From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Meaning of Masculinity, by Leo Braudy

    The last time an American President was elected with a majority of the vote was in 1988.  The last three presidential elections have been won with less than 50% of the vote, with the popular vote loser gaining the White House in 2000.

    Since women got the vote in 1920, there have only been three other elections won with less than 50%: Richard Nixon in 1968, John Kennedy in 1960, and Harry Truman in 1948.

    The last time there were three consecutive elections won with less than 50% of the vote was 1884, 1888, and 1892, where in the 1888 election the popular vote loser, Benjamin Harrison, who was also related to a former President, went to the White House.

    These three elections were in the only string of 5 elections where the victor was selected with less than 50% of the vote.  The winner in two of those elections, Rutherford Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, became President while losing the popular vote.

    When elections are close it is not only a sign that the nation is deeply divided, it is also a sign that something fundamental is changing in American society.  The string of plurality presidents from 1876 to 1892 straddled the post Civil War transition from an agricultural nation to an industrial, international superpower.

    Leo Braudy's new book, From Chivalry to Terrorism is a brilliant analysis of how the changes in the way war is waged affect the social, economic and political structure of society, with a special emphasis on the role of masculinity.  While male and female may be biological and genetically determined, masculinity and femininity have always been social constructs.

    Braudy, who has also written another brilliant book called The Frenzy of Renown, Fame and Its History, postulates that the rise of mass armies with Napoleon, then the need to mobilize the entire nation for war and the increasingly blurred lines between civilian and military that that entails, has been the engine of social change.  It is accepted wisdom that the internal migration of blacks from the South to the North during World War I was to work in the factories.  Without the war, without the mobilization, those opportunities would have never existed.

    Similarly, Rosie the Riveter was the symbol of women entering the work force to increase production for World War II.  Braudy shows how the Cold War mentality dictated a kind of social conformity in sex roles that only started to break down with the guerilla warfare of Vietnam.

    From Chivalry to Terrorism is an essential book for understanding where the United States has been and pointing the way to where it is going.  The current split in society is between those trying to prevent change, those with a strong emotional, political and financial interest in doing things the way they have always been done, and those more able to embrace the future.

    It is no coincidence that the Bush Administration's response to a terrorist attack on American soil, launched conventional wars to topple governments in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This is a truly great book that anyone interested in government and politics should read.  It is a long, difficult, very well written book, that in the end will save the reader lots and lots of time because it explains many of the current political trends and controversies.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf