My friend Micah Meadowcroft, managing editor at The American Conservative, has responded to a National Review article by Senator Josh Hawley on the subject of masculinity. While I have some quibbles with Hawley, I think his diagnosis of the challenges faced by men today, in the face of a concerted effort by the Left to challenge the very qualities that distinguish males, is mostly correct. I have problems, however, with the objections Meadowcroft raises to Hawley’s case.
In Hawley’s article, he identifies “courage, strength, risk-taking, and commitment” as some of the essential masculine virtues. Pressed further in an interview with Axios about what it means to be a man today, he replied, “Well, a man is a father. A man is a husband. A man is somebody who takes responsibility.” Meadowcroft agrees with this, but finds it insufficient. “Those are roles, and they require certain virtues before they can be assumed and they usually come after employment, education, and training,” he writes. Aside from apparently casting the act of “taking responsibility” as a “role” (as opposed to a basic virtue worth aspiring to), there’s some truth to this. But it is a strangely technocratic framing, and assumes that masculine virtues are acquired only through these recognized pathways. Hawley seems to imply the possibility of what you might call “on-the-job training” for these roles, in which some aspects of them are learned by doing. As an example: Not being a father, I cannot speak to it directly. But many of the fathers I know have told me that the experience forced them to mature. Meadowcroft seems to downplay the possibility of this.
Instead, what is needed for men to grow up, he argues, is “space” for men “to develop their virtues.” A male “must be given the chance to discipline the world around him, to explore the environment he finds himself in, to take dominion of the matter at hand in ways all his own.” This seems like a tall task (and a presumptuous one) for anyone, to say nothing of someone in the process of maturation. But it doesn’t matter; according to Meadowcroft, this is virtually impossible now anyway. Liberalism has “closed all the frontiers, both physical and spiritual” once conducive to masculine virtue, leaving us with nothing but “this enormous managerial machine we call America today.”
This is an incomplete analysis. And it is not what Hawley believes. He does say that the exercise of masculine virtue has been curtailed, but implicit in his calls to recover “that spirit of independence” which the COVID-era command-and-control society has attacked and to “strengthen,” “empower,” and “unleash” men is the idea that such a thing can be done even in the society we have today. Masculinity is useful and often tested and revealed in extremis, but it does not only exist there. It can — and, indeed, must — manifest in the more workaday circumstances of modern life. Or, if not there, then at least in circumstances that men could still access.
Meadowcroft seems to downplay such possibilities, leaning heavily on the wisdom of an Internet meme. It purports to describe the life choices of a would-be man who decides not to engage in a world insufficiently conducive to his masculine thriving:
Wagie wagie get in cagie. All day long you sweat and ragie. NEET is comfy. NEET is cool. NEET is free from work and school. Wagie trapped and wagie dies. NEET eats tendies, sauce, and fries.
Only for the “uncaged, untrapped” can maturation to manhood take place, in this logic. But such logic is misguided. Hawley gives a hint as to why. The most controversial aspect of his recent manhood push has been his condemnation of pornography and video games. Meadowcroft also condemns these. But he seems a bit too willing to consult for wisdom a division of the same digital realm. Yet the separation from lived experience that world brings is just as capable of distorting reality and inculcating its own vices, if not more so.
In disdaining the possibility of manly virtue in more-ordinary settings, and in overly indulging the self-imposed vices of a group of people who should engage more with reality, Meadowcroft, I fear, puts himself in an awkward position. His prescriptions for salvaging masculinity wind up trapped between a Scylla of domineering grandeur and a Charybdis of memes. Navigating through such waters is tricky. Thus it is unfortunate, but not surprising, that he could not help but to see, in the disordered, distorted expressions of manhood displayed by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the summer, something to admire — or, at least, to embrace as (you guessed it) a meme.
This mental trap should be rejected. And rhetorical efforts such as those by Hawley should be applauded, not belittled, as Meadowcroft does when he says that “countering what Christina Hoff Sommers calls ‘The War Against Boys’ in rhetoric only will not be enough” to restore masculine virtue to American life. Despite Hawley’s best efforts, Meadowcroft says, “boys cannot be cajoled or encouraged into men, for liberalism did not send 16 million men into internal exile simply by henpecking and shrewishness.” Here, I would side with Hawley. If it is true that, despite changed material circumstances, it is still possible to practice and acquire masculine virtues, then our problem is, in fact, a rhetorical one to a considerable extent. So Hawley’s approach should not be so casually written off.
So what is my vision for manhood? I can imagine a few things. I am no policy expert, but I see wisdom in Josh Hawley’s implication that four-year higher education should not be for everyone. And, again, we should resist the Left’s attempts to erase masculinity and eliminate sexual differences.
In their personal lives, men should cultivate male friendships in the real world. They should seek out male spaces, though be careful not to exist in them only. They should engage in activities that make them think, and also ones that make them sweat, and present engagement with reality — maybe even a little sampling of those survival pressures civilization has largely enabled us to negotiate our exposure to. They should practice manly virtues, but also know that even virtuous habits have extremes. True manhood requires balance, not fleeing to extremes in either direction. They should try to embody such virtues in all situations, not just the ones they might think are the most exciting. They should log off. And when it comes to manliness, they should strive to show, not tell.