I really began to understand America’s crisis of fatherhood, and manhood more generally, in April 2007, when I made a YouTube video called “How to Shave.” Shortly after uploading the video, I began to get comments from boys who did not have fathers. The comments were all a variation on the same theme — “I don’t have a father, so thanks for this video!” One kid called me his “YouTube dad.” If I had only gotten a few of these comments I would have attributed them to the fact that there always are and have always been kids who don’t have fathers. But I was getting a lot of them, consistently — too many to dismiss.
Bill Bennett is aware of this man-sized hole in our culture. The “Book of Virtues” author addresses it in his new book, “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.” I cannot review this book objectively, because I am in it. Over a year ago I got a call from Bennett’s office, asking me if they could include “The Spiritual Value of Work,” an essay I wrote in The Washington Post, in the book. Of course I agreed.
At the time, I didn’t know what kind of company I would be in. “The Book of Man” has readings from Shakespeare, Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jack London, Sir Walter Scott, G.K. Chesterton and JFK, among many others. Aside from the theme of manhood, it’s a terrific book of literature.
There are a couple of points Dr. Bennett makes in his introduction that I disagree with, but before addressing those — if only to show that I’m man enough to not be completely in the tank just because I’m in the book — I wanted to note that “The Book of Man” may sadly be rejected by the places where it is needed the most. It is the kind of thing the left will Alinsky (yes, it’s a verb). I have pointed out in several articles, some in The Daily Caller, that liberalism is essentially a religious movement. Most liberals are beyond reason. The mere mention of a book about manly virtues will trigger the commencement of the secular exorcism. Misogynist! Primitive! Rational argument will not sway them. They won’t bother to read the book, or listen to Dr. Bennett. That’s sad, because in “The Book of Man” Dr. Bennett makes some points that cut across political lines.
It must be said, though, that sometimes liberals do have confrontations with the truth. I’m a substitute teacher in my spare time, and a few months ago I was teaching a high school class. We were discussing the Battle of Thermopylae, the ancient battle that was the basis of the movie “300.” The conversation drifted into how to properly bring up boys and turn them into men. A lot of the students were anxious to give examples of how a boy raised by a single mother can do just as well as one with a father. I remembered something that happened when I was in sixth grade, and I shared it with the class. One day at recess I was hit by a girl, a female classmate. I slapped her back in retaliation. When the news got back to my father, he calmly sat me down and said: Men do not hit women. He pressed the point by saying that if he ever heard of me putting my hand on a woman, I would be grounded for a year. He then added a last point: If it ever happened when I was a grown man, I wound be sent through the wall.
When I recalled that to the class, the room fell silent. “No government can replace that,” I said. I noticed a boy in the back row nodding.
In “The Book of Man,” Bennett criticizes Wall Street men who are obsessed with making money to the exclusion of their families and the more soulful pursuits in life. Indeed, consumer capitalism, with it emphasis on cheap products — like disposable razors and sneakers — does its part to rob men of proper tools of self-expression.
Bennett also condemns Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character in favor of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane in “High Noon.” To Bennett, Eastwood’s character shows “macho callousness” while celebrating Cooper’s “compassion and sense of what deserved to be loved and protected.” On this point I disagree with Bennett. Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan may have been more intense than Cooper’s Will Kane, but the threat posed to the two men was different. In “High Noon,” Sheriff Kane faced Frank Miller, an ex-convict who was seeking revenge. It was mano a mano. In the original “Dirty Harry” film, Eastwood was against “Scorpio,” a serial killer of women and a threat to children. It is the kind of evil that calls for the taciturn and ruthless response that Harry provides.
Indeed, Scorpio, played brilliantly in the film by Andrew Robinson, is emblematic of the kind of manless hippie liberalism that hatched in the 1960s and makes “The Book of Man” so refreshing. The 1960s, with its drugs, feminism and the sexual revolution, changed the consciousness of entire generations of men about women, and in many ways for the better. Women were given more respect. The soulless race for cash and security was called into question. Yet the ’60s also eroded much of the sense of play and mystery that was once such a dynamic part of the relationship between men and women. And as men degraded women, they themselves were degraded. They — we — began to lose our manhood. Technology introduced games that didn’t require much physicality. Pornography reduced women to body parts, and anti-censorship crusades allowed men to begin saying things about women that once upon a time would have earned you an ass-kicking. Imagine the kind of things that are written about Sarah Palin being written in 1950, or even 1970. Had Bill Maher in 1975 called Sarah Palin the names he does now, he would not have made it home. And in the interest of fairness, Mark Levin calling Hillary Clinton “Her Thighness” is also out of bounds. Real men should leave that kind of psychosexual dementia to Andrew Sullivan.
In his introduction to “The Book of Man,” Dr. Bennett also has a line about homosexuality: “Gay culture often parades itself in a flamboyant display and challenge to traditional masculinity.” True enough, but in another sense gay culture is ironically helping men reclaim their masculinity. In the show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” homosexuals teach clueless hetero cavemen how to cook, decorate and, most importantly, dress. I would submit that a man dressed in a football jersey, high tops and lycra shorts and shoving a hotdog in his piehole looks a lot less like a mature self-possessed gentleman, less like a real man, than Carson Kressley.
Finally, I think it would have been fun for “The Book of Man” to have included a section on what not to do — i.e., on what constitutes the antithesis of manhood. My vote would go to the castration of Jeff Bridges in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.