Newsletter #5: What Does It Mean to Be a Man?
I was recently asked to write a review of the film The Red Pill, a documentary about the Men’s Rights Movement, for the Institute for Family Studies. You can read it on their site.
Debate Happens in the Public Square
I previously reviewed three of the guiding principles for my writing in this newsletter: live not by lies; build-up, don’t just tear down; and skin in the game. To that end, I alternate issues devoted to cultural criticism with those focused on practical, actionable improvement items that I myself personally do.
The fourth of my guiding principles is only critique people who are in the public square.
If I take issue with someone’s teaching or beliefs, it will only be someone who is holding himself out as a public intellectual or who is a major national Christian figure. I’m not going to pick on an ordinary pastor doing the best job he can leading his congregation. I might highlight someone like that in a positive way, but not in a negative one.
The Curious Case of David French
In that light, let’s talk about David French. French, a Harvard Law grad, is a writer for the conservative National Review who was very active in the “Never Trump” movement. He’s also a public Evangelical Christian. His wife Nancy is an accomplished writer in her own right, having ghostwritten books for several conservative figures.
French made headlines over the summer when other “Never Trump” conservatives recruited him to run for President as an independent. He declined, and they ended up with Evan McMullin instead.
Like us, French is someone who has also been concerned about the problems with men in America today. In my first Masculinist newsletter I linked to his article about declining male grip strength.
If you’re the average millennial male, your dad is stronger than you are. In fact, you may not be stronger than the average Millennial female. You’re exactly the kind of person who in generations past had your milk money confiscated every day — who got swirlied in the middle-school bathroom. The very idea of manual labor is alien to you, and even if you were asked to help, say, build a back porch, the task would exhaust you to the point of uselessness. Welcome to the new, post-masculine reality.
French dislikes Donald Trump for many reasons, but one is that he believes Trump is selling a “counterfeit masculinity”:
Some Americans believe that Donald Trump is the answer to feminism. He’s the fearless man. He’s the strong man. He’s the man who laughs in the face of the social-justice warrior and demonstrates the appeal of pure, unadulterated aggression and virility. In reality, however, he’s a great gift to feminism: the man who will revive a failing ideology.
The masculinity of Trump is exactly the caricatured, counterfeit masculinity of the feminist fever dream. It takes the full energy of manhood and devotes it to sex, money, and power. It’s posturing masquerading as toughness and anger drained of bravery. (Is the man who recoils from Michelle Fields and obsesses over Megyn Kelly really going to take down ISIS?) Trump represents aggression channeled into greed. Apologies are for the weak, and self-sacrifice is for suckers. Trump is a kind of man that many people can recognize but none should emulate. He is the indefensible man.
Like many of you, I was pretty taken aback when I first heard Trump’s campaign talk. I doubt you’ll disagree when I say that some of French’s criticisms of Trump are entirely fair. His history suggests someone who has indeed been obsessed with money, status, power, and sexual conquest – of which he’s openly boasted.
But it’s worth taking a look at French too. How does he stack up in the masculinity department? About the same time he wrote that slam of Trump, he went on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross to complain that he was being “harassed on Twitter”:
So the next thing was, you know, I’m a writer, my wife is a writer. So we both wrote a follow-up piece – or I wrote a follow-up piece; she wrote her own piece. She put it in The Washington Post. I put mine in National Review that highlighted just some of these terrible tweets and basically said, look, we’re not going to be intimidated by this, but we want to expose it. We want to show people what’s going on out there if you criticize the people – some of the people who are supporting Donald Trump or criticize some of Donald Trump’s allies, particularly the alt-right. Well, then it just blew up after that. The number of tweets multiplied exponentially.
It’s fair to say that some of the things tweeted at French were pretty bad, but they were just tweets. Taking a step back and looking at this, what did French really do here? It’s something we all experienced or saw when we were young: Other kids said mean things to him on the playground – and he ran and told the (female) teacher.
