Return to Chivalry: How Contemporary Men Can Recover the Dignity of Living for a Higher Purpose


From Chapter Two, The "Real Man"

(footnotes deleted)

I know that a certain type of man is probably guffawing to himself after my first chapter, "What a pansy this guy is! Since when did a real man ever put all this heavy-duty stuff into sex?" (I’m trying to imagine what monosyllables this complacent hairy ape might use: frankly, I doubt that he would have struggled past the book’s front cover.) This is the sort of man which feminists have caricatured: and it is the caricature which young males think they must live up to if they are to become "real men". Gloria Steinem once remarked (with that urbane irony of hers which conceals so much contempt for the human race) that every woman is entitled to a parking lot attendant once in a while. Here we find the "real man" image in a nutshell. His dark hair is slicked back, his sinuous lips work around a stick of chewing gum, his broad shoulders swell a leather jacket open at the collar, his Elvis buttocks are poured into a pair of blue jeans… he stares at women as if they were meat on the butcher’s counter, he squeals tires around dangerous curves with an indifference to annihilation bordering on idiocy, and he listens to music which must evoke in his etiolated brain either an engine in need of tune-up or a primeval thrash through the treetops. Yeah, real man. Bon appétit, Gloria.

In fact, this debased stereotype strikes me as thoroughly effeminate in many ways. I think of a man as someone who is strong. Well, so does Gloria, I daresay: but what I mean by strength has nothing directly to do with sexual stamina. Imagine a clichéed Hollywood survival story where a passenger plane crash-lands in the Sahara or the Indians steal all the pioneers’ horses in the wastes of Utah. Who will make it back to civilization? Actually, women fare rather well in these situations, because nature has given their bodies more fat to draw upon; but among the men, who will be able to stare hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and death itself in the face? Will it be the kind who has spent his life appeasing his senses, or the kind who has always kept his senses in subjection to his reason? If a man’s primary ambition in life has always been to get a woman in bed, then how will he handle not only doing without that pleasure, but doing without food and water? If he has been unable to deny his body the joys of love-making, how will he force that same body to walk thirty miles a day in blistering heat? I don’t see him getting very far. His stamina is in the pursuit of carnal thrills, not in the mastery of physical pain.

Speaking of Hollywood Indians, they were my greatest heroes when I was a boy. I often rooted for them even when I wasn’t supposed to. The White Eye soldiers had cannons and repeating rifles, leather saddles, warm clothing, and fireplaces back at the fort: the Apaches who slipped off the reservation had a few arrows, no saddles, loin cloth with moccasins, and a bed of blowing sand. The Captain’s daughter wasn’t cozying up to any of them, yet they were the true men. That was pretty obvious, even to a kid. The closest thing to a man in the fort was often the scout who had been raised by the Sioux. Maybe he got the Captain’s daughter, and maybe he didn’t: he refused to let her perfume cloud his mission.

Then James Bond came along. Before the sixties, I can’t remember a single instance on TV or at the movies when the toughest guy in a fight was also an insatiable, wholly unprincipled Don Juan: desired by women, yes—very much so—but not inclined to exploit every woman’s desire for one night. One of the reasons I tried to be "manly" as a boy, in fact, was so that girls would find me attractive. I wanted to be strong and silent, impervious to pain and devoted to duty, like Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood. Or maybe not quite like them… I was too young to know Gary except from The Late Show, and Clint was always tough without any cause deserving of such toughness. (More on that later.) My real hero was probably Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent), the agile, handsome, cerebral British actor who was first approached to play James Bond, and who refused precisely because the part’s cold-blooded killing and cold-hearted sex-for-sex repelled him. He was too much of a man. McGoohan’s last great role was as Number Six on the highly creative (and controversial) experiment in futurism, The Prisoner. No kisses or cuddles, no tears or whining, not even a lot of fistfights where he prevailed over his jailers’ far greater numbers: but moral determination flowing over the brim—the ability to define himself through will power rather than through visceral impulse. I vaguely classed Number Six with a man who has remained my real-life hero, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yes, those were men.

