I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of American boyhood.
Two more mass shootings; this time in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Thirty-one dead and dozens more injured, more lives cut radically short at the hands of another young, white, very troubled American man.
Immediately in the aftermath, the hunt was on for a scapegoat. White nationalism? Video games? 8chan? The NRA? Mental illness?
The biography of the shooter in El Paso provided much low-hanging fruit in the initial search for blame. His hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto surfaced and, understandably, gave many what they were looking for: a smoking gun that linked the attack to extreme right-wing rhetoric, Donald Trump’s specifically. Here was a young man who was pro guns and pro Trump, with racist ideas and hateful motivations. God and country — just the kind of person one has been conditioned to suspect might act out in our current political climate.
But then the biography of the Dayton shooter challenged this simplification of the weekend’s violence, as reports revealed a Skylla in Dayton who was the near-photonegative of the Charybdis in El Paso. Here was a young man who supported gun restrictions, Elizabeth Warren, Satan (!), and Antifa — the very existence of which is defined by its opposition to the Trump presidency.
Two young men under sway of virtually opposite ideologies, committing similar acts of cold-blooded, mass murder — one now dead, another in custody, probably facing capital punishment.
What kind of man?
In the wake of these alarmingly frequent mass shootings, most of the national conversation is spent debating American gun laws or, better, the motivating ideologies in whose names such senseless acts of violence are perpetrated. Often, the commentariat tends to explain such horrific acts of violence in terms that lay the blame at the feet of one’s political opponents, which inevitably produces superficial explanations that fail to deal with the real social pathology. This penchant for politicization gives too little attention to what kind of country, what kind of culture, what kind of society churns out not a few boys who grow up to be the kind of men who would do such things.
What kind of man harbors thoughts about such hate-filled, senseless acts, or the ideologies purported to motivate them?
Certainly there is a place for debating sensible gun legislation, and insofar as hateful, anti-American ideologies are gaining traction, we should counter them and perhaps even treat their purveyors as enemies of the state, to be dealt with just as the FBI has dealt in the past with ISIS enthusiasts, the KKK, and other existential threats to American society.
But I am convinced that, more often than not, these ideologies — which, again, in and of themselves should be taken seriously and seriously opposed — are merely what Ross Douthat called “a flag of convenience,” a “carapace,” and that under these shells are not ideological turtles all the way down, but instead disenfranchised, ill-formed, virtueless little boys. And while the relevant factors like gun laws (red vs. blue states) and wicked ideologies (extreme right vs. left) are often different, the near-sure common denominator in each one of these shootings is a male perpetrator.
And so I was surprised to see California’s liberal governor Gavin Newsom manage to speak so clearly about this problem when few others have:
“These shootings overwhelmingly — almost exclusively — are males, boys, men. I do think that is missing in the national conversation. If there was anything more obvious, I don’t know what is.”
Newsom can see it, while those who study mass shootings for a living seem blind to it. Something is sick with the American male.
“Values” or Virtue?
The fundamental question before us really is this: How are we raising our boys to be men? Indeed, are we raising our boys to be men? Governor Newsom recognizes that how we make boys into men is the crux of the issue:
“I think that goes deep to the issue of how we raise our boys to be men, goes deeply to values that we tend to hold dear — power, dominance, aggression, over empathy, care and collaboration.”
But does the solution really lie in the direction Newsom suggests? Trading “values,” replacing “power, dominance, and aggression” with “empathy, care, and collaboration”?
In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom warns against the meaningless void of “values” speak, which he calls “the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil,” which serve “the easygoing quest for comfortable self-preservation.” Values are subjective and only culture deep, and it would be hard to find a more shallow well to draw from than modern American culture.
While part of the problem may indeed be found in male “power, dominance, and aggression,” to describe “power, dominance, and aggression” as male is nearly a tautology. Replacing these in toto would be to replace men. But to channel “power, dominance, and aggression”? Now we are finally arrived at the heart of the problem, which is virtueless male “power, dominance, and aggression.”
The abolition of men?
C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is a collection of lectures he delivered out of concern for how the British education system, which was just one presentment of a larger societal disease, was inculcating subjectivity and “values” unmoored from any objective notion of value, order, and virtue. Lewis understood this trend to be a threat not only to British society, but mankind as he knew it. In his day, Lewis wrote of the abolition of man. But I am worried for similar reasons about the abolition of men.
In the 1940’s Lewis could write,
“Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.”
Truly, thank the Lord for mothers. But that was 1947. Have we fared as well? America’s full daycares and encroaching mandatory pre-K approximate Plato’s dreams; rampant absent-fatherlessness, Elyot’s; and the pragmatists’ war on the Humanities, Locke’s. And what do the educationalists do for our boys when they have them?
Adapting Lewis’s concern to modern American boyhood — which is today more than ever nursed at the bosom of the state — we are forming men without virtue and expect of them sacrifice and enterprise. We laugh at chivalry and are shocked to find brutes and misogynists in our midst. We emasculate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
At base, we have lost sight of one of the primary purposes of education. As Lewis writes,
“St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.”
Educators may still aim at ethics and “values” in instructing our boys — I was once required to take a class called “Decisions” in Middle School — but they are neglecting the necessary work of building in them a gut reaction of love; namely, virtue.
Whence good and evil?
Aquinas described the habit of virtue as that which “disposes an agent to perform its proper operation or movement.” But then we would all have to agree on what is proper. What is modern American boyhood, modern American education — in the full sense of that word — teaching the American boy? What is he taught to love? What is he taught to hate? Do we even have a common vocabulary for such conversations any more?
Western civilization has historically recognized four cardinal or natural virtues, affirmed by august thinkers from Plato and Cicero to Ambrose, Aquinas, and Calvin. Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Courage. Compared to Newsom’s call for “empathy, care, and collaboration” — a great summary of America’s aspiring “values” — it is easy to spot the deficiency. Whence good and evil?
Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Ethics notes the Greek etymology of the fourth cardinal virtue, Courage, and lists “manliness” as a synonym. He writes about this manly virtue, describing it as “based on self-respect, a sense of honor, and self-worth, which express themselves in great and noble deeds.” Today, the only thing we hear of manliness is about its toxicity. We’ve downgraded manliness from one of the four cardinal virtues to something akin to chlorine gas.
Newsom champions “empathy, care, and collaboration.” But would he have us trade in feelings instead of the common good? Which of these “values” will face down — heaven forbid — the next shooter in the school hallway, the Walmart, the city bar? More importantly, which of these “values” will confront the next shooter within?
There be dragons
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis identifies several technological developments that he understood had contributed to the societal decline he was observing all around that led him to warn of man’s abolition. He pointed to the airplane, the radio, and the contraceptive as representative technologies that marked advances over Nature that had greased the path to further social and moral deterioration. We could update Lewis’s critique for the 21st century and look no further than community-gutting hypermobility, the relationship-stunting Internet, and sex’s divorce from procreation — a disunion accelerated by legalized abortion and ubiquitous contraceptives that has ravaged families. These irreversible facts of the modern world can and should be, in some sense, opposed, curtailed, and even rolled back in anyone’s effort to repair our frayed social fabric.
But woe to the one who would do so without attempting virtue’s retrieval, especially the manly variety. For it is just this that could reinvigorate American boyhood: a vision of manhood that calls him away from self-indulgence and libertinism, and toward self-possession and discipline, embracing his God-given manliness in the service of right vs. racist wrong, good vs. existentialist evil — the kind of community-protecting, relationship-building, family-forming manhood that must be characterized by virtue.
For there be dragons — demons — to face down, both without and within a man. Thus we would do well to hope against the abolition of men.
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