Saturday, January 17, 2015

Are Men Being Stiffed?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 13, 2000

To start with, let's have a show of hands:
How many of you can name the first man who walked on the moon?
How about the name of the actor who played Rocky and Rambo?
Now, here's another one:
How many of you know the names of any of the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima? Any of them?...
Here's one more question (and I bet we see a real generational divide here): How many of you remember Ernie Pyle (not Gomer Pyle, Ernie Pyle)?
A show of hands, please...
Well, honestly, I could have crossed the generation gap on that one, because I would have been able to answer that question, too (though not the Iwo Jima one)-- and not just because I'm a kind of part time historian.
You see, I remember when I was in junior high school having a real fascination with Ernie Pyle, and really enjoying reading his books. I think I still have copies of Brave Men and This Is Your War... Back in the seventh grade, other kids were reading Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys (actually, I read them, too)-- but I was reading Ernie Pyle.
To fill in the blanks for those of you born after 1945 (perhaps), Ernie Pyle was a World War Two journalist, who wrote for the Washington Daily News originally, and filed a daily column directly from the front lines. He was a household name, and to a large degree, brought the great war in Europe and the Pacific home to Americans. (Ernie Pyle was also killed in action on Okinawa, just a couple of months before VJ Day.)
My fondness for Ernie Pyle had receded deep into my memory-- one of those innumerable past influences that we've all but forgotten-- until recently, when I started reading Susan Faludi's new book Stiffed. Now, Ernie Pyle was the last "authority" I expected to see cited in a spanking new book by a young, influential, blatantly feminist social commentator. But there he was-- almost in the book's opening pages-- his arms folded, standing amid a group of sailors on the aircraft carrier the US Cabot during World War Two. It was Ernie Pyle who sort of "set the tone" for the book's first chapter. Here is what Susan Faludi writes about him:
"Ernie Pyle chose not to sing of the silk-scarfed fighter pilots but of the unsung infantrymen, 'the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys,' as he called them in his daily columns, which, more than any other wartime dispatches, determined how Americans saw and remembered the Second World War."
It was the "little guys' war"-- a great galvanizing effort in which millions and millions of ordinary, everyday men came together, doing what they needed to do, finding within them reservoirs of courage and heroism they didn't know they had-- in order to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. It was a great generational effort, captured so heroically of those Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima...
I read those collections of Ernie Pyle's columns in the mid-60s, a little more than 20 years after he wrote them. That's not a long time, historically speaking, but I always felt like I was reading far-back in American history, about a time very different from that in which I was then living. Twenty years ago back from today, we were witnessing the last year of Jimmy Carter's presidency, worrying about Arab oil embargoes-- but we were still listening to Bruce Springsteen (some of us were, anyway). Those twenty years seem like a good chunk of time, with lots of water under the bridge certainly-- but that hardly seems like ancient history. We've seen a lot of changes, certainly (especially in technology)-- but not nearly as many in the way society sees itself. My perception, at least, is that our decade has more in common with the 80s than the 60s did with the 40s.
Susan Faludi would agree that the end of the Second World War was a watershed for American society-- and in the development of American manhood. Much of the "male crisis" in America (as she sees it) comes from our society's inability to bridge the generational gap between 1945 and the years that came after it. To prove her point, she takes us on an exhaustive (and exhausting) 650-page journey through American manhood.
There is much of interest in this book-- fascinating portraits of a wide array of men in crisis: members of the Spur Posse in California (suburban teenagers who allocated "points" for each girl they bedded; recruits at the Citadel in South Carolina, struggling to keep women from entering their ranks; religiously conservative Promise Keepers, struggling with changing roles as men in a post-patriarchal culture; Waco-obsessed gun collectors; South Central gang members; veterans reliving constantly the nightmare of Vietnam; men struggling to make names for themselves in the burgeoning pornography industry.
Faludi's abilities as a reporter and interviewer seem unsurpassable. You can see how she delves into her subject's psyches, their innermost beings-- how she must be able to ask just the right questions to get them to open up and share and express things to her (and now, to the world) that they would never have dreamed of sharing. Stiffed is, in many ways, an amazing book, a work of major import-- an encyclopedic chronicle of male social dysfunction.
And that also points toward a couple of its real problems:
For one thing, it's way too long. It's encyclopedic, as I said-- and how many of us would enjoy reading the encyclopedia cover to cover? I have to confess, that I would have put this book aside numerous times if I didn't have this morning's appointment with profundity beckoning to me. There's a not a sense that every page here (or even every section, or every chapter) is necessary to grasping the work's main themes.
And secondly, while it does a good job of chronicling male dysfunction and confusion, it is also a book with numerous rather glaring omissions. What a vast panoply of characters Ms. Faludi has assembled-- as we enumerated above (and that was only a partial listing)-- but no where in these 660 pages is there a single mention of a positive father/child relationship. The men Ms. Faludi speaks to all seem to define themselves endlessly as "sons"-- and never, it seems, as "fathers". Certainly, many of us (men and women) have issues with our fathers (as well as our mothers, perhaps)-- that we need to work through to get some idea of who we are and what makes us tick. But it is also true for many of us (and I think this is increasingly true for men in our society) that one of the major ways we define ourselves and claim who we are is in our relationships to our children, to our daughters-- and our sons. Perhaps many of us sense where things were lacking, and so, try to take corrective steps to become more present for our children-- more active in their lives-- more able to hand down to them something of who we are-- and so, to bridge the gap between the generations. And it is also true for many of us that so much of the joy (and the pride and the wonder and the surprise) we get in life comes to us from our children.
None of this is to say that parenting is easy, or not an awful lot of hard work, and not sometimes very frustrating and draining. But most of us do the best we can at it, make every effort to learn from past mistakes-- and, at least as often as not, succeed.
Not one word in 660 pages about a successful father. If such a portrait is true, no wonder the popular culture treats men as morons! (Look: even Homer Simpson, hardly the epitome of brilliance, isn't a bad father. Homer screws up a lot; he doesn't always (or even usually) say the right thing. But he's there for his kids; he doesn't abuse them or neglect them; he goes off to work to provide them with a comfortable home; he has a lot of fun with them-- and (can you doubt it?) he loves Bart and Lisa and Maggie-- and they love him, too, in spite of his (all too obvious) faults and limitations.
Likewise, when it comes to marriage, Faludi presents us with one shipwreck (or shipwreck in the making) after another. Now, God knows, making a marriage work is difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes, it can't be done, and there are very good reasons for people separating and divorcing. We all know, there are no perfect marriages (at least none that I know about), and over the years, they all develop stresses and strains that have to be worked at constantly if the thing is going to work.
But surely-- surely-- in 660 pages-- in criss-crossing the country to interview hundreds and hundreds of men in every conceivable venue-- surely, Faludi could have found a couple of examples (at least) of decent (if imperfect) marriages, where people are committed to one another, dedicated to one another, and are intent upon working through the issues that society (or their own personal histories) present to them.
There are other glaring omissions, too:
Except for a relatively brief chapter on cross-dressers, this book deals almost exclusively with the experience and dilemmas faced by heterosexual males. By definition, then, it's an incomplete portrait of "The Betrayal of the American Man". Why the silence here, one wonders? Are we to believe that gay men don't have difficult issues to deal with in contemporary society-- or that the experience of gay males has nothing to offer the straight majority? I am sure that Ms. Faludi would agree that neither of these points is true.
In the face of the blatant homophobia writ so large in our cultural and political life, it must be incredibly difficult to live openly as a homosexual male (in spite of the advances we've made in this area over the past couple of generations). One senses that there are important lessons that some of our gay brothers can teach men (indeed, can teach all of us) about friendship and intimacy-- and things like courage and honor and commitment.
I think Susan Faludi would agree with that statement-- by why isn't it reflected in the massive tome she has produced here? If I had been her editor (and editors, I think, are the most powerful people in the world), I would have told her--"Cut out some of those misfits, and show us some of the decent men we have around us-- gay and straight, young and old, black and white. Men who do their best-- and who do a good job at it. Men who aren't angels-- who have 'issues'-- but who try their damnedest to learn from their pasts and transcend them and transform them into valuable life lessons for us all."
As I have said, Stiffed is a book with some major faults. But it is also a book that presents an incisive social chronicle of some of the things that have gone wrong in our culture-- for both women and men-- over the past several decades.
Almost immediately after the Second World War ended (and Ernie Pyle was barely cold in his grave), the ideal of the "little man"-- GI Joe who had won the war-- lost ground to the "fly boys"-- the celebrities, the jet setters, the beautiful people-- whom Pyle loathed so much. GI Joe came home and became the "man in the gray flannel suit". Instead of joining with a lot of other "ordinary" men in pursuit of noble and high ideals (like winning the war), American men became largely individualistic cogs in a great corporate machine, seeking nothing but personal gain and the accumulation of more and more and more consumer goods. Society became less a fanfare for the common man (and woman), and more a voyeuristic look at lifestyle of the rich and famous. Instead of a society founded upon hard work, America became an ornamental society based on consumption and narrow materialism-- based on the exploits of celebrities, rather than the endeavors of common, everyday heroes.
Then, a changing economy undermined the position of men even further. The old tacit contract had told them: "Play by our rules, and we'll provide you and your family with a decent-paying job and a comfortable life for all your working days." Enter the modern corporation and globalization and "downsizing" and sweeping corporate greed-- and American workers (and it mattered less and less if they were blue collar or white collar) became increasingly marginalized and expendable, and their positions increasingly fragile and unpredictable.
Women were used to being marginalized as far as the economic system went. The birth of the feminist movement in the 60s also proved to women that they had a wide array of options for how they defined who they were-- and that they could, if they were brave enough and strong enough and persistent enough-- change the system and become masters (or mistresses) of their own destinies. It would still (and will still) be a long struggle for gender justice, but in the face of the women's movement, women's sense of what was possible exploded endlessly-- while men's sense of selfhood (always defined pretty narrowly by what one did for a living) seemed to collapse on top of them.
Add to this the economic dislocation of the deferred hopes of the New Frontier (which turned out to be just another political slogan) , the race to the moon (which turned out to be just another military-industrial diversion), and the seemingly-endless quagmire of Vietnam (which became the sinister mirror image of the "good war" our fathers had fought)-- and men seemed to lose their compass, and many began to drift and founder, and wonder what it meant to be man, anyway...
In the classic feminist critique of modern society, men (all men) were often defined as the problem-- the cause of society's woes, especially the exploitation of women. By showing that men are as often more sinned against than sinning-- often as much victims of perpetrators-- Susan Faludi provides an important neo-feminist contribution to bridging the human gap in contemporary society. She helps us to see that the chief cause of oppression is not maleness, per se-- but rather, the workings of a system which treats people as important or expendable based solely upon how much they add to the wealth of the economic elite. She also shows that a society which is "rich in things but poor in soul"-- which favors image over character, and maintaining "good appearances" over doing justice-- wounds all people, men and women alike.
She starts to point out to us how both men and women need to work on issues of intimacy; need to counter the toxic poisons of sexism and homophobia; need to give up control at all costs and sometimes learn to be receptive and passive, in order to learn to share what others have to give and have to teach. Faludi initiates conversation on these subjects, and we want to start talking with one another-- with the people around us-- with people like us-- about issues we struggle with in our emotional (and social and cultural and spiritual and political and economic) lives. But then-- wham!-- we're back with the Spur Posse, or a street gang in Los Angeles, or making porn films in Southern California-- and it all might seem pretty interesting (and certainly very well done and incredibly written). But we're back to the side show (sad to say, the "freak show" sometimes is the feeling one gets). And we lose track of how all this is supposed to be relevant to the day in, day out lives we lead as men.
Perhaps amidst the despair and the father hunger and the violence and the inability to communicate, Faludi could have offered exemplars of what we can do about it. Examples of hope, of promise, of that love that builds bridges across two human hearts.
Of course, we don't need any more maudlin, saccharine, "feel good" culture. We've got plenty of that. We don't need to know that "everything is beautiful" and that "all's well with the world". Because it's not. There are critical social problems we face which threaten to tear at the very fabric of our society. Wishing them away-- living in denial about them-- won't solve them.
Divided we have long withstood
the love which is our common speech,
the comrade cry of each to each
is calling us to humanhood...
It's time that we understand that, whatever the political or social or religious movements and political life that will transform this society will be, if they are to be effective they must have their place of origin in each individual human heart, and must radiate out from there. They must be founded upon unity and love, and not upon division and hatred. The new world we can build can bless our maleness-- or our femaleness; our gayness-- or our straightness; our different colors, and religions, and nationalities, not as barriers between us, but as precious gifts that make us better people, that can inform us in our common endeavor.
This is our war-- a war of the spirit. We will not be saved by heroic fly boys, by superhero celebrities who will rescue us from our dilemma. Nor will we be saved through our individual efforts alone. We will be saved-- we will save one another-- by joining hearts and hands in common endeavor and a universal revolution of the spirit. That revolution will be won by the boys (and girls) in the trenches of sisterhood and brotherhood. It will be won by all of us daring to be the man-- the woman-- we are most called to be.

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