It’s the problem that has too many names.
Toxic masculinity. The feminization of America. The epidemic of fatherlessness. The crisis of boys. The end of men. There are many competing explanations and many competing solutions for the plight of the contemporary American male. The state of manhood has become one more front in our culture wars, a debate that keeps breaking down along political lines, even as men themselves just keep breaking down.
By now the signs of that breakdown are well known: Boys in the United States are less prepared than young girls when they begin school and less likely to graduate from high school or finish college. Young men are falling out of the labor force. So-called deaths of despair — by suicide and drug overdose — are nearly three times as common among men than women. One out of every five fathers does not live with his children. In 1990, 3 percent of men reported having no close friends; now, 15 percent do.
Such indicators are everywhere in Richard Reeves’s detailed 2022 book, “Of Boys and Men,” which has become a go-to text on the matter. “The problem with men is typically framed as a problem of men,” Reeves writes. “It is men who must be fixed, one man or boy at a time. This individualist approach is wrong.”
A scholar of class and inequality, Reeves instead sees men encumbered by structural problems in our society, and he has various policy fixes in mind. He wants to delay boys’ entry into kindergarten by one year, in part because their brains develop more slowly than those of girls. He wants to see more male teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade, because they serve as role models for boys and help improve their academic performance. (Men make up 24 percent of U.S. teachers, down from 33 percent in the early 1980s.) And at a time when automation and freer trade have transformed job markets, Reeves wants to create more opportunities for men in what he calls HEAL jobs — health, education, administration, literacy — which are typically dominated by women.
These are sensible ideas, yet I wonder if they are up to the difficulties Reeves himself convincingly outlines. Will more male middle-school science teachers or an extra year of pre-K address the “gnawing sense of purposelessness” afflicting men today, in the words of one writer Reeves cites, or expand the “narrower range of sources of meaning and identity” from which they suffer? The “dramatic rebalancing” of economic and cultural power between the sexes in recent decades “has rendered old modes of masculinity, especially as family breadwinner, obsolete,” Reeves writes. “But nothing has yet replaced them.”
Josh Hawley, the senior U.S. senator from Missouri, has some thoughts on what could replace them. His new book, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs,” draws on biblical influences — the stories of Adam, Abraham, David and Solomon in particular — to combat the malaise of American men, so addled by video games and pornography and troubled by depression and drug abuse that they cannot discern their calling. “They have no template,” Hawley worries, “no vision for what it is to be a man.”
Men are called to cultivate and protect and expand the Eden that is Earth, Hawley writes, to confront evil, embrace servanthood, privilege duty over pleasure, discipline their bodies and order their souls. They must “start families and build homes and leave legacies of character that will span generations.” The senator is unapologetic about finding solace in the past. “American men, it is time to wake up,” he writes in his final chapter. “It is time to become free men, as your fathers and grandfathers were.”
But it is far from clear that our fathers and grandfathers had it all figured out. Lamentations on the condition of men have a long history in American cultural debates, dating back to well before the 43-year-old Hawley was born. In 1958, Esquire magazine featured an essay by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “The Crisis of American Masculinity,” which almost reads like it could have been published today. “What has happened to the American male?” Schlesinger asked. “For a long time, he seemed utterly confident in his manhood, sure of his masculine role in society.” However, by the mid-20th century, Schlesinger wrote, men had come to see their maleness “not as a fact but as a problem.”
The poet Robert Bly, in his best-selling 1990 book, “Iron John: A Book About Men,” traced the grief of modern man from the Industrial Revolution, which separated men from their families and from nature, to the Information Revolution, which left office-bound men too enervated to teach their children well. “So many roles that men have depended on for hundreds of years have dissolved or vanished,” Bly wrote. Writing a generation after Schlesinger and one before Reeves and Hawley, Bly concluded that adult men found themselves ashamed, and young boys found themselves confused.
For Schlesinger, who would go on to work as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, the answer was not to reassert some John Wayne macho attitude to counter growing female empowerment but to rebuild a sense of individual identity to fight back against the stifling bureaucracy and economic centralization of postwar America. In other words, lose the gray flannel suit and “organization man” ethos and instead develop a sense of the irreverent, of the artistic, of the moral, of the political — this was the way, according to Schlesinger, for men, for people, to resist uniformity. In Bly’s view, part of the answer was to recreate ancient rites of male initiation and restore mentoring between young men and their elders, a relationship that instructs boys to channel, but not suppress, their instincts.
It is easy to raise an eyebrow at Hawley’s book — a lengthy lecture on masculinity feels a bit like overcompensation when it comes from the guy whose raised-fist salute to pro-Trump protesters on Jan. 6 was followed by a senatorial sprint through the Capitol hallways to avoid the rioters — but there is much to take seriously in its pages. He calls for the subordination of the self to the needs of those whom we love. He argues for the dignity of all work, no matter whether it is denigrated as a “dead end” job. He recognizes fatherhood as a daily reminder of the ways we are flawed. And he urges young men to assume greater responsibility for their own lives (“Ditching porn is a good place to start,” Hawley writes) as a step toward glimpsing that missing vision of manhood. To dismiss or mock such views merely because they come from Josh Hawley is to let partisan commitments overwhelm intellectual ones.
Now, if Hawley had simply written a book about the very real struggles facing young men in America, appending his preferred recommendations for how to live a more fulfilling life, “Manhood” could have been a worthwhile effort. Even more so had Hawley further explained why “no menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood” and how, absent the restoration of masculinity, “we will be no longer a self-governing nation because we will not have the character for it.” For these warnings to be more than rhetorical flourishes, they deserve greater exploration.
But Hawley does neither of those things. Instead, he turns “Manhood” into a familiar assault on a godless, judgmental, pleasure-seeking left, which, he contends, is attempting to subdue men and transform them into complacent, androgynous, dependent consumers. “Much of today’s left seems to welcome men who are passive and tame, who will do as they are told and sit in their cubicles, eyes affixed to their screens,” Hawley writes. The left’s “woke religion” purports to supplant the God of the Bible, and demands that we “renounce manhood, womanhood, Christianity, and other supposed markers of ‘social power’ and submit to the corrective tutelage of the liberal elite.”
In Hawley’s telling, the left regards men as the source of their own problems. “In the power centers they control, places like the press, the academy and politics, they blame masculinity for America’s woes,” the senator writes. Hawley is not necessarily wrong when he complains about the mixed messages aimed at young men today — Your identity is yours to shape and claim, but why are you so toxic and oppressive? — but he seems not to notice the contradiction at the heart of his book: Hawley spends chapter upon chapter telling young men to stop blaming others for their troubles, urging them to take personal responsibility for their lives and failings … and then he proceeds to give those same young men someone to blame for their fate.
Which is it, senator? Do American men need to man up like their forefathers or hunker down in ideological silos like their political leaders? If you are promoting manhood, why wallow in victimhood? This is a book that raises its fist, then runs for cover.
Though he does not mention Reeves by name (except in his endnotes), Hawley takes issue with “experts safely ensconced in their think tanks” who call for more men to enter professions like teaching and social work. “There is nothing wrong with those careers, of course,” Hawley assures — after all, home health aides vote, too — but he seems concerned that such jobs just aren’t manly enough. “Men are historically less interested in these fields and less educationally prepared to take them on,” Hawley writes. And besides, “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?”
Reeves does take on Hawley by name in “Of Boys and Men,” recalling a 2021 speech the senator delivered at the National Conservatism Conference, in which he outlined the challenges facing men and assailed the left’s effort to define masculinity as toxic. (I, for one, would be delighted if “toxic” and “woke” canceled each other out and we never heard from either again.) “When it came to solutions, Hawley came up largely empty-handed,” Reeves writes. He also accuses the right more broadly of riling up male grievance for political ends and for wanting to “turn back the clock” on economic relations between men and women. Since the publication of Hawley’s book, Reeves has also posted a lengthy rebuttal to the senator’s suggestion that men don’t want to take on so-called HEAL occupations, under the somewhat self-referential title “What Josh Hawley gets wrong about me.”
There are plenty of meaningful disagreements among these writers — and they are right to hash them out — but I was struck by one broad concurrence. A senator, a scholar and a poet all agree that manhood does not spring fully formed from a mother’s womb or commence with a recognizable biological transformation, such as puberty, that turns boys into men. Instead, it must be constantly molded and reaffirmed.
“Manhood is something attained, not born to,” Hawley writes. “It is an attainment of character.”
“Manhood doesn’t happen by itself,” Bly writes. “It doesn’t just happen because we eat Wheaties.”
“Manhood is fragile,” Reeves writes, adding that “the making of masculinity is an important cultural task in any society.”
The unity of these visions is conceptual; their differences are practical. Whether manhood is constructed through biblical interpretations, nurtured through rituals and mentorship or reimagined in periods of cultural and economic upheaval is less vital than the simple notion that it is created.
This forging of manhood is not without risks; if men and boys are groping for a sense of purpose and meaning they will find it, whether in a temple or a basement, from a mentor or an influencer, through a ritual or an addiction. Reeves is right that men’s collective struggles should not be interpreted as a problem inherent to one gender, as though every man is flawed and must be sent back for repairs. But if we conceive of manhood as something created or achieved — not given, inherited or immovable — then this collective crisis of boys and men is also an opportunity for individual self-definition. It can be about every man, each of us, deciding what it means to be one. It doesn’t have to be about manning up or settling down.
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Carlos Lozada became a New York Times Opinion columnist in September 2022, after 17 years as an editor and book critic at The Washington Post. He is the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” and the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. @CarlosNYT
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