When I was a boy of 10 or so, an old plumber came to my parents’ house to install a new water heater. Although he was old and bent, he was powerful—he easily carried out the old water heater and carried in the new one by himself. And he was skillful, rapidly cutting, cleaning, and sweating the copper pipes, leaving perfect, gleaming fillets of solder at each joint. As I sat on the rickety cellar steps, watching his progress with rapt attention, he patiently and kindly described each step of his work to me. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, he explained. So impressed was I that I retained every word. This to me was a man—strong, skilled, capable, and independent. I wanted to be a man too, to escape the weakness, ignorance, and dependency of childhood. Although I dreamed of becoming a scientist, engineer, or inventor, I saw in the old plumber the essence of what I wanted to be—a man who could do things, build things, fix things. His encouraging replies to my curious inquiries and his compliments on my cleverness reinforced my desire to learn how to do the things men did—to become a man who could work his will upon his little piece of the world.
My story of the old plumber is just one instance of innumerable encounters with grown men that shaped my aspirations and my understanding of manhood. Not all these encounters were with real men—the characters of the fictions and the histories I read served their role as well. Each of these imparted to me a bit of the virtue of manhood.
More than four decades have passed since that day. I have become the scientist, engineer, and inventor that I dreamed of as a boy. I am now much closer in age to the old plumber than to the boy I was. I am the father of three boys of my own, and I am a leader in an organization that builds leadership and life skills in preteen and teenaged boys. When I work with these boys, I sometimes wonder if I inspire any of them as the old plumber inspired me.
On some days, with some boys, I am sure the answer is yes. I see their curiosity and their excitement in the things I teach them. I see their pleasure in my recognition of their accomplishments, and I recall the gratification I felt as a boy when men acknowledged me. With these boys I feel I am having a positive influence, helping them grow to become men of skill, competence, self-assurance, integrity, and honor.
But many other boys are much harder to reach. These boys seem to have little interest in what I teach them, and neither my praise or admonishment has much influence on them. I’ve pondered why that might be. Of course, some boys will be uninterested in the material and activities, others will not respond to my methods and personality, and some will be simply too young or immature. But I think it goes deeper than this—these boys appear to be uninterested in the realm of manhood as a whole, as well as the men who inhabit it. And why should they? Twenty-first-century boyhood offers endless amusement and adventure, while twenty-first-century manhood is disparaged and degraded, full of liabilities and unprivileged responsibilities.
Writing in The New York Times a few weeks ago, A.O. Scott touched on this phenomenon in an essay titled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Despite his mandatory feminist framing and ritualistic self-abasement as a white heterosexual man, Scott offers a number of observations of the decline of manhood in popular American culture. Asserting his pop cultural conformity from the first sentence, Scott starts with a de rigueur analysis of Mad Men:
From the start, “Mad Men” has, in addition to cataloging bygone vices and fashion choices, traced the erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men. The unthinking way Don, Pete, Roger and the rest of them enjoy their position, and the ease with which they abuse it, inspires what has become a familiar kind of ambivalence among cable viewers. Weren’t those guys awful, back then? But weren’t they also kind of cool?
In those days before the great Coming Apart, even an old plumber might stand accused of enjoying some of those prerogatives. To be a tradesman was an honorable occupation, a solid member of the broad middle class. Plumbers and garage owners were neighbors with doctors and engineers in my childhood neighborhood. A tradesman had pride in his craft, pride as an American, and even pride as a taxpayer. He might not have been “kind of cool,” but he was proud to be a working man. A man whom a boy might emulate.
But today, manhood is the object of cultural criticism, scorn, and mockery. As Scott puts it:
Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis C. K. (fig. 5). Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on “Louie,” a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.
If my old plumber were alive today, he would be just another pale, doughy, heterosexual male loser. No longer an exemplar of masculine strength and skill, he would be reduced to a tasteless butt-crack joke.
It is from this position of degraded masculinity that I try to motivate and teach boys. Stripped of much of the situational authority that society used to bestow upon a man in my position, I have to rely more heavily on personal charisma, individual social dominance, and psychological persuasion. In a curious and somewhat uncomfortable manner, my efforts to motivate boys parallel the efforts of pickup artists to seduce women. In both arenas, the cultural status of men has been greatly diminished and the supporting conventions and rituals have been stripped away. It is no longer sufficient to follow the script—there is none. Detached from the social structures that used to support us, we must instead amplify and project our personal strength to hold the attention of those we seek to impress.
