dimanche, avril 02, 2006

The Masculine Mystique

How long has it been since we had the pleasure of getting our knickers in a twist over whether American society (read: the American woman) is subverting men's innate need to be masculine? This time our frenzy of navel-gazing has been occasioned by the publication of a book by a fellow (natch) named Harvey Mansfield. Being as he is a professor of government at Harvard University, Mansfield has genuine egghead street cred. Maybe that's why he was able to find a publisher.

While I confess that I have not read the book, I was intrigued by this portion of a review from the magazine Commentary "Harvey Mansfield sets off into America's treacherous sexual wilderness with a clear destination in mind: to rescue manliness from the bear-like clutches of its enemies, in particular feminists and advocates of a gender-neutral society. As he notes, the opponents of manliness have tried to depose the term altogether, in favor of "masculinity." They want to expose manliness as a mere social invention, a rationale for male power.

But this, Mansfield observes, begs the question of why men have always had the power in the first place. He finds the answer in manliness, which he defines as "confidence in the face of risk," an "easy assumption of authority" that leads to an abundance of corollary qualities stereotypically associated with the male of the species. If the womanly tendency is to seek intimacy and personal warmth, the manly tendency is to dominate. Mansfield concedes that the manly man is not always appealing. He can be willful and boastful, and patronizing toward women..."

If the Commentary reviewers description is accurate, and why should we doubt her, Mansfield might as well paint a big bullseye on his chest and beg outraged reviewers to throw darts at him. Which they have, of course, almost guaranteeing the financial success of the broadside. His attack on feminists has provoked a hue and cry among those who argue, as did two writers in our local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, that men really need to be rescued from social forms of "toxic masculinity."

Reading these reviews provoked a moment of moral crisis: if I could write this kind of glorified balderdash and be assured that I would reap major bucks for it, would I yield to temptation?

Then I had the chastening thought that Mansfield, and those who responded to him, actually took themselves seriously. I stopped being incredulous and began to be concerned. Why, thirty years after the "women's movement" rose and fell in American society, are we blaming "feminists" for the fact that more boys are struggling academically and more get into trouble with the law? On the other hand, why even take Mansfield seriously enough to defend these "feminists", poor dears, whoever they are?

I would hope that we could have reached a point by now where these types of labels are meaningless. Yes, workplace inequality between men and women still exists in America, as do other forms of discrimination. Yes, they need to be fought, in the courts if necessary. By the way, anyone concerned with issues of inequality needs to fight equally hard to make sure our media elites don't silence articulate and reasoned masculine voices. But periodic exchanges of invective only serve to turn our attention away from the real issues.

It's silly, on the face of it, to claim that men are more "confident in the face of risk" than women. Why bother to dignify this nonsense with a response? Starting with the preposterous ends dialogue before it can begin. If we posit, on the other hand that there are different forms and expressions of courage, then we have somewhere to go with the conversation.

How about we pay serious attention to why so many boys are falling behind in our schools, rather than blaming women for emasculating them? Where exactly does that get us? Let's talk about why little girls get socialized to be so darned mean to each other on the playground or on the school bus, rather than yakking about how boys are getting "feminized." How about addressing the root causes of poverty, on the rise in America and coming up with programs to bolster families so that little boys and girls can thrive? I have nothing against "manly men." I rather like them, (although I confess that Dick Cheney's sneer and Antonin Scalia's ambiguous hand gestures don't do anything for me).

But in the face of very real social issues I am baffled, and frankly distressed, that the mislabeled "intelligentsia" are treading the same tired old ground. American children, both male and female, are suffering in the face of a growing epidemic of poverty, hunger and violence. They need our help. Of course, they aren't, in the majority of cases, the children of the upper middle-class academic community, where this solipsistic argument is currently raging. It would be more beneficial if these self-obsessed denizens of the chattering classes woke up and realized that men and women happen to be members of the same species. Isn't it about time that we, the so-called adults, started acting like it?

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