The Washington Post is an important newspaper, therefore Richard Cohen is an important columnist — even when he turns in muddled, poorly reasoned efforts like Thursday’s column on boys.
Cohen attacks my review
of Christina Hoff Sommers’s new book The War Against Boys
, in which I argue that there is an ongoing assault on masculinity in our culture. Cohen scoffs. How can there possibly be a war against masculinity, Cohen asks, when the popular movie Road Trip
features MTV star Tom Green putting a mouse in his mouth?
The natural rejoinder to this is: Huh? Cohen’s column is a non sequitur wrapped in a logical lapse inside a misunderstanding, so let’s untangle it slowly.
First, the war against boys Sommers writes about has nothing to do with the movies — it is taking place mainly in schools, where the needs of boys are routinely neglected and a cadre of feminist educational theorists hopes to eliminate the distinction between boys and girls altogether.
Cohen has, in the past, proved himself a fair-minded political and cultural observer. On partial-birth abortion, for instance, he changed his mind after taking the extraordinary step of examining the evidence.
Such a radical measure just might be called for again: Cohen should read the Sommers book, or at least flip through it and get a sense of the impressive evidence she marshals for her case, before writing columns dismissing it.
Second, this war against boys is connected to a hostility toward masculinity, properly understood. Sommers thinks boys should get discipline, focused attention, and moral instruction in schools not so they will become Tom Greens, but exactly so they won’t.
There is absolutely nothing masculine about toilet humor, and it is no accident that, when the masculine ideal has been run down by feminists and other liberals for decades, expressions of male culture have taken on a crude, almost outlaw cast (this was certainly the case in Central Park recently, as John Derbyshire brilliantly demonstrated recently on NRO).
The funny thing is that Cohen basically understands this point. He misses the depiction on film of real gentlemen, such as Cary Grant: “When I was a boy I wanted very much to be an adult. I wanted, in fact, to be like Cary Grant. I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, deal with women like him, talk to headwaiters like him — in short, be the master of every situation.”
This might sound familiar. In a piece that was part of NR’s recent cover package on the assault on masculinity, John O’Sullivan made exactly the same point: “Compare [today's leading men] with the stars of the ’40s and ’50s. Whether they were bachelors in romantic comedies or married men in domestic ones, actors like Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy seemed eminently mature. They wore suits, went to offices, drank cocktails, danced fox trots, and solved problems.”
Again, Cary Grants have disappeared for a reason — because the ideal of strong and responsible masculinity has been trampled underfoot by the Gloria Steinems of the world. “We need to raise boys like we raise like girls,” Steinem says. What that means is creating schools where boys fail, and trying to deny and suppress precisely those masculine qualities — duty, chivalry, restraint — that make it possible for boys eventually to grow into, not very large boys, but men.
Cohen certainly has a point in criticizing our potty-mouth popular culture. What he doesn’t have is an argument with me or Christina Hoff Sommers. And picking unnecessary fights should be something a gentleman always avoids.