A great achievement of Western culture was the elevation of well-socialized, dutiful boys into leaders of society. The “privileges” of manhood were both an inducement to boys to accept the restraints placed upon them in the pursuit of manhood and a supportive framework for those adult men helping to guide them there. Without the supporting framework of this so-called “masculine privilege,” the adult male leader of boys now has to rely more heavily on his own resources—his ability to inspire, cajole, motivate, or even to intimidate when required.
Those who achieve the greatest success in this post-patriarchal culture are not the respected pillars of their communities but those who foster their own little cult of personality. This represents a dangerous turn for society because the individuals with the greatest social wit, charisma, and force of personality are often dark triad sociopaths, not well-socialized, law-abiding family men. By tearing down the “patriarchy” that supported the latter, Western society is increasingly choosing the cult of personality over the rule of law.
No doubt the feminists will read these words with smug self-satisfaction, for they have had great success in tearing down what they regard as “patriarchal privileges.” But in doing so, they have damaged the future of boys, and ultimately girls, more than they have hurt men like me. Boys are not attuned to gender politics, but they sense its consequences. What motivation does society provide them to assume the responsibility of manhood when its value is disparaged while the pleasures of boyhood are so immersive and intense? As Scott puts it:
Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority? ….
True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.
While our young feminist women have great ambitions in education and careers, sooner or later most decide they want a husband. And as a recent Pew Research Center study shows, the single most important attribute these young women look for in a partner is a steady job. But their male peers are increasingly turning their backs and following a different path.
As Scott points out, the theme of men going their own way by seeking comfort in their friends and seeking escape from the society of work and women has a long tradition in American literature:
At sea or in the wilderness, these friends managed to escape both from the institutions of patriarchy and from the intimate authority of women, the mothers and wives who represent a check on male freedom.
While the sea and wilderness hold little allure for the modern boy, the ever-expanding universe of cyberspace presents an even more attractive and accessible escape. And those who escape may never enter the world of work and marriage. Thus, the feminist victory over masculine status and privilege redounds upon the young women, who still expect men to exhibit their traditional responsibility (though they are loath to reward them for it). But such men are increasingly hard for women to find.
I must admit this leaves me with a profound ambivalence. Perhaps I should leave the feminists to enjoy the spoils of their victory, and leave the boys to eschew manhood for the pleasures of a perpetual adolescence. Do I really want to teach boys to do their duty to God, country, and all the old laws of obedience and service just to prepare them to be exploited? I am very cognizant of the dangers that await them: ruthless employers seeking their replacement with lower-cost labor; hostile feminists seeking to criminalize their masculinity in all its expressions; and vindictive ex-wives extorting alimony and child support. I can sympathize with those who choose to walk away from all of this.
On the other hand, I do not want to see these boys surrendered to a life devoid of the satisfaction that real accomplishment brings. And I do not want them always hiding and retreating while the Social Justice Warriors infiltrate, sack, and destroy their refuges. So I spend many hours each week working to help boys grow into men. Men of integrity, honor, kindness, and generosity, but also men who will stand up for their culture and their beliefs, and who can plan, organize, and fight for their own interests.
To this end, one of the most important skills I teach is leadership—the ability to determine what needs to be done, formulate plans to do it, then motivate others to follow the plan. The boy leader who tries to exercise his new-found authority is supported by the framework in which he works—the rules and practices of the organization and the authority of the adult leaders who support and guide him. Without this support, few boys would have the personal resources to develop their leadership abilities. As the boy leaders need support from the men leaders, the men leaders need support from their society. When society withdraws its support from men, it also withdraws its support from boys. And when these boys grow to men, some of them are unwilling or unable to support women and their children, who ultimately suffer the consequences of the feminist assault on masculinity.
A number of years ago it was time to replace the water heater in my own home. I still remembered the old plumber’s lesson from 30 years earlier, but my hands and mind lacked his skill—my movements were awkward, my methods were disordered, and the copper joints I sweated sported unsightly runs and drips of molten solder. Yet with each pipe and joint I gained skill and satisfaction. When it was done, I felt proud and a little more of a man. At last I had stood in the old plumber’s shoes.
But there was no boy sitting beside me to watch, question, and learn. My sons had more interesting things to do. There were video game bosses to fight and princesses to rescue. And another game level to beat, and then another, and then just one more …