Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

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Look at Bush at his “ranch.”  Look at that belt buckle!  And you dare claim masculinity is in decline?

W.J. Astore

Is the American male dead?  I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.

An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.

Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America.  Now there’s a man!  He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis.  He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters.  He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy.  Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination.  If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.

Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing.  Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female.  (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.)  Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.

Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America.  Why does it persist, then?  Because it’s yet another way to divide us.  Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas.  In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.

But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness.  Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them.  Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump.  It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.

In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways.  Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector).  It’s warrior-and empire-friendly.  And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.

What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways.  We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems.  Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.

America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars.  America is already carrying a big stick.  It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.

Fewer American Snipers, More American Workers and Builders

Role model to young men?
Role model to young men?

 

W.J. Astore

Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.

Here’s an excerpt:

Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world.  Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).

Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic.  In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity.  They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates).  American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs.  Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.

Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously).  Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men.  They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings.  They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.

American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.”  Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher.  Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.

Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur.  By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself.  A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men.  Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.

Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this.  Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands?  Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.

One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.

For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania.  My students came to class wearing camo fatigues.  Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season).  They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros.  They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks.  They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.

But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.

In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America.  We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing.  An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.

What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.

On Religion

Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn't have a mind of his own
Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn’t have a mind of his own

W.J. Astore

The other day my wife and I were watching Wadjda, a terrific film about a spirited Saudi girl who dreams of buying and riding her very own bicycle.  The film does a great job of highlighting the constraints put on women in traditional Saudi and Islamic culture.  Women are not allowed to drive, they must veil themselves whenever they can be seen by men, they are trained to be subservient and not to attract attention to themselves, and so on.

Watching the constraints under which Saudi women live their lives, my spirited wife uttered the following aphorism:

Religion – written by men, for men.  And that’s all you need to know.

Having been raised Catholic, it’s hard to disagree with her.  The Catholic Church has historically been misogynist.  It was Eve, after all, who tempted Adam.  She was “the weaker vessel” who was cursed with the pain of childbirth because of her “original sin.”  The Church itself, to state the obvious, is run entirely by men.  Even the woman most respected by the Church, the Virgin Mary, is an unattainable ideal.  A woman who gets pregnant without losing her virtue and virginity?  Try aspiring to that.

Whenever a religion, no matter if it’s Islam or Catholicism or some other faith or sect, places half of humanity in inferior and subservient roles, we must question very closely its true intent and inspiration.  Surely a just and compassionate God would not sanction a religion that subordinates women to the whims of men.

Obviously, I know many believers, women as well as men, will disagree with this.  They will point to their faith, their holy books, the power of tradition.  Or they will try to explain how their religion really doesn’t discriminate against women and so on.

Here I recall a saying that Temple Grandin says she will never forget: “Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it.”

How true.  And I’d add that any religion worth living for is one that treats men and women equally as believers.  I don’t think God, if He or She (!) exists, would want it any other way.