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Recovering the Path to Manhood

It may have been the worst Super Bowl commercial ever. Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman are competing with one another, trying to use their cell phones in preposterous places. Silverman, still talking to Handler, is delivering a baby in an underground bunker. Handing the baby to the mother, she glances down and sees the sex. “Sorry!” she tells the parents. “It’s a boy.” 

I flinched. I’ve never heard these words in the delivery room, but the sentiment is familiar. I’ve made the “it’s a boy” announcement five times; some people just can’t resist offering their condolences. This poor woman! Will she ever “get her girl”? They probably had a mental picture of me buried in fire trucks and plastic soldiers, while baseballs crashed through my windows. 

That’s not really so far wrong, but I don’t mind. Little girls are delightful, but I love my band of brothers. I am very conscious of the tremendous honor and obligation of being, at least for the present, the defining female presence in the lives of six males. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. My eldest sons are just reaching their teens. Already our conversations are vastly more interesting than most of the classroom discussions I remember from my days as a college professor. All five of them were born within nine years, so they’re truly growing up together, and their schoolteachers comment on what a tight-knit bunch they are. Some days, when I’m writing or working on dinner, I’ll break off for a few minutes, and step out on the back deck. The boys might be throwing a football, or fishing off our dock. They might just be sitting around laughing at one another’s dumb jokes. Who could witness that, and feel sorry? Life doesn’t get much richer.

I regret nothing, but I do fear. Young men as a group are struggling mightily in our day and age. Silverman’s tasteless joke has a frighteningly clear underlying logic. Parents who want their kids to make them proud—and who doesn’t?—are statistically better off having daughters. A daughter is likelier to become her school’s valedictorian. A son is likelier to drop out of school or get arrested. She is likelier to get into and through a good college, to find decent employment, and to live a stable life. He’s likelier to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and six times likelier to commit suicide. I feel indignant when I read how adoption agencies are struggling to place boys, even in infancy. But I understand it. Boys may break your heart. And I have five. 

This is why I read the “boy books”: literature discussing the struggles of boys. I need to understand this as fully as possible. I have a lot of “boy lit” on my shelf, but here I will discuss five significant figures in this conversation: Warren Farrell, Leonard Sax, Anthony Esolen, Jordan Peterson, and Brad Miner. Among these, only Peterson has not written an entire book specifically on the subject of manhood. I will mention him nevertheless, because his influence with young men is particularly noteworthy. 

I disagree with all of these writers at certain points, and in some cases the disagreements are serious. Nevertheless, I look on them all with a certain gratitude. They care. To me, they all feel like allies in what has become my primary life’s work: the task of raising boys into good men.

Farrell and Sax Raise the Alarm

For a quick read on the boy problem, Warren Farrell and Leonard Sax make a great pairing. Sax is a psychologist and family physician, who has written three books on gender and youth development. Boys Adrift is his latest. Farrell is harder to classify. In broad terms, it may be most helpful to describe him as a true-believing second-wave feminist (once deeply involved with the National Organization for Women) who ended up developing a masculinist counterpart to his 1970s feminism. He isn’t any sort of traditionalist; indeed, he clearly wants to dismantle traditional masculine ideals in at least some key ways. Still, he has been thinking about boys and men for several decades now, and I find his arguments helpfully challenging, even when I think he’s wrong. The Boy Crisis applies some of his long-developed thoughts on manhood to developmental issues for boys. 

Sax and Farrell are interesting both for their similarities and for their differences. As social scientists, they both present a lot of data, giving rise to shared concern about boys’ mediocre performances in school. Worldwide, boys are falling behind girls, especially in reading. Their test scores are lower, and they are less likely to enroll in universities. The structure of modern schools seems uncongenial to boys’ developmental needs.

Sax and Farrell agree as well that fatherlessness is a huge problem in our time, in general but especially for boys. The statistics on this subject are harrowing. Fatherless boys fare worse in virtually every measurable way. Of course, when that cycle of family breakdown is perpetuated, that means another generation of at-risk kids, as well as stressed-out single moms, and lower social productivity. 

Finally, both Sax and Farrell have many interesting things to say about the masculine loss of purpose. They understand that many men today are suffering from a kind of existential crisis. Men aren’t sure what role they are meant to play within society at large. Once, able-bodied men were genuinely necessary to keep their families and communities alive. Today, robots do much of our heavy lifting, and our meat mostly comes from factories, not forests. We do still need strong men to do a number of jobs, some of which are desperately seeking eligible workers. If a man wants employment, it’s still very possible to leverage bulging biceps, in more ways than one. Physical strength is no longer essential to the family’s survival though, nor does it command tremendous earning power. In market terms, manly muscle has lost its edge.

