December 10, 2021

A few days ago, a friend and I were sitting around, tallying up the fates of the young men we used to know; we’re not from the same town, but we are from the same rural part of Kansas, the kind of place where kids spend most of their time dreaming of getting out. Despite the small populations of our respective towns, the number of guys we knew who are now either in prison or dead is alarmingly high. He told me about some overdoses; I mentioned some crimes committed. We both remarked that he and I would be seen, by progressives, as being disadvantaged — him being gay and me being a woman. But here we are, while our peers have been taken by suicide, fentanyl or the prison industrial complex — all of them straight, white men.

Men are slipping, by just about every marker of measurement. Deaths of despair are on the rise, suicide and homicide rates are up, and more men are delaying marriage and the establishment of a family. Twice as many men have addiction disorders as women. As Missouri Senator Josh Hawley declared at the National Conservatism Conference last month: “American men are working less, getting married in fewer numbers; they’re fathering fewer children. They are suffering more anxiety and depression. They are engaging in more substance abuse.”

According to Hawley, bad things are happening to men because bad things have happened to masculinity. “Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?” In his mind, it is not stagnant wages that cause men to feel demotivated at work. It’s not crippling student debt that convinces young men to drop out of university. It’s not the legacy of Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin fuelling their addictions. Taking his lead, perhaps, from popular masculinity influencers like Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux, Hawley blames men’s problems on the fact that nobody respects manliness anymore. It’s the feminism, stupid.

Josh Hawley’s constituents in Missouri are among those hardest hit by these issues. The state has, for example, a raging meth problem that’s largely overlooked by the mainstream media. Hawley is responsible for many men like those I grew up with. He should be interested in their complex realities. But, like the self-help gurus he emulates, the senator mystifies. He might be able to accurately describe the state of affairs, but he misdirects men on both its roots — vaguely blaming “the liberal left” — and what to do about it. He wants a “a revival of strong and healthy manhood in America”, but isn’t clear about what that actually that means.

Hawley’s tactics makes sense for the guru — after all, if they were able to solve your problems, you’d have less reason to buy their next book or listen to their next podcast. Some feminist grifters similarly tell women that their problems stem solely from “the patriarchy” or “misogyny” while also shrugging about what exactly to do about it. But this approach is particularly objectionable coming from a politician, especially a United States senator. Hawley is in the position to materially improve the lives of the men he is supposedly so concerned about, but he would rather obfuscate.

Hawley suggests, for example, that men are not marrying because, “The Left is telling America and its men, you’re evil.” But the real issue is class. In surveys of single people, the reasons given for delaying marriage (or partnership, for people whose goal is simply co-habitation) and childbearing are almost always economic. Marriage has become an elite institution, with highest rates among the people who are already best off — the white, the able-bodied, the most educated, the most financially prosperous.

In search of maximum support, Hawley always stays quiet about which “social issues” he’s blaming for the “deconstruction” of the traditional family. But reading between the lines, his finger is pointing at feminism and gay rights. Both criticise the concept of the nuclear family, for the way it makes the rights granted to couples and parents exclusive to those legally married. Hawley’s is a misdirection I recognise. He’s appealing to people like my uncle, who had difficulty finding stable work due to his lack of a formal education. His wife was a nurse, a traditionally underpaid, strenuous job. They blamed feminism for all social ills.

They played Rush Limbaugh almost continually; I remember first hearing the word “feminazi,” as a kid, in their house. They didn’t see feminism as a movement that fought for her rights as a working woman — which, given that by the Nineties the movement’s focus was more on lifestyle than class concerns, was as much feminism’s fault as their own. People in my town saw women and gays demanding the right to organise their own families in the ways they saw fit, and interpreted it as a threat to the integrity of their families.

In the past that Hawley is harking back to, the man earned a living wage outside the home and the women raised children. You can see why he’s able to blame feminism for the end of an era. Women, the story goes, were radicalised by feminist thinkers who urged them to seek fulfilment through career and financial independence. This flood of new workers, competing with men for jobs, drove wages down — undermining the male breadwinner.

But the truth is, it was the inflation of the Seventies, and the danger of poverty it brought with it, that drove wages down and therefore women to work. Many mothers got jobs out of necessity, not choice, because their partners’ salaries were no longer enough to support a family. Perhaps the men who lost their breadwinner positions felt attacked, but the alternative was usually debt and destitution. And feminism was the result of this change, not its cause: entering the workforce, women found they had to advocate for fair pay and for the removal of obstacles to advancement.

Hawley ignores present-day economic conditions, too. The stresses that families have experienced during the pandemic — from the struggles of balancing working from home with parenting, to difficulties in getting adequate healthcare — don’t get a mention in his speeches. It’s the same tactic conservatives have often used: arguing for traditional family structures — and even incentivising them, through coercions like tax breaks and public condemnation — while refusing to listen to the practical reasons people are unable or unwilling to participate.

The other institution that used to support masculinity until, according to Hawley, it was subject to “liberal attacks” is the military. In a 2019 speech, he condemned the progressive criticism of American military intervention, saying, “it also regarded America unilateral action as something to be avoided, even a danger,” as if this were a completely misguided belief.

It’s easier for the Right to romanticise the so-called manly virtues instilled by service — discipline, solidarity, and courage — than it is to admit that serving in wars has left thousands of men traumatised. And that many of those men have been abandoned by their governments to deal with that trauma on their own. More than one of my high school classmates has come out of the military only to find himself too damaged to work full time. Their patriotism and sense of duty — fine things, yes — have been manipulated so that they die not for their country, but for oil and capital.

Gays in the military, the feminist critique of male aggression, leftist anxieties about imperialism: all of these have been blamed for the marginalisation of military service as an integral part of the masculine identity. But the truth lies elsewhere. America’s failure to unflaggingly support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t a comment on the terrible lack of patriotism in our nation. It’s not a sign that our armed forces are going “soft,” as figures like Representative Dan Crenshaw have suggested in their statements railing against a “woke” military. It’s happened because we’ve seen through propaganda, and have stopped believing that young men should die because the Republican party created illegitimate allegations of atrocity and invaded a nation under false pretences.

Blaming progressivism for men’s problems, then, is an attempt by the Right to let itself off the hook. But it won’t do much good. Ideas about masculinity change because what helps a person thrive in one era is going to hurt him in another. If women hadn’t entered the workforce, men and their children would have starved; if soldiers continued to be seen as a masculine ideal, there would’ve been continued support for forever wars.

But masculinity influencers are fixated on the past, on “tradition”. While Hawley mostly just waffles on about the old, more sensible ways of doing something, his one proposed real-world solution to the crisis in masculinity was to bring back manufacturing jobs. Every politician since the Eighties has promised and failed to bring back well-paid manufacturing work. Hawley must know it isn’t going to work. Globalisation makes it impossible. The world has moved on. We can’t go backwards, but the political Right has failed to find a way forwards.

And so it fixates on the “manliness” of men, as many politicians have in times of crisis. Hawley speaks like a YouTube influencer, but he’s part of a long tradition that includes everyone from President Roosevelt to, well, Benito Mussolini. The trouble is that, because masculinity is something that is defined and measured by action, there’s always a sense that the men are simply not doing enough. You can always do one more rep at the gym, kill one more enemy on the battlefield, work one more hour before you end your day. No wonder men are feeling overwhelmed.

Men should be allowed to set aside the burden of ruling the world, for the sake of everyone. Instead of fixating on turning men back into some patriarchal stereotype, the Right should be helping them get jobs and quit drugs. When I think of the limited or derailed lives of the men I was raised with, I don’t just want them to regress into the structures and lifestyles that drove their fathers and grandfathers to drink, or hit their kids, or work so much they were never around. I want something better for them.

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