But we refuse to admit it.
Men need to be put to good use. Everyone needs purpose and meaning, but for men it needs to be centered around serving, protecting, and providing for others. When a culture casually and relentlessly denigrates men, it fosters a demoralization that is profound and hard to overcome. Along with that, when you take away spaces for boys and men, like the Boy Scouts or gym classes or sports teams or fraternities, and ONLY promote a cultural message that girls and women are always society's victims you undercut that desire to protect and serve. When you redefine the entire K-12 education system as a nationwide "anti-bullying" campaign with educating children as a secondary or tertiary goal, you create a nation of baffled, confused, demoralized boys and men. And finally, when you decimate the nuclear family by promoting sexual freedom as the highest good, the result is what happened in New York City yesterday: lawless, fatherless, directionless children wreaking havoc.
Your WaPo article is insightful and mostly compassionate, but it is constrained by the ever-shrinking Overton window of acceptable progressive or liberal views along with the hand-waving away of conservatives as bad people. You should talk to more conservatives and find out why they feel such disgust for modern American culture. Some of them may be "annoying" to you like Matt Walsh, but they have legitimate points.
I can't say it as well as Kipling.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting;
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating;
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings- nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
I have a couple thoughts:
1. The aspirational model has been quite helpful to me. I've found through literature figures who guide my thinking as to what I should be as a man, specifically, Sir Gawain (wh I believe explicitly functioned this way in the high middle ages) and Phineas Finn. Granted, it's hard to get anyone to read books, especially worthwhile ones, these days. My guess is a decent father helps young men to an extreme degree.
2. You will probably never get a good answer to "what is a man?" from the progressive left because the question implies one about the political body, "what place do men have in society?," which they won't want to answer because any talk of social order seems to suggest hierarchy, at least to them. You see this in "Barbie", which raises the latter question but imo ignores answering it for the most part, as the movie leaves Barbieland in a political status that hardly seems stable.
Bonus thought. It's pretty asinine in my opinion that we keep acting like masculinity and femininity are complete opposites. I don't see why there would be any reason (from nature or common experience) to think this. Therefore, I agree with your friend that both genders ought to simply pursue virtue with the caveat that virtue is almost surely to manifest itself differently in a man than in a woman.
I agree that the more we attempt to reach beyond biological reality the more we realise how fundamental it is. Most women will have children. If they breastfeed (which is recommended by health bodies the world over), that entails being with your baby 24/7. If you breastfeed optimally for your own health as a woman (substantially reducing future cancer risk) and the babies health this entails being with your baby 24/7 for at least 12 months. If you have two children we are looking at a period of up to 3-4 years when a woman is caring and nurturing round the clock. In that time she will be economically dependant. This is where the male role stems from- to be a provider and protector. Feminism does have to answer for the fact that this reality is not disclosed to young women for fear that this circumscribes what women want for their lives. In our atomised individualised state we’ve lost connection with this reality and are forced to learn it anew in every generation.
I think there are two different questions here. One is about the future we long for: what might gender look like in a post patriarchal world? and the other is about the bridge from here to there: if we accept the premise that men are struggling, what supports might they (we!) need in the present as we move toward a new relationship with gender?
I'm very much in the camp of focusing on reimagining masculinity is barking up the wrong tree. And: I very much agree that we have to meet people where they are at. I do think we urgently need new aspirational identities, that can move us toward the post-supremacist, post-patriarchal world we long for; some thoughts on what that might look like here for others who hold this inquiry: https://citizenstout.substack.com/p/belonging-and-the-identity-trap
I'm afraid that this attitude on the part of progressives makes them seem like Martians to many non-progressives. The average person is quite happy to think that being a "good man" or a "good woman" is something that can be defined and described. Furthermore, attempting to eliminate "harm" is sheer utopian folly. It's astonishing that nominal adults actually think this way.
enjoying now; just had to pause and say thank you to the author
thanks for the read and the thoughtful comment christine
Great stuff as usual, thanks for writing.
Christine, your essay in the Washington Post and now this follow up piece have cost me many hours of contemplation on a subject that had not been on my radar. I stewed on the Post piece for damn near a week, I sent it to the parents of a young man who I know to be suffering explicitly from this lack of direction for men, and I find myself constantly drifting off into trains of thought about what, if anything, could be done to correct course.
Incredible work. And thank you for writing these pieces.
With that said, I’ve struggled to imagine what a good standard/direction for men would be because I get stuck on your well put point #3 about boxing in.
I’m curious, what have been the most convincing suggestions you’ve come across from the feedback you’ve received since writing the initial essay?
I found this Substack after reading the article.
I grew up with a lot of confusing and contradictory messaging, and have had to confront a lot of the things you described, while also trying to navigate messaging around the virtues of the feminine, respect for feminism... and being raised by some very problematic women. So... questionable guidance from questionable sources.
I would have joined the other 350 entries in the call out box, had I found it.
But I did want to thank you for this article. It’s helped me open up the conversations at home. I’m trying to help raise two emotionally literate boys, and the current state of affairs mean that, hard as it is for me to figure out things for myself, finding positive messaging for them is even harder.
After reading this and the WaPo article, I’m tempted to go back and re-read Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. The references to and grounding in Christianity would probably be pretty cringe to a lot of readers, but I remember his vision of positive masculinity being formative for me when I read it 20 years ago.
We all live somewhere on a continuum of male/female stereotypical attributes. I was an Army sergeant but not a Marine sergeant. Happiness depends upon our acceptance of that fact and learning to live with it. So many in today’s world simply fail to understand that simple fact.
A really interesting piece. Although, I'm not sure I buy the premise so much. I think progressives really do think social norms are good, that's why they don't try to obliterate them but entirely rewire and redirect them. I think the war on 'toxic masculinity' that's been waged is an attempt to reshape and remould how men think of themselves which in turn addresses how they act. The fight, from my perspective, seems to be what kind of social norms are useful and should be acceptable in society.
Christine Embra....yours is such a crucial framing, of how the dehumanzing, colonizing, priorities of patriarchy has harmed men, too. SO much originates via biology! Considering while women over centuries were at home, bleeding,conceiving, birthing, breast-feeding, men's roles as protector /provider had them out in the world creating language and laws and religion and hierarchies thus culturally and societally we're conditioned by the more linear reductionist male brain and so we don't see beyond it! And now....the harm it could be said that feminism (and I've been a fierce one) has taken over, what woman needs a man these days?! We drive our own trucks, thank you! So no wonder men have a huge and painful identity crisis. For all their brilliance and bravery patriarchal dominance has lead us to today's over-development for power and profit which is destroying this Planet Earth, this Mother Nature, which is, by the way, our life source! Boys and men need the understanding of we women, they need our empathy and gratitude and our acknowledgement of the context we all live within today. Including how much we have to thank them for...so please let's recognize and work and love and forgive and honor each other--- together -- none of us can do it alone.
A good tomcat is pretty much the ideal male. A good queen is the ideal female.
If anything better were available, cats would have chosen that.