I doubt that I ever succeeded remotely in emulating such figures. What I do know is that the girls wouldn’t have been impressed even if my emulation had been picture-perfect. I used to dream of moments when I could display my raw courage, yet I never observed any fair classmate clasping her hands and sidling up to a proud, straight sapling of a lad the way she might to a trembling, anemic "bad boy". I used to imagine a bomb scare at school where everyone else would dash for the doors screaming: I, of course, would impassively, even nonchalantly raise the doomsday parcel in one hand and walk it to the football field. Boys still have those dreams of a beautiful death—only now they plant the bombs instead of defusing them. The bad boys plant them: the wholesome churls are busy shoving their victims against lockers. As I said in the last chapter… rage, smoldering rage.

I distinctly recall that the heart-throbs of my female classmates were the Man from U.N.C.L.E. duo rather than McGoohan, Redford and Newman rather than Eastwood and Bronson. Well, I admit that I can understand the latter: the Eastwood man of marble, having already degenerated from McGoohan into the icy rage of nihilism, was a potential bomb-maker himself. Had I seen that as a boy, I might have diagnosed my own rising rage… but still, I couldn’t and cannot to this day comprehend the attraction of the sybaritic smart-aleck. I tried and tried at the time. I even watched some of the girls’ favorite shows all the way to the end. It didn’t help: I remained mystified. How could they idolize such soft, smirking, self-coddling twits? How could they be swept off their feet by men who were so… so feminine?

Most of the guys came around to the girls’ way of thinking, or pretended to. Sex is one of human existence’s great motive forces, along with thirst and hunger, and few can cross the desert of enduring abstinence any more than that Hollywood Sahara where the airplane goes down. So the boys grew their hair out, modeled their hips, openly whined about not wanting to die and needing somebody to love… and the seventies happened. Far more than the sixties, which were pretty tied-down until halfway through, the seventies were the decade of our cultural degradation.

Certainly no decade was ever more forgettable. After withdrawal from Vietnam, death became an illusion for young America, or at most a Third World plague. Love was everywhere, but without conflict: a woman’s world, to be sure. Or up to a point. It was a world without consequence or commitment, which didn’t leave most girls very happy. It was… free. God was fun, Jesus was a superstar, and you could buy the whole world a Coke to dissolve any persisting bad vibes.

This spectacle taught me something very, very important about being a man: that the real man cannot be defined through female desire. Women tend to pine sexually for a man who is more like them. (I’ll never forget one beautiful blonde telling me that all the handsomest guys are gay… which, of course, left me wondering just which side of the hand I was being slapped with.) The Gary Coopers and John Waynes—and later, the Eastwoods and Schwarzeneggers—were probably always more admired by males than females, but certainly were so by 1980. Feminism was in the ascendancy. Men who "had it all under control" were male chauvinists and enemies of freedom. Men who "let it all hang out" were cute and sexy. None of these bell-bottomed swingers would have accompanied Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag: none of them could even have understood how or why he got himself into such a mess. But they were just what the New Woman had ordered, so the party began without any hint of the rage stirring behind its strobe lights.

But men don’t really like not being men: it eats away at them, and sooner or later it rises to their surface. When Queen Dido manages to detain Aeneas for a year in Virgil’s Aeneid, her riches, her power, and her sweet self suffice to distract him somewhat from his sacred mission; but finally he can stand his life of impotent luxury no more, and he resumes his voyage amid Dido’s shrieks and curses. To Dido, his conduct would be insane if it were less brutal. The season for smooth sailing has not even arrived—is he trying to commit suicide? Homer’s Calypso contains herself rather better upon the departure of her beloved Odysseus, but she, too, is surely bewildered. Why would a man turn down immortality, a beautiful goddess’s bed, and a life of idle beach-combing just to fight the seas and his mortal enemies on a far shore?

The real man, the man of will power whose body breaks before his resolve bends, is after all something of an insult to a woman, I suppose. To a certain kind of woman, anyway. Life has a higher vocation than her charms, be they ever so numerous and seductive: that is what his devotion to duty announces. She must watch him leave her and all she may represent—perhaps home and security and family as well as mere torrid romancing—for the sake of some idea that no one can see or touch. Grace Kelly’s character is furious with Gary Cooper’s in High Noon for jeopardizing their life together, and probably sacrificing his own life literally, just to prove that he isn’t a coward. A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do… how crude, barbaric, stupid, pointless, insensitive, egotistical, belligerent, and homicidal! Why not enjoy what few perishable fruits this vale of tears offers? Eat, drink, and party, for nothing lasts. Why hasten to your grave? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may….

Andrew Marvel’s verse, of course, is a favorite "line" among men in their efforts to seduce women: if you refuse sexual offers for too long, the wrinkles will come and the offers will disappear. I do not mean to suggest for an instant that women may not live for a higher purpose, too, from which certain men struggle diabolically to distract them. Devotion to principle is not an exclusively male characteristic.

Yet it is an utterly necessary characteristic for anyone who would be a true man—and perhaps the motive for this devotion also differs somewhat from men to women. The man serves principle in the abstract as duty, whereas the woman tends to embrace it as the best means, over the long haul, of achieving social harmony. Carolyn Graglia seems to me to model such practicality in arguing for the truly feminine woman’s need of reserve.  I for one find her argument fully convincing. The woman who can say, "No rosebuds today, please: you can either be permanent caretaker of the whole garden, or you can stay at the gate," will eventually have far deeper, richer experiences with the man she marries than the woman who frolics with every lithe lad. I see no reason to deny that the same common sense applies to the male’s experiences (though men are less likely to appreciate it). If a man lives for something higher than sensual gratification, and if he happens to meet a woman who shares that higher calling, then he and his mate will very likely find that their inattention to sensuality as an important end in life actually enhances the physical magnetism of their union. There are some things you destroy through analysis: a butterfly under a magnifying glass can’t fly. In the same way, when you deliberately separate sex from love and brood about how to spice up your "sex life", you are well on your way to sabotaging both experiences—or both sides, I should say, of a single experience.

I have much more to write about the "higher calling". For now, let me return to the man who hearkens to it: the real man. In the last decades of the tormented twentieth century, this kind of man has no longer been able to count on the understanding and support of a woman with that same calling. Instead, he has had to deal with Didos and Calypsos—with Glorias and Naomis. I repeat that all those femmes fatales and bad girls are right, in a way, about the attempt to dominate them. What they cannot or will not see is that the dominant force comes not from the man, but from the idea he serves. Since feminism has joined the academic trend to reduce all value systems and hierarchies to selfish bids for power, it is ideologically blind to the notion of service. A man who is abstinent in his focus upon an ideal can be only one of two things: a slavemaster trying to cow women into submission or a fool who has sincerely enslaved himself to a non-existent god. (I am assuming a world, of course, where everyone who was once "in the closet" of dark aberration has come out: surely that world is ours.) The very wellspring of this chaste male’s manliness repels feminism’s votaries. He must serve their god of unreferenced freedom—of Self and the dizzy thrill of self-serving Power—to win a smile from them. And in the shackles of their freedom dies whatever strength of will he ever had.

Does this mean that the degeneration of the "real man" began with that of Wendy Shalit’s "modest woman"—of the lady, if I may so call her? Ms. Shalit seems to think so, and many are of her opinion. Certainly the percentage of real men in the population is higher when ladies will not tolerate the degenerate, effeminate kind. (I’ve avoided discussing sexual deviance here: but it’s worth noting that if the New Woman’s handsomest man is likely to be gay, she tends to caricature the strong-willed man slanderously as a pedophile, or whatever could be worse.) Yet I have been working toward an argument that the fluctuating devices and desires of women should not be allowed to determine what makes a real man... so I would contradict myself if I fully concurred that the vanishing of that man resulted from the lowered standards of women. What I am about to say, on the other hand, may appear to contradict my insistence that both men and women can hearken to a higher calling, so I must express myself very, very carefully.

