Manliness has fallen into disrepute in the parts of the world where people like to think of themselves as civilized. Even the word, manliness, has gained an almost Victorian quaintness, slightly silly, as outdated as straw boaters and spats.
Feminism rules our public discourse like the Queen of Hearts overseeing Alice’s tea party. Aggressive feminists dominate American public schools to the point where bureaucrats dose thousands of little boys with powerful psychoactive drugs to make them act more like little girls.
Popular culture is right in step with the trend. Manliness in its traditional guises, adventure seeking, independent, freedom loving, is shunned when it’s not mocked outright. Male pop idols tend toward the hermaphrodite, slight of build, sans body hair, pierced in places where a convenient handle would be a dangerous liability in a bar fight.
A good husband these days is a sensitive metrosexual who does housework, cooks, talks about his feelings, and never wants to do anything his wife wouldn’t like to do. The modern media gelds men while simultaneously masculating women. My impression is that neither the geldings nor the macho women are comfortable in their new roles.
I’m more aware of the feminization of the world lately because my sons are at the awkward not-quite-men but more-than-boys age. At their age, study, books, math, and all things domestic are unspeakably dull, suffocatingly safe and secure. They are hot to do something reckless, something involving machinery — shiny, loud, fast, dangerous — preferably all four. Or perhaps to trek into some wild place where security means good friends, a good rifle and a smart dog. I’m ready to let them take that trip and at the same time afraid they will. It would be hard to sell their mother on the idea.
To say that women don’t understand men understates the case no more than saying the reverse. My oldest son, now 16, is always eager to talk about dangerous machines, cars, planes, boats, and guns. My wife finds his preoccupations incomprehensible. Luckily, I do not.
Teenage boys, when they are not exasperating us with their deep knowledge of everything, remind those of us approaching our dotage of the days when the blood ran hot in our veins too. They remind us of when we were eager to do what we now consider stupid. To risk death in fast cars, or on motorcycles, or hanging on ropes from high places or playing with guns.
"What gun would we take on a walk down to Argentina, Dad?" There’s never a doubt that such a walk would be worth taking or that a rifle would be a required tool. A traditionalist, I’m partial to the Winchester lever action 30-30. We agree it’s a sweet gun. There are surely modern rifles better suited for the job. Jeff Cooper’s Steyr-Mannlicher Scout in 7.62mm comes to mind, with the built in bipod and 2.5x Leupold scope mounted well forward. But as long as we’re running a fantasy, let’s stick with the Winchester. It’s just such a sweet gun.
That such a walk would be pointless and without practical value is the least of our concerns. Men do not see how fast their cars will go, climb to the tops of remote mountains, build exotic flying machines, or fashion potato guns from plumbing parts for practical purposes. I doubt the idea of a “sweet gun” could ever fully deliver its meaning across the gender gulf.
It’s increasingly a woman’s world. Modern economies favor the order, safety and security that women find comforting and men often find themselves trapped in. It’s not an uncomfortable world. But some men chafe and bridle at the domestication.
Thus do I know a middle-aged family man, a responsible small business owner, who developed a yen for rice-burning, crotch-rocket motorcycles. He owned a couple machines that mounted a human operator like a kidskin glove accepting a willing hand. He would take weekend trips north on route 95 to the Carolinas where on remote, straightaways, in the middle of the night he would find out if they could really do the advertised 200 miles an hour. He complained bitterly of the Suzuki that topped out at a dismal 189.
While I knew he was stupid and reckless to be going 200 miles an hour on a motorcycle, in the dark, on a public highway, I knew why he did it. Part of me wanted to do it too. Men are hardwired to want to be on the edge of disaster but in control of it. We want to know how fast it will go, or how high, or how loud it will be or how big a splash it will make. Not for any reason except to know and to be able to say we know from experience. No amount of domestication completely removes those manly, if absurd, desires.
Thus also does this writer plan to travel this summer with his sons to a remote part of North Carolina for a week of sleeping in the dirt and training in rifle marksmanship. The brochure tells us to bring camping equipment, rifles and five thousand rounds of ammunition. It promises to return us home riflemen in the sense that we will be skilled enough with our weapons to qualify as experts.
It is perhaps a ridiculous promise to teach us what may be a useless skill. But it is a manly skill that until not long ago was considered as basic as learning to read or write. I have no fantasies of shooting anyone, nor do I think my boys do. I do not hunt and would not care to kill anything that did not need killing. But there may be times when skill with a weapon will offer otherwise unavailable security. I’m comfortable with that idea. I’d like my sons to be as well. And besides, a week of hanging with manly men doing manly stuff with noisy, dangerous machines, farting at will, scratching where it itches and peeing behind trees is more than I can resist.