By Sigurd Neubauer
The history of America is about courageous men. Whether they are the founding fathers or members of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ who sacrificed so much during World War II to preserve freedom and democracy, they built the country. Present-day America is the richest and most successful country in the history of the world.
Collectively, and individually, the men who built the country represent the benevolent American. Together, they put personal differences aside to find commonality in the pursuit of the greater good.
Virtue, heroism, service, and the ultimate sacrifice was expected when it was demanded.
In popular culture, from Davy Crockett to John Wayne, America is not only the land of the free and the brave, but also a civilization embodied by human ingenuity and societal progress.
In the modern era, Cary Grant, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Clint Eastwood, among others, represent masculinity on and off screen. They also represent what men aspire to be, but equally important, what women desire.
They are, of course, also iconic Americans.
Then there’s James Bond, who does not need any introduction, but serves nonetheless as the ultimate hero in the constant pursuit of saving civilization. His charm, wit, and ability with women, all beautiful, only contribute to his irresistible charm.
We all aspire to be him, although we know, of course, that it is all fiction. He’s a man’s man, and a gentleman. He respects his boss, a woman, only identified as M, but adores his secretary, Moneypenny, although he never pursues her.
But somehow, times have changed and masculinity as a virtue worth exhibiting is gradually disappearing from American life, or is it?
A curious encounter with America’s ever-changing norms prompted me to think hard about the role of masculinity following a run in the early afternoon in March. While running, I witnessed several fathers – but no mothers – sitting with their children at a playground I was passing by.
It really intrigued me. My immediate thoughts were why are they not at work, or perhaps, they are stay-at-home fathers and their wives must be the breadwinners. But what I was also witnessing, as I circled back to satisfy my curiosity, was that none of them were conversing but rather appeared to ignore each other as their toddlers played in close proximity.
On other runs, I have passed by various impromptu yoga groups in parks and on playgrounds for new mothers, where the mood and social interactions seemed more jovial. Their babies were always parked nicely in their nearby strollers, and unlike the men in the park, their phones were put away.
Arthur Milikh of The Claremont Institute’s Center for American Life is writing a book on the country’s ever changing gender roles
The experience of seeing the fathers at the playground, along with other circumstantial evidence of the changing nature of men in American life, prompted me to attempt to find answers.
With this objective in mind, I reached out to Arthur Milikh, the executive director of The Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the tradition of American political thought.
He’s currently writing a book on what he describes as the “female rule” of American society.
We start our discussion by zeroing in on the important cultural roles Teddy Roosevelt, Cary Grant and John Wayne, along with the various superheroes, represent for the traditional embodiment of masculinity in American life.
The land of the free and home of the brave was also a traditional American mantra. Somehow, it all seems antiquated today. What happened?
“I think that the female ruled order in which we live is quite compatible with Superman and Spiderman. Societies which undermine masculinity can easily tolerate absurdities like these ‘superheroes’ as they are images for children, not political men. They are for children in part because there can be no hope of becoming them, depending, as they do, on imaginary powers,” Milikh says.
He also describes the American subculture of superheroes as infantile.
“One does not aspire to something clearly impossible, and intentionally made impossible. Nor do the greatest human types cultivate in themselves fantasies about having ‘superpowers;’ they should be pursing the opposite: soberly judging our potential powers, developing their faculties, and learning from and comparing themselves against the greatest human examples from the past,” the scholar explains while arguing that these superheroes “seem to contain approximately the same moral lesson: they are tolerated if they serve society; they are only something if they serve as many people as possible.”
Masculinity as a virtue will eventually return, but it won't be in the form of a superhero but rather something closer to what Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne represented
Is the future female?
Referring to his forthcoming book, Milikh argues that “we’ve been told that ‘the future will be female.’ It won’t. It might be ruled by a ‘female spirit,’ but that will ultimately rely on artificial structures to support it, either through technology, feminist colonized institutions, like universities, or the administrative state,” a term frequently used to describe how rules and regulations are crafted by various U.S. federal agencies but outside of the framework of the Congress.
