Frankly, it is still tough to figure where exactly this one started. But somehow the news that Esquire magazine is launching a TV channel collided with news that Maxim magazine has lost its mojo and ran into Hanna Rosin’s year-old piece titled, “The End of Men” before ricocheting off news that Popular Science magazine (large guy readership) is axing its comment section because of witless brawling by (likely male) trolls determined to shout down liberal believers in mushy-headed ideas like … evolution and human-caused climate change. It was a tornadic tumble.
But the composite picture — with the cynical, nakedly self-serving Cruz as a kind of pop-up poster boy for everything crass and ill-mannered– was, yet again, a shaming of my God-given gender. Which isn’t like saying I want to sign up for sisterhood, (there are abundant problems there, too), but rather that The Modern American Male image, our “branding” if you prefer, is a godawful mess and could use some rehabilitation.
Among the internet chatter over “The New American Male” came the usual breadth-of-the-spectrum bromides.
Someone from one of those women’s “lifestyle” (i.e. “how to look cute enough to get a date”) websites, argued, as that sub-set always does, for more men who know how to dress in fashion, (meaning skinny jeans, madras shorts, plaid fedoras and a week’s worth of fastidiously trimmed facial stubble), are eager to share/dramatize their most painful fears and secrets just like a best girlfriend, and find few things more exciting than a table at the local celebrity chef’s new wine bar.
Simultaneously, the flip-side, “men need to be more manly” argument was largely built around projecting casual dominance, via the selection of the proper $1000 wristwatch, $70,000 sports car, beard-grooming razor, subsequent emollients and expertise in ordering the same kind of drinks as Steve McQueen. There was some discussion of actual values. Like: Knowing what in the hell you’re talking about, being honest with yourself about what you’re really saying and accepting responsibility for both what you say and do. But it was pretty well drowned out by “lifestyle” fixes you can buy at your more upscale boutiques.
It was pure coincidence (I think) that Ted Cruz grabbed the spotlight at this moment and, in my alleged mind at least, embodied just about every noxious, gender-debasing vice associated with the Modern American Male.
A few years ago I did a short piece on the poet Robert Bly for The Times of London. We talked in the backyard of his Kenwood neighborhood home here in Minneapolis and a lot of his masculinity-defining “Iron John” ideas came rolling back to me. (His wife and I worked on the same sod-laying crew back in the early Seventies. But that, though really damned manly, is another story.) I thought of Bly again watching clips of Ted Cruz and worked up a little list of things more American men should learn to do well, if only to rebut the potent argument that we are all a bunch of dime-deep, self-absorbed, hair-trigger, contentious buffoons.
(Disclaimer: I am fully aware that everyone who assembles a list like this is essentially just describing their idea of a better, more perfect world.)
1: Read an actual book. The whole thing. Not just a Twitter synopsis. As much as anything, “The End of Men” is closer to fact than fiction because so many men have lost the ability to sit still long enough to digest an entire line of someone else’s thought. A half hour with Rush Limbaugh, or Chris Matthews, isn’t enough of a substitute for the 20-hour experience of testing the moral logic of a well-conceived novel. If you’re new to the game and get hives at the thought of Saul Bellow or one of the other great modern masters, try anything by Ian McEwan or “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill. And while Vince Flynn is a step up from 350 words on the NewsMax website, I’m talking about something of a slightly higher caliber than pot boilers with hot babes and gunfire.
2: Grow a thicker hide. While Modern Male is of course encouraged to be more sensitive, and more aware of what he is feeling and how he is making others feel, “feeling” is different — more genuine and productive — than self-conscious wallowing. Comedian Louis C.K. recently got big props for a riff on Jay Leno encouraging kids and by extension everyone to actually feel the sensation of sadness. … and then get over it. I don’t know if the heavily marketed, stage-managed concept of celebrity melodrama — the “anguish” of Lamar doing Khloe wrong and her tortured descent into despair — is more pernicious than Ted Cruz claiming he’s fighting for anything other than his own greater aggrandizement, but they’re both cut from the same cloth. It’s self-pity for naked commercial purpose. A better Modern Male is self-aware enough to know when he’s been hurt. But he’s strong enough to digest the experience and get over it. Wearing “offense” like a badge of honor and engaging in a lot of inflammatory retaliation, publicizing and celebrating the offense committed against you has more in common with silly pop divas than a composed adult other men can admire. Put colloquially: “Rise above the shit”.
3: Truly know what you’re talking about. Popular Science is dumping comments because the rage and vitriol of know-nothing trolls on matters of actual science rendered the idea of an intelligent conversation futile. Don’t be one of those guys. If you don’t know how something actually works, ask a civil question before cutting straight to hyper-partisan anger. Don’t try to fake “smart”. Actual smart people immediately recognize it for what it is and will marginalize you. Do it if only because you don’t want to be the guy others ignore and don’t trust because you’re perpetually half-cocked. And again, challenge yourself. Read something of value.
4: Sports are a brief diversion from, not a replacement for actual life. Another way to say this is, “Football doesn’t really matter.” Few things make men look more stunted and adolescent than an eery emotional over-investment in a purely vicarious activity. If more of us manned-up and heeded this we wouldn’t be stuck with the tab for Zygi Wilf’s equity palace.
5: Personally fix stuff that is broken. I mean this in both the tactile and emotional sense. Screwdriver 101 is a skill set anyone can master … if they can summon the patience to learn … and there’s a surprising amount of personal gratification that comes from restoring to working order something you or your family has owned for a long time. I’m also tempted to say, “Plus, chicks dig it”, because they do. I’ve never met a woman who didn’t appreciate a man who can fix a toilet and diagnose what’s wrong with a car. Likewise, broken relationships are things a thoughtful, composed adult should be able to least attempt to repair. Not every wound can be healed, but we all have a semblance of a conscience and there’s less corrosion if we can honestly say we tried. But … if it fails, it fails. Some things stay broken. Don’t wallow. Move on.
With that said and done, American men are back on the right track.