. If anything he is of the political elite, not against those whom he claims to oppose in the name of the common men who constitute the Republican Party. The conclusion drawn by skeptics is that Cruz’s image of rugged authenticity is hypocritical, because it’s entirely “performative.”
You could say that. You could also say the whole notion of authenticity is kind of phony. Once you start questioning its bases, you realize it’s relative. Moreover, you could say hunters pose often with the animals they shoot. Pictures are demonstrations of pride, but also boasting. In that sense, Cruz’s tweet is within established norms. Sure, he isn’t normal. He’s a senator. But he’s not doing anything out of the ordinary.
Cruz’s critics are right. He is, indeed, performing. But they’re right for the wrong reasons. They are paying attention to a member of the political elite pretending, in his picture, to be a regular Joe. In doing so, however, they’re overlooking something obvious. Two things, actually. One, Cruz is a member of the political elite. Two, the elites hunt. Historically, that was part of what being elite meant. You didn’t hunt for food. Commoners did that. You hunted for one reason: You enjoyed killing things.
Fact is, unless you are literally living off the land, no one needs to hunt. To be sure, poverty and hunger are still social and political problems, but no one seriously thinks the solution, or even a solution, is to go hunting. This is why hunting is unpopular. (I mean so unpopular as to be taboo in some quarters.) No one feeds themselves by way of hunting. Hunting, therefore, is a pastime. It’s a pastime predicated on killing things.
Killing things isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Given the present state of humankind’s relationship to nature, hunting can solve an intractable problem. Wolves used to hunt deer in Connecticut. Then we got rid of them. The deer are now so abundant, there isn’t enough food for them, or they commit nighttime vehicular suicide. Deer don’t have natural enemies anymore. Human beings are now a kind of artificial predator.
What’s bad is telling ourselves reasons for hunting that hide the real reasons for hunting. It’s not for food. It’s not because of “tradition.” It’s not anything noble. The only reason is to kill something. You get a rise out of pulling the trigger. My sense is that when hunting was popular—when there was less incentive to justify it—people understood this truth without being conscious of it. The power to kill is pleasurable.
It’s also a truth you keep to yourself. There’s something shameful about taking a picture of yourself with your latest kill while saying that the only reason you killed it was because killing it was fun. Sure, that might be the truth of things, but you didn’t just come out and say it! Better to have a convenient and acceptable explanation. I didn’t kill this deer, because I wanted to. I killed it, um, because it’s protein, yeah, that’s it!
Which brings me back, unfortunately, to Ted Cruz. He doesn’t care about shame. He doesn’t care about values, norms, any of the “good-sounding” reasons—protein, yeah, that’s it!—that justify killing things. Commoners explain themselves. Normal people feel shame. Members of the political elite do not, because they are the political elite.
Cruz is performing. But it isn’t regular Joe stuff. What he’s performing is a hard truth in this age of the covid. Three thousand Americans died yesterday from the disease. Three thousand more are going to die today. Yet Cruz and his party do nothing. They are, in fact, cheered on. What’s he telling us? It must be this. I can kill with impunity. I could kill you. I’d never pay a price. I’d be rewarded. That’s what it means to be a real man.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.