Fri. June 14
Act Like a Man, Think Like a Woman
H.L. Mencken nailed it perfectly, and almost a hundred years ago. The best kind of man, he wrote, always has “a wide streak of woman in him.” That insight is found in Mencken’s 1918 book In Defense of Women.
It’s unfortunate that this axiom is ignored or misunderstood today. As a result, you wind up with a lot of social critics, particularly conservatives, defending men as violent, promiscuous, sex and sports obsessed, and illiterate. Because, you see, that’s just how we are. And women have to learn to like it and stop hounding us.
The most recent example is Men on Strike: Why Men are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream, by Helen Smith. This is a hysterical and hectoring book whose basic claim is that men are verbally, spiritually, and psychologically abused by women, and therefore are dropping out of their marital and societal obligations. According to Men on Strike, women need to just shut up and let us dudes be ourselves—which in this case, is basically a self-scratching, mumbling, football-loving ape. It used to be, argues Smith, that being a grown-up, responsible man was rewarded with respect, power, and deference. But those days are over:
“You have spent much of your youth confronted with ‘Boys Are Stupid’ T-shirts, listened in health class as you are told you are a potential rapist, had your girlfriend talk about ‘cutting off your [testicles]’ without a thought and, of course, there were no repercussions. By college, you realize that the hostility is coming at you like a knife.”
Oh, please. This is reactionary agenda journalism of the worst kind, using the most extreme examples, and all of it anecdotal as recounted by angry men. Virtually every man quoted in Men on Strike seems to have married a crazed banshee who wails at her mate about his clothes, his job, his habits, his laziness, and his general bumbling and stumbling around the house. She fools around on him, waits, arms folded, for him to do the dishes and pack up her lunch, and, if married, will get a divorce if his salary dips by ten percent. Sure, there are woman like this, but Smith makes it seem as if no other type exists.
In my experience, women want a strong, masculine man, but one who also, as Mencken put it, has a streak of the feminine in him. In In Defense of Women, Mencken argued that women have an intelligence that is especially tuned to eternal and divine truths. They are less violent than men (look at the prison population), more willing to negotiate peace with each other, and are attuned to the eternal nature of events like weddings, birthdays, and baptisms. Mencken: “In so far as [men] show the true fundamentals of intelligence—in so far as they reveal a capacity for discovering the kernel of eternal verity in the husk of delusion and hallucination and a passion for bringing it forth—to that extent, at least, they are feminine, and still nourished by the milk of their mothers.” If you find an intelligent man, Mencken concluded, he will have a streak of woman in him: “Bonaparte had it; Goethe had it; Schopenhauer had it; Bismarck and Lincoln had it; in Shakespeare, if the Freudians are to be believed, it amounted to downright homosexuality.”
My own life experience has been a reflection of this. My grandfather was a star baseball player for the Washington Senators, and my father was a poet, mystic and editor at National Geographic. I got genes from both. I was an athlete growing up, and some of my most powerful memories are being on a field or playground and feeling the power of raw male physicality. As if it were today, I remember when I tried out for the high school football team: a day that was humid, overcast, and pouring rain. After a few collisions on the field, my nose began to bleed. A coach asked me if I was all right. I was more than that—I was exhilarated. I had been “cut,” as primitive tribes do to usher boys into manhood. I held my position in the rain, the red mix of water, blood, and snot on my face a baptism. There was no man alive who was going to take me off that field. And on this the conservatives are right—women like that kind of stuff. They like warriors.
But they also like poets, and men who like art and can hold up their end of an intelligent conversation. This is where my father comes in. He always encouraged me to “lift as many books as weights.” He took me to Ireland to learn about my ancestors and the culture that produced Joyce and Yeats. We held poetry readings at the house. At one such evening, a friend of mine—in fact a guy on the football team—was marveling at my record collection. “You’ve got AC/DC next to Culture Club,” he said. “Are you into heavy metal or gay blue-eyed soul?”
Why not both? In terms of men, women, and relationships, our culture has gotten into a bad place. It seems like the conservatives defend the cavemen, and the liberals can’t stand the sight of blood. If men have anything to be on strike about, it’s a culture that insists that these are the only two choices.