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GermaniaA friend recommended Germania to me as a jumping off point for more research on European barbarians.

Germania has been called a dangerous book. That’s both hysterical and overly flattering. From what I can gather from introductions, research and from the text itself, it’s a kind of guide to the Germanic tribes pieced together from second hand accounts. Tacitus never traveled to “Germania” himself. Archaeology and other sources have verified many details in the book, but many more could be wrong, misleading or incomplete. There are familiar and inspiring segments worth reading, but they probably shouldn’t be read as absolute fact.

Here are 5 of my highlights. The first two are about the Germans, and the others are Tacitus’ general thoughts on strategy and life.

 

1. “The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.


2. “On the field of battle it is a disgrace to a chief to be surpassed in courage by his followers, and to the followers not to equal the courage of their chief.”


3. “Speed suggests something like fear, whereas deliberate movement rather indicates a steady courage.” 


4. “…mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.” 


5. “Bordering on the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. They resemble them in all respects but one — woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.”

 

I especially like the bit about the gods. It has a natural animistic feel to it, and reminds me of that Thomas Carlyle quote I used in The Way of Men.

Tacitus also noted that “Their food is plain — wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk.” Paleo plus dairy? Apparently the Germanic tribes also drank some kind of beer and partied a lot, and were known to debate frankly and honestly when they were drunk.  However, he wrote that the Germans ” debate when they are incapable of pretense, but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake.”

The Paleo ManifestoPALEOFUTURISM

There are 3 types of people in the world: People who haven’t heard of the paleo diet, people who have tried the paleo diet, and people who can’t wait to tell you how stupid it is.

People in the last group want to tell you how we’re still evolving, how different groups evolved differently, how you couldn’t live like our ancestors even if you tried, how the paleo diet isn’t sustainable for the world’s growing population, how SCIENCE! can produce superior health and athleticism, and how all that meat and fat will make you obese and give you a heart attack.

None of these objections are very good responses to positions paleo advocates actually advocate.

Of course humans are still evolving. Of course different groups adapted to different environments and circumstances. (My 23andme profile — SCIENCE! — says I’m probably not lactose intolerant based on my ancestry, and I’m not, so I ignore the anti-dairy aspects of paleo that could be completely relevant for someone else.) No one is saying you should or could actually live exactly as our primitive ancestors did in the modern world. The world’s growing population is not sustainable, full-stop. And no, everything produced in a lab is not evil. Yes, some of it is very helpful. But, given the recent history of SCIENCE! telling us something is good for us — and then 20 years of deaths and side-effects later, DISCOVERING! that it is actually terrible for us –it makes sense to minimize one’s exposure to synthetic “nutrition.” (One could actually call this “dietary conservatism.”) Finally, over the next 10 years, look for Western nations and medical bureaucracies to begin revising what they’ve proclaimed, ex cathedra, about fat.

The paleo diet is an attempt to approximate a diet closer to the diet of our ancestors. Modern humans are partially domesticated animals with wild ancestors. Just as you’d try to feed a trained monkey what it would eat in the wild to improve it’s health and happiness in the zoo, it makes sense to feed people what they evolved to eat in the wild.

John Durant makes this point in his recent book, The Paleo Manifesto, and takes it a step further. The Paleo Manifesto covers the basic guidelines of the paleo diet in plain and sensible language, but it’s not another diet book and it’s not a cookbook. The Paleo Manifesto pushes a total lifestyle change. Durant isn’t just concerned with what you eat, but when you eat, how you exercise and how you work. The big idea is to bring all of this into better harmony with the lifeways we adapted to in our species’ first few million years on the planet.

However, John Durant is not the unabomber. He lives in New York City, and he’s not trying to get you to move to a cabin in the woods. He wants to help you live happier and healthier in the modern zoo. This is the mainstream appeal of The Paleo Manifesto, which is full of fun facts about fasting to beat jet lag, standing desks (I became a fast fan), the footwear industry, sunscreen, cancer, thermoregulation and sleep. It’s an easy, engaging read and a jumping off point for further thinking on how to use what is known about evolutionary biology to improve the way primal humans interact with modern technology and the demands of life in the 21st Century.

Durant is often called a caveman, but The Paleo Manifesto doesn’t argue for some ascetic retreat into ooga-booga primitivism. Durant looks forward with a reference to and some reverence for the past. In a recent presentation for Google, he called the paleo lifestyle “biohacking.”

The Paleo Manifesto is paleofuturism.

ARCHEOFUTURISM

ArcheofuturismDurant’s paleofuturism complements Guillaume Faye’s subversive idea: archeofuturism.

Archeofuturism was published in 1999 as a response to the conservatism and negative (anti-) tendencies of the Right. Faye wanted to create a positive vision of the future that corrected the foolishness of enforced egalitarianism and what is often called secular humanism — but isn’t truly human at all, because it rejects any realistic understanding of human nature in favor of feel-good blank slate fantasies.

Faye writes that “over the past 50,000 years, homo sapiens has changed very little, and archaic and pre-modern models of social organization have proven valid.” Instead of seeing man as an “asexual and isolated atom possessing universal and enduring pseudo-rights,” Faye believes that should see him holistically, as the Greeks did — as social animal who properly belongs to a human community.

Instead of rejecting technological development and yearning for a return to total primitivism, as many on the Right do, Faye wants us to embrace technological movement and human creativity, but balance it with a rational understanding of human nature and a respect for forms of social organization that have been natural to the human animal throughout its history.

According to Faye, when “egalitarian hallucinations [..] have been sunk by catastrophe, humanity will revert to its archaic forms, which are purely biological and human.” He lists the archaic forms as follows:

  • the separation of gender roles

  • transmission of ethnic and folk traditions

  • visible and structuring social hierarchies

  • the worship of ancestors

  • rites and tests of initiation

  • organic communities (family and folk)

  • de-individualization of marriage (marriage as a concern of the community)

  • prestige of the warrior caste

  • inequality among social statuses (not implicit, but explicit and ideological)

  • definitions of peoples and groups (tribalism vs. globalism)

While somewhat idiosyncratic in its preoccupations, this list overlaps with Donald Brown’s list of “human universals.”

Faye tells us we should dream of the future and plan for the future, but temper this futurism with archaism, which he defines not as backward-looking nostalgia, but an understanding of and respect for the “founding impulses” of human social organization.

Using what is known about evolutionary psychology and tried forms of human social organization to inform humanity’s march into the future corrects the built-in mistake of modern life — which is truly driven by greedy commercialism and merely rationalized and pseudo-sacralized by “progressive” neophilia. In what passes for “social science” today, there is a tendency to throw out any traditional idea about human nature which cannot immediately be explained by scientific inquiry — some quick “study,” or the current perception of the barely understood brain — in favor of some theoretical form of social organization completely untried and unknown to our species. It was from the abstract academic fancies of a few, not collective human experience or wisdom, that the disastrous and inhuman experiment of feminism and the absurdity of “diversity is strength” have been imposed.

Together, Faye’s Archeofuturism and Durant’s Paleo Manifesto offer a total, positive approach to the future that is informed and guided by what is known about the human animal, both physically and socially. The details of either book can be debated and elaborated on, but the big, combined idea of looking to human evolutionary and social history as we envision the future is a philosophical starting point that could be a useful for many different kinds of people who find themselves increasingly wary of the social, psychological and physiological costs of runaway global commercialism and commercially driven, abstract notions of human “progress.

Siberian EducationOn Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education

Nicolai Lilin’s memoir about growing up as an outlaw in Transinistra will probably make a good movie. (The film, with John Malkovich starring as the Lilin’s grandfather Kuzya, now appears to be in post-production.) Lilin’s written narrative spends as much time in back allies as he and his friends did. By the time it emerges onto a main street, you may find yourself trying to remember where it was supposed to be going.

“Oh, yeah, they’re killing the guys who raped the autistic girl.”

The book lays out a sizeable take of offbeat characters and evocative sketches of his alien, defiant world. It’s an unrepentant recollection, and a romantic one. I was hoping to learn more about Russian criminal culture. This is the wrong book for that. It opens with a disclaimer, saying that “certain episodes are imaginative recreation,” and I found it difficult to confirm the accuracy of his portrayal of Siberian criminals. Lilin notes at the end that his people no longer live as they did, that the strict codes his criminal family followed have since been relaxed or corrupted.

The criminals in Lilin’s world are not thugs looking to get rich and lose themselves in a trailing haze of hookers and blow. He portrays his people as an ethnic group set against all forms authority but their own. His “Urkas” are anti-materialist; thieving is a means of survival and a rejection of external law.

He who wants too much is a madman, because a man cannot possess more than his heart is able to love.

Their morality is anarchic spite set against Russian Orthodox iconography, guided by in-group loyalty and hierarchical man-code.

The Urka’s religious treatment of weaponry is particularly interesting. Weapons used for hunting, a purifying pursuit, are kept as ancestral cult objects within the home. These “honest weapons” are distinguished from the impure tools of the criminal’s trade, and the Urkas are careful not to contaminate pure weapons by placing impure weapons in the same room.

Lilin’s criminal underground is a world of men. Women have a place in it, but not the same place as men. Some women—mostly the women of other men and outsiders—are known to be whores, but Siberian women are portrayed as Madonnas. Their women are protected and revered. Siberian Education has much to say about manhood, both directly and indirectly. Siberian manhood is archetypal and tribal. It’s about “us” and “them.” Its Byzantine codes of manhood are always about identity, about what “we” do, about who “we” are.

Early in the book, Lilin tells a story about a starving wolf pack. One wolf rejects the rules of the pack, rationalizing his decision by saying that filling one’s belly is more important than following a code. The wolf leaves the others and begs for food from men. The men feed him. The wolf lives among the men and hunts with them. One day the men shoot an old wolf, and the wolf who runs with men realizes that the men have wounded the patriarch of his former pack. As the old wolf dies, he says to the young wolf:

‘I have lived my life like a worthy wolf, I have hunted a lot and shared many prey with my brothers, so now I die happy. But you will live your life in shame, and alone, in a world to which you do not belong, for you have rejected the dignity of a free wolf to have a full stomach. You have become unworthy. Wherever you go, you will be treated with contempt; you belong neither to the world of wolves nor to that of men . . . This will teach you that hunger comes and goes, but dignity, once lost, never returns.’

Though the storyline sometimes wanders too far off the road, Siberian Education is well worth reading for its reflective moments, its rituals, and its exploration of a wholly masculine ethos.

Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld
Nicolai Lilin, Translated by Jonathan Hunt
W. W. Norton & Company (April 4, 2011)
ASIN: B004SO7KIE
ISBN: 0393080854

Nicolai Lilin’s Official Web Site

http://www.nicolaililin.com/

Other Reviews of Siberian Education

The Guardian: “We could learn a lot from the honour code of a Siberian criminal caste, says Irvine Welsh”

Kay Hymowitz’s piece for the Wall Street Journal, titled “Where Have The Good Men Gone?” drew a lot of criticism from men and women alike. It’s old news now, but I just got around to reading her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.With either help or direction from her publishers, Hymowitz baited readers with a yellow op-ed, insulting cover art and a goading thesis. At least Micheal Kimmel deigned to call his frat-boy scapegoats “guys.”Hymowitz refers to those guys as “child-men” and the book cover shows a baby dressed as a man. It was a sensationalistic and trashy move, but we live in a  sensationalistic, trashy culture.The real problem is that this belittling  pitch detracted from the more measured — and often sympathetic — tone of the book itself.

Hymowitz knows that the 20-something, Gen-Y guys she is talking about aren’t children. Her argument is that they are stuck in an extended adolescence — what she calls “preadulthood” — that was a necessary byproduct of the knowledge economy.

My paternal grandfather never graduated from high school. He went straight to work. After spending WWII in the Navy, he ended up working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and stayed on there until he retired.

Jobs like that are few and far between these days. Kids raised in the 80s, 90s and aughts were  raised to go to college and “find themselves” in some fulfilling career, working with their heads instead of their backs. The stable lunch pail jobs were often outsourced, and replaced with job growth in more creative, exciting jobs.

These jobs require education and many offer no linear career path, so if young people want to be “fulfilled” by their careers, they often have to put off getting married and having children. This is true of males and females alike, and while Hymowitz makes much of the “New Girl Order,” she acknowledges that those successful girls are also stuck in a kind of pre-adulthood, too. However, they hear their biological clocks ticking, and they are up against a pressure to get things underway that simply isn’t as pressing for males.

Hymowitz overplays the size and importance of the creative class — while those jobs abound in major metropolitan areas (like New York — Hymowitz lives in Brooklyn), there are too many aspiring graphic designers, web designers, script writers and photographers everywhere else. She also seems to inhabit a mental world where everyone went to Brown or Wesleyan or some posh east coast school, and one wonders if she is writing about the sexes in America, or just Sex in the City.

She is correct, though, that the knowledge and service economies demanded skills which matched female tendencies. Hymowitz concedes that whether nature or nurture is to blame — she’s not sure herself — “manufacturing’s loss has been women’s gain” She also notes that while males aged 13-34 have eluded marketers, young females buy a lot of stuff, and it made sense for employers to look for women to help them create designs and promotions that appealed to their target demographics. This is easy enough to verify. I’ve noted for years that design seems to be getting “cuter” and virtually all of the new businesses in a neighborhood near to me were created by and for women. My favorite is “branch and birdie : retail catering to the modern home, woman and child.” (Notice who is missing…) She writes of the “Bridget Jones economy”:

“the uncomfortable truth is that youthful female careerism is closely intertwined with the growth of consumption for two reasons. First, working women make and spend a lot of money. Second, women can find satisfying (passion-filled?) careers centered around the sorts of products on which women like to spend money.”

Refreshingly, the author doesn’t blame the ad agencies or the media for pandering to women or to her child-men; she understands that most successful marketing trends exploit an existing demand.

When it comes to feminist heroes and doctrine, Hymowitz is not afraid to criticize Betty Friedan, who she portrays as being a bit spoiled and delusional, or Micheal Kimmel. She dismisses Kimmel’s tired 1970s neo-Marxist race and gender “entitlement” narrative tidily:

“The college-educated inhabitants of Kimmel’s Guyland never knew a world where women weren’t lawyers and managers or where slayers named Buffy didn’t take care of the vampires.”

Indeed, Hymowitz is a lot more sympathetic to the plight of young men than Kimmel. She acknowledges that there are demographic, economic, technological, cultural and hormonal reasons why young men haven’t “evolved” into “postfeminist mensches.” Despite the fact that she hysterically called Roissy an “evil” misogynist, she recognizes that the guys who she calls “Darwinians” have “the preponderance of evidence in their corner.” Males and females, according to Hymowitz, have biological clocks running at different speeds, and due to feminism, technology and changes in the economy, males and females alike have little motivation to marry early or produce a population-sustaining brood.Hymowitz matches Kimmel’s bitterness, sublimated envy and ideological blindness with a schoolmarmish, obsessive horror of crude boyish humor — which is I imagine how she justifies the “child-man” moniker. But when she’s not wagging her finger or harrumphing about Maxim or Adam Sandler movies, she seems to understand that our society has made it clear that men are expendable as fathers and even in the workplace — so they sometimes act accordingly.

Hymowitz believes that most men want families, albeit after the age when women want them, and she says that men will have to “man up” if they want to have those families. This feels like an afterthought, because while she spends the entire book outlining the problems young men and women face she offers no solutions whatsoever. She admits that the modern young man is “free as men have never been free before,” but gives no suggestions as to changes that could be made to encourage men to invest in families and careers before they’ve had their fill of beer and sluts.

Perhaps she realizes the kind of changes that would be necessary, and doesn’t dare.

(Originally published at The-Spearhead.com)

 

On Guy Garcia’s The Decline of Men (2008)

In The Decline of Men, Guy Garcia begins and ends his discussion of the American male’s loss of power at the Burning Man festival. In front of a sign that says “TRUTH” he sees an effigy of a man who is half-built, headless. The image of a man is being reconstructed after having been burned to the ground by surprise, ahead of schedule. Garcia sees the first man as traditional Western patriarchal man, and the burning symbolizes his loss of economic and political primacy in the United States and around the World.

After speaking to Gerald Levin, Garcia concludes that men will re-discover and re-build themselves and adopt a more feminine approach to life, once they abandon the “arrogance of power.” Levin was the architect of the disastrous AOL/Time Warner merger, and is now the Managing Director of the Moonview Sanctuary in Santa Monica, which specializes in New Age therapy and holistic healing. Garcia doesn’t get into it, but The Moonview Sanctuary story was chronicled in New York magazine in 2007. When a reeling, failing Levin started talking about bringing “the poetry” back into life during an interview with Lou Dobbs, his future wife and business partner called to request a meeting with him. Laurie, former talent agent 14 years his junior, already had a business plan for a boutique wellness clinic catering to high profile clients. Instead of approaching him initially for an investment, Laurie started talking with the distraught man and involved herself in his emotional world. She even cased his history and eventually decided to approach him with the idea of spiritually communing with his own murdered son. Levin left his wife of 32 years to help Laurie build her rehab for the rich and famous, which supports her combined interests in hippie dippy bullshit (brain painting and “holotropic beathwork”) and shopping for “lavish antiques.”  Levin, now a full convert who attends men’s drumming circles, asserts that ultimately his mission is to “break down male culture.”

Garcia’s final words on The Decline of Men are:

“The Levin lesson is clear. For men to rediscover a better, more balanced, more enlightened version of themselves, they don’t have to join pagan parades in the desert or ingest brain-warping drugs. All they have to do is fail. And through this failure and destruction they just might gain the freedom to re-create themselves as the men they know they can be.”

He’s reaching here with a subtle scold, projecting thoughts into the heads of men that may or may not be there. (His attempt at a bit of that “communing” stuff, perhaps?)  Having read Levin’s story, a more “truthful” restatement might be that after men have failed, men will have the opportunity to be whatever women would like them to be, and to be used however women wish. Whether or not the success of women in ventures like The Moonview Sanctuary — and in a postmodern service economy that produces nothing — is a sustainable basis for a nation is a question that Garcia never tackles.

Husbands Without Wives, Or Wives Without Husbands?

One particularly odd dystopian scenario that Garcia imagines is a future where men are desperate to find wives, but wives don’t need them or can’t find any suitable men who make a sufficient amount of money or hold an acceptable number of academic credentials. He muses:

“The jarring notion of a man waiting by the phone for Ms. Right to call may seem ridiculous to some, but it’s no longer far-fetched. If present trends continue, men will soon find themselves in a position that used to be associated with single women. At the very least, they will find out — if they haven’t already — what it feels like to be the financially dependent partner in a romantic relationship, assuming they can find a woman who will take them. While young women are increasingly willing to forgo Mr. Right for Mr. Right Now, it may be partly because they’ve simply given up on finding a man who meets their expectations.”

This is odd, because during the same year, Micheal Kimmel complained in Guyland — which shares much in common with Garcia’s book — that women were desperate to find men who were ready and willing to commit, because men were in no hurry. This is a pop culture commonplace, and is more believable from the way things look on the ground than Garcia’s fantasy. Kimmel wrote, more convincingly:

“Countless movies and TV sitcoms remind men that marriage and parenthood are women’s victories over the guys of Guyland, and that once they are permanently attached to nagging wives, they’ll never again have sex or any other kind of fun again.”

It is women, less than men, who seek a spouse and family to “complete them.” Women are encouraged to be sexually adventurous and promiscuous, and are providing sex to “Mr. Right Now” — so more young men are probably getting more of what they want from women than ever before in history. At the same time, more and more men are waking up to the fact that marriage isn’t what it used to be. They are looking at a 50/50 chance of a divorce that will probably put them in relative poverty and make it extremely difficult for them to maintain a meaningful and positive relationship with their offspring.  I think most men like the “idea” of having a family “someday,” but it will increasingly be women who will be put in the position of selling marriage to men, not the other way around.

The bulk of The Decline of Men is a fairy standard catalog of men’s issues with a particular emphasis on pop culture. His perspective feels very tony and coastal, and his understanding of blue collar men outside of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles seems to be confined to observations in the “I once had a friend who had a friend who dated a blue collar guy once, and this is what she said about him after they broke up” insight bracket.

Garcia consults an odd collection of experts, but with the exception of some space given to the authors of Why Men Don’t Iron: The Fascinating and Unalterable Differences Between Men and Women, he rarely looks at issues from more than one side. For instance, his contribution to the “women in combat” debate is asking a man who has been advocating for women in combat from an ideological perspective since the 1970s and publishing his comments at length.  No counter arguments are entertained seriously, and none of what this one “expert” (who seems to be at odds with the entire US Military establishment, as well as every male soldier I’ve ever talked to seriously about this issue) says is ever questioned thoughtfully.  Garcia also mentions “matriarchal cultures where the sexes have lived in harmony for thousands of years” in passing, which caught my eye because I’ve still yet to see truly convincing evidence of one successful culture run by women for any extended period of time. Later in the book he makes reference to the work of feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who developed a “portrait of a society that lasted 25,000 years and which practiced equal rights between men and women on a social, political, and spiritual level.” He never mentions, however, that many regard her theories as being highly questionable. Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, previously mentioned here, takes apart the myth of peaceful and matriarchal prehistory. Men have probably always engaged in some kind of warfare, and as women represented the future of the tribe, it is doubtful that they ever participated equally in war-making or politics, and as Garcia even notes at one point, women have the least to gain by going to war.

The Golden Age of Goddess Worship

There is a recurring New Age “return to the goddess theme” with a lot of these authors (Keen, Bly, now Garcia) who are grasping for some way to envision a future where men and women share power. They share the same clichés, the same sources and the same faults of reasoning. One cliché is the idea, repeated and bolded in The Decline of Men, that “Biologically speaking, all human beings begin as females.” The fact that males must be XY and not XX to begin with, and that any XY is going to be male from the moment of conception unless something goes wrong is never mentioned. The point of repeating this idea is to make it seems as though women are some kind of human default and that men are a temporary mutant aberration. However, there has never been a human society consisting solely of women. Men have always been part of the human equation. There is no pre-male society that women are “going back to.” All primates are sexually dimorphic, and all have some sort of separate gender role breakout in terms of division of labor. We borrow the term “alpha males” from the study of animals, and the tendency of violent males to create power based hierarchies and fight over access to females.  The idea that humans abandoned normal primate behaviors during some Goddess-worshipping golden age of peace and sexual harmony and then returned to patriarchy and jungle law once they discovered agriculture seems so far-fetched that you have to want to believe it — like feminists Margaret Mead and Marija Gimbutas.

If this Golden Age never happened, then Garcia’s vision of a future where we “return” to (after we fail) is based on a manufactured past. In a recent lecture, Hanna Rosin (of “The End of Men” fame) talked about the rise of women as a “bridge.” If we take this bridge based on false premises, we are likely to find that it is a bridge to nowhere.

A 12 Step Program for Men

Garcia wants men to acknowledge that, as a group, they are failing, and comes up with a 12 Step program a la Alcoholics Anonymous. Here are his “steps:”

  1. Admit that we’ve got a problem.
  2. Make a fearless inventory of ourselves.
  3. Apologize to those we have hurt.
  4. Admit our mistakes.
  5. Break the trap of male silence.
  6. Make peace with Mr. Hyde.
  7. Seek strength in brotherhood.
  8. Embrace change.
  9. Never blame women.
  10. Remember that respect comes in many forms.
  11. Share our experience.
  12. Don’t follow The Rules.

He never really develops this program very well, and some of the steps represent ideas that aren’t explained anywhere in the book.  However, number 9 sticks out, and he asserts throughout the book that, even as men are supposed to abandon traditional rules of masculinity and reimagine themselves completely, it is unmanly to blame women. This is a powerful statement of Garcia’s part. Men must abandon any recognizable masculine ideal, admit their mistakes and embrace change, but women must remain blameless!

Really? Men and women are supposed to share power honestly and equally, but women must remain free from blame? Men are to assume that women are always behaving fairly and decently, never playing the system to their advantage, still sweet sisters in struggle looking for a fair shot? Equality means that questioning how women wield their newfound power is verboten?

Garcia did bravely allow one of his experts to mention the fact that many men are actually financially unable to pay their child support, and that this will only increase as women gain ground in the workforce and men lose ground. But his failure to engage the powerful feminist ideologues, lobbyists and policy makers who actively and knowingly contribute to the decline of men reveals for what he truly is. Guy Garcia is just a media-saavy opportunist, trying to make a buck off The Decline of Men by expanding his claim to expertise as a speaker and media consultant who helps corporate clients interpret the new marketplace, without offending or challenging women (likely his potential clients) in any way. The Decline of Men flatters the egos of women, and offers no real direction for men beyond some sort of New Age awakening to grateful goddess worship and uncritical subservience.

Garcia’s 12 Steps might as well be condensed to three.

  1. Stay Male
  2. Fail
  3. Obey

________________

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On Micheal Kimmel’s Guyland.

(Originally posted on The Spearhead.com, Nov. 2010.)

As far as Michael Kimmel is concerned, everyone else is just a “guy.”

In Guyland, Kimmel describes and analyzes young American males with all the civilized horror of an eighteenth century missionary reporting on the customs and activities of naked heathen cannibals. These savages, born innocent and full of childish wonder, learn early to fear the scorn of their male peers and become so desperate for male approval that they will engage in bizarre and often criminal behavior. Enter “Guyland,” a human terrain inhabited by young men that Kimmel maps only by the most extreme and sensational accounts of fraternity hazing, excessive gambling, sports obsession, drunkenness, video game addiction and gang rapes. Kimmel is at his most even handed and truthful when, as an avid sports fan, he writes about sports talk with his son and the influence that sports have on men’s lives. But for most of Guyland, he’s a critical outsider looking in – Kimmel, a Jew, offers that he was unable to join a fraternity in college because of the ethnic restrictions of the era, and Kimmel’s C.V. shows that he’s spent the majority of his adult life seeking the approval of feminist women. (He was one of the first males to attend and graduate from Vassar.)

Like many women and bookish solipsists, Kimmel looks at the male world and sees fear of social disapproval as a primary motivator for typical male behaviors. But this is spin and half-truth. For instance, if you only read Kimmel and had little firsthand experience dealing with “guys” in real life as peers, you’d think that young men only drank heavily because of peer pressure, campus rituals and outmoded masculine ideals. You’d think that men only drink out of fear for being ostracized by other men for not drinking. I read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max alongside Guyland. Max’s stories about drinking and “hooking up” filled out Kimmel’s caricature and reminded me that men often drink together to create conflict and excitement out of the sense of boredom with polite, modern society that Kimmel acknowledges but fails to truly understand. Men drink to relax, and sometimes to wallow in self-pity, but men drink in packs for the story. Lionel Tiger was correct when he observed that men bond during aggression, and heavy drinking puts average guys in “safe crisis.” They fight their own bodies, concoct strategies to pick up girls, narrowly avoid or get into fights with other men. They do and say things they normally wouldn’t. Crazy things happen. Young men drink together because they’re looking for a good bad time, a story to tell, proof that something happened. While Tucker Max’s tales often involve boasting, they are just as often self-deprecating and have an honest humanity to them that doesn’t come across in Kimmel’s ethnography. For Kimmel, the only “guys” with any humanity – the only real men — are the ones who resist or reject the culture of “guyland.” Coming from the leading feminist scholar of “men’s studies” in America, this thesis feels more than a little self-congratulatory.

Guyland isn’t really an attempt to understand “guys.” It’s ultimately more of an exercise in telling women, feminists and frightened parents the horror stories they want to hear about the “privileged” white American male.

Unlike their male counterparts, Kimmel says that young women today don’t feel defined by any particular ideal of womanhood – they believe they can be or do anything. He says that young “guys” however, adhere to a strict “Guy Code.” The “Guy Code” includes a handful of sayings and slogans that Kimmel says young males have internalized and repeated back to him in interviews and classroom situations. He offers a top ten list of examples including phrases like “Boys Don’t Cry,” Take it Like a Man,” “Just Do It,” etc.  The list feels a bit doctored, but Kimmel correctly identifies the unifying theme of these sayings as an aversion to “showing emotions or admitting weakness.” However, by framing this observation with a bunch of goofy sayings and slogans that men like, he takes a simple and relatively cross-cultural phenomenon and casts it as arbitrary, commercialized, harmful, culturally specific and ultimately unnecessary. The phrase “showing emotions” is weaselly, and “aversion to admitting weakness” could just as easily be re-stated in the positive as “preference for cultivating and portraying strength.” What successful culture has encouraged the majority of its men to show weakness and discouraged them from cultivating strength?

It’s one of the great magic tricks of feminists that they’ve somehow managed to get us to consider the possibility that normal and consistent patterns of male behavior over the last few thousand years were actually psychologically sick and evil. Apparently men have been “doing it wrong” all this time, we can only trust women and feminist academics to finally show men how to “do it right.”

Kimmel holds up the more fluid or flexible gender identity of women as an ideal, and in Guyland the refusal of young men to abandon The Guy Code is conveniently blamed for epidemic levels of casual sex (“hooking up”) and binge drinking among both young males and young females. Kimmel blames lagging male academic performance and a general lack of direction on The Guy Code, too, and he refuses to entertain the possibility that feminist influence on the educational system has played any role whatsoever in hindering the intellectual development of boys. He accepts natural difference uncritically when he supports the behavior of women or homosexual males, but his whole position relies on the assumption that men behave the way they do for the most part due to the culturally constructed “Guy Code.”

Drawing from his sociology background, Kimmel uses a set of markers to define adulthood, and to draw a line between what he sees as boy behavior and man behavior. A man establishes a career, gets married, has children, assumes responsibility, and abandons the world of boys and “guys” for family life. These are traditional distinctions and they have some value, but seem at odds with a modern feminist reality where fathers and husbands are regarded as an extra paycheck, a gateway to motherhood and homeownership, a “kitchen bitch” who puts up shelves and makes the bouillabaisse. (Really, click on the link. Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a shockingly honest window into the mind of the stridently feminist “wife.”) Kimmel gropes around at this, summarizing some of the reasons why “guys” are in no big hurry to abandon Guyland. He admits that our culture portrays manhood as the end of all fun, and that television husbands are “infantilized by their wives, unable to do the simplest things for themselves, clueless about their kids’ lives, and begging for sex—or reduced to negotiating for it in exchange for housework.”

Guys are not as stupid as women think they are. Every man knows at some level that in this post-patriarchal arrangement, his kids are generally regarded as her kids first, and while she will likely work outside the home, the household is still ultimately her domain. Feminist Hanna Rosin recently called on women to reclaim the kitchen because her husband turned out to be a better cook, and she felt that he’d infringed upon her rightful domain. Women everywhere are making it clear that “equality” means they call the shots and get whatever they want, and that husbands are the new wives. Many of the men who achieve Kimmel’s markers of adulthood can only hope to graduate to the status of renter and supplicant, living on borrowed time.

The idea that guys are not men is repeated throughout the book, but climaxes in this paragraph toward the conclusion.

And feminism also dares to expect more from men. Feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women—as well as with other men. Feminism loves men enough to expect them to act more honorably and actually believes them capable of doing so. