I don’t watch much cable television; I’m not even into Netflix. Instead, I subscribe to a dozen or so channels on YouTube.
One of my favorites features a bespectacled 19-year-old blacksmith from the United Kingdom named Alec Steele. (Yes, that’s his real name.) He puts out a smartly crafted episode each weekday. His enthusiasm is quite marvelous, and his craftsmanship even more so. I just finished watching his four-part series on the making of a Damascus-steel straight razor. It is beautiful, if somewhat useless — the kid is barely old enough to shave. Besides, who needs a straight razor when you can get those disposable plastic jobs with five blades down at the CVS?
Nevertheless, I think I’d like to try his razor. I stopped using those disposable razors a while back. They were so stinking expensive, and they gave me razor burn, to boot. I’ve been using an old-fashioned safety razor ever since and I even use a badger-hair brush to lather up. Now, I’m not a hipster. I made the switch to save money, and my face. But the straight razor may even make for a better shave, and since it eliminates the need to throw anything away that would end up in a landfill, it’s the socially responsible way to go. Yet most people consider straight razors (and blacksmiths) obsolete.
In a roundabout way this gets me to something that I’ve been thinking about for a while: Are men-as-men obsolete?
Some people think so. Hanna Rosin published a book with the help of her husband a few years back entitled The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. I’ve not read it, but I am familiar with how the story ends. It ends with traditional guys like me winking out of existence. According to the story, if we ever served a purpose, which is doubtful, we’ve been replaced by things like robots and the internet. Then there’s the welfare state, which magically meets the needs of women and children better than men ever did.
Of course I think she’s wrong, but not because she’s silly or short-sighted. I’m not even angry with her; many intelligent people see things her way, even some men. Instead, I think Hanna Rosin and her friends are getting scammed.
They’re getting scammed for the same reason I was scammed by Gillette into buying those expensive disposable blades. I thought the disposables made my life easier, that I was in effect buying convenience. It was only the pain of a burnt face and an empty wallet that got me to try the obsolete technology known as the safety razor.
Traditionally, men-as-men made things. And of all the things they made, households in the old-fashioned sense were the most important.
One of the supposed benefits of convenience is freeing up time. That’s what we’re really after in the end: more freedom to do as we please. And we have more choices than ever today. But while we like choices, we don’t like having to choose, because a used choice is a lost choice. The freest man of all is the guy on the sofa who won’t put the remote control down because he’s afraid of missing something. Except he’s not.
I don’t think Alec Steele watches much television. I don’t think he has the time; he’s too busy making stuff. And he’s free to do so because he can. But this is a very different kind of freedom than that guy on the sofa enjoys.
The 19-year-old blacksmith has agency, the freedom to do something worth doing. This freedom is not so much a right as it is an achievement. It has no doubt cost him something else, which limits him in a way. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: He’s happier than our theoretical sofa guy.
We used to depend on men with agency like Alec Steele. Today we depend upon the machinery of the welfare state and forms of employment more fit for insects than for people. True, we have more choices. But are we happier?
There’s a revival of blacksmithing going on. Alec Steele is just one of many. Who could have imagined such a thing, obsolete technology coming back this way? Paradoxically, the revival is made possible by high-tech firms such as PayPal and UPS. I’m not a Hegelian, but I wonder if there is a new synthesis in the making. I think men-as-men and women-as-women are poised for a comeback, too. Choosing the freedom of convenience has made us dependent on large and impersonal things. But the old arts made us dependable, and good for something. They freed us to make a difference, not in something as incomprehensible as the global economy, but in the lives of real people.
Traditionally, men-as-men made things. And of all the things they made, households in the old-fashioned sense were the most important. What I mean by old-fashioned is this: An old-fashioned household was a going concern, rather than the recreation center we see today. It demanded things of the people, because it was productive, like blacksmithing. In return, it also enriched both the men who raised houses and the women and children who were sheltered by them. I have written a little book to help bring such households back.
To women who believe men-as-men are obsolete, I suggest you reconsider. Choosing the easy way has made you dependent and vulnerable in ways you do not seem to be aware of. I’m not going to try and tell you that you can have it all. But I do suggest you depend on something else for a change. The men I’m talking about need you, because building an old-fashioned house isn’t something they can do alone.