On Manliness

In honor of Arnold Schwarzengger and his recent travails, I’m going to talk about manliness. In these times when you can get in trouble for believing there might be some difference between the sexes—you probably remember what happened to Larry Summers for broaching the topic—most people studiously avoid talking about manliness. A few years a Harvard professor attempted to repair this omission by publishing a book called “Manliness.” He argued that men need to be manlier. I agree. I know, for example, that I am a man, but I’ve gone weeks, sometimes months, without doing anything manly.

I don’t hunt. I don’t duel. Even my murders are considered; when I kill insects I flush them down the toilet instead of squashing them. A man steps on them and is done with it. The word “honor” which was always on the lips of 19th century men, is not on mine. When, by the way, is the last time you described someone as honorable, or, god help us, as manly? No, we use that horrific adjective “nice.” “Oh, he’s a nice guy.” Please, shoot me.

T.R. idealized what he fondly called the “strenuous life,” and when the ordinary struggles did not satisfy him, he purposefully manufactured some of his own. Pleasure is not the goal of someone who values manliness. Happiness does not matter. What matters is the perpetual struggle of life, the daily battle for existence. Like many of his generation, T.R. worried about the enervating effects of civilization, saying, “When men get too comfortable and lead too luxurious lives, there is always the danger that softness eats like an acid into their manliness of fiber.” I am tempted here to use T.R’s remarks as an invitation to launch into a harangue against technology, and how it has made us all—not just men—soft. Consider GPS. How boring history would be if the great explorers had had it. Now, we can’t take a trip to 7-11 without Garman telling us how to get there. A man does not always need to know where he is; in fact, he likes being lost. Real men, of course, don’t ask for directions—yet another reason I’m insecure about my sexuality.

I don’t lament all progress; I simply prefer to take it in moderate doses. I’m frankly embarrassed that as a 30 year old man, I’ve used a compass only twice in my life. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve never used a compass. There’s a reason for this. As George Orwell said, “Why would you walk, when you can take the bus?” The question is how much of life—real life I mean—do we want to remove, how completely do we wish to annihilate our own personalities amidst all the gadgets and machinery we surround ourselves with. I know that every age fears some new innovation. For the 19th century it was the railroad. But the railroad, for all the destruction it did to forests and communities, did not take us away from life. In fact, it opened vistas that people would otherwise never see. Manliness, however, depends on quick, assertive, vigorous action, and nothing is more opposed to action than the ubiquitous screens we stare at all day.

Thankfully, as we become more and more distant from actual life, many people are seeking to lesson that distance. A considerable number of people will only eat the flesh of an animal they have killed and prepared. More people talk about getting to know their farmer. It’s easy to laugh at such talk, and think it frivolous nonsense. But in its attempt to reestablish a relationship with the earth, a relationship our ancestors enjoyed, I can only applaud. Perhaps some of these people, who critics are apt to label crunchy, might find their manhood restored to them, for it is a rule that you cannot be a man from behind a computer screen, or a Blackberry, or an IPhone…You can be an ass—we’ve all seen that, but you can’t be a man.