October 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is the absence of a rich inner life

Most think the solution is ramping up “manliness.” It’s not.

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Thursday’s post borrowed a concept from a new history by Jeremi Suri called Civil War By Other Means. With it, I wrote about an either-or thinking seemingly ingrained in the Confederate brain

When Black people were slaves, white people were free. When Black people were free, white people were slaves. Slavery wasn’t just the basis of the plantation economy. It was the basis of democracy for the well-mannered overlords of elite southern society. For them, without slavery – without suffering – civilization would collapse.

Among the many obvious problems with this way of thinking is something less obvious. If you believe that what’s bad for Black people is good for white people, what do you have when they, through means internal and external, achieve their freedom?

The answer is nothing. 

We keep telling them to not be something. But not being something terrifies them. The more we say don’t be X, the more they double down on being X. We see the former as the solution. They see the former as the problem. Either-or thinking becomes a vicious cycle.

There’s no there there. There’s no moral constitution that can go on in the absence of a social and political order built on Black bodies. Yes, not just slavery. Black bodies stacked up over centuries – were the foundation. Take them away? Civilization really does collapse.

Now apply this binary mode of thinking to a subject much in vogue these days thanks to redhat propagandists like Tucker Carlson. Of course, the subject I’m talking about is “The End of Men” or, as David Brooks put it more mildly, the “Crisis of Men and Boys.”

At the root of this subject is an assumption that, if given a hard look, would be seen as gonzo nuts. Anyone with eyes that can see – or senses that can sense – can discern that men, especially white men, are doing fine. To be sure, problems remain, societally and individually. But relative to others, white men are still on top.

Here’s an example: I’m 48, white, tall, bald. (Not bad looking.) When I go to pick up my daughter from school, where she’s in the racial minority, nonwhite parents, especially mothers, see me coming and hustle themselves and their kids out of the way, even apologizing as if they’ve done something wrong by standing still in public. This … just happens. It’s not natural, though. It’s a culture white men created.

That culture is complicated, but I think it boils down to this: white men deserve whatever they desire – money, sex, power, whatever. 

This is somewhat scandalous to talk about openly, so we invented all sorts of ways of pretending that white men work as hard as other people do; that we aren’t the center of a political culture built for us centuries ago; and that we don’t accept at birth a rich inheritance.


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Of course, we do.

The question is whether we want to know that we do.

Because if white men don’t know, what happens when they don’t get their heart’s desire? Some men turn inward to religion. Some to sports. But others don’t have what it takes to reconcile themselves to the consequences of democratic politics. So they reach for a gun.

Still others discover ways to profit from telling these white men that democratic politics has cheated them of their birthright – that when women gain a fraction of an inch of political power, it’s castration; that when Black people succeed, in business or sports or politics, that’s a sign of societal disease and rot. It wasn’t this way back in the day. Something’s gone terribly wrong. We gotta do something.

To be sure, propagandists like Carlson influence these men in various and sundry ways, but propaganda doesn’t work unless there’s already a kernel of truth to build on. In this case, there are two kernels. 

One, as I said, is a political culture telling white men that they deserve everything. But the other is perhaps more important: an understanding, though likely unconscious, that if white men do not dominate – that if women and nonwhite people have equal political power as a consequence of democratic politics – what do they have? 

Nothing.

They don’t have moral cores that exist independently of the lives and fortunes of their supposed inferiors, because the political culture permits them to grow up without bothering to develop moral cores. What do they have when women are strong and independent?

Due to either-or thinking, nothing.

Worse, they are nothing. Zeroes, ciphers, blanks.

That’s so terrifying, you’ll believe anything.

The reaction among Democrats and liberals, to things like the funny recommendation for men to beam red light onto their genitals, is by now conventional. We say that this wouldn’t happen if these men weren’t so sexist, so racist, so something-ist. If they only sought to be as “enlightened” as we are, this farce would be self-evident.


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What some Democrats and liberals – especially Twitter hard asses – don’t account for is that this reaction feeds into the either-or thinking that seeded a political culture at the root of the problem.

We keep telling them to not be something. But not being something terrifies them. The more we say don’t be X, the more they double down on being X. We see the former as the solution. They see the former as the problem. Either-or thinking becomes a vicious cycle.

Instead of telling them not to be something, we should tell them to be something. In other words, we should admonish them to develop a moral core – a rich inner life – that can exist on its own without being conditioned on democratic politics. Instead of sharing power being seen as losing power, it would simply be seen as sharing it.

Developing such a thing is a heavy lift, though.

Living on your inheritance takes less effort.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

3 Comments

  1. Bern on October 7, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    See also today’s stack from Roy Edroso:
    https://edroso.substack.com/p/whats-worst-for-everyone

  2. Nick D on October 12, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    I resonate with how your approach (in much of your writing) to our society’s challenges is psychologically / sociologically based. We must understand the internal, individual motivations and drives if we are to understand how groups are being co-opted by bad actors.

    In this particular post, it brought up concepts of human development, specifically moving from an external definition of identity to an internal one. It’s unsustainable to define oneself in terms of others or by what you’re not.

    Furthermore, in my own experience and tying directly into this topic, I had to consciously and explicitly redefine what it meant to be a man when I realized I was gay. I could have followed society’s definition and lived with doubt and self-loathing. Luckily, I chose to put that aside and create my own definition and thereby my own self-worth.

    • Avatar photo John Stoehr on October 12, 2022 at 12:53 pm

      Many thanks for this, Nick. I think anyone who does not “fit in” has to do something like this. The degree of difficulty obviously depends, but it’s a heavy lift in any case. Thanks again. JS

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