But masculinity as a virtue will eventually return, he says but it won’t be in the form of a superhero but rather something closer to what Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne represented.
When it comes to the role of feminism, a term that is difficult to define in a society in which women enjoy equal rights, Milikh, defines it as “a doctrine that states that neither gods, nations, husbands, fathers, nor children can legitimately make claims to limit a women’s will.”
In contemporary America, where societal change is introduced at dizzying speed and often within the framework of culture wars, language and terminology often plays out along a right-left spectrum.
Describing it as an “an interesting concept” containing “several sleights of hand,” Milikh, says that toxic masculinity “is meant to be a derogatory term which asserts that masculinity is a false, habituated/social inheritance which is certainly not rooted in nature,” but is rather something that “harms everyone, women especially, but men too.”
“But the good news,” he says jokingly, “is that men can detoxify themselves of their prejudices. Through therapy and other means, “professionals possess the knowledge and the methods” through which a man can redeem himself for the betterment of “womenkind” and the world.
“The therapist or social worker claim to know what masculinity ought to be, which turns out, not surprisingly, to be very close to what it means to be a woman, although not of the traditional type,” he adds.
Toxic masculinity, Milikh argues, serves primarily to undermine male self-confidence about themselves and their role in society. Such concepts, he adds have also contributed to America’s unfolding debate over what gender is, and what pronouns are.
Whether he’s Cary Grant or Denzel Washington, or your colleague opening the door for the lady at work or at the store, we all recognize him, his virtues, and what he represents. But the obvious question is, in a changing America, where the traditional man appears to lose his footing, what’s next?
“In the American context, being a gentleman means two things,” Milikh argues.
“First and foremost, it is a code of honor and commitment to fairness, including treating everyone equally under the law, or holding them to the same standards. Secondly, it means that women should be treated with delicacy – kindlier and politely – than how men treat each other.” It’s origin, he adds, is routed in the best of the Anglo-American tradition.
“Hypocrisy surely exists when it comes to gentlemanly behavior, as everyone continues to point out, but this is also true for other moral systems.” The Claremont Institute scholar believes that its broader appeal has declined in the United States since the 1980s and 90s.
“The gentlemanly spirit took generations to create, and it’s not clear how it can come back,” he says, adding that given the county’s present political trajectory, “it may not even make sense for it to return: one can only be a gentleman when everyone else around you is a gentleman,” he asserts.
“As for the second meaning, a gentleman means treating women with delicacy. It will continue to exist, though only in small pockets.”
“A gentleman treats a woman with delicacy because he respects her modesty, the premise being that there can be exclusive, mutual possession, not just the temporary interaction of two independent people through the casual exchanges of sex.”
Also commenting on America’s changing gender dynamics, William Kesselman, a former New York City official currently operating his own consulting firm, says that taboos related to men’s mental health, including domestic violence with men as the survivor, need to be addressed heads on.
“Over the past six to 12 months alone, dozens of men’s mental health groups have been established on Facebook with many more coaches and professionals targeting services for men.” His consultancy services provide, among other issues, advice on how to deal with a toxic or manipulative family member, including how to spot a narcissist/abuser when dating.
While America’s cultural change is clearly impacting gender dynamics, it is difficult to determine its full impact. What is increasingly clear is that whatever new concepts are introduced, Americans are no longer blindly accepting them but rigorously debating everything from masculinity, feminism to whether pronouns in e-mail signatures are needed, let alone desired.
The lively debate is a product of American civilization, which was founded upon the highest ideals of the enlightenment, namely: the pursuit of knowledge through reason and scientific evidence; the pursuit of liberty; societal progress; tolerance; fraternity, including among nations; constitutional government; and the separation of church and state.
America is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen. It is also a great country, including for the ambitious bon-vivant and the traditional gentleman. It is, however, still too early to determine what the current wave of social change means for the country and for men in particular.