Women, as I have implied already, are more pragmatic than men. Forget about the scatterbrained fifties wife buying a new dress that bankrupts her petty-executive husband: that, indeed, is a sexual stereotype based entirely on passing custom. (Or to the extent that it wasn’t, the cause may well have been the sudden deluge of labor-saving household appliances—dishwashers, clothes-washers, electric mixers—which left men wondering just what women did with all their new time.) In a far more profound sense, women tend to reason with reference to specific circumstances. Authors like Wendy Shalit, Carolyn Graglia, and Christina Hoff Sommers are a case in point: they counsel a return to more conventional behavior because they see it as the best way to enhance the contemporary woman’s pleasure, happiness, and material prosperity.  They make a good pitch (especially Graglia, as noted), and I hold their work in great esteem. Yet what I have been calling a real man would scoff at all these motives for doing the right thing—so much so that he might consider doing the wrong thing just to affirm his will’s independence of circumstances. (Why else do men tempt fate with dangerous hobbies and needless risks?) Women are more Aristotelian: pleasure, for them, must number among the natural, healthy "goods" of life along with a clean conscience. Men are more Stoical, and in a sense more Platonic: unless they have been as feminized as today’s man, they are more likely to be scandalized by those who straddle the boundary between self-interested and "pure" goodness.

Well, then… am I saying, after all, that women are less principled, less equipped somehow for abstract philosophizing? I suppose that depends on what you think of Aristotle! History has clearly judged his principles very favorably. I would state the distinction differently. I would say that men need a purity of purpose, a mathematically abstract perfection of ideas, which can become highly unrealistic and which, indeed, haunts them with a sense of emptiness, of loneliness. That image of the Saharan desert to be traversed is very powerful for a man. Women, on the other hand, recognize better that no distinctions are clear and pure in reality, that everything is tied to everything else. They make better literary critics for that reason (or used to, before ideology trumped taste). They understand how a woman might be passionately attracted to another man yet not want to betray her husband; but they also understand that a man, if passionately attracted to another woman, will often make the stupid blunder in his male simplicity of leaving his wife to pursue a mirage!

Why the difference? Hormones? Left brain/right brain? The genetic code? I leave such explanations for the scientists to quibble over—and I confess that I am not really very fond of deriving human behavior from biological determinism. If such a thing as morality is possible, then it must be equally applicable to men and to women; but if men and women are fully controlled at different points by different biological mechanisms, then they can’t fairly be held to similar standards. (Actually, this "men and women are the same" case was once made by feminists, and still is when they want a crack at trying out for the football team; but the evils of testosterone are decried far more often on campuses today. If the reader will pardon my parenthetic cynicism, "research" seems to come stumbling along after such trends in hope of funding rather than blazing new trails with hard facts.) A man with no ear for music can chime in passably when a hymn is sung at church; a woman with acrophobia will forget all about heights if her child is stuck on a ladder; a boy who hates asparagus will wolf it down if he can’t go play before his plate is clean. People of both genders do things all the time which they’re not naturally disposed to do. What conditioning could be so rigorous and uniform that it draws a clear line between the male response and the female response?

I propose child-bearing: this is one thing which most females may do in their youth if they wish (or so they think) and which no man can possibly do at any time. It isn’t a deterministic effect: women aren’t forced to think about child-bearing the way geese are forced to think about flying south in the autumn. With instinct, no true thought goes on at all—and I am not hypothesizing some cuddly, heart-warming maternal instinct which leaves men out in the cold. I simply say that any woman with a functional brain is seriously reflecting by early adolescence upon the possibility that she might one day carry another life inside her. Her reflections may be grim. For some reason, she may want very much for that day never to come. If so, she will have to take certain precautions.

