TODAY, THE AMERICAN MAN, especially the white-collar man, is more apt than not to be a wimp. He is alternately cowed by his boss, humiliated by his wife and irradiated by television -- which teaches him that manhood is no good anyway.

The American man, with all exceptions noted, seems to have lost some basic equipment. He doesn't respect himself; he doesn't talk straight; and his children, who are growing up as wild as kudzu, do not respect him. He won't fight, won't stand up for himself, and does not have independent opinions. If he did, he would not be ble to express them before his wife interrupted him.

The hectic, interjectory speed of contemporary conversation, which sounds like a speeded-up phonograph record, is due largely to his diminished self-esteem. He lacks all power to displease. He is a zombie, with a sweet zombie's smile. He watches television 42 hours a week -- rancid drama, violent sport and talk-show celebrities handing out advice.

You can't argue with him, because he is gelatinous -- and calls it "flexibility." It is no wonder then that he sometimes finds trendy, sloganeering feminism to be useful in canonizing genderlessness as common sense.

As men like that have spread like funguses over the national landscape, their women, too, have begun to metamprphosize.

Residential America on Saturday morning looks like Red China. The women wear trousers and are of two types: feminists, who swagger like gunfighters and talk like machines; and frumps, who, graceless and potato-eyed, and not wishing to be men, have decided to be nothing. Collectively, their manners are those of a jackhammer, and their attitude toward their husbands is one of chronic, patronizing exasperation that used to be reserved for children. Their looks would dampen the ardor of a Visigoth.

On Monday morning, however, these same women will turn up beautiful. Officebound, they issue smartly from their homes in sexy dresses. Sex is for business and -- if one really must get statistical about the matter -- most women who work, according to recent surveys, commit adultery.

The husbands are worse. They are feminized. They wear plaid Bermuda shorts. They do not walk like men but slink. All is jogging and vacuous silence. They are afraid of their children. They are submissive to their wives. They are seriously interested in the thought of Alan Alda.

Were my great-grandfather living today, one guesses, most of his "friends" would be pastel images shimmering out of a television tube -- Starsky and Hutch, Merv Griffin, Lou Grant. This would be due in part to our mobility patterns. The average American moves every three years, which means that even if he stays in one place, his friends won't. Then, too, talk -- which is what friends used to do -- is now thought to be a waste of time. For every subject, there is an expert, for every opinion a spokesman; one has only to crouch in one's black hole, and it will all appear out of the wall.

As a result, American men are isolated as well as oppressed -- a condition some of the more militant feminists are eager to take credit for -- as, roachlike, they lap at the cadaver of manhood, pretending to be lions.

But the kill -- if one accepts the notion that a man is what he does -- was made by "work" and "entertainment."

The other day I was in an office in Washington. I was talking to a friend of mine, a GS 16 who makes more than $50,000 a year. As usual, he claimed to be fed up with his job and didn't see anything he could do about it.

"Working any kind of white-collar job," he said, "means living in hate like fish in water. But what's the alternative?"

His side door opened on the office of a GS 18, his boss. Now, as murmuring came from in there, he lowered his voice.

"You go from hating the dungeonmaster," he said, "to hating the system, to hating everything." He lowered his voice to a confidential whisper.

"There's this thing I've caught myself doing at the end of every phone conversation," he said. "Just as I hang up, I snarl, 'And up yours!' I mean every conversation -- whether it's my wife of physchiatrist or whoever. Every time shaving it closer. By now I'm about a half-second away from when somebody is going to hear me. But what in the hell am I supposed to do?"

A buzzer went off, and my friend, rising like a marionette, scurried into the GS 18's office. I sat there looking out the window at the wind whipping the red, white and blue flags around the Washington Monument and tried not to hear what was going on. The boss, a man with a high-pitched voice not unlike that of Don Knotts, was shouting. My friend's answers, if any, were so muted that I could not hear them.

"What do you mean, you can't explain it? Hell, there's not excuse. I mean, the undersecretary was there, for Christ's sake, and there weren't even any cocktail napkins out. Here I am letting you run the division and you haven't even got the sense to put out napkins. Can you stand there and tell me what I'm going to do with you? Maybe your mother didn't tell you about napkins. Probably wiped her mouth on her damned sleeve. You digust me. Get out of here."

