Opinion

Can manliness rescue men?

Why Sen. Josh Hawley is right about what's plaguing American men

In 2006, the Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield published a book with the provocative title Manliness (yes, that's an amusing tongue-twister). Over a few hundred learned and sometimes elusive pages, Mansfield contended that "manliness" can be defined as a kind of confidence in the face of risk, that it's characteristic of biological males, and that changing cultural norms will never make it disappear. Because manliness is unavoidable, Mansfield argued, it needs to be channeled into productive activities. Rather than a defense of chest-beating primitivism, the conclusion emphasizes the risks of male self-assertion untethered from purpose and responsibility.

The book was not well-received outside conservative circles. Writing in The New York Times, novelist Walter Kirn compared Mansfield to Austin Powers, "stuck in a semantic time warp" where men and women could still be described as differing in their essential characteristics. At Harvard, undergraduates accused Mansfield of holding "outdated, demeaning, and utterly unsubstantiated views on women." In those more innocent days, they merely hinted that he was unfit for his job rather than calling for his immediate cancellation.

The critics may have considered Mansfield suitably dismissed. Like his conception of irreducible manliness, though, the argument hasn't gone away. In remarks to the National Conservative conference in Orlando on Sunday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) offered a version of Mansfield's warning against "unemployed manliness." "Many men in this country are in crisis, and their ranks are swelling," Hawley said. "And that's not just a crisis for men. It's a crisis for the republic."

As is often the case on such occasions, Hawley's remarks were a blend of highbrow allusions, partisan boilerplate, and culture war provocations. But his diagnosis doesn't depend on potted references to ancient history or jabs at the once-fashionable social theorist Herbert Marcuse. There's actually not much dispute that boys and men have declining rates of educational attainment, workforce participation, and family formation, while they are more likely to succumb to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Even if men continue to earn somewhat more on average, it's not hyperbole to call that a crisis.

There's also some consensus about the cause. As Hawley points out, the continuing shift from an industrial to a service economy hit men harder than women. Economists dispute the influence of technological changes compared with regulatory and legal ones. But the collapse of the blue-collar middle class has been widely recognized. 

Rather than diagnosis, the real disagreement concerns what to do about these trends. One argument holds that men need to adapt their worldview to new circumstances. "The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn't changing fast enough to keep up," writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. Because the factory jobs of yore no longer exist, some scholars contend that men need to abandon outdated stereotypes and adopt flexible expectations for work and more equitable attitudes toward familial responsibility.  

Like the mantra "learn to code," there's a hard logic to this argument that appeals to some conservatives as well as to liberals. But demands that men tailor their behavior to economic incentives miss the psychological element that Mansfield described. Male aspirations to self-reliance and physical mastery, often expressed in non-verbal ways, aren't an ideology that can be changed at will, he argues. They're consistent traits that men have cultivated in a wide range of societies and periods.

The issue for men, in other words, isn't just a decent wage. It's a desire to be valued specifically as men — that is, for fulfilling particular roles using distinctive capacities. Feminist and other schools of academic gender theory aren't directly responsible for the rise of a service economy that rewards formal credentials, social skills, and other qualifications where men tend to lag women. But they do make it hard to understand objections to what Mansfield calls the "gender-neutral society" as anything but reactionary nostalgia. 

That divergence shows up in electoral politics. Democrats like to promise that their policies will benefit all workers, including those in traditionally manly jobs. But they seem incapable of offering any positive vision of a distinctively male role. In a slideshow intended to dramatize the benefits of the still-pending social bill, the Biden administration depicted the travails of "Linda," a factory worker and single mother in Peoria, Illinois. Although Linda's relationship with the federal government is lavishly depictedthere doesn't seem to be a father or other adult man in the picture at all. 

That's where Hawley's speech comes in. Rather than a policy analysis, it's an argument for a kind of disciplined self-assertion that political theorists have historically described as the characteristic virtue of men. "To share in self-government, you have to stand strong against those who would try to make you dependent on their wealth or influence. To preserve liberty, you have to discipline your passions and sacrifice in the service of others," Hawley claimed. "For centuries, lovers of liberty have praised these qualities as the highest standard of manhood ... these virtues are the bright side of the aggression and competitiveness and independence that psychologists, no less than philosophers, have long observed in men."

Although he acknowledged that women can also display these virtues. Hawley's appeal to the ancient Romans, revolutionary patriots, and more recent tough guys such as Theodore Roosevelt is deeply unfashionable. But that's exactly the point. For many men — and many women — these figures remain far more admirable than the epicene children of liberal imagination. 

Because they're so light on details, it's hard to guess whether Hawley's proposals might work. Despite the rising fashion for industrial policy, the political economy of the mid-20th century isn't coming back. And truth is, we might not want it if it did. As Farah Stockman recently described in The New York Times, the genuine benefits of the old blue-collar model were hard to separate from its racially and gender-exclusive features.

An appeal to male vanity, if not virtue, likely will work politically, though. In fact, former President Donald Trump's success in racially depolarizing the 2020 electorate has a lot to do with his appeal to non-white males. Trump's talk radio version of masculinity is a long way from Hawley's vision of republican citizenship. But it's closer to the cartoonish, self-indulgent form of manliness that flourishes under the conditions of spiritual if not necessarily literal "unemployment."

Progressives will be inclined to dismiss these responses as mere backlash to female empowerment. And there's sense in which that's true: Many men feel alienated by the combination of economic changes that displace them and cultural ones that mock or dismiss them. As Mansfield reminds us, though, Homer long ago observed that the desire to be publicly honored is a core element of manliness that we ignore at our peril. People who don't like Hawley's answer to the problem need a better one. 

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