But grim or expectant, fearful or joyful, such thoughts twine a woman’s sense of reality intricately into her sense of others, of community. I am convinced that this ever-looming presence of community alarms some female intellectuals, especially, who do not want to see their meditative existence compromised by extroverted obligations of a strong and lasting nature. No wonder they envy the man his freedom—no wonder they become feminists in search of a formal, contractual liberation from pregnancy and family! It is the dark shadow wherein they pass their days, this biological mechanism of theirs which could so easily steal away their autonomy forever. If only they could run wild and free on the male savanna, under the male sun….

"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," wrote Yeats in his nightmare of the Second Coming. What a male vision! The ancient prophets, in both the Greco-Roman and the Hebrew worlds, were almost all men (though a male god might possess a female to be his mouthpiece in classical lore, as Apollo does the Sibyl). The man’s gaze sweeps from horizon to horizon, from beginning to end, like a wind in the desert that bloweth where it listeth. The mood is sublime, but also, as Yeats said, blank and pitiless: empty, lonely, infinitely detached and infinitely vast. Inhuman, in a way. Whence this great grand emptiness in men, this free fall through the void? Isn’t it because they can never bear a child? Sire children, yes—dozens or hundreds. But every one of them, upon conception, would be physically tied to the woman until the umbilical cord was cut, and then again tied to her until her breast milk was no longer sought. A man can say, "That’s my child!" all he wants, but no bond is ever formed which could not be as easily formed with a stranger’s baby.

Furthermore, and more importantly, a man in any society with even the most primitive degree of order must win over a woman and satisfy certain customs before he may beget children. Only an outlaw or a mortal enemy of the tribe would do otherwise, and his punishment, if he were caught, could well be capital.5 A woman, in contrast, may simply invite a man into her tent, send him on his way in an hour, and have the fruit of their union entirely to herself nine months later. The penalties for that behavior, too, could be severe, but would not be life-threatening for either mother or child in any culture I have ever heard of (excepting the burlesque legend in Ariosto’s fourth canto, Rome’s no-nonsense attitude about its Vestal Virgins, and the exotic savagery of certain Islamic fundamentalists). Today, of course, out-of-wedlock childbirth is routine; and today, more than ever, the father is considered wholly redundant to the arrangement.

So the man is cut loose, set free. Yes, there is a kind of exhilaration to it—a kind which has been excessively documented and absurdly exaggerated, in my opinion. Nobody has wasted any ink trying to describe the frightful isolation of being so adrift, of knowing that all of your relationships with others must be painfully negotiated and maintained if they are to last—that no other person is or ever will be, by nature, yours or of you. I speak not genetically (for, by that nature, every child is one-half a man’s), but emotionally, psychologically, viscerally. A genetic bond cannot be seen the way anyone can see a cord being cut.

Perhaps men even tend to form their odd-ball fraternities for this reason: that is, to share the burden of being cut loose. Women get together and drink tea, quilt, or discuss books and relatives. Men get together and drink beer, rough-house, or discuss how to overthrow the government. Their groups are often tinged with the anomalous and unruly, if not the sociopathic. They find a comfort, perhaps, in briefly sharing the anguish of their desert crossing, and perhaps even in showing it off. Soldiers on the front line sometimes diffuse the tension by betting on where the next shell will fall or how long the new lieutenant will last.

I do not contend that these dissimilar effects of child-bearing have a truly major impact on the two genders, or one which allows of no variation from case to case. Personally, I don’t like beer or quilting. I’m not saying, either, that most men are sooner or later plunged into grief because they don’t have a womb. Mr. Freud tried that one on women in reverse, and they rightly resent his presumption. I say simply that there is an obvious and valid reason why men should feel less tied to the community than women—a reason based in biology, and as observable in social groups of higher mammals (e.g., elephants) as it is deducible from the human maturing process. As a result of this detached perspective, men tend to see things more abstractly than women and to be more suspicious than women of mixed motives and combined purposes. They tend to think in Platonic ideals, and to act in Stoical defiance of compromise. The "real man", at least, is like that, and in being so he is closer to his male nature.

Which is good, as well as bad. The worldly disappointments of Platonic idealism are compensated by high hopes in a purer existence: the loneliness of crossing the desert is softened by getting to see all the stars blaze forth at night. For the real man, that’s a fair trade. He isn’t crippled by some neo-Freudian lack. He doesn’t seek some "victim" status to rival that of those who claim to be offended by his severity.

At the same time, though, he is grateful for a link back to the community. Indeed, he yearns agonizingly for it, though he will not sell out his principles to purchase it. There is a lack in him, after all—but not a crippling lack, not an absence where certain others have presence. He is not lacking a leg while others around him have two. He lacks the ability to sit still, rather, and he needs someone to slow him down and to represent him among the settled. He is already a whole man, or as whole as a prophet can be in a world separated from God; but his perfectly square corners could be perfectly fitted into a coupling where they would not scar all the furniture.

In short, the real man longs for a woman. Maybe she will bear his children, yes, and thereby make him part of his people’s history and of their future. Yet his childlessness and woman’s child-potential only symbolize the true source of his anguish: distance from the community. A woman in and of herself is quite enough to make him feel redeemed for the activities of civil society. If I may hearken back to Hollywood Westerns for a moment, the lone man who rides in from the desert is a terror to every citizen on the streets. Let him appear the next day with a respected lady on his arm, however, and the town is prepared to elect him sheriff.

Real men need women, yet they are not necessarily the kind of man most pleasing to a woman. There lies the rub. The real man often, perhaps even constantly feels the tension between his Stoical, unbending nature and the approval he seeks from women who find that nature somewhat repellent. Were he more "flexible", he would be less tortured by the need for a complementary partner subtle enough to negotiate his place in the community; but because women are more compromising, they find the prospect of living with his severe nature unattractive. They prefer the company of "softer" men ("more vulnerable", we would say now in our soft age)—who, however, don’t particularly need them, and certainly not for the long haul.         pp. 18-30


From Appendix...

why feminists hate men, and how to handle their hatred (footnote and parenthetic citations refer to C.H. Sommers, The War Against Boys {New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000]).

In her recent work, The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers offers several reasons for why the feminist avant-garde (led, in this case, by Carol Gilligan of Harvard) has so fiercely and unscrupulously attacked our male children.6 Virtually all of the bizarre lawsuits one hears about concerning a boy kissing or hugging a girl and finding himself expelled from school are driven by this movement, which has succeeded in making girls a class strictly protected from harassment under the nefarious Title IX. Sommers did her usual relentless detective work to discover that the Gilligan hooligans have not only hidden their "research" where no one can view it, but that they vilify and stiff-arm legitimate social scientists whose field work shows that, if anything, boys are more victimized at school than girls. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about the future of boys in our educational system and does not suffer from high blood pressure.

My specific reason for including this addendum, however, is to pursue further the matter of why. Feminists must know by now that the "grave threat" against our young daughters was a boondoggle, and those who originally cooked the books and crunched the numbers must similarly know that they are cheats and liars unless they are criminally insane. Yet opposition to Gilligan’s chimerical conclusions is still hooted down in political and academic circles, and the government still funds projects predicated upon the veracity of her thesis. I’m sure Robert Bly would cheer Professor Gilligan with that same élitist suavité which allows him to belittle Ronald Reagan on a whim. Some gestures are just chic in themselves—tout court, mon cher—if you offer them in enlightened company.

Okay, so a lot of people are taking a shot at men—and even little boys—because it is a free shot, and some of them because, in certain highbrow circles, it is also a required one (a Robert Bly rite of passage, perhaps). But the minds of such people are mere chaff in the wind, and what I would prefer to explain is the origin of the prevailing winds. I suggested in an uncharitable note above (Chapter Seven’s first footnote) that the feminist juggernaut has proved highly profitable for female academics—and male ones who have jumped on board. The outlook for teachers at the university level has been dismally bleak for decades: 300 applicants per opening was not unusual in Humanities departments. The creation of an insulated, almost gnostic political movement whose adherents—and they alone—would be allowed past the bottleneck was really quite a brilliant stroke of competitive marketing. If you wear the proper armband and learn the proper handshake, you get to talk to the old boys, who are now the New Girls. Imagine trying to teach in Hitler’s Berlin if you weren’t a Nazi or in Stalin’s Stalingrad if you weren’t a Communist Party member.

I learned little during twenty years in the academy to convince me that cynical theories of motive are unlikely to be true. Sommers would not entirely disagree with me, I suspect. In fact, her writing offers frequent subtle hints (though she must live among these career-hounds, and so cultivates an artful diplomacy) that something pretty venal is going on. "Back at Harvard," she summarizes about the new spin-off movement to re-program boys, "Gilligan, Judy Chu, and their colleagues are moving forward with their own well-funded studies on how to rescue boys from the harmful culture of boyhood. According to The New York Times, Gilligan’s chair carries with it a half-million-dollar research endowment" (132). With blessings like that, a lot of young zealots will be signing up to convert the heathen.

I confess, though, that cynicism has its shortcomings. Why do many high school teachers, whose career survival relies far more upon labor unions than self-promotion, also buy into the notion of vast female victimization? And why do entering college freshmen accept it with almost hysterical fervor, especially the coeds? This question, too, I have answered in the main body of my text, at least tentatively. I believe that younger women honestly tend to perceive their male peers as salivating predators because that’s just what men have become. Early feminism envied men their sexual freedom at least as much as their fatter paychecks, and it clamored for a piece of both pies. Naturally, men who were not gentlemen readily obliged in the former demand, if not the latter. The next generation of feminists now finds itself flailing about in a sea full of sharks. Our younger women, particularly the well-educated ones (whose feminist indoctrination is thorough), have often been plucked, savored, and then tossed into the gutter during "dates" which, in their own minds, trespassed at some point upon the legal definition of rape. They are seething with fear, indignation, vengefulness, and fury. Some have taken it better than others, and some have had less to take than others; but all who have accepted the proto-feminist vision of a hedonist utopia, where Adam and Eve race to see who can pluck and stuff more apples, find this neo-feminist vision of depredation entirely plausible.

Sommers never admits as much. The closest she comes is when she advances the poser, "Why, in the face of so much persuasive counter-evidence, do so many social theorists, psychologists, and educators persist in maintaining that gender is socially created?" She returns that the answer is obvious. "Many fear that the findings of such research could be used against women…. It wasn’t all that long ago that intelligent men were deploying the idea of innate differences to justify keeping women down socially, legally, and politically" (91). No: and it wasn’t all that long ago, either, that newspaper cartoonists were sketching Irish immigrants as monkeys; and when I checked yesterday, Southerners like myself are still widely portrayed by the news-and-entertainment industry as slow-witted redneck racist buffoons who want to lynch every accused criminal and whose sons take shotguns to show-and-tell. I find that I cannot muster the necessary faith to follow Sommers in this direction. The female (and male—but more often female) students I knew as a college teacher were hard pressed to locate the American Civil War in the right century. I simply can’t believe that these same young people have a sufficient sense of history to fear lest the ground won by the Suffragettes be lost. Even feminists of Gilligan’s generation seem to plunder history books—which they view as patriarchal propaganda, in any case—for limber facts susceptible to twisting rather than for a coherent sense of how things have happened. Come on, now! No sensible person among us is truly apprehensive about a movement to debar women from certain jobs where anatomy is irrelevant. I have known people, on the other hand (and I include myself), to be passed over for employment opportunities because they were Christian, because they were Southerners, and because they were conservatives. Sometimes, yes, because they were women, or gays… but just as many times because they were men, and occasionally (thanks to a woman on the search committee) because they were not the handsomest man in the bunch. Human judgment sucks in a lot of rubbish along with the crucial facts in making a decision. It always has. But this isn’t about banning women from seeking public office, as even the most extreme fanatics know well in their hearts.

In the broadest sense, it is about sin. Original Sin. Contemporary feminism is being devoured from the inside out by the cancer of progressivism—the dark faith that human beings can always change human affairs for the better. Feminists made major changes several decades ago, and a bitter disappointment has set in because reality has fallen so far short of hope. Having once embarked upon the path of attributing their worldly malaise to others, feminists now find that they cannot turn back. The conspiracies around them grow ever more numerous, more vast, and more insidious. Some of these women, as Sommers astutely notes, are beginning to register downright paranoia. When I look at them all—a Gloria Steinem silvering but crotchety as ever, a bright and beautiful but morally adrift Naomi Wolf, a petulant and sarcastic Susan Faludi, a pathologically defensive Carol Gilligan—I see women who, for many different reasons, didn’t "fit in". Rush Limbaugh once quipped (in a fashion unbecoming of a gentleman, I fear) that feminists are the girls who didn’t get asked to the prom. This is not entirely inaccurate. Some feminists, I sincerely believe, have been largely ignored by men because of their looks… yet others (including many I knew in grad school) haven’t been even slightly shortchanged in that department. Some have known altogether too many men, men of the wrong kind. Some grew up missing the one man that every young girl needs to feel truly wanted—a father. Some are simply too introverted and bookish to acquire a loving family.

Speculation about the particular cause of the feminist movement’s discontent, then, is doomed to failure. There must be at least a dozen prominent and specific causes, which, taken in their entirety, have only this in common: not fitting in. I didn’t fit in, either, and I still don’t. It’s a tough row to hoe, though it has its compensations. Kierkegaard insisted that no practicing, serious Christian could possibly fit in, and I believe he was right. When you reflect upon the pitiful shallowness of the mainstream, you realize that the company for which your heart longs is not out there in mid-river any more than in some eddy. It must surely await you in that great sea toward which all human life moves in virtual oblivion, imagining its little rafts and rubbish heaps to be standing still.

But feminists, you see, are not content with their discontent. Their not fitting in—not having lovers or having too many lovers, not having a family or being tied down with children—are to them a worldly outrage which society should set straight. They look to this world to fulfill their heart’s desire, and in so doing, they condemn themselves to lives of desolating futility.

It is easy and tempting to rear back and laugh at feminism’s paranoid finger-pointing, its hypocritical self-promoting, and its perfectly inane social engineering. Lately, one may also be tempted to feel an outrage of feminist proportions at feminism, especially if one happens to be a man or to have male children. The gentleman, however, should abstain from all such postures. If we who do not subscribe to utopian folly are as confident of human nature’s limitations as we claim to be, then we should realize that the buoy will not tilt very far left before bobbing back to the right. Indeed, it may well over-correct, leaving the balanced few among us with the duty of interceding for our poor tormented brethren when the mob comes shouting for their heads. If a movement in abstract could be decapitated, then the spectacle of contemporary feminism bending over the block might be a welcome sight for our troubled society. But movements are made up of individuals, and each of these women (I venture to say) has a tragic story to tell which she has misidentified with the feminist refrain.

A gentleman always sees the individual, even when that individual declines to see herself. If he is hissed at for holding a door open, then he allows his vituperative gender-adversary to open the door herself the next time she passes through. He takes a step back, however, to let her pass through first. The principles by which he lives his life may be toned down to avoid offense, but they must not be discarded. The woman who bullies him into rudeness has made him belie himself.         pp. 121-126


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