For practically as long as men have existed, they have been in crisis. Everything, it seems, threatens them with obsolescence. As far back as the 1660s, King Charles II warned English men that a new beverage called coffee would destroy their virility, and in the early 1900s, opponents of coeducation worried that feather beds, dancing and even reading might emasculate little boys. Men were in peril at the turn of the 20th century, when the founder of the Boy Scouts cautioned that “we badly need some training for our lads if we are to keep up manliness in our race instead of lapsing into a nation of soft, sloppy, cigarette suckers,” and they had not recovered by 1958, when the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reported in Esquire that “something has gone badly wrong with the American male’s conception of himself.” A dispatch from the journalist Susan Faludi confirmed that manliness remained “under siege” in 1999. No wonder there is such a chorus of complaints about the dearth of male role models. After so many centuries of coffee, reading and cigarette-sucking, are there even men left to emulate?
Of course, there are men to look up to in practically every field of human endeavor. Eliud Kipchoge, the only person to complete a marathon in under two hours, is a man; Ding Liren, the world chess champion, is a man. But these figures are succeeding in their capacity as athletes and competitors, when what is needed is not someone who is good and, incidentally, male, but someone who is good at being male — someone whose primary occupation is masculinity itself. Men do not want inspiring examples of fortitude or ingeniousness; they want what Faludi has called a “gender rule book,” preferably one that is easy to follow.
A gender rule book is precisely what Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri attempts to provide in “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs,” the latest in a long line of guides. Recently, there’s Jack Donovan’s “The Way of Men,” which boasts that it is for anyone who has ever “wished for one day as a lion,” and Jordan Peterson’s best-selling “Twelve Rules for Life,” which is nominally gender-neutral but in fact instructs readers in the art of masculinity (and which is a literal rule book). New Age types can consult Robert Bly’s “Iron John,” the loosely Jungian urtext of the mythopoetic men’s movement, published in 1990, which counsels men to embrace their “Zeus energy.” Pseudo-intellectuals may prefer the more refined if less coherent “Manliness” (2006), by Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, who blusters about chivalry and gentlemen. These books have significant differences, but they all find themselves in the awkward position of claiming that masculinity is both unassailable and endangered, both natural enough to be obvious and fragile enough to require defense.
Hawley toes the same wavering line in “Manhood,” in which he posits that masculinity is, at once, a biological endowment and a personal achievement. The book has many of the same tics as its forebears: It includes the usual eulogies for physical labor (romanticized as working with your hands), the standard invocations of legends from the “ancient Near East” purported to confirm manhood’s universality, the familiar hagiographic celebrations of Teddy Roosevelt and the obligatory assurances that “men” are called to be “warriors,” this time on the cultural battlefield.
But Hawley’s opus is less of a riot than its predecessors. As serious thinking about gender, works like “Iron John” and “Manliness” fail, but as parodies and performances, they succeed by dint of their sheer outrageousness. Hawley, a Republican and an especially dreary type of fervent Christian, is too much of a dour moralist to write, as Bly does, that inside every man lurks a “primitive being covered with hair down to his feet,” or to speculate, as Mansfield does, that women are not fit for combat because “they fear spiders.” Despite himself, he is doing drag, but he will be pleased to hear that he is doing it poorly.
“Manhood” sees itself as a tragedy, not a farce. American men, it proclaims, are in dire straits. They are not working, getting married or raising children. Instead, they are taking drugs, feeling sorry for themselves and watching pornography on their phones. Hawley’s tone is alternately sympathetic and scolding as he suggests that men have become aimless and irresponsible, a development that will surely prove catastrophic for the country. “No menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood,” he writes, because “self-government” succeeds only when citizens cultivate “strength of character.” Women, it is implied, do not have enough of this precious resource to keep the country running.
Like a campaign speech, “Manhood” is an adventure in impressionistic and impassioned disorganization. Chapter breaks may as well be accidental; most passages could be reshuffled into any section without any loss of coherence. Hawley identifies six roles that men should occupy — husband, father, warrior, builder, priest, king — but never manages to distinguish them clearly from one another. Men in each guise are supposed to do hackneyed and abstract things, like “endure.” We are treated almost at random to tirades about the “chattering classes” and, quaintly, the French Revolution, which is characterized not as an assault on monarchy but as a “campaign of wholesale atheism.”
Insofar as it is possible to impose an organizational principle onto “Manhood,” the book takes up four distinct projects, though not in any particular order. The first is halfhearted biblical exegesis. The second is wholehearted self-promotion. Hawley is keen to cast himself as a man of the people by neglecting to name his elite alma maters (Stanford and Yale Law School), name-dropping the less-demonized university where he says he taught many floundering young men (the University of Missouri School of Law), reminiscing about his participation in organized sports (football) and selectively remembering the parts of his childhood that he spent on his grandparents’ farm (where he went only during vacations). He is effusive about his grandfather, a farmer, and his uncle, who started a concrete-pouring business, but is comparatively silent about his father, whose profession (banker) he conveniently neglects to mention. His autobiographical forays are desperately folksy: He remembers “Christmases with a tree in the parlor and a fire on the hearth and summers of chasing fireflies in the front yard,” and recalls that meeting his wife “felt somehow like being at my grandparents’ house in Kansas,” which sounds punitively unsexy.
Hawley’s third fixation is liberalism, defined not as a political system but as an all-encompassing ethos that consists, primarily, of the fetishization of choice. There is no sin for liberals, he writes, but “the sin of intolerance.” This faulty account of liberalism as a philosophy of personal morality, rather than a philosophy of state action, is buttressed by even faultier intellectual history. It would be impossible to survey all that Hawley gets wrong — suffice it to say that America would be considerably more interesting if the Democrats read as much German philosophy as he believes they do — but his most impressively bizarre assertion is that the Greek philosopher Epicurus is the forefather of modern political theory. Hawley insists on interpreting Epicurus as a hedonist, even though the thinker urged his followers to moderate their appetites, and as a proto-liberal, even though he was famously allergic to politics.
The final strand of “Manhood” is standard self-help fare, much of it inoffensive. Who would contest that you should “stop buying stuff to make yourself feel better” or, even more banally, “aim to do something with your life”? I too regard courage, assertiveness and ambition as virtues, but if men aren’t the only ones who display them, in what sense are they “manly” virtues in particular? Surely women, too, can aim to do something with their lives. Hawley writes that “a man is built for commitment,” but he thinks men are supposed to marry women, so presumably he thinks that women are built for commitment, too. Men are “meant to lead,” but wait, “Genesis says God directed man — and woman — to rule” (emphasis mine). Hawley writes that he admires protesters in Hong Kong, but wait, they are led “by a group of young, very young, men and women” (emphasis mine again).
What is a man, anyway? Hawley’s various answers are not very illuminating. Men are dependent (“a man cannot be who he is meant to be on his own”) but also independent (“dependence is in fact a temptation to every man, in every age. It is the temptation to let someone else do it for you”). Men do not “blame someone or something else,” such as “society,” or “the system,” but men do, apparently, blame “Epicurean liberalism” for almost everything that ails them. “Manhood is real and biological,” but some of the central masculine virtues “can be learned,” and the venerable Greeks and Romans “held that manhood was a vocation that each man must struggle to assume. … Boys were born as males, but not yet as men. One became a man only by acquiring certain character traits.” A man is a rugged individualist who figures things out for himself, but he also relies on how-to guides to teach him how to exist.
No wonder so many men are in despair. They are tasked with being social yet solitary, victimized yet valorous; they are assured that their estate is natural but cautioned that it is tenuous to the point of dissipation; they are instructed to forge their own paths, but also directed to an endless stream of gurus peddling weightlifting programs and diets of raw organ meat. Even their supposed advocates berate them for failing to perform tasks that it is no longer possible for them to perform. In addition to scaremongering about liberal plots, Hawley identifies several real social and economic problems, such as wage stagnation and the over-diagnosis of ADHD. But he goes on to offer unhelpfully personal solutions. “Say no to yourself, discipline your passions,” he urges. But how is saying no to yourself going to raise your salary or prevent pharmaceutical giants from marketing Ritalin to children?
Working-class men “have watched their prospects steadily dim over the last five decades, as more and more blue-collar jobs have disappeared overseas or been simply eliminated,” he concedes. But having acknowledged that there is no work to be had, he concludes, “My advice to young men looking for work is to do whatever honorable work is available” because “no work is beneath you” — except, he clarifies, effeminate work in the service industry. “There is nothing wrong” with teachers and caretakers, “but the fact is, men are historically less interested in those fields.” Should we try to interest men in those fields, then? No, “to the experts safely ensconced in their think tanks, I would just say this: Is it really too much to ask that our economy work for men as they are, rather than as the left wants them to be?” But it’s not for lawmakers like Hawley to do anything differently. It’s for you to “get a job. Keep it. Then pay your bills.”
So let’s review: You, an aspiring man, are supposed to get a blue-collar job, even though there are no blue-collar jobs. If you object that you cannot find work, you are a weakling making excuses. If you find a job in the sectors that are expanding, perhaps as a home health aide, you are emasculating yourself. And if you accept welfare while searching for a job that no longer exists, you are “servile.” Even as self-help goes, this advice is pretty unworkable.
Ultimately, “Manhood” differs only cosmetically from the book that Hawley’s liberal straw man would write. The Epicurean liberals of his imagination are invested in self-gratification, and he is invested in self-improvement. Both are invested in the self. In 1976, the cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote that “the contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health and psychic security.” Hawley is nominally as religious as they come, but his book is really just a work of two-bit therapy.
It is easy — and reasonable, to say nothing of fun — to mock men’s manuals, which are in fact ridiculous. But male pain is real, and it is no laughing matter. There is something touchingly vulnerable, if misguided, about the image of a man reaching for “Iron John” or “Manhood” in the hopes of discovering how to live. The questions that bring people to self-help are often admirably philosophical ones, in want of less frivolous and sentimental answers than those Hawley is equipped to provide.
“Manhood” opens with a nod to the many American men who worry that they are at sea. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my life,” they think (or at least, Hawley thinks they think). In anecdote after anecdote, male students at the University of Missouri come to his office, asking where to go, what to do, how to be. These are stomach-churning questions, but they are also questions all mature and thoughtful people must confront, not glitches to be plugged into an all-ameliorating algorithm of masculinity. Hawley laments that these youths have “no template, no vision for what it is to be a man.” But why are they owed a template? Why must they rely on rule books and role models? Why is it so intolerable if they have to spend a few years mulling matters over before deciding which path to pursue?
If I believed in “manliness,” I would say that it is not very manly to seek out a father figure to hand you a script for adulthood, but I don’t, so instead I’ll say that the longing for a lifelong coach is gender-neutrally juvenile. Hawley’s quest to obviate existential uncertainty is animated by a desire that seems to undergird much of contemporary conservatism, with its mania for conventions and guardrails: a desire for an eternal parent to tell you exactly when and how to clean your room.
The sociologist Michael Kimmel reports that the reactionary denizens of the early men’s rights movement were plagued by a central gripe: “If men were supposed to be so powerful and oppressive, how come so many men were still living lives of quiet desperation?” Faludi comes to similar conclusions in “Stiffed,” her sweeping journalistic investigation of male dissatisfaction. “To be a man means to be at the controls and at all times to feel yourself in control,” the men she interviewed told her, yet these men felt themselves to be impotent and ineffectual. The problem was not that they were out of control but that they felt so obliged to be in it. No amount of admonishment from Hawley and Peterson and other members of the surrogate-dad brigade can change the patent fact that the world is uncontrollable and always has been. Men would not have to suffer from the conviction that they are failing if they were encouraged to accept that total sovereignty over the chaos of interpersonal affairs is both impossible and undesirable.
A ready-made role certainly provides the illusion of certainty, but is it a sustainable, or even worthwhile, illusion? And can it compensate for all that we lose when we encounter one another not as singularities but as avatars of social tendencies? What Hawley says about porn is true of the entire system of gender: “Relationships are risky. They are difficult. Porn, by contrast, is cheap and easy. It’s safe.” Individuality is risky; self-help about masculinity is safe. What we need is not the armor of manhood, the ideal of the warrior or builder or priest, but the courage to face each other in all our glorious particularity, without teachers or templates.
Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.
The Masculine Virtues America Needs
By Josh Hawley
Regnery. 255 pp. $29.99
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