Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dads and the Dangers of Metaphysics

I doubt many folks checking in on Daddy Dialectic bother to read the Wall Street Journal, but someone (my wife, who in fact needs to understand the economy, for which I begrudge her not) forwarded me a muddled and masculinist Father's Day essay ("Boys to Men", Tony Woodlief, June 15, 2007, p.W11) by an avowedly un-masculine father of three boys who somehow feels that they should deliberately be set on the path to his preconceived idea of manhood. It's a prime collection of unexamined assumptions, pop-genetic determinism, psychological unawareness, and run-of-the-mill conservative shibboleths about the need for manly courage in a dangerous world, all rolled out like sparkly plastic trinkets and baubles in an antique store.

I can't link to it because it's subscription only. Instead, a few of the choicer excerpts:

"Many academics would consider my lack of manliness a good thing. They regard boys as thugs-in-training, caught up in a patriarchal society that demeans women. In the 1990s the American Association of University Women (among others) positioned boys as the enemies of female progress (something Christina Hoff Sommers exposed in her book, "The War Against Boys"). But the latest trend is to depict boys as themselves victims of a testosterone-infected culture. In their book "Raising Cain," for example, the child psychologists Don Kindlon and Michael Thompson warn parents against a "culture of cruelty" among boys. Forget math, science and throwing a ball, they suggest -- what your boy most needs to learn is emotional literacy."

"But I can't shake the sense that boys are supposed to become manly. Rather than neutering their aggression, confidence and desire for danger, we should channel these instincts into honor, gentlemanliness and courage. Instead of inculcating timidity in our sons, it seems wiser to train them to face down bullies, which by necessity means teaching them how to throw a good uppercut. In his book "Manliness," Harvey Mansfield writes that a person manifesting this quality "not only knows what justice requires, but he acts on his knowledge, making and executing the decision that the rest of us trembled even to define." You can't build a civilization and defend it against barbarians, fascists and playground bullies, in other words, with a nation of Phil Donahues.

Who said emotional literacy had anything to do with timidity? If this dude spent more time wondering why so many husbands beat their wives, he might have less time to get spooked about Fascism. Still stranger is how parenting, boyhood, manhood somehow all gets refracted through the lens of a value set essentially derived from paganism. No reflection on, say, the ethics of Augustine, the Church Fathers, the Rabbinical tradition, or any of the many other ethical sources that conservatism claims to know all about; instead, we have tough-guy paganism straight-out of Ben Hur and other Hollywood comics. (Those Romans, and the Empire they defended against barbarians, were, of course, pagans):

"The good father, then, needs to nurture his son's moral and spiritual core, and equip him with the skills he'll need to act on the moral impulse that we call courage. A real man, in other words, is someone who doesn't run from an Osama bin Laden. But he may also need the ability to hit a target from three miles out with a .50 caliber M88 if he wants to finish the job."

Why, the Global War on Terror is the perfect moral framework for raising my son! What a quaint little idea, the notion that warfare is an opportunity for "real men" to show valor. I think that one died sometime in August 1914, along with several million other soldiers in the trenches of France. It certainly was gone by the time of the Second Iraq War of 1990-1991, in which bombs did most of the killing. Given the reference here, one might add that "finishing the job" would also call upon skills such as an understanding of Arabic, Persian, Pashtun, Parsi, and Urdu, or perhaps the domestic politics of Arab and Central Asian states, listening to other people's ideas and information, etc....but of course all that bookish nonsense is for sissies, and what everything comes down to is whether an infantry grunt can pull the trigger when he sees a turban. Assuming he can find one to shoot.

Also of note is the way emotional literacy is downplayed when, as the author freely admits right in the first paragraph, his biological father abandoned him in childhood, and his stepfather didn't pay attention to him. Hmm. So what the author's deficient male parents really needed was the ability to shoot a .50 caliber M88? Then they wouldn't have been tempted to dump their parental responsibilities on their wives while they went off to be manly? Seems like these dudes were lacking in a few other qualities, too, like the willingness to stick around and just do the work of a parent, "finishing [a] job" which for the most part doesn't include Courage, Honor, or Gentlemanliness, and if you're lucky and don't live on the south side of Chicago, doesn't involve guns.

Which is not to say that Courage, Honorableness, etc. are bad qualities. But why do they belong only to men? I like Honorable and Courageous women. I'll take help and inspiration whenever I can get it. While this guy's kids are learning how to Honorably and Courageously fight over a rubber ball, his neighbor's daughters are probably acing the SAT and getting into better schools and landing the jobs that will drive the economy. And Gentlemanliness, if it means anything at all in this post-medieval age in which most "real men" couldn't manage to fit into a suit of armor without serious liposuction, seems to me centered on respect for the weak. This is a universal value that we should ALL aspire to, regardless of gender, age, race, or anything else. Ironic twist: the very idea of Gentlemanliness, as derived from the courtly culture of late medieval Italy and Spain, is in fact heavily influenced by the high MUSLIM culture of the period, with some pagan residues thrown in. So, dad, you want your kid to be like the noble Black Saracen in The Song of Roland? The one who kills the Christian hero? Bravo! Those particular "barbarians" were reading Greek long before your own ancestors could spell their name.

I'll give the guy credit for admitting he's a couch potato from a broken home -- this itself is an index of how far we've come -- although rhetorically-speaking, anything less would have immediately alienated the educated women who read the WSJ as well as many of the moderate men -- and for suggesting that boys need moral training in addition to open-ended physicality. But if this is the conservative version of modern fatherhood, then I'm nostalgic for the days of old-fashioned Judeo-Christian patriarchy, rather than this pagan code that essentially consists of being able to use a gun and stand up to Osama bin Laden. Let's see this guy's kids use those skills when they get laid off for the first time.


Unknown said...

It's amazing to me that we still haven't gotten past the ridiculous idea that emotions are for girls and being tough is for boys. As if the warmongering instinct is the sign of a real man. I'd like to think that we'll evolve a bit more as a society as more people recognize how ridiculous these ideas are.

chicago pop said...

Glad you feel that way, TH, and good to know there's a bastion of common sense down in Texas.