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In Defense of Manly Tears
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In Defense of Manly Tears

Civilization depends on finding constructive outlets for male passion.

(Photo via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (even you iron aficionados),

The first time I was on a panel with William F. Buckley, I was nervous because I was on a panel with William F. Buckley. We were talking about male politicians who cry. I believe Bill Clinton had recently gotten weepy about something or other. Buckley took me by surprise and asked something like, “Surely, Jonah, our animadversion should not be aimed wholesale against lachrymosity per se. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I had something of a panic attack because for the life of me I had no idea what lachrymosity meant. But I somehow came up with a reply that didn’t result in Buckley asking, “Who hired this guy?”

Lachrymosity—the tendency to weep or cry – is a tough one for men. We’re not supposed to do it much, if at all. When Don Geiss (Rip Torn) taps Jack Donaghy as his successor in 30 Rock, Jack cries with joy. Geiss tells him “You get one cry in life, you’ve chosen well.”

I wouldn’t say I’m a big crier, but I’ve exceeded that limit quite a bit. I am prone to get choked up in movies. I think the first time was when Spock died in Star Trek II. But the one that really gets me every time is at the end of Saving Private Ryan, when the aged Ryan visits the grave of Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) in the Normandy cemetery. After talking to the headstone, he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’m a good man.”

I can’t watch the scene without getting choked up. 

As I get older, I find that I care more and more about being a good man and less and less about career stuff. I think a lot of it is just a product of age. But the fact that I’m the last survivor of the family I grew up in plays a significant part. When my mom passed away last October, the only guide for how I behaved was asking myself how my parents would want me to deal with it all, particularly my dad. My mom didn’t put a lot of stock in what others thought; if she thought she was right or if I thought I was right, that was enough. But my dad placed a huge emphasis on doing the right thing, even when inconvenient or difficult. 

To me, this has always been close to the best real-world definition of manliness: Doing the right thing even when it’s hard or not to your immediate or obvious advantage. My dad was not a “manly” man. I don’t mean he was remotely effeminate or anything like that. But he didn’t much care about the stuff we associate with lots of testosterone. Football left him cold. The image of Sid Goldberg hunting is as ridiculous to me as a basset hound attached to a dog sled.

I remember when I was a teenager and was into lifting weights for a while. He asked me why I wanted to be stronger. It wasn’t dismissive or insulting, it was just curiosity, “Like, what’s the point?” 

For a teenage boy who was into lifting weights in no small part because his friends were into lifting weights, it struck me as both a ridiculous question and one that was really hard to answer. I retreated into that psychological safe harbor familiar to all teenagers, “You just don’t get it.”

There’s a lively debate these days about manliness and the plight of boys. I’m a huge admirer of the work Richard Reeves is doing on this front. I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with him on all the issues, but I think he’s right on the big picture. Similarly, I thought Christine Emba’s essay for the Washington Post was a really valuable contribution from the left.

I don’t really have the space to run through all of the statistics—deaths of despair, stagnating ways, falling educational attainment, etc.—but men are having a rough time these days, particularly non-college educated men. The economy is moving in a direction that lends itself to traditionally feminine skill sets. A strong back and a good work ethic do not deliver the returns they once did. But high levels of emotional intelligence are increasingly in demand. Women do better academically than men, getting more degrees. Reeves plays on the old Gloria Steinem line asking, “What is a bicycle for, in a world of fish?”

Then of course there’s the culture. I don’t think early exposure to porn is good for anybody. I think it’s distorting, and depraved depictions of sex create expectations for boys and girls alike that are entirely unhealthy. We don’t need to dwell on this, but the belief that other men get to use women as gratefully disposable and abusable sex objects is psychologically horrendous for young men. I don’t know the statistics on incels, but the mere fact they exist and have formed a community is itself a terrible indictment of the status quo. 

Some segments of the Very Online Right and the New Right—not entirely the same thing—increasingly see masculinity as a kind of caricature of what I would call real masculinity or masculinity rightly understood. It’s very Nietzschean, full of notions of strength and will as their own reward. The widespread emphasis on having the will to shock the “normies” with outlandish behavior and offensive statements is redolent with “male” passions absent any molding. They seem to believe that real men aren’t afraid to say horrible, bigoted, or racist things. 

One of the points Emba makes in her essay that I think is worth keeping at top of mind is that concerns about masculinity are nothing new. The concerns change over time, but they all share an explicit or implicit acknowledgement that masculine passions are baked into male human nature. Denying this is folly. The only relevant question is how to mold or channel these passions in ways that are good for individual boys and men and for the larger society. Indeed, you could say that civilization depends on finding constructive—or at least nondestructive—outlets for male passion.

Football is a great example. Men have a fondness for war and warlike pursuits. Football, and sports generally, is a relatively harmless outlet for such passions. 

I think one of the best recent depictions of malformed masculinity in popular culture was in Mad Max: Fury Road. In one dystopian community, young men are disposable cannon fodder, eager to die in a blaze of glory in order to get into Valhalla. Their war cry as they leap into suicidal battle is “Witness me!”  

