Carpenter working on Tennessee’s Douglas Dam, June 1942. Photo credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group
A man does what he must–in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures–and that is the basis of human morality. These thoughts, attributed to Winston Churchill, echo today in the halls of a civilization tipping on the edge of self-destruction. From the pages of widely circulated newspapers to podcasts, blogs, roundtables, seminars, university summits, and even United Nations reports, the description and definition of manhood eludes understanding. Sadly, its degradation and slow fade have come at a considerable cost. Interestingly, those who have paid little heed to its importance, diminish its purpose, or oppose its existence now seem to be expressing some remorse or second thoughts.
Definitively, few on the side of redefining the family, altering gender roles, or favouring a post-modern society stand prepared to peel back their opinions or revisit their narrative. Nonetheless, an interesting debate or discourse about what has happened to manhood in this current generation looks to be hitting critical mass. Christine Emba of the Washington Post recently wrote an article entitled, Men Are Lost. Here is a Map out of the Wilderness. One of her provocative quotes describing the men around her states, “They struggled to relate to women. They didn’t have enough friends. They lacked long-term goals. Some guys — including ones I once knew — just quietly disappeared, subsumed into video games and porn or sucked into the alt-right and the web of misogynistic communities known as the ‘manosphere.’”
Throughout recent civilizations, men served as providers and protectors in most societies. Their physical advantages and the natural biology of women bearing children led to a natural progression into distinct responsibilities. In previous generations, this held merit. Unfortunately, women were at the mercy of a man. A good partner fulfilled his tasks well and sheltered the home with love. On too many occasions the man shirked his duties and ended up shortchanging his wife, scarring his children emotionally, and failing society. Emba’s article chronicled the concerns for manhood going back to 1835 and author Washington Irving’s observations about upper-class men becoming soft because of travel and leisure, the obsession with fitness in the 1920s, and famous Kennedy acolyte Arthur Schlesinger’s observations in a 1958 Esquire article, “The ways by which American men affirm their masculinity are uncertain and obscure. There are multiplying signs, indeed, that something has gone badly wrong with the American male’s conception of himself.”
The evidence proliferates. Educationally, there are about ten women college graduates for every seven men. Even in traditionally strong academic spheres for men, they are losing ground. Women report earnings on par with their husbands in the corridors of business and power, and they may soon outstrip their male counterparts. The jarring repercussions for domestic life include a litany of problems:
- Women do not see marriage as necessary for financial security or even motherhood.
- Men become lonely and single and live at home
- Men account for 3 out of every 4 “deaths of despair” – resulting from alcohol, suicide, or drug abuse
While many men still thrive at the highest positions of power, most cannot access these posts. Combining this loss of status with the ever-changing family structure, men have become hollow. As Emba asserts, “Men find themselves lonely, depressed, anxious and directionless.”
Lamenting this development forced Emba to admit that those looking to address this problem offered no solution. Except for those coming from the political right.
Referring to Jordan Peterson first, the Canadian university professor who now produces content for Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire, Emba admitted a certain admiration for him and other conservatives who appealed to men straight-forwardly. Peterson gives time-tested advice that many of us learned when young but that today has long gone out of use. Bromides such as sitting up straight, shining your shoes, or displaying proper manners. No one tells boys this at school anymore, but there is always time for another lesson about mindfulness.
There are others that Emba lists, including “Bronze Age Pervert” (BAP for short, real name Costin Alamariu). Calling BAP’s counsel spotty is generous. Emba uses the word unsavoury to describe others but circles back to Peterson and confesses that his appeal and those of his ilk deserve attention because the topic is serious. As she states: Peterson validates his followers’ struggles and confusion. In a nutshell, she acknowledges several realities:
- The empathy Peterson and his kind demonstrate for young men
- The simplicity of their point-by-point advice provides a clear script
- The approach is both particular and aspirational.
Of course, Emba does not align her thinking with these traditionalist figures, but recognizes that the “male influencers”, at their best moments, capture old-fashioned maleness that helped stabilize society – protectiveness, leadership, and emotional balance – qualities now in short supply, but also, as Emba suggests, “bravely countercultural.” The author concludes, however, that masculinity as defined in the right-wing “manosphere” takes masculinity into the proverbial ditch. Misogyny quickly surfaces, women are seen as property, and strict hierarchies arise. As for those who blame progressives or “elites” she calls that misplaced. The real problem was major social, economic, and cultural changes for which conservatives played a part when they encouraged free trade (job displacement).
Other factors, pay equity, for example, reflected a need for justice. The idea that men could re-establish a previous era when their grandfathers fought a war, built communities, and governed society serves as a fool’s errand in Emba’s mind. Rewinding time to replay a golden age replete with its shortcomings just leads to more regrets when it does not work out.
In the final parts of this lengthy essay, Emba refers to an important book called Of Boys and Men, released in 2022. Its author, Richard Reeves, worked hard to avoid the pitfalls of being anti-feminist, but the description Emba gives of the book and Reeves sounds dispassionate and passive. As Emba noted, when making a modest effort to relate manhood, Reeves said, “That’s a question I basically dodged in the book,” Reeves told me. “Because, candidly, it’s outside of my comfort zone. It’s more personal. It’s harder to empirically justify. There are no charts I can brandish.” He fails to thread the needle, leaving others to state the way forward.
Emba does take to task progressives for failing to offer a better vision of what men can be. She turns to Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University’s Stern Business School for help. Galloway said, “My view is that, for masculinity, a decent place to start is garnering the skills and strength that you can advocate for and protect others with. If you’re really strong and smart, you will garner enough power, influence, kindness to begin protecting others. That is it. Full stop. Real men protect other people.” Of course, protecting them from what needs explaining. Besides, didn’t he just describe “The Fonz” from the old TV series, Happy Days? This seems too simple.
Galloway later turned out to be a squish on gender roles and although Emba liked his philosophical approach, he revealed himself in the following statement: “Femininity or masculinity are a social construct that we get to define. They are, loosely speaking, behaviors we associate with people born as men or born as women, or attributes more common among people born as men or as women. But the key is that we still get to fill that vessel and define what those attributes are, and then try and reinforce them with our behavior and our views and our media.” In other words, gender is fluid and society exists to allow people to be what they want to be, biology be damned.
By the time she gets to David Gilmore and his landmark work Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity from 1991, she has done a thorough job of exploring why manhood does not work. Having found the key, thanks to Gilmore, she fumbles it away. Speaking from the experience of being a son, and having raised one, the importance of a father and close male relatives and friends who model masculine behaviour serves as the timeless answer to this modern vexation. Efforts to substitute dads, reduce their importance, or banish their worth create the problem.
Reinforcing the need for fathers who love their family, devote themselves to the next generation, selflessly serve, and humbly work should satisfy the great demand Emba and others believe falls short. She never once spoke of military service, the meaning that religion and church can play, nor even volunteerism. While many may call it a privilege to have grown up with an engaged father, a set of uncles, neighbours, and other males who showed an interest, mentored, and invested in me, I am inclined to believe this reflects the blueprint and functions as the map Emba tortuously attempted to configure. I tried to use the same draft to fortify my son’s development as a man. Sometimes the difficult issues of life have tried and tested designs. They may not be perfect, but they help us find our way, and guide us back if we get lost.
Dave Redekop is a retired elementary resource teacher who now works part-time at the St. Catharines Courthouse as a Registrar. He has worked on political campaigns since high school and attended university in South Carolina for five years, where he earned a Master’s in American History with a specialization in Civil Rights. Dave loves reading biographies.