A Bicepsual Concept of 'Manliness'

"Manliness" author Harvey Mansfield, right, with Hudson Institute CEO Kenneth Weinstein. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Harvey C. Mansfield, a neocon government professor from Harvard, has a new book out about a crisis of manly behavior (the lack of it, the casting aside of it). We were sent to his lecture/book-floggin'/cocktail party at a K Street think tank yesterday afternoon to write something manly about it.

Which is sort of a joke, because we haven't even cracked Mansfield's "Manliness," with its stark black-and-white cover, and the very first thing we want to do, upon arriving, is to tell the president of the Independent Women's Forum how much we love her skirt. She's about 10 feet tall and looks like Wonder Woman in an embroidered, pleated Mexican dancing skirt and black boots. She is fabulous and we tell her so, in an unmanly gush.

"Thank you," Michelle Bernard replies, and then launches into a discussion of how her group is engineering a new feminism, the right of the individual, and how worried she is about the girlification of little boys, who she says are being kicked out of preschool en masse or Ritalinated "because of boy behavior."

Mansfield's lecture is presented by the Independent Women (bony, scarves) and the nonpartisan Hudson Institute (bow ties, vaguely Euro), and about 100 people have showed up. If you've ever walked around downtown Washington and struggled with life's big questions (Subway or Cosi?) and looked up at those bland office buildings and wondered what's going on inside, this is it: Pleasant little lectures about ideas that are too big to really scintillate, in books that go unread, followed by some politely antagonistic Q and some deftly bunted A, and then free chardonnay.

Mansfield -- with his soft weatherman hair, wearing a slender-cut suit of deep brown with a fire-engine-red necktie -- takes to the lectern and his first word is "manliness."

Which he lets hang there. And then eloquently makes his case: "We're in the process of creating a society where sex is not an issue," he says. And that's a tragedy, which he illustrates with Greek tragedies and philosophy. Manliness is assertive, raw, good. Men should do more of it. It's confidence and the ability to command. It favors going for it ; it prefers aggression, conflict, war. (War is bad, but for men it's good.) Manliness gits 'r done. Manliness is a stereotype, and what, by the way, is so wrong with stereotypes?

Further: Manliness and womanliness should be what they are, and go together, in marriage -- all men and all women should treat one another as married equals. A chick may not be your wife, but she could be somebody's, and you should treat her as such; she should treat all men like big dangerous manly men. It's a world of Arnolds and Marias, and it goes without saying that a woman cannot do anything a man can, and vice versa.

He relates a story he seems to love telling: A magazine at Harvard called and asked for his opinion of a new colleague, and Mansfield told the reporter, "What impressed all of us about him was his manliness." And there was a pause . . . and the reporter said, "Could you think of another word?"

For woe unto the manly. So scorned, so sublimated. When was the last time you could throw a punch? Not in the professional world, with its PowerPoint, no-I-in-team manners. We've reduced ideas of manliness to a blue-collar art form -- the lifeguards, the bodyguards, the guys you pay to come over and repair appliances. Congress -- so unmanly, only aiming to please. Lawyers, actors, agents -- nary a manly man among them, settling as they do for a percentage of the action. The only manliness left, Mansfield supposes, is the bad kind, excessive manliness. (Example: Taliban.)

Questions, answers: A man stands to ask Mansfield about desirable manly qualities vs. undesirable, and then the cell phone at his side goes off, playing a poppy-jangly ringtone, something a teenage girl would download. Disgusted, he turns it off and resumes articulating his question, and it goes off again.

"Is your wife here to nag you?" Bernard quips from her chair.

Other questions, other answers: Why can't Hollywood produce a manly man anymore? (Whither Cary Grant?) How wrong was Darwin about masculinity? (So wrong, Mansfield elaborates.) What about the crisis of increasing adrogynization of everything? (Yes, yes.)

Finally, drinks. Books are sold, signed. People effuse happily for the professor.

Mansfield, 73, who has translated de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and Machiavelli's "The Prince," says it's difficult to write a book like this, more so to winnow it down to a lecture, still more so to get it across in the mainstream and remain good-humored about it all. He spends a lot of time answering questions about President Bush's manliness, or defending outgoing Harvard prez Larry Summers. He keeps the Plato and Aristotle on low when he has to, "without giving in too much to the dangers of vulgarization." The New York Times asked him about his manly household duties; lifting furniture, he replied. He just taped a debate with Naomi Wolf for C-SPAN that hasn't aired yet. He says she did "60 percent of the talking. I got in a couple words edgewise."

Karen Painter, a music professor at Harvard who also works for the National Endowment for the Arts, says she sometimes swims laps with Mansfield, but there was a problem with his form, which she had to help him with. "How can you be writing a book about masculinity and not even know how to do a flip-turn in the pool?" she teases. "Ask him about that."


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