We have spent more than a few years, over the past few decades, discussing the role of women in society. We have women’s studies departments in the major universities, reams of books on “glass ceilings” and how to “have it all,” i.e. how to be a mother and a corporate executive at the same time, as well as hundreds of self-help books to encourage the self-esteem of young girls. This was quite proper; the role of women has changed, since the 1950’s, and it was needed to spend some time to decide just what that role should be in our modern society. In the process, however, we have neglected the role of men, and that neglect is apparent in the many different forms of identity men seek to prove their manhood, today.
I have a friend who was talking about the latest, most popular sport on American television today, so-called “ultimate fighting.” This is one of those “television sports, where men beat each other into bloody messes, kicking, gouging and bombastically bragging about their ability to do so. It is a cross between circus, wrestling, boxing and what occurs in many schoolyards in the country, activities that are typical of the way young men interact.
It seems that the current champion, a Brazilian, was fighting a Japanese fighter. The Japanese fighter got the Brazilian in a hold, and slowly twisted the arm of the Brazilian until the Brazilian’s arm broke. The Brazilian refused to stop the fight, or even make a sound, suggesting that it was “against his honor” to do so. All the guys listening to this story went “arf, arf,” sounding like Tim Allen, in his popular television show Car Talk, whenever Allen talks about real manly stuff and we all said that THIS was how a REAL man acts, and we didn’t think any of us was up to that level. In fact, we all resonated to that image, as would any young man, I suspect but why was that? That got me thinking about what is a “real man.”
I start off, from the outset, suggesting that I have many of the characteristics that one would call “manly.”I am fairly good looking, in excellent health. I am fairly immune to pain, and once played an entire football game with a broken foot. I am fit, bike for 20 miles a day, during the warm season, and have done 50 miles at a time. I can use an axe and a chain saw, like to hike, and consider myself fairly wilderness savvy. I don’t get lost in the woods, but if I did, I have a pretty good idea what would need to be done to survive.
My downside is that I am fairly intelligent, and intelligence is not one of those ‘manly’ traits; I can write, and I like to write. I love to read, and discuss books and philosophical topics over wine or beer. I have advanced degrees in two different fields, and have a fairly high-end job. I know nothing of NASCAR, don’t drink alcohol to excess, don’t smoke and couldn’t tell you the names of a half dozen major sports teams. My opinion of someone who would sit by and, for entertainment, allow his arm to be broken, so he could preserve his honor has something to do with a head so thick that it took a long time for the pain signals to get to his brain.
In other words, I doubt if I am a “man” to many of those, out there, who think that a man is someone who is ignorant of cooking, sewing or cleaning a house, needs to beat his wife once a week to “keep her in line” and, spends no time taking care of themselves, dies an early age due to smoking and drinking and smells badly, for a wide variety of reasons.
My theory is that men are put on this earth for two reasons; 1) To procreate, 2) To take care of women and children and protect them from other men. Note that, in terms of society and the future of mankind, men are important only with relationship to women and children. Women are needed to produce children, and since most women, in civilized society, have only one or two children in their lifetime, you need far more women in a society for the purposes of procreation than you need men. Â However, the smaller the pool of men, in any society, the less chances there are of preventing that society from being overrun by another society’s men so men are needed for their muscle and ability to prosecute war not necessarily for procreation.
With that definition, then, how does one define “manly?” Mind you, I can only give my definition, as a man. I am sure many women, out there, would have a different opinion, and I am not addressing those characteristics which might make a man “sexy” to women. With respect to that, I have found that many women will say one thing about what “attracts” them, but have secret fantasies about being carried off by a brainless, but passionate Scotsman to his gothic castle for pursuits that have nothing to do with civilized behavior, which is why I refuse to get involved in that discussion.
To me, a man is the rock and cement of society, one who can take care of himself, and is more or less capable of taking care of those who depend on him. There is a certain amount of physicality about this, as to me, a man should be able to protect his wife and children, his home, community, State and Country against all enemies, both domestic and foreign. However, that does NOT mean that people need run in fear of the human brute that you have become. Not everyone has a black belt in karate, and not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Some of us are teachers, lawyers, doctors, legislators and policemen. We all do what we can, but a man takes responsibility for what he can do, and doesn’t pass his responsibilities on to others. Each role in society helps to strengthen that society.
Protecting family and community implies a respect for the law. One is not protecting the community if one is breaking the laws of that community. One is not protecting the family if one is teaching and/or encouraging his family to break the laws of the community. One IS protecting one’s family by living an honorable life by a code of conduct that preserves society. A man without honor diminishes his society. A man is defined by his sense of honor.
We do not hear much about honor today. It is a word from the past, an “old-fogey”word, one that has been replaced by many forms of “realpolitik,”where cynical people suggest that winning is all that matters, and how you get there means little, as long as you do not get caught. Thus, one can run for President, and use methods of personal assassination and lies to win, without anyone considering those tactics in their decision to elect you or, the nation can retreat from Vietnam, leaving many tens of thousands to die, facing an enemy with retribution in their hearts. The fact that these actions are dishonorable is never mentioned, even in the history books, because it is not important. What were important were the results, not the means to those results.
There are many iconic images that represent men to many in our society in contradiction to the values of realpolitik. I think of the American Revolution, and George Washington, losing every battle in the first year of the war against a better trained, better equipped, better lead British army, yet persevering to the end and triumphing. I think of the American Civil War, and the Southern army of Robert E. Lee, winning every battle until the end, when surrender became inevitable, but surrendering with their heads held high at having performed their duty honorably and with pride. I think of Abraham Lincoln, steadfastly sticking to the course he knew was right, despite defeat after defeat.
I think of the settling of the American West, and the many iconographic characters (both real and imaginary) that have become well-known to many Americans, through dime novels, books, movies and television, such as Wyatt Earp, Matt Dillon, of “Gunsmoke”fame, and Ben Cartwright, of “Bonanza”fame, I think of the World War II generation, a generation of heroes who stood together against foreign enemies and triumphed, as a country. I think of all those millions of American soldiers who suffered and died protecting and defending their hearth and home, without questioning their duty, and without expectation of recognition.
There is a common theme, in all of these images. These men, who represent America to me, are not quitters. They achieved their place in history not necessarily by winning or losing, but because they stayed the course, and persevered to the end, despite setbacks and defeat, because they knew, in their heart, that what they were doing was right. They did not expect reward. They simply did their job, and that is all anyone asked of them.
Thus, a man is defined by his code of honor, and by his willingness to stand by that code of honor, despite the consequences. A man is defined by whether he serves as a positive or negative influence on society, as a whole. Above all, a man is strong, and serves as a model for those around him. These are values that were, once, taken for granted in our society, and helped make us the strongest nation in the world. We seem to have lost them, in the shuffle to become great. We need them, now, more than ever.
© 2006 Steve Haas, All Rights Reserved.