For a very long time, capitalism provided a clear-cut avenue for harnessing male competitiveness and status-seeking productively. Of course, one reason the avenue was clear was that women were largely kept out of it. Women were relegated to a few professions—nursing, teaching, secretarial work, etc.—while being the true breadwinner was a man’s work. It’s a good thing that’s no longer the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unalloyed good. One cost is that incredibly competent and underutilized women were a huge resource for schools and civic and community organizations. They also devoted a lot more of their bandwidth to being mothers. 

Again, I believe it’s a good thing that the formal and informal barriers to women in most fields have been removed. The right to pursue happiness is an individual right for every citizen, and women are individuals and citizens every bit as much as men. But that doesn’t mean that the widespread sense that men have been left behind is something to celebrate. 

One reason low-income women don’t get married is that they feel like an underachieving, undermotivated spouse is just another dependent to take care of.  Husbands are supposed to burden sharers, not burdens.

It’s worth noting that the breakdown in traditional two-parent families is not an acute problem among the segments of society best equipped to carry the load of single-motherhood. From Suicide of the West:

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times. Up to 40 percent of the growth in economic inequality may be attributable to changes in the pattern of marriage in the United States. “The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan added. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

As Charles Murray often says, the biggest problem with our elites is that they don’t preach what they practice. They make sure their kids are educated before they marry and that they marry before they have kids. What our elites won’t do is say that their approach is preferable—never mind superior—to the alternatives. That would be elitist or “judgey.” So they follow these rules while denying they should be rules. 

Anyway, I don’t think there are any discrete “solutions” to any of this. The factors are too numerous and complicated to waste time looking for silver bullets. But I do think it would be good for men and society generally if we looked at the pre-feminist model of society and borrowed from it. 

I’ve talked a lot about the concept of “earned success.” In brief, this is the idea —fact really—that one of the only sources of real happiness or life satisfaction comes from the sense of being needed and respected for your unique contributions. For some people, work and prosperity can provide a sense of earned success. But a beloved school teacher who made a lasting contribution to many lives can have a very high level of earned success, while a stockbroker who makes 10 times more money can have a very low level of earned success. A scholar who lives modestly but is recognized for his brilliance and insight can have high earned success. So can a Little League coach or a cook. Emphasizing self-worth often pays off more than emphasizing net worth.

In pre-feminist America, civil society and the culture generally had all sorts of mechanisms or standards for providing women with a sense of earned success. For instance, my mother-in-law didn’t earn a paycheck, save as a part-time music teacher, but she worked every day of her life, for her church, her community, and most of all her family—and she was widely respected. The idea that her life would be more rewarding and fulfilling if she’d turned her back on most of that to work in an office would have struck her as ridiculous. 

One of the reasons feminism started taking off in the 1950s was that technological innovation, prosperity, and female education made domestic life less demanding and by extension less fulfilling. Betty Friedan’s comparison of housewives to concentration camp prisoners was ridiculous and offensive. But the idea that such traditional roles were unsatisfying was valid in a changing economy and society. 

It seems to me that we need to build a similar pre-feminist ecosystem today—but for men. I don’t know what it would look like exactly. But creating institutions somewhat outside the formal economy that allow men to lean into their masculinity in productive ways seems like a necessity today. The military historically was often one such institution. Soldiers don’t make a fortune, but the work is admired by society and the kind of character that military life fosters is attractive to women. Now, I don’t think we should become Sparta. But creating institutions that celebrate masculine virtues or at least the virtues of masculinity are sorely needed. 

Churches seem like the best organizations to lead many such efforts, in no small part because many churches already do exactly this kind of thing. 

But churches alone probably aren’t enough. Men are sorely needed in America’s classrooms. As Reeves notes, there are more women flying U.S. military planes than there are men teaching kindergarten. Some conservatives gripe that the left is good about talking about the need for positive male role models, but bad about talking about the need for good fathers. I share the gripe. But I also think one leads to the other. Boys who learn what it means to be a good man from teachers, pastors, bosses etc. are more likely to become good fathers one day. And girls who see what it means to be a good man are more likely to look for good men as husbands. 

I detest the way the loudest voices talk about “manliness” because the manliness they extol is often juvenile and cruel. It also tends to be premised on a kind of zero-sum equation about social power and status. Men can be real men only if women are put in their place. In my book at least, real men aren’t terrified of strong women, they’re attracted to them. 

And strong women should use their strength to help men be good men. Because being a good man is more important than being any other kind of man.  

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I haven’t been home much since we got back from Europe. But the reports from home are that the dogs are getting along okay. I also don’t have many pictures of the beasts this week because our internet was out all week and the Fair Jessica hasn’t been able to send many. But the spaniel has been very spanielly. Before I left, we took them both—on different days—to a new vet. Pippa got an excellent report, even as she constantly looked for ways to escape and was very, very cross about going in the first place. She thought because we were driving away from our usual vet that we must be going someplace fun. She was wrong. Zoë meanwhile has some dental issues and will probably need some teeth pulled, which really bums us both out.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.