Later, as I was leaving, my friend shook my hand and told me in a deep, executive voice that we would have to get together soon. Actually, he said, his wife had been trying to get in touch with mine. She wanted to take her to a NOW meeting.

As the door closed, I lingered next to it for a minute, and, sure enough, heard him say, "And up yours?"

Afterward I kept remembering a remark made to my by Elliott Liebow, the cultural anthropologist. "Most men," he said, "would be ashamed for their children to see them at work."

But I wondered whether my friend would be ashamed of anything. His children, who were in their early teens and already into drugs, were used to seeing their mother talk to him the way the boss had. What he wanted, I suspected, was a kind of unitary life.

He had grown tired, at last, of changing pesonalties on the commuter bus -- trying to transmogrify himself into a man after having been a wimp all day. By now he was too tired for that. So after a day on the job among the picadors, bleeding from the mouth, his head sagging, he was ready for his wife to come in over the horns with that big blade feminism had honed for her.

Evidently a deep physchic shift has taken place in the American character over the past decades -- one pregnant with large political consequence, since it is by no means certain that a Constitution written for free men is capable of ordering the affairs of hirelings. Thus, one would think, the matter would be worthy of study.

Yet, according to Liebow, who is chief of the Work and American Life division of the National Institute of Mental Health, even acknowledging that "work" seems to have taken on many of the characteristics of sado-masochism, let alone studying the consequences of that, is regarded as treason against free enterprise. This, he says, is why NIMH routinely turns down all reseach proposals on the subject as being "antimanagement."

But normality -- and, for that matter, manhood -- are defined by management. Therefore, since the industrial psychologists who prescribe proper behavior on the job customarily play for the house, the "studies" of modern white-collar work tend to concern themselves with shoehorning employees into a system where dignity and self-possession are regarded as "dysfunctional." Finding another job offers no real prospect of relief either, because a system of radical bondage seems to prevail throughout all white-collar work.

In a way, then, what's taking place is understandable. The men, if they love their families and if they want to be self-supporting, are obliged to be androgynous creatures at work -- heavily obliged, if they have any ambition, to develop the more disagreeable feminine qualities of passivity, guile and manipulativeness. Since in the moral economy of things somebody has got to be the man, the woman, whipped on by feminists, has become that.

So the white-collar workers ae the castrati of our day. And since, as Liebow points out, "powerlessness corrupts," the social effects have been devastating.

Men are enraged. Each yar, tens of thousands of them have strokes or heart attacks, as a result of carrying around murderous anger from which they are unable to escape, whether from considerations of practicality or honor. Scores of thousands of them develop high blood pressure, ulcers, heart disease, obesity and chronic anxiety states. Tens of thousands of others have nervous breakdowns. Many of them, sensing that something is wrong, seek out one of the 250 different kinds of psychotherapy currently being practiced.

Others, who know that the system is crazy, decide to accept it, and to play the rat-games as skillfully as possible. These are the men who go to assertiveness-training seminars and buy books on how to acquire power in the office. Still others, who don't want to play, drop out into the counterculture or flip out into madness.

Yet, fully as much as work, television defines the contemporary state of manhood. And I recently watched four nights of primetime television to see how manhood looked on there.

A rerun of "Starsky and Hutch," it now seems in retrospect, was as good an introduction as any to television manhood -- which is to say, that kind of manhood feminists like to canonize as typical, and then attack.

Hutchinson, the undercover detective with the girlish blond hair, was having an affair with the sister of an underworld creep. He was doing this, on the orders of his employer, to get her to rat on her brother. The action appropriately was taking place in a singles bar, and Hutchinson was looking her in the eyes a lot and talking in a husky voice, which, while devoid of any thought behind it, was really very husky. At last she tells him she will do what he wants if he will marry her, but he says no.

His affections are set on his male work-partner, and it all ends up with the brother dead, the girl in jail and the two state employees sitting on the floor of Hutch's apartment, amorously drunk together, and with Hutchinson offering "to play you some Donna Summer to get you off."

Hutchinson had employe's virtues; he was obedient, friendly-pretending, manipulative, shallow, treacherous, amoral and destructive. And like many employes, hewas also cute -- as were all the men in the six dozen commercials one was to see that night -- a clamorous battalion of nerds, fruits and simps.

