What Can a Man Do

A while back, I read an article, “I Slept With the Enemy,” by Sonya Huber.  Not only does it offer a compelling explanation for Trump’s appeal to men but it does so with compassion.  Without both, there’s not much hope to change the way the men are seen and how they respond to the condescending, demonizing glares headed their way.

I appreciate the article’s focus on the need for rebellion, the need to “flip a bird” to the establishment. It’s the rebellion that counts for them, not any particular ideology.  Huber is right to emphasize the growing isolation of this group of men, particularly from sources of education, support, common cause, and direction that labor unions had once provided.  The union movement had provided an alternative narrative, in which rebellion, persistence, and courage are essential to organizing and to strikes, where a channel for anger and aggression is sanctioned, even applauded

What Huber doesn’t emphasize—and I would like to—is that the rebellion we need is against the proper people: the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, the Republican Party, which has nurtured a racist culture for decades, with its “southern strategy,” its absorption of the Dixicrats, and its Regan-inspired union busting tactics.  These are the people who have captured large swaths of the American narrative, trumpeted by the right wing marketing machine and long symbolized by the Willie Horton ad.  That ad, as you know, was for George HW Bush, a president that current Democrats have decided was a good Republican.

I imagine that Huber went light on the idea of emasculation because it would take away from the article’s compassion.  But in my view, the social and economic emasculation of working class men is one of the main reasons that the rebel narrative is so appealing.  And if we were to go further into the theme of emasculation, we would also have to turn to the gender revolution that has been taking place for a half century.  White men of all classes have not only lost pride of place to outsiders, like Blacks and Latinos—to the “other”—they have also lost position to insiders: their sisters, wives and mothers.  And while there’s a way to at least try to distance themselves from African and Latin Americans, there’s no place to hide from the women in their lives, who are earning more money.  Or even the same amount.  And demanding that their voices be heard.

It is as easy to make fun of such men as it is to simply condemn the “yahoos” and their Confederate flags.  I saw many, many such men in marital and family therapy.  They didn’t want to come.  They kicked and snorted fire about that stupid girl’s stuff.  And once they appeared in my office, it was clear that they felt anxious and diminished on the foreign turf.  They had no real language to express their diminishment because it was an emotional language they didn’t speak.  Even worse, speaking of diminishment aloud was dangerous, forbidden.  To say you feel like less of man, to complain, to whine, to cry, means that you are less of a man.  So you bear the daily losses, the indignities, the insults in private and in silence, except through explosions and apparently “random” acts of violence, acts that you don’t really condone, against your own wives and daughters.  Or you simply run off with another, preferably younger woman.

There have been efforts to heal these masculine wounds but, in my view, most of the men’s movement has been almost completely ineffective.  It has been apologetic, which feels like more diminishment to me.  It has tried to inject “female” values and styles into the male psyche.  That often feels foreign, even alienating.  The various men’s movements have done almost nothing, other than re-introduce loin cloths and drums on weekend retreats, with the aggression that seems to be hard wired into the male species.  It has provided none of the exuberance, the meaning, fun and rage, nor even the sense of common cause and comradeship that, for example the union movement of the first half of the twentieth century and  the 1960’s Civil Rights and Anti-War movements had for men.

I want to emphasize the sense of belonging and common cause, of having a team to identify with.  There is almost no more powerful and defining experience for many boys than their athletic teams.  Being a member of a team, going crazy with joy when you win, having your pals around you when you lose.  That is a place where you can express your agony, even cry.  And there is virtually no substitute for it once they leave school.

Once you leave school, you become a loner, a Man, as defined by working class culture—or by almost any male culture.  You learn to suck it up when you are lonely or upset.  You can’t take it out on “the man”—you’d lose your job, if you have one; and your woman doesn’t quite understand, even though she keeps asking.  You are alone much too often.  “Bowling Alone,” as Putnam would say.  And, as post World War II sociologists made plain, it was that condition—thousands, millions of men separated from the people and institutions that had structured pre-war life—it was under that condition that people were readily mobilized by demagogues, like Hitler and Mussolini.  We stand too close to that flame right now.

So I stand with you, Sonya Huber.  I stand against the most obvious solutions to the loss of manhood, voting for Trump, Cruz, and the others who thumb their noses at the establishment only to offer cruel, often elitist alternatives.  We need to affirm the hurt, the loss, the anger, and the need to rebel against its causes.  We need to help to build an alternative narrative.  It is no surprise that both Trump and Bernie Sanders made such great strides this year.  They are not accommodating.  They don’t like the establishment.  They give voice to rage.  They don’t back down.  They fight.  They are rebels.  And Bernie Sanders, at least, is a rebel with a cause.

 

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