There's been a lot written about the "decline of men," the idea that economic and cultural factors are gradually turning more and more men into losers who have no positive, masculine, postpatriarchy role models to turn to. Except we already have a...
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These days, most of my role models are cool, fearless artists (which is what I want to be), many of whom happen to be women. You can see one of my few male role models when I roll up my sleeve—I have a big tattoo of Jesus Christ holding open the Bible to Mark 2:9. (That’s the one where Jesus says, “Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?”) This is my rejoinder to the “decline of men” debate clogging the drain of American cultural criticism today.
If you’re lucky enough to have avoided the countless think pieces churned out on the subject, the “decline of men” narrative goes something like this: fewer and fewer men are graduating from college and earning advanced degrees, while women are making more and more money, to the point where they don’t “need” men the way they used to—as a result, four in ten American families have a mother who is the primary (or only) earner, according to one study.
The crisis of masculinity, or rise of women, or whatever, has been the topic of conversation among fancy-pants op-ed writers since at least 2008, but the most recent eruption of sociology-driven panic came in the form of an all-male Fox News panel freaking out over the rise of female breadwinners. (According to conservatives like Erick Erickson, women making as much or more money than men is unnatural and will damage children.) By now a lot of writers and thinkers are pretty good at getting the easy part right: men and boys spiral into pathetic failure territory more frequently than they used to, and it’s too obvious a phenomenon for us to ignore. People who insist (rightly) that the patriarchy is still dominant are missing the point. Even if women still get the short end of the stick, too many men are maturing into losers.
Loserdom can manifest itself in relatively boring ways—unemployment, ill health, illegitimate children, World of Warcraft addiction—but it can also show up in bone-rattling waking nightmares: think of the dude who held those three girls prisoner in Cleveland, or the maladjusted young men who go on shooting rampages.
Some pretty tuned-in people are doing good work on the economic sources of male loserdom. In Spain and Greece and elsewhere, it’s not just young men who are suffering, but it’s young men who are most at sea as the seemingly endless financial crisis hastens the ruin of the millennia-old patriarchal “breadwinner” model of family life.
But not many commenters are asking what should be done about all this, or even what all this means beyond a set of economic statistics. Even then, some of their cultural stories are retreads. Charles Murray’s recent book on downward white mobility, for instance, argues that super rich liberal whites have a social obligation to care about the fate of failing whites—and help them out by preaching to them about the importance of hard work and marriage.
Where Murray seems to fall back on the idea that old bromides about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will allow white winners to salvage the crumbling society they rule, German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger points us toward something very deep about our shared identity as individual human beings. Back in 2006, Enzensberger helpfully warned the world’s wonks to stop sifting through statistics and open their eyes to “the true drama of the radical loser”—the isolated, lonely, angry guy who gloms onto some thought structure or is scooped up by an organization of creeps, the guy who thinks he is nothing until he realizes he can be Death.
One of the most recent heirs to Enzensberger’s courageous and far-seeing view is Laurie Penny in the Guardian (who has written for VICE). While discussing men in Britain—who are spiraling even more swiftly toward terminal failure than America’s sad lot—Penny puts her finger on what’s missing from the economic blame game:
"There can be no doubt that men are in distress. Society's unwillingness to let go of the tired old 'breadwinner' model of masculinity contributes to that distress. Instead of talking about what men and boys can be, instead of starting an honest conversation about what masculinity means, there is a conspiracy of silence around these issues that is only ever broken by conservative rhetoric and lazy stereotypes. We still don't have any positive models for post-patriarchal masculinity, and in this age of desperation and uncertainty, we need them more than ever."
Except we do have a positive model for postpatriarchial masculinity—Jesus!
I don’t mean the Jesus who was turned into a convenient symbol of intolerance and hypocrisy by the militant atheist crowd, or the twisted version worshipped by the Westboro Baptist crowd. No, today is a boom time in the making for the real Jesus: the one who told men that the single-minded pursuit of wealth or honor or even “family values” is sure to leave the soul barren; the one who told men that they should never be shocked when they feel despair or feel despised, because there is no rest or repose for us in this mortal world; the one who told men what he told the paralyzed guy in Mark 2:9—and this is why I have that verse permanently inked on my skin—take up thy mat and walk.
In Mark, the paralyzed guy’s friends hear Jesus is around, so they approach the Son of God and ask him to use his healing powers on their buddy. Jesus starts by telling the paralyzed guy his sins are forgiven and some nearby theology experts hear this and flip out: “Only God can forgive sins, Jesus. WTF.” Jesus rolls his eyes. “OK,” he says. He’ll tell paralyzed guy the same thing in different words: “Take up thy mat and walk.” And that’s what paralyzed guy does.
Now, you can get hung up like an idiot on trying to “prove” that this “actually happened,” or you can accept the scorching, epochal idea staring you in the face. We are created in a divine image and can choose to forgive one another and ourselves for being losers and failures—for malfunctioning, for going wrong, for defeating ourselves, for “deserving” disgust and disrespect by the standards of the world. The lesson of Jesus is a message about what it means to be human that’s so radical, it makes our petty squabbles about what it means to be a “real man” seem hopelessly animalistic and juvenile.
It’s a message so radical that, since the beginning, it’s resonated most strongly with the most wretched of the world. The decline of men can be just a prelude to a new elevation of all humankind. And no, we don’t all have to convert to some version of Christianity in order to make that happen, although I bet lots of men will. But instead of being scary—oh no! Religion! That means intolerance!—this will be a relief. I predict that increasingly, the Jesus-based lifestyles of the near future will be stripped of their political trappings and preachy judgment by the desperation and uncertainty of the times. It’ll be as if instead of Fight Club, we wound up with something more like Love Club.
Sometimes, for reasons which need not concern us here, I feel like a man in decline. Often, it helps to argue about politics. Even more often, it helps to rock the fuck out. But it helps most of all to let myself be forgiven—because only then can I forgive. That doesn’t have anything to do with economics or the broader trends so many are obsessed with. But it makes me feel better.
More about my man JC: