Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Manliness Question

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

The Manliness Question

By Santiago Ramos

Manliness is in. Not necessarily as a characteristic of the average American male, but as a preoccupation of the same — and of women, too. Are we as manly as we used to be? Should we be? Have we gone soft? All of these questions can be grouped into a unified worry which we can call the Manliness Question.

The Manliness Question permeates many corners of American culture. It arises in unlikely places - as in whenever someone tries to explain why suburban high schoolers listen to “gangsta rap.” The answer often is: they are attracted to the rapper’s raw masculinity. (Sharing in the Manliness Question, the rapper Jay Z, in a hit song from his latest album, scolded his fellow rappers this way: “[Your]…jeans [are] too tight, your colors [are] too bright, your voice too light…”) The same reason is marshaled to explain the popularity (among women) of the adulterous and ambitious Don Draper in the television show Mad Men - he’s a “man’s man”; he doesn’t crack too many jokes, and you laugh nervously in his presence if he accidentally says something funny; he drinks like a sailor and has the arms of a carpenter.

But Don Draper (and Jon Hamm, the actor who plays him) is a manly exception. In her monthly column in Salon.com, the culture critic Camille Paglia often complains that Hollywood actors today are not as manly as they were in the Golden Era, mainly because instead of beginning their adult lives working in factories (like Marlon Brando), today’s actors go to acting school (like Sean Penn). A recent study at the University of Sheffield in the UK (reported with great philosophical liberty in the British tabloid, Daily Mail) claims that one of the long-term side effects of the birth control pill is that it has “put women off masculine men,” and that this side-effect explains why we have gone from Brando to Penn to Zac Efron.

In the last few years, many books have come out dealing with the Manliness Question. A more serious tome by the Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, Manliness (2006), links the term to the Greek idea of andreia, which is confidence in the face of risk. Brad Miner, a former editor of the National Review, has published a book titled The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry (2004), representing the Renaissance ideals of manliness for our own, effete time. His book, I’ve been told, is popular in some Catholic circles.

That’s because the Manliness Question is also being asked within the Catholic world.

The website Inside Catholic, the Internet reincarnation of the defunct magazine Crisis, reposted two weeks ago a cover story from 2007, “The New Catholic Manliness,” by Todd Aglialoro. While Professor Mansfield writes that the virtue of andreia, a masculine virtue, is also possible within woman (his favorite example is Margaret Thatcher), Aglialoro writes explicitly about the differences between male and female spirituality, writing about how the differences play out in Church bureaucracy. He finds an answer for the new manliness in a new approach to Christian anthropology and in military metaphor: “Every one of my sources spoke of a battle against the temptations and obstacles the modern world puts before men, a war against the false, cheap version of manhood it whispers in our ears.”

These sources have, apparently, reached the pews. Last year, I met a guy who told me that he and his Catholic men’s group scheduled a day for the celebration of manhood, wherein they (among other things) eat steak and watch Rocky. He also wrote about this in his blog, which I am not sure is a manly thing to do.

But lest I sound too glib and knowing, I should expose myself a little bit and admit a personal interest in the Manliness Question. I was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, South America. My father killed birds with a slingshot while prowling the streets of Asuncion, and I never did. I played Nintendo and rode my bike in a cul-de-sac in Lawrence, Kansas. I am softer, surely. But it’s also true that my father wasn’t forced into military service in Paraguay, while my grandfather worked as a medic in the Great Chaco War.

I agree that there are virtues that we need to recapture. I would side, with some qualifications, with Mansfield’s argument in favor of andreia. But the Manliness Question needs to be placed into a proper perspective.

Let’s get some historical perspective. In 1940, in his essay, “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell complained about the generation of Englishmen from the 1930s:  “‘Cultured’ middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education - five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery - can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period.” Now let’s go down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, back in the year 1926. That was the year that the great tango, “Tiempos viejos” (“Old Times”), was written by Manuel Romero and Francisco Canaro. The lyrics of this immortal song begin this way: “Do you remember brother? What times were those!/ They were other men, more men, our own.”

England and Argentina, the 1930s and the 1920s, my grandfather, my father, and me. Times change, but the Question of Manliness remains. Either we are spiraling downward to ever-greater wimpiness, or there is a deeper concern behind this perennial worry.

Three quotations come to mind when thinking about all this. First, from the Vatican II document, Gaudium et spes, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Second, from the Roman orator, Marius Victorinus, “When I met Christ, I discovered I was a man.” Lastly, from St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” In all three of these quotations, the Latin word used for man is not the masculine vir, viri, but the general term for a human person, homo, hominis.

In the first two quotations we see the same logic: Christ reveals to humanity what it means to be a human being. In the third, we see the desire that precedes the revelation, and that is fulfilled as a consequence: the desire to be fully alive, to be a man - or woman, as the case may be. For a Catholic, any concern about manliness finds its origin, and the beginning of a resolution, in those quotations.

Everything else is a discussion of secondary or tertiary effects - the toughness, the courage, the slingshots. That all comes later. First, we should try to formulate the Manliness Question into something more profound and interesting.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.