THE MYTH OF MALE POWER

Why Men Are the Disposable Sex

By Warren Farrell

Simon & Schuster. 446 pp. $23

WARREN FARRELL, author of The Liberated Man and Why Men Are the Way They Are, served for three years on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City. In his latest book, The Myth of Male Power, he describes how his career as one of "America's Sensitive New Age Men" skyrocketed when he endorsed the standard feminist view of women as "enlightened" and of men as "Neanderthals." He received standing ovations, lecture invitations, financial rewards.

But, Farrell states, as his position evolved toward one more sympathetic to men, the applause died and the money began to dry up. Reviewing tapes from his workshops and personal appearances, Farrell was troubled by his earlier double standard: "When women criticized men, I called it 'insight,' 'assertiveness,' 'women's liberation,' 'independence,' or 'high self-esteem.' When men criticized women, I called it 'sexism,' 'male chauvinism,' 'defensiveness,' 'rationalizing,' and 'backlash' . . . Soon the men were no longer expressing their feelings. Then I criticized the men for not expressing their feelings!"

The Myth of Male Power is a quirky book, part confession, part polemic. Its organization, consisting of short passages with blazing headlines and overabundant boldface type, is somewhat awkward, choppy, and repetitious. Systematic argumentation is scanted, and there is sometimes a questionable selectiveness or credulity about historical sources, both present and past.

But Farrell's vices as a writer are also his virtues. His gruff, blunt manner breaks through the decorous white, middle-class conventions and victim-obsessed sentimentality that have paralyzed establishment feminism in recent years. The Myth of Male Power is a bombshell. It attacks the unexamined assumptions of feminist discourse with shocking candor and forces us to see our everyday world from a fresh perspective.

Farrell feels that feminism's primary objective as a political movement -- equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment -- has been lost in the "anti-male sexism" of affirmative action programs and other preferential regulations and grievance procedures that guarantee special protections to women and thus ironically perpetuate the pernicious old stereotype of "woman as child." The media, far from opposing and obstructing feminism (as Susan Faludi claims in Backlash), has cynically pandered to feminist pressure groups and indulged in "a quarter century of male bashing." As a student of media, I think Farrell is dead right about this.

In brutal, grisly language, Farrell dramatizes the carnage of "male-killing" throughout history -- the one million men, for example, slain or maimed at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Men are not, he insists, the powerful sex but "the silent sex" and "the suicide sex." They are "disposable," dispensable, slaves to higher powers. Men have sacrificed and crippled themselves physically and emotionally to feed, house, and protect women and children. None of their pain or achievement is registered in feminist rhetoric, which portrays men as oppressors and callous exploiters.

Farrell's blistering indictment makes powerful use of contemporary anecdotes. During the 1991 trial of boxer Mike Tyson for rape, the hotel where the jury was sequestered caught fire; two firefighters died. The media, obsessed with the tunnel-vision feminist view of "men-as-rapists," ignored this contrary evidence of "men-as-saviors." According to Farrell, there are a million municipal volunteer firefighters in America who valiantly "risk their lives to save strangers." A startling fact that should disturb and embarrass every feminist: 99 percent of these firefighters are male.

Again and again, Farrell demonstrates that, for all the official talk about desiring equality, the overwhelming majority of contemporary women continue to avoid hazardous, dirty, low-prestige jobs that men take in order to earn a higher income for their families. Miners, loggers, roofers, garbage collectors: Farrell celebrates the invisible men whose backbreaking and sometimes fatal work makes modern life smooth and efficient for pampered, feminism-spouting professionals in their safe, well-lit offices.

The Myth of Male Power is a muckraking expose for the '90s. It uncovers an unsettling pattern of collusion between government-funded commissions on women and a coterie of feminist leaders and career consultants who claim to speak for all women. It demonstrates how biased surveys and shaky statistics have been used to swell the numbers of reported rapes or prove discrimination against women in employment, medical research, and the justice system. It quotes astonishing pieces of gloomy, anti-male agitprop from such putative reference works as Encyclopedia of Feminism and The Women's History of the World.

In the largest sense, Farrell sees contemporary gender problems as flowing from our historical transition from an epoch ("Stage I") where survival was the basic issue to one ("Stage II") where communication and cooperation, rather than competition, are required. Here Farrell's theories dovetail with the best in feminist theory: he sees the killer male as a dominant Stage I type unable to adapt to Stage II economic and ethical realities. Now we have a pressing need "not for a women's movement or a men's movement but for a gender transition movement" that would revolutionize both behavior and perception.

The Myth of Male Power is the kind of original, abrasive, heretical text that is desperately needed to restore fairness and balance to the present ideology-sodden curriculum of women's studies courses. Despite its technical flaws and raw inelegance, the book is filled with stunning insights and haunting aphorisms, such as "female beauty if the world's most potent drug."

Warren Farrell is one of many voices urging a critique and reform of current feminism in order to strengthen it for the 21st century. As Farrell says, "discrimination begets discrimination begets discrimination." Equality means not just "equal options" but "equal obligations," a rejection of the passive role of perpetual victim. Government must not become modern woman's "substitute husband." Farrell calls for an end to the blame game and a new stress on personal responsibility, social maturity, and self-enlightenment.

Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the author of "Sexual Personae" and "Sex, Art, and American Culture."