For instance, there was Wisk nerd, who, upon being told by some scolding butch that he has "ring around the collar," looks to his wife for comforting, nerd face screwed up to the point of tears. And there was Donnie Osmond, selling, by jingo, a fruit drink that, like some of those who would buy it, had only 10 percent real juices; and there was the Sealtest nerd ice cream parlor proprietor, and his young nerd assistant, talking fruity; and there was an off-camera voice for a well known brand of coffee, a voice that could only have belonged to a drag queen.

The only two masculine characters in the commercials all that night were a swaggeing black woman selling real estate and a swaggering white woman who wore Lee Jeans, instructing a male nerd on where to buy them.

"Charlie's Angels" were on the trail of a deep-voiced murderer, who threatened women over the phone. By the 53rd minute, they caught up with him. He was wearing a dress and whimpering in the mud puddle into which he'd fallen headlong. In the final tableau, the three trousers-wearing angels stood over him with big pistols pointed at his head.

In "Magnum P.I.," the man was the private detective, but there, too, the woman dominated -- in this case, a female employer who pays Magnum to play sick fantasy games with her. He seems reasonably happy doing that, and at the end of the episode returns to his true love, Higgins, the effeminate man he lives with, who dominates him fully as much as Maggie ever did Jiggs.

Adultery, that great staple of the afternoon soaps, which are designed for the delectation of women who have no opportunity to commit it, has now become the great prime-time entertainment for working women who do. I say three of the prime-time adultery epics: "Knots Landing," "Dynasty" and "Flamingo Road." On all of them, adultery, and the obsession with that, was a major continuing theme, and, in all cases, a means of demonstrating the worthlessness of the traditional family.

Thi apparently had created a problem for the producers of these shows because a vigorous sexuality, whether licit or not, is characteristic of an old-fashioned manhood -- and thus, reasons other than manliness had to be invented for explaining why these men were doing what they did.

In "Starsky and Hutch," that had been handled neatly; Hutchinson had only been following his superior's orders. No such explanation was available in the adultery epics, so another cause had to be found: namely that men committed adultery because they were impotent.

On all the three adultery epics there was only one real man who acted like a man; who was decent, self-respecting, independent, no mood-slave, and who would stand up for him self in a fight. That was Steve, the cone of the tycoon in "Dynasty, who was a homosexual.

The ideal contemporary manhood, then, as presented by national TV was, by and large, homosexual manhood.

There were exceptions: for instance, "The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie" -- family shows that are sometimes knocked by critics as being somewhat sentimental. On those, sure enough, the men were presented as strong, decent and self-respecting.

Such were four nights of prime-time manhood. Of the major male characters, there had been one soprano, tow soda jerks, one cute weatherboy, three singles-bar-macho detectives, one murderous transvestite, one powerless prince, two important tycoons, a homosexual heir, an out-of-work impotent adulterer, a drunk impotent adulterer, a rich-boy wimp adulterer and two good men. In the 288 commercials, of course, the men were all nerds, fruits, slaves and simps.

"Why bother, to be a man," television seems to say, "when manhood is like this?"

Bad times. For those of us who are obliged to live ordinary lives, there is tremendous pressuer to comprise manhood, and all sorts of talk-show celebrities to tell us that it is okay.

How much compromise is possible? The advocates of an ever-bendable, "adaptive" manhood seems to be saying that there is no limit at all, but such advice is repugnant to common sense. Even very low animals put a limit on how far they will allow themselves to be pushed. The most cowardly rat, driven into a corner, will finally turn and fight. And it is hard to accept, in the name of "ideal personality," that man won't. When it is impossible to cope, it becomes necessary to rebel. Even a rat knows that.

One hears a lot about John Wayne these days. Militant feminists of both genders find his name useful, not only as an epithet, but as a means of insinuating that manhood was just a concept developed for the movies -- one that can easily be replaced by other media inventions as we go on.

And one hears a lot about dying. Physiologist-feminists tell men that they are checking out younger than they have to because they have clung too tenaciously to outworn creeds of manhood. But what if it is really just the other way around: that men are dying because they are allowing themselves to be made into women, and are enraged by that?