From here, Sax and Farrell diverge. Sax focuses on cultural phenomena that undermine discipline for boys: video games, pornography, over-indulgent parenting. His book feels like the adolescent prequel to Nicolas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work, and recommends, stricter rules, fewer indulgences, and less coddling. Farrell’s focus is quite different. In broad terms, he thinks that boys’ social and emotional development has been stunted by maladaptive masculine norms, which send boys charging off on quixotic manhood-quests while the girls are becoming prudent, socially savvy, and self-aware. Farrell is deeply suspicious of cultural messaging that teaches boys to aspire to heroic self-sacrifice. In his view, this understanding of manhood makes it hard for boys to navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships, and the nuances of our complex workforce. They are incentivized to do dangerous and self-destructive things, instead of developing the workaday healthy habits that so often make the difference between success and failure in modern life. Farrell’s book is full of “conversation starters” for parents; he wants us to plumb the depths of our sons’ social and emotional lives. His larger goal is to give men the same range of options and possibilities in life that feminists have (in his view, rightly) demanded for women, moving them towards self-actualization and a comfortable life.

It can be hard for parents to make sense of seemingly contradictory advice, but in fact both men make some good points. Sax is certainly right to call our attention to distractions and cultural trends that undermine discipline, although I myself haven’t always had success with the authoritarian disciplinary approaches that Sax recommends. Sometimes a fruitful conversation is worth a thousand rules. Here, Farrell’s insights can actually be genuinely helpful, especially because we do live in a world in which social polish, emotional self-awareness, and prudent life skills are critically important for adults. If a young man is too socially inept to be presentable in a job interview, or too emotionally closed to cultivate intimacy with a wife, then he may end up bankrupt and alone. 

Having said that, I think Farrell underestimates the extent to which boys are naturally attracted to heroism, honorable self-sacrifice, and the stiff upper lip. I don’t think it’s wise to jettison these chivalric impulses. If young men are indeed suffering from a loss of purpose, financial planners and radio shrinks may not be the ministers they need. 

Anthony Esolen Waxes Nostalgic

Anthony Esolen would agree with this point. His newest book, No Apologies: How Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men seeks “to return to men a sense of their worth as men, and to give to boys the noble aim of manliness, which is their due by right.” 

Esolen wants to return men to their traditional role, as society’s protectors, providers, and citizens. He doesn’t see technology, market forces, or women’s education as significant factors in men’s changing social roles. Rather, he thinks men have been sabotaged by resentful feminists and equality-obsessed social planners. 

Esolen proposes two remedies. First, we should renew our appreciation of men’s unique potentialities. Second, we should embrace the natural complementarity between men and women. The first will keep the lights on in society at large; the second will keep romance sweet and domestic life stable.  

Esolen’s ode to manhood is stirring, and at times quite beautiful. Is it credible, though? An economist would have some quibbles, and the historical narratives are a bit rose-tinted at points. But the biggest problem with No Apologies is its dependence on a false and degraded view of womanhood. Esolen loves the idea that men and women complement one another, but in his division of the sexes, virtue is mainly for the vir

He obviously anticipates objections on this point, because he warns readers in his introduction that even if he appears to be disparaging women, in reality he is “doing nothing of the sort.” “Every strength in one respect,” he tells us, “is a shortcoming in another respect.” 

I want my sons to be man enough to handle real womanly excellences as they find them, with grace and gratitude. I would like them to aspire as well to friendship with women, and especially their future wives.

That’s hardly reassuring. Even in his disclaimer, it sounds as though Esolen is applying the principle of corruptio optimi pessima: men can be worse than women precisely because they are by nature better. The same principle could be used to characterize the relationship between men and beasts; a dog cannot reach the same level of depravity as a malevolent human master, precisely because he lacks the master’s rational potentialities. Men and women might stand in a similar relationship (though possibly with a narrower gap), and in fact, Esolen’s women do seem uncomfortably canine even in their more positive qualities. They are affable, affectionately nurturing, and fiercely but instinctively loyal. Men, meanwhile, are stronger, more disciplined, more fully governed by reason, and focused on truth and justice (as opposed to the provincial and personal concerns of women). Men have a capacity for civic engagement and creative cooperation that women lack. Their unique “rage to master” leads them to explore, learn, and understand a whole range of things that are of little or no interest to women.

I am squinting very hard at this picture, trying discern some sort of moral equality. Is it possible that Esolen, looking through the eyes of Dante, can do it? Perhaps so, but I cannot. Looking through a more Aristotelian lens, it just seems obvious that men in this view are the morally superior sex. “Masculine” strengths as Esolen describes them in the early chapters map quite nicely onto the classical picture of virtue. Women, driven by instinct and passion, seem more like beasts or natural slaves. 

These themes are further developed through the book. Esolen’s description of male friendship sounds essentially like the Aristotelian friendship of virtue; women’s friendships are grounded instead in affection and pleasure. In each chapter, Esolen seems to be explaining how men pursue the unique human telos, as understood within the Western tradition, while women nurture, emote, and navel-gaze. Possibly, he might hold (with some medieval thinkers) that women can achieve equality with men on a supernatural plane, once they are perfected by grace. In the natural sphere, men clearly rule.

Mulling over all of this, I find myself pondering a very practical question. What’s a lady permitted to like nowadays? Feminists are continually issuing lists of things we are meant to shun, for the sake of snubbing the patriarchy: the Founding Fathers, Shakespeare, the Bible. Now it seems the other side has its own taboos for women: competitive games and sports, maps, epic poetry, intellectual exchange, the weight room. To be fair, Esolen isn’t walking around ordering women to drop the barbell and shelve the Beowulf, but he is arguing that cultural renewal, and the thriving of men, depend on the recovery of a robust gender complementarity. What should a wife and mother do, then if she really aspires to fill her half of the natural gender pairing? Should she box up her workout gear and philosophy books, trade her fishing pole for smelling salts, and bid longtime male interlocutors adieu? Perhaps she might cultivate more hair-trigger sensitivities, and blind herself to her children’s faults? No reasonable person would aspire to the qualities that Esolen sees as defining of womanhood.

I have known and liked Esolen for some years; I read him with interest for several more before that. He has tremendous talents, and I also truly believe that he likes women. Some of his claims about the sexes probably could, with more care and nuance, be unteased in more helpful ways. It will not do, though, to try to make men taller by asking women to slouch. Even if the women were willing, I want my sons to be man enough to handle real womanly excellences as they find them, with grace and gratitude. I would like them to aspire as well to friendship with women, and especially their future wives. For all of his interest in marriage, this never seems to be much of a focus for Esolen. 

No Apologies demonstrates the hazards of pairing a call for sexual complementarity, with a single-minded focus on the needs of just one sex. I can understand how a sincere zeal for defending men might lead to this rather proprietary seizure of virtue, on behalf of the male sex. I appreciate the goals. It seems to me, though, that men need to face their situation with a more realistic assessment of where they stand in today’s world. 

Jordan Peterson and Brad Miner Raise the Bar

Is this possible? In concluding this piece, I will briefly mention two writers who do show some success at adapting traditional masculine ideals to contemporary circumstances.

Peterson is by no means a favorite writer of mine. He can be mean-spirited, and he rivals Thomas Friedman in his ability to belabor obvious points. Those defects seem fairly trivial, though, when I hear testimonials from ecstatic mothers whose teenaged or young-adult sons are cleaning their rooms, exercising, or wearing ties for job interviews, all under Peterson’s influence. Why are young men willing to take this commonsensical advice from a Jungian psychologist, and not from more traditional sources of wisdom, such as pastors, parents, or youth sports coaches? That’s a fascinating question, but in the end what matters most is that they take it. 

Peterson’s success calls into question Farrell’s theory about the malign effects of heroic masculine norms. Peterson loves heroic language, but somehow persuades his admirers to eat their vegetables and floss. Young men feel like he understands their problems, but he uses that rapport to urge them not to wallow in self-pity. That’s commendable.

Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman is winsome, charming, and not the least bit belittling to women. His ten-thousand-foot history of chivalry obviously makes some very sweeping generalizations, but it has a serious purpose, and a hopeful message. Like Peterson, Miner acknowledges that the world is hard, but urges young men to strive for excellence anyway. It’s not easy to become a “compleat gentleman.” If it were, what would be the point? Also like Peterson, Miner wants young men to understand that it is always better to be manly, regardless of the consequences. Fashions change, and good deeds often go unrewarded, but a gentleman has the kind of integrity that motivates him to continue even without applause or medals. This is the foundation of the purpose that so many men today crave. To find meaning, you must dedicate your life to something larger than yourself.

Perhaps this is the real point, threading its way through all these authors. A man is truly a remarkable creature, with tremendous potential to do good. This is what I see, watching my sons from the back deck, and the implicit realization of that potential may explain why boys from their earliest years are thirsting for a quest, and spoiling for a noble fight. This desire is not toxic, or at least it need not be. But realizing that potential is much harder than the lightsaber-wielding preschooler can possibly understand. It takes the discipline of Sax and Peterson, the social savvy of Farrell, and the high-flown ideals of Esolen and Miner. When that potential is not achieved, bitterness and despair often follow.

Boys can break your heart. I have five. I’m not sorry, but I never let myself forget that the path to manhood is a hard one.