Imagine yourself back in the high school locker room, eager to prove yourself as a man. Other kids snap you with a towel or start teasing you. Would you have run away and told a female teacher about it? Is this how a man deals with trash talk? I don’t think so.
I might be able to write this off if it were a one time thing, but a quick Google search reveals that this is not the first time French has whined like this.
Men take care of their own problems. In most cases they don’t go whining to authority figures about them. You’re probably thinking there are exception cases. And of course you’re right, such dealing with real criminal activity. But not something as trivial as mean tweets.
What Is Manhood?
This prompts a consideration about what it is manhood and masculinity consist of. Brett McKay at Art of Manliness did a series on this a while back looking at how societies throughout the world and throughout history thought about what it means to be a man. This series was a summary of findings from David Gilmore’s book Manhood in the Making. McKay summarized the universal masculine distinctives as what he called the 3 Ps: Protect, Procreate, Provide. My condensed summary of his take:
Protect. Physical strength and endurance, skill in weapons and strategy, courage, physical and emotional stoicism, acceptance of one’s expandability, public demonstration of one’s aptitude as a protector.
Procreate. Initiating with women, virility and potency, the ability to sexually satisfy a woman, fecundity, and having as many children as possible.
Provide. Contributing the lion’s share of sustenance to one’s tribe/family, resourcefulness/cleverness (ability to maneuver around obstacles), becoming self-reliant, being generous
He also lists various shared attributes that underpinned the 3 Ps’:
Earned status – manhood must be earned
Autonomy – “Autonomy involves the ‘absolute freedom of movement’ — ‘a mobility of action.’ It means being able to make your own decisions, call your own shots, create your own goals, set your own pace, carve your own path.”
Energy – “A man is expected to overcome passivity, to always be up and doing, and to ceaselessly strive to achieve.”
Danger and risk
Public affirmation – “When it comes to excellence in the 3 P’s — talk doesn’t matter, results do. You have to put your money where your mouth is, and thus competence in all the manly pursuits must be demonstrated in the public square and affirmed by others. You must be willing to sally forth into the fray, to compete with other men, and show how you stack up against them. A man must be ‘in the arena.’ For this reason a man who is a homebody, who avoids public contests, and desires to spend most of his time with wife and children is considered effeminate.”
Create more/consume less
If you are a man, these are the things human societies have always defined as your benchmarks.
If we look at these historical manhood criteria and rank Donald Trump and David French against them, it is immediately obvious that Trump vastly outclasses French. In fact, Trump scores extremely high on many of these criteria such as being “in the arena.”
Where French – and all too many others – go astray is in conflating goodness (or godliness if you prefer) with manhood. McKay makes that distinction very clear:
It is possible to be good at being a man, without also being a good man. For example, a mob boss has a dangerous job, supports his family, and is highly resourceful. He also whacks people on a whim. He’s not a good man, but he’s good at being a man. He does actually live the 3 P’s. This is why, even though we might not want to emulate him, we still can’t help but think of him as pretty manly. Think Walter White [the protagonist in Breaking Bad] for a modern pop culture example – audiences still wanted to root for him in spite of all the horrendous things he did (and wanted to lambast Skyler White for her desire to seek the truth and turn in Walt). The moral side of our brains tells us that he’s not a ‘real man’ but at the gut-level we feel a degree of ancient, amoral respect. While it’s possible to be good at being a man, without being a good man, as we shall see next time, the reverse is not true. [emphasis added]
Godliness and manhood are two separate things that are too often conflated. Trump can thus be good at being a man without being a good man. Conversely, French’s moral qualities don’t make him a man or imbue him with masculinity.
Now let’s not overstate the case on French. He served in Iraq as a military lawyer. But it’s hard to be credible when you complain about the lack of manly virtue in society if you’re publicly whining on NPR about mean tweets at the same time.
Rod Dreher Admits We Have a Problem
One person who is willing to confront and acknowledge this distinction between godliness and manhood is Rod Dreher. Dreher is another politically conservative Christian (now Russian Orthodox, formerly Roman Catholic), who blogs at The American Conservative and is best known for his “Benedict Option” idea.
