Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The End of Men Discussion: Reflections

Occasionally, David Brooks will write a column that I'll find worth reading.  To be honest (and I've said this repeatedly here), I find Brooks in general a turgid and unoriginal thinker whose primary mission as a journalist seems to be to give a pseudo-intellectual gloss to pretend-serious conservative ideas. To ideas that don't bear careful inspection, once one looks beneath the glitzy surface of "intellectualism."

I do, however, occasionally read a Brooks column with interest--and usually when he's reporting on the work of someone whose ideas strike me as worth considering.  That's the case today with his report on Hanna Rosin's much-touted book The End of Men.  Personally, I don't put much stock in the end of men hysteria, though I'm interested in the topic of the renegotiation of gender roles.  

I've lived long enough to see this men-are-waning rhetoric cycle and recycle around: our men children isn't learning!  Men are being feminized!  Society is going to the dogs because we no longer have strong male role models in homes!  Bring back the manly man!  Save the churches for real men!  Save the world!

I've seen this hysteria wax and wane, and every time it waxes again, it seems to me that the unvarying subtext is the same old same old tired rant: that social and religious institutions can't and won't perdure unless men remain on top.  In control.  Rewarded more than women are rewarded.  Privileged more than women are privileged.

Because I seriously doubt that premise--and because I find it impossible to reconcile with anything I understand about a moral universe or about God Herself--I tend to be highly skeptical about most of the "end of men" talk.  At the same time, I do think it's important to ask why gender roles have been renegotiated in a quite fundamental way throughout the 20th century and into the first part of the 21st century.  And if that's what Rosin (or Brooks in reporting her) is talking about, then this is a discussion that seems to me to deserve serious consideration.

Here's how Brooks summarize's Rosin's thesis in End of Men:

But, in her fascinating new book, “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin posits a different theory. It has to do with adaptability. Women, Rosin argues, are like immigrants who have moved to a new country. They see a new social context, and they flexibly adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid. 
This theory has less to do with innate traits and more to do with social position. When there’s big social change, the people who were on the top of the old order are bound to cling to the old ways. The people who were on the bottom are bound to experience a burst of energy. They’re going to explore their new surroundings more enthusiastically.

And, interestingly enough, here's what I scribbled in my journal several days ago on 20.8.12:

Thinking today as I watch (on my treadmill, treading, treading) old episodes of "The Twilight Zone": men are Ken dolls.  Women are real historical creatures. 
It's fascinating to see men from the '80s dressed in those quasi-cowboy outfits (tight jeans, jean jackets or leather ones, open-necked shirts displaying chest hair): it's fascinating how little different the iconic representations of the ideal, the handsome, man have changed in half a century. 
While women shift, adapt, alter, try out new looks.  While women move forward.  To a goal.  To a sense of some state for women worldwide better than the state of things as they are. 
While women move towards that goal, men remain like the same stiff, barely pliable doll, having its arms shifted a bit, its legs repositioned slightly.  And new costumes slipped on. 
Never budging.  Never really changing.  Since they're already there, aren't they?  By definition, to be a heterosexual man--especially a white one--is already to have reached to the goal.   
To be at the pinnacle.  By which all else is to be measured.

"When there’s big social change, the people who were on the top of the old order are bound to cling to the old ways," Brooks writes, summarizing Rosin's thesis.  And I'd argue that the rigidity, the lack of flexibility--the Ken-doll effect--that this being on top produces not only results in maladaptive postures that make it well-nigh impossible for those on top to move effectively with the times.  To understand what's happening in the world around them.  To respond proactively in creative ways to changes beyond their control.

It also results in a kind of imprisoning stasis that turns their very advantage--their position at the top of the heap--into a jeweled cage.  Into a cage in which those inhabiting the jeweled palace of privilege ultimately become jejune ornaments, symbols of empty power and privilege who lack effective power and privilege.

Since real power has to do with negotiating the serious challenges that come down the pike in anyone's life on a daily basis.  And somehow real, living and breathing human beings seem to have more capability to engage in such negotiation than Ken dolls do.

(I'd also argue as an aside that societies or religious groups headed by Ken dolls are likely to have a hard time of it as the future hits them squarely in the face.  As the future has a wont to do.  And so putting Ken dolls at the top of the socioeconomic heap and keeping them there through thick and thin might well be a suicidal decision for societies or religious groups that persist in making such a decision . . . .)

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