Sunday, May 11, 2014

Your Brain on Testosterone

Michael Lewis’s 1989 book, Liar’s Poker, offers a brilliant inside view of the criminal and virtual criminal behavior of Wall Street investment banks. “Virtual criminal behavior” (my expression, not Lewis’s) is behavior that should be against the law but isn’t because Wall Street money - due to its political influence - spawns laws that facilitate stealing from the public.

Lewis is clearly not very proud of some of his actions at Salomon Brothers where he worked as a bond trader. One that I remember in particular was his selling of crappy AT&T bonds to a German sucker named Herman, promising they were a good deal. What Lewis only discovered later was that the bonds were guaranteed losers. He had been encouraged by higher ups to sell them because Salomon owned them and wanted to unload them on a customer so they, Salomon, wouldn’t have to eat the loss. That’s how investment banks, and Wall Street generally, work: they find ordinary citizens, cultivate their trust, then steal from them. Meanwhile they spend a fortune on key political campaigns in order to make sure their stealing can continue uninterrupted by federal agents.

In addition to insight into the specifics of Wall Street criminality, Lewis reveals the testosterone-heavy language of the Wall Street trader. Before he suckered Herman into buying the crappy bonds, Lewis was known as a geek, a pathetically wimpy and unmasculine figure. Once he made the sleazy sale, he was on his way to becoming what Wall Street calls “a big swinging dick,” that is, a success. It was possible for women to become big swinging dicks, but they rarely did. I wonder how those who did felt about the language.

This imagery, where success and domination suggest a penis of unnatural dimensions, reminded me of what Lyndon Johnson said after bombing parts of North Vietnam to smithereens. “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh,” he bragged, “I cut his pecker off.”

I’m not sure how Johnson felt about himself and his own pecker after he had to slink out of the White House in 1969. He may have felt like a dick, but surely not a big swinging one.

I am by no means the only one to be struck by the connection between success in competition on one hand and masculinity with all its appendages thereunto appertaining on the other. Joshua Goldstein, for example, has written an entire book on this topic: War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa.

I think of war as a kabuki of destructive stupidity and a fertile breeder of personal tragedy. But, since I am also in possession of a penis, I wish I could find a valid way to take exception to the presumed connection between these two entities.

There is, unfortunately, a connection between masculinity and aggressiveness. But it isn’t rooted in the penis; it’s testosterone, an anabolic steroid generated mainly in the testes. It makes men horny and contentious. (Women less so, since their bodies only generate about 12% as much testosterone as do men’s.)

There was an ad back in the 1970s designed to discourage drug use that focused on egg imagery. It opened with a man holding an ordinary egg while he intoned, “This is your brain.” Then, he cracked the egg and dropped it into a frying pan where it immediately began to sizzle. He then continued, “This is your brain on drugs.”

I never found that ad particularly convincing since I like fried eggs much better than raw ones, but nevertheless I did not become a drug addict.

Anyway, I would like to propose a new ad, one aimed strictly at men, with images something like this:

This is your brain.

This is your brain on testosterone.

Of course, women are capable of leading nations in war as did Golda Meir for Israel and Margaret Thatcher for the Britons. And, speaking of Britons, there was the famous warrior queen Boudicca who threw her bad, fighting self into fierce battle against the Romans.

                    Warrior Queen Boudicca on the Rampage

But these are exceptional cases. Most war promoters, like most Wall Street traitors [sic], are men. Of course the way we construct masculinity in our society, how we perceive and think about it, is at least as significant as the effects of any anabolic steroids that course through mens veins. But still, this biochemical gender difference is a cross-cultural constant and it closely correlates with some pretty nasty behaviors.

Both capitalism and war are largely testosterone-driven systems. The hyper-competitive mentality of testosterone-afflicted Wall Streeters encourages them to act in ways that normal people consider pathologically anti-social. The same also happens all too often on the battlefield. Who can help us overcome this madness? Well, I guess today is as appropriate as any day for me to express my wish that more female voices be heard amidst the current cacophony of self-aggrandizing baritones. Happy Mother’s Day.