While I have significant disagreements with Dreher, he often has extremely insightful takes. In a piece called “Re-Tribalizing America,” he wrote about Jack Donovan, atheist author of The Way of Men and someone Dreher describes as an advocate of “pagan masculinity”:
As a Christian, I am sorry to say that Jack Donovan is a very smart man who understands something important about what’s happening in this country, something that many of us conservative Christians do not…. There are constructive forms of masculinity, and destructive forms of masculinity. Giving oneself over to gun violence and fathering children that you won’t care for is a destructive form. But middle-class male culture, at least white male culture, doesn’t know how to nurture a healthy masculinity. The middle-class white American church certainly doesn’t….Trump is a vulgar, crass, alpha-male brute. But he doesn’t care what SJWs and liberals say about him. He fights, and sometimes fights as dirty as they do. That’s not nothing. White liberal middle-class society and many bourgeois conservatives have demonized within themselves, collectively and individually, the instinct that would have given them the strength to fight civilization’s enemies on the Left and on the Right. [emphasis in original]
While Dreher, unlike French, is willing to open his eyes and see the truth, he can’t bring himself to act on it. He sees clearly that the church and American society have created a false vision of masculinity divorced from the 3Ps. He foresees in his post that young men are going to be drawn into pagan masculinity (which you might also think of as “alt-right masculinity”) – because while they are wrong about their metaphysics (atheistic) and wrong in their morality (Nietzschean), they are right about some very important things – things the modern church has gotten very, very wrong. Not the least of these is that they have a more authentic understanding of what masculinity is – and true masculinity is aspirational. But having seen this, he is unwilling to reconsider his embrace of the church’s vision of masculinity that he himself admits is broken.
Why is that?
The Tragedy of Rod Dreher
An Australian Catholic and family practice doctor who writes under the name “The Social Pathologist” attributes Dreher’s failure – and by extension that of French and the rest of the edifice of the contemporary church – as stemming from what he terms “High Anglicanism” the elevation of outwardly civilized modes of behavior – niceness, if you will – to the status of ultimate virtue. Applying this specifically to Dreher, he observes:
Indeed, this effectively passive response to evil is a characteristic of the Church in the 20th …Christ as a passive Victim, seems to it preferred operating model amongst the hierarchy as opposed to Christ actively choosing to take a bullet for the team.
Part of the reason why I think the Church has adopted this model is because it has been infected with two very subtle heresies; one is chivalric notions of sexuality….Rod Dreher typifies this form of passive “chivalric” man. I know he is Orthodox now, but Rod Dreher is typical of the serious Christian types that now occupy positions of authority in “conservative” Christian Churches. Pious, gentlemanly and chivalric he prefers to “reasonably” deal with opponents, and suffer for the Faith rather than take the battle to the enemy. Niceness is akin to goodness and rude virtue is to be deplored as much as polite vice is to be pardoned. Low class women have a greater moral worth than boorish yet effective billionaires. His approach to the onslaught of the enemy is one of passivity and hoping that the problem will go away. His “strength” lays in his capacity to suffer and bear “his cross”…. The more I mediate on this matter the more I am convinced that respectable “Christian masculinity” has produced a type of man who cannot virtuously strike back at evil. Rather he must “passively” take it.
I suspect Dreher would take strong issue with some of Social Pathologist’s characterization of the Benedict Option, but I think he’s on to something here.
One thing I’ve noticed in my personal dealings with Evangelical leaders is that they are extraordinarily gentlemanly. I’ve never been treated with less than impeccable courtesy and respect. This is true in personal levels, I suspect, even among fiery Southern Baptist types. They may preach brimstone from the pulpit, but they’d never dream of mistreating a lady.
Too often, however, I think they do conflate this niceness and civility – and a sort of “white knight” chivalry towards even undeserving women – with virtue and masculinity. Especially as these men themselves, at least in my experience, are in fact highly godly men in their personal behaviors. But as we know from every high-quality BBC drama ever made, this is not always the case. A refined exterior often conceals great depravity.
A key error church leaders made is to assume that those with polished exteriors are somehow more virtuous than those who disregard the social norms of civility. And to see that civility and white knight chivalrousness as somehow the defining characteristic of true masculinity, something far at odds with how masculinity has traditionally been conceived.
Generally speaking, I think they are right when they look askance at people who are publicly boorish. Such behavior in our world often does reveal something of the character of the person. But they too often give the benefit of the doubt to “civilized” people who are nothing of the sort. And they are too quick to overlook the manhood deficits of nice, civil men whose masculinity is developmentally atrophied – me who can too easily get steamrolled in the real world. (I don’t think it’s any coincidence that everyone’s stereotype of the Christian guy in college is someone who is extraordinarily nice and polite, but also quite effete).
Thus they find themselves trapped. This conception of gentlemanliness is so core to the identity of people like Dreher that even when they see that it is fatally flawed, they can’t bear to change. They can only confront in battle that which society at large has given them permission to. And even then they are unwilling to do what is necessary to actually win, hence the rejection of pagan alt-right masculinity while functionally surrendering to its victory. What is Dreher actually going to do to blunt the appeal of Jack Donovan? As far as I can see, nothing.
In short, the modern American Christian is all lamb, no lion. (It should perhaps come as no surprise that a focus group of “Walmart Moms” said that if Trump were an animal he’d be a lion and that Trump actually won a majority of the white female vote – along with a higher vote share among blacks, Hispanics and even Muslims than Romney received).
But most importantly, this failed conception of the nature of virtue and manhood has real, tangible – and sometimes tragic – consequences in the real world. Returning to French here is what he – a professional political pundit at the flagship publication of the conservative movement, let’s not forget – posted on election night:
I have never been more wrong about anything in my life than I’ve been in my assessment of Donald Trump’s political prospects. I discounted him in the primary, and I was discounting him in the general election all the way until about 9:30 p.m. on election night.
French could not see what was right in front of his eyes. French, his companions at the National Review, Dreher – and the vast majority of the rest of the leadership of the conservative movement, the Democrats, much of the media, and probably a majority of the Evangelical leadership – not only were impotent to stop Trump, they didn’t even see his victory as a legitimate possibility.
If French and company really believe that Trump’s moral character renders him unfit for office, then this is a major and consequential failure on their part. They weren’t just wrong about an intellectual dispute. Their personal failures to see, and their personal failures to respond in ways that would have been effective helped put Trump in the White House.
The Bible makes a lot of analogies to people being spiritually blind. In a sense, that’s the case here. French and so many others are blind. They do not have eyes to see.
But I saw.
I won’t say I predicted Trump, but I was on record as saying, “people have dramatically underestimated the sophistication of Trump’s appeal,” and told them not to take him lightly. I said this in October 2015 – before the first vote was cast in the primary. On Election Day I rated the contest as very close – which was in fact the case. And I actually went ahead and wrote what became the lead post-election essay at City Journal that was predicated on Trump winning even before the polls closed. In fact, I’d already mentally sketched the piece out a month or two before.
Why was I able to do that?
I had imbibed the same teachings about civility and chivalry as manhood from society. When I became a Christian, I eagerly absorbed the church’s teachings about what it meant to be a man, to be a “servant leader”, etc.
When I went through an extended period a time when things went very badly for me, it caused me to rethink a lot of things. One of them was my approach to manhood, which I rebuilt from the ground up.
Something completely unexpected happened as a result; the scales were lifted from my eyes and I could see. I could even see things that I didn’t realize were related to masculinity but which at some level must have been. That’s why I knew Trump was a serious candidate when they did not.
I hope most people never experience the things I did, but for many like French, Trump’s election is that tragic experience. If they really believe what they said about him, wouldn’t they want to understand how that happened? Wouldn’t they want to understand where they went wrong? If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing. A guy who defied every piece of conventional wisdom about politics and who was opposed almost universally by the leadership class of America still won. Even if you hate him, wouldn’t you want to know how he did that?
Apparently not. I see no evidence that, despite being more wrong about Trump than anything in his life, French hasn’t asked any hard questions or changed even one belief about the world. He hasn’t bothered to ask what else he might be wrong about. His response strikes me as sadly all too typical.
One of the things that I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t sugarcoat reality. The authors of the Bible are completely honest about the human condition and the nature of the world we live in. Too often today we aren’t.
Part of being a man is being able to face the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be. Donald Trump and pagan alt-right masculinity have succeeded in part because they have not indulged in wishful thinking. They have not been afraid to stare into the abyss and act on what they see there. It’s the same for the various secularist cultural change movements on the left. They were successful in changing culture where the church failed because they just plain had a better grip on reality.
We have been ignorant – and in too many cases willfully ignorant. Even when we see the truth, too often, like Dreher, we have not been willing to face its implications.
This not only helps explain why Trump won, but it also explains why the conservative movement in America, whether you agree with it or not, is basically a failed political project. (Don’t be misled by how many elections Republicans do or don’t win – the ease with which Trump pulled off a de facto hostile takeover of the party attests to conservatism’s weakness. And the right has lost every culture war it’s fought, with the exception of guns). It also helps explain why Christianity is also a failing project in America. The people who have been leading these movements have beliefs about the world that just aren’t true – and they are not willing to face up to that truth. They don’t want to see it. In part that’s because they don’t want to believe it. That may not be the entire problem, but it’s at least a part of it.
I started this project about Christian masculinity because I saw so many young men being drawn into pagan alt-right masculinity precisely because of this quality of facing the world as it is. They are fundamentally all about shredding illusions and confronting the reality of the human condition. They aren’t always right, but they have uncovered some important truths that society and the church suppressed. Even Dreher admits that much. We see evidence that they’ve found at least something of truth in the results they’ve produced; they’d been highly effective in the last couple of years. Where they went wrong is both in the incompleteness of their vision and in their response to it, embracing a Nietzschean approach to a life devoid of God and centered on the satisfaction of the self and the will to power. (I’m not exaggerating – prominent alt-right personalities explicitly channel Nietzsche).
My desire is to acknowledge these truths about masculinity and to respond to them in a Christian way and in a manner that can be aspirational and appealing to men. Because right now the church isn’t even in the game. I believe history clearly shows this is possible and in fact the norm. I’m going to confront what may be unpleasant truths and hope that I can convince those of you who are Christian leaders to confront them as well.
I can’t guarantee I’ll succeed. But that’s part of having skin the game – being “at-risk” and “in the arena” as McKay put it.
I believe most of you are the kind of people who are interested in and strongly value the truth. So given trends in the church and society, I hope this is something you’ll be willing to at least give serious consideration to and to have the courage to ask where you might be wrong – abound manhood and many other things.
In the Culture
The Australian Broadcasting Company, that country’s state broadcaster, recently published a story titled, “All hail the rise of cat men, an antidote to toxic masculinity.” The point of this piece appears to be attempting to mitigate the impact of the negative stereotype of the “crazy cat lady” – an angry feminist home alone with her cats because she doesn’t have a man in her life.
I have no problem with cats, of which I’ve had many in life. If I had pets, cats would certainly be at the top of the list. But it’s revealing that the article isn’t just that “men can have cats too if they want them.” Rather, it’s intentionally subverting masculinity by suggesting that men who aren’t embracing a (negative) female stereotype are somehow instead promoting “toxic masculinity.” Here’s a sample:
This article is so perfectly done that you can’t really tell if it’s intended as serious or ironic.
In the News
The New York Times: Sweeping away gender-specific toys and labels. The gender-neutral toy movement is predicated on the idea that there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine. And this movement is backed by significant activist pressure.
City Journal: My colleague Kay Hymowitz (a nationally regarded expert on gender and family) talks about how female reporters so misread the women’s vote in the election.
American Dad: The traditional family form is irrelevant in today’s culture.
“So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges of the anti-Christians about submission and slaughter. It is true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be some good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be some good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge. But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith, they were not allowed to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is — Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy