In Search of a Gentleman

Not distrusting the patriarchy -- but having very different reactions to Buttigieg and Sanders.

What would Papou say?

Among my many faults is a certain inclination to immediate, harsh, inflexible judgements. Like a latter-day Elizabeth Bennet, once I have made up my mind about someone, it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to alter that opinion. These judgements are, of course, created out of the strange mixture of experience, belief, prejudice and natural inclination from which we all draw our initial opinions of strangers. Even strangers we think we know. Here I want to write about two of those strangers, because they are strangers with whom I have had the most peculiar reactions, reactions I did not fully understand at first — which I hope to have you understand here. I think if I can get you to understand why I reacted as I did to these two strangers — both men I do not know — then you might know something about me. Something I very much want you to know.

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Here is the first thing you must know about me: one of my unusual defaults — that is, unusual for my generation — is that I do not necessarily distrust the patriarchy. Or rather, patriarchs. I grew up in the home of kindly ones. A rare genetic clotting disorder meant that not a few of the women in my family found themselves in their graves before their 65th birthdays and so old age, in my child’s mind, was the dominion of men. Papou, the Greek word for grandfather, was sacred in our household.

My mother’s grandfather came to visit us each summer until I was six. Born in Chania, the old Venetian capital of Crete, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Papou Tony was first educated in Thessaloniki and then in Paris. Every week when Papou Tony was in residence, a stack of newspapers from Greece, France, England, Germany and Italy would arrive at his front door and he’d read each one with careful attention. It was the same attention he gave to the heavy books of theology, philosophy and natural science on his nightstand. When he wasn’t reading, he wrote long, meticulously crafted letters to correspondents in places I knew well, such as Salt Lake City and California’s Central Valley, and in places that might as well have been on Mars, such Johannesburg, Alexandria and Melbourne. He wrote those letters because he wanted to tell you what he thought, of course, but he also wanted to hear what you had to say. This was true even if you were a kindergartener sitting next to him, eating your snack of peanut butter and celery. Somehow you’d get called into a discussion on the wisdom of the first Gulf War or Ross Perot’s presidential aspirations.

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Papou Tony’s favorite interlocutor was his son-in-law — my grandfather, Papou George. “Gorgos, my boy…,” Papou Tony would begin when my grandfather came back from his restaurants. Often they’d talk into the night, smoking cigars and drinking retsina — the bitter Cretan wine that is, I am told, a taste that one may acquire. As it was summertime and there was no school for which to wake in the morning, I would frequently stay up with them, following as best I could as the conversation ricocheted between Greek, English and, on occasion, the comfortable melodies of Crete’s indigenous dialect. There, at a big carved oak table carried across the ocean from Alexandria, they talked about German reunification and Orthodox salvation theology. They told jokes and they always asked what I thought — even when I thought nothing at all. I knew that these men who knew so much of the world would also stop at nothing to protect me from whatever evil might lurk within it. For these men, these patriarchs, were reliable figures, called upon night and day not only by our family, but by friends, employees and sometimes even strangers. They were devoted husbands. I knew that they were kind to their wives in a way that many men of their era and culture were not. My grandmother, like precious few Greek women of her time, never feared her husband’s fist; she had also never feared her father’s. Because these patriarchs did not need fear to rule their families, they inspired love and absolute devotion by their complete service to us. This is why their word was better than any other men’s contracts. Their debates never left out the all-important notion of honor, which I understood even then to be the most precious possession of any man or woman. There, at that table, there took shape in my mind my own Platonic form of the father, so kind and generous in mind and spirit, so solicitous, so stalwart that I have never cringed to call God “father.” How could He be anything but?

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The word for my grandfather and great-grandfather — the word that my grandmother often used to contrast the sort of men she liked with the sort of men she thought it best to stay away from — is “gentleman.” And as I look around the world at this particularly terrifying moment in its history, I cannot help but think that it is the absence of gentlemen that is no small part of the problem. Where are those men who care about the world, who serve as good guardians against its darkest forces? Where are those men who know the value of honor? Not that this is an easy undertaking for any man. As the great Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello wrote, “A gentleman is something you have to be all the time.” To be anything all the time must be difficult. Perhaps a harsh judgement is not in order.

But that goes back to the problem of my nature and those very harsh judgments, and that brings me back to those two strangers: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. Let’s talk about why I reacted so strongly, in opposite ways, to both of them. On the political surface, they really are not that different: Buttigieg even won the Profiles in Courage essay contest for writing about Sanders, after all. Something about Sanders repulses, scares and angers me in a way I cannot describe. Something about the mayor calms me and inspires in me a kind of trust that I am frankly embarrassed to offer to a politician, however good or competent or qualified he might be.

These reactions are about far more than mere policy. Certainly, I am probably more of a Buttigieg Democrat than a Sanders Democrat. But this is not about whose health plan I prefer, which is why I sat down and did what I am prone to do: make lists.

Here’s my list about Sanders:

  1. His refusal to marry the mother of his child. (I am distrustful of people who do not uphold a certain level of honor in their personal lives. His child does not call him “father.” If you have been reading this, you immediately know why this bothers me. What kind of man commands so little respect that his own children don’t call him “father”?)
  2. His resistance to joining the Democratic Party. (This is not, mind you, because I think the Democratic Party is the end all and be all. Rather, I do not trust people who will not throw in their lot with a tribe; I dislike people who take advantage of all the trappings of membership without bearing any of the responsibility.)
  3. His shoddy work history. (That Sanders essentially lived in semi-employed poverty until he was 40 rubs me the wrong way and would have horrified my grandfather. Sanders had responsibilities and he chose some faux-ideals over meeting them. Get a job.)
  4. His views seem unchanged since he was 20. (I know a lot of people like this, but to me it betrays a lack of self-reflection, a stubborn resistance to learning from the realities of life. It doesn’t speak of a man who thinks or feels life deeply.)

Here’s my list about Buttigieg:

  1. His wedding ring is always on. (If you notice such things, you will notice how seldom this is true for those in public life-or anyone really. I’m sure it’s normally a slip-up, but Buttigieg’s consistency speaks well of him, conjuring loyalties to home and hearth central to my vision of manhood. Devoted husbands, stalwart family men — those were the first good men I knew. They are, I suspect, the only truly good men on this earth. If Sanders’ clearly questionable family life unnerves me, Buttigieg’s clearly honorable one comforts me.)
  2. He speaks of his faith in an easy, honest way. (This is one of those things that good progressives aren’t supposed to say, but I will. I distrust a man who believes he is his own master. I am grateful to know that Buttigieg believes he will answer to a higher authority.)
  3. His Mediterranean descent is written on his face. (Buttigieg had a Maltese father and we Mediterranean island people have a look about us. I cannot separate the comfort I derive from him from the ways in which his face, his expressions, mimic those of the men who raised me.)
  4. He is awfully steady. (I know some read it as coldness or lack of concern, but I do think it’s a steady resolve. No matter who screams at Buttigieg, what they’re screaming or why, he takes it on the chin. Like a man ought to. Like a gentleman always does. He does not lash out in a silly, awful or undignified way. I do not just like that. I think I require it.)

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I looked over these lists, mainly resisting the urge to scratch out those things that do not flatter me. I mean those things that show me for what I am: essentially an old-fashioned kind of girl, clinging inartfully to notions, quite possibly outdated, like family and faith and gentlemen. I wear my “The Future is Female” t-shirt while simultaneously distraught that a white knight has not yet ridden in to rescue us. I search the crowded field of presidential candidates in desperation for the man (I admit it) most like those kindly patriarchs of my happy childhood. That the man yielded by the search is a gay millennial who plays guitar and regularly invokes the struggle of “transwomen, particularly transwomen of color…” offers me some cover. But I am not desperately old-fashioned. I can say, “Look there. I am hopelessly modern.” It is all plausible deniability. I know the truth: we all do. And that is, I think, a good thing in the final analysis. Because it means there are still gentlemen out there. There are still kindly patriarchs. We may not have to burn down this beloved old house after all.