Saturday, March 02, 2002

Zenpriest #61 - Everyone Lives Through History, We Just Don't Realize It...

…until we have.

These are exciting times for men.

I know that statement will cause some people to snort and roll their eyes and start to think of all kinds of reasons that it is just plain crazy. There is a lot of gloom and doom being circulated about men and boys these days – “The Decline of Males”, “The End of Men”, the cackling of the pecking hens that men are “obsolete”  because some scientist has claimed to be able to produce sperm in a lab. Most of it comes from the necrotic husk of the has-been lame-stream media. Too much of it comes from men themselves.

I don’t buy it – any of it.

I think I’m the oldest contributor here. I have lived through what many of the  contributors here (and probably most of the readers) view as history and know of only through the same manner that they know of Ancient Greece, or the World Wars of the 20th century – from something they read or someone told them. The 1960s may not seem as remote as an ancient civilization, but from the perspective of a  participant-observer, I can tell you that a lot of what has been said and is being said about life 50 years ago is 190 proof horse manure.

Men’s lives in the 1950s and before were not all about the much mythologized “male power and privilege,” nor were woman anywhere near as “oppressed” as has been claimed. History is always revisionist, and the revision is always done by the victor. In considering the 2nd half of the 20th century, the ideology of feminism was clearly the victor.

But, other than the ability to dictate how things are spoken about, and what things can be said and what can’t, what did they “win.” I think the real answer turns out to be “nothing”, except perhaps the booby prize. See, men’s lives for most of history have been not about “power and privilege”, but rather about bone crushing and soul destroying work, huge responsibilities, and disposability.

There has been much buzz about the internet recently about the finding that women’s happiness has actually declined during the past 40 years that they have been “winning”, becoming “liberated”, and pursuing “having it all” – both in absolute terms, and relative to men. At the same time, men’s happiness has increased – both in absolute terms and relative to women.

Now, let me say that again, and really let it sink in – men today are happier than men were 40 years ago, and women are less happy. Lots of people have analyzed the hows and whys of that to the level of terminal boredom, but that one simple fact stands alone – men today, on the average and in the aggregate, are happier than their fathers and grandfathers were.


Well, it’s really pretty simple – men’s lives today are simply better than the lives their fathers, and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and all the men in history who lived and died before them. Life for men, in general, has never been better.

“What??!?!” you say. “How could that be?!!?! It’s just not so! The feminists have told me!”

One of the better musical poets of my generation, Bruce Springsteen, summed up very well what the lives of average men used to be like not very long ago, in his powerful song, “The River.”

“I come from down in the valley
where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done.”

Mens’ lives were incredibly constrained. What your “daddy done” was most likely what you would end up doing, and your son, and his son. For the college educated and middle class, this usually took the form of some sort of business, mercantile, management, or professional white collar job. For the working class, it meant -

“Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat”

A white collar boy/man might marry Sally instead of Mary, and a get clerkship in his father’s law office instead of a union card, but both classes of men had their life script handed to them about the end of their teens. And, all classes of men were expected to spend the vast majority of their waking lives working for someone else in order to live up to the protector/provider role which was most men’s alternative to being social non-entities. In those days, the only roles which gave men any social validity at all were husband, father, and wealthy man. In order for a single man to have any social acceptance at all, he damn well better be wealthy.

Well, fast forward 50 years and we find that men have far more freedom and flexibility than any group of men has ever had in the history of the world. They can now choose to be husbands, and/or fathers, or anything else, and the social pressure and stigma which used to force the vast majority of men into early marriage (and often early graves) and the role of a specialized beast of burden bred for the specific purpose of dragging around an emotionally and financially dependent wife and family is simply no longer there.

Certainly, some men might wish to continue to choose those roles for their lives.  And the social Luddites, who fear and resist change, may want to try to keep men trapped in those old roles. But, as women’s roles have changed, the system which gave men only one set of choices has changed whether people wanted it to or not.

Men may choose to be husbands and fathers. Or not. They can choose to be travelers, or explorers, or scholars, or X-box players. Or not. They can be househusbands, assuming they can find a breadwinning wife and are willing to deal with the residual social stigma toward a man who does not live up to the traditional roles. But, women have blazed the way in breaking down those old roles and in their place have left men a world of opportunities limited only by their own imaginations.

The real challenges confronting men these days are the topics Novaseeker and Prime have recently written about – defining core masculine values by which men define themselves. For too long men have been allowing women to define us – either in the negative, by giving a us a list of things they don’t like about us, or by  demanding that we become more like them. Some men are comfortable with becoming more like women, and we will see how women really end up liking them once the do.

But, for the rest of us, who have never had any desire to be women, we now have the opportunity to completely define for ourselves what sort of masculinity will serve us, and those we love, best in the coming years.

We men, right now, are living through history. To most of us, it just seems like our lives. But, as time passes our lives of today will become our context of tomorrow. And, our choices of today will shape the world that we and our children will live in tomorrow. And, in far less time than they can imagine, young men of today will have become the “older generation” of tomorrow and find to their surprise that those who came after them are now judging them based on the present they created for those next generations.

Instead of watching our feet, and looking behind us, and castigating the boomers for their mistakes, our best future lies in reclaiming our authenticity from those aspects of the culture which have become toxic. We need to do what the younger men here have started to do and realize that we no longer have sustainable values handed to us – as previous generations of men did – and that we must now create them. We can seize the day and take the best from the past ideals of masculinity, reclaim them from the dishonor which has fallen on them, and at the same time shed the worst aspects which have been the source of much of that dishonor.

More than at any other time in history, we have the ability to define not just our own presents, but our futures and the futures of those we care about.

Yes, indeed, these are exciting times for men.

We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.

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