It is probably the coffee, or the academic tomes I’m sloughing through right now on the cheery subject of various medieval religious polemics attacking religion (Islamic vs. Christian vs. Jewish). And then in a coffeeshop, you overhear other people’s conversations. I don’t like the brand of masculinity that is cultivated in snickering frat boys. It makes me sick and want to cry.
Masculinity can be incredibly precious, but the particular strains of “masculinity” that are cultivated in our postmodern era are anything but. The pig-headed jock who goes after women as if they were things and thinks loving violence makes him a man; the whiny and self-congratulatory sensitive male who is so proud that he doesn’t like football; and the general ‘nice guy’ whose stellar claim to moral superiority is that he doesn’t rape people and doesn’t hate other races, though he is sure that everyone else would. To all, the zeitgeist pressure: they have to apologize for their existence, which some try their best at (however clumsily) and others rebel against in a show of the-best-defense-is-offense, or worse still, embracing the slur in a fit of take-that-hah. And in all the cacophony, who will remember what it is to be a man? Amidst the swirling whirlpools, the Scylla and Charybdis and so many other countless ones, how many can even make it, to steer their ship true, to the place the stars chart out?
Oh God. It’s like that scene in Captain America 2, where some people try to get into the little fighter planes (parked on the deck of the aircraft carrier) to go to the aid of Captain America. Every single one of them is shot dead before even being able to get in the air. They go up in flames on the deck. That’s about the state of manhood in America today. Boys never even get a chance to be good men. They never even have a chance to try.
Craving moral heroism is not a bad thing. It can be something rather sweet in the young. And I suspect it is inborn too. Newborns scream in their cribs for the touch of another human being, for the sound of a human voice singing in the darkness.
And then by 3 or 4 years old, many of them are tripping about with their blocks and sticks and pillow-case capes, already yearning to be heroes. You could say that the fairy stories we tell them are the cause of it (I remember over-hearing my toddler kid sisters’ make-believe universe populated with tea parties, difficult pregnancies, and dragon slayings), but I suspect it is the reverse: fairy tales were created by the harried grown-ups because kids demanded it. It is the kids that crave moral heroism. They crave a world of good and bad, where good must struggle, but ultimately win.
I think it is a part of human nature— and, that like all the forces of nature, it must be respected and perhaps tamed, but never extinguished. If you attempt to extinguish it, it will blow up in your face. You can only repress human nature so far. Attempts to stymy the craving for heroism (e.g. ‘idealism is dangerous! look at the nazis or the bolsheviks!) will lead to things just as bad as the nazis and the bolsheviks. Actually, I wonder how many wandering idealists in the 1800s and 1930s latched on to those ideologies precisely because no-one else offered an alternative. Dostoevsky said that more than man craves for food, he craves for worship — to find something to fall before and worship. If he isn’t given that, he will go mad. In our era that tries to eliminate moral heroism, males have had it disproportionately worse. It’s a downward spiral–the symptoms are taken as the root, and the cure is banned as the cause.
A large part of the crisis in masculinity today is precisely this effort to eradicate a male-specific moral heroism (e.g. chivalry, or ‘how men should treat ladies or those weaker then themselves’) because of the inherent side effect of paternalism/condescension that inevitably comes with any system of morality, however constructed. But when you successfully eliminate male-specific moral heroism from a culture — you (surprise) have not actually gotten rid of the male, and hence male-specific XYZ-ism. And what it gets replaced with is something cruder: male-specific macho heroism, without a moral sense. That celebrates raw power, raw sexual prowess, raw violence, untrammeled by any moral specifications.
Ride the subway in any large city in America, walk along the rougher parts of town, and you see the cost of it. Boys barely men, trying so hard to prove their manhood by the only thing they know is “manly”: their only male-specific heroism being something that is an odd mixture of gang violence and knocking up as many women as they can. Their eyes, large and bright and young. And so many of them will be dead before they turn 25 years old. They have testosterone, they have a desire for male-specific heroism. But this amoral void gives them none of it, and they must construct what they can from the garbage heap. It is a costly thing, devouring what could have been: lover’s pledges kept steadfastly, homes peaceful, men strong and gentle, hands clean of blood.
It isn’t just the urban poor that are paying the price. You see the same painful cost in the suburbs (though not as costly in lives–for the wealthier have more buffers–more leeway with the police, more therapists, more help). Boys, craving for male-specific heroism, turn to an odd amalgamation of sexual braggadocio (e.g. porn, or sex-as-an-impersonal-thing-i-grab-for-myself) and obscenely nihilistic fantasy violence now scrubbed clean of moral purpose. For example, current violent video games that pride themselves on their moral high-ground by intentionally having no moral heroism (but plenty of gore and boobs).
Eliminate the “serve and protect” purpose for male violence (e.g. chivalry and save-the-world ideologies) and what do you end up with? Violence for its own sake. Machismo without any fig-leaf of chivalry. Raw masculinity without any honor. And then they are told that manly men are just pigs and d-bags. But what other options are they given?
A typical example of this is the videogame Skyrim. Like most high-resolution first person games, the violence (unless you are playing as a mage with glowing blasts) is gory, up-close and personal.
To add insult to injury, the advertisement campaign was totally, totally tapping into young adolescent boys’ craving for moral heroism. Here is the original trailer that got so many of them to buy it, which shows a lone warrior defending the women and children and civilians from an attacking dragon.
It is such a scam. Instead of what is advertised above, in the gameplay, you are forced to first-person slash up women alongside men (there is no setting to disable that), and oh, it turns up that there are no goodguys. Here’s a dorkly comic that makes the point: (from The Skyrim Dilemma)
In a world where there are no good causes, the best thing to do is just fight for yourself. So you fight like a bandit, kill other “bandit” women and men you come across (they automatically attack you too, so you don’t have much of a choice), and grab stuff for yourself. Oh, and you have this side-kick female who is a really hot (and strong too, to appease the feminists) who basically acts like a traditionalist wife of the semi-servant variety, carrying your luggage and serving you devotedly.
Postmodernism, in an effort to tear down the mistakes of brash (wannabe heroic) modernity, tears it alldown, and we will cycle back into pre-pre-modernity, the era of the tribe and the patriarchy in its rawest, most untamed form.
If we try to get rid of condescending would-be heroes…all we will get rid of is the attempted heroism. Then we are left with condescending, brutal thugs.
If you remove male-specific moral heroism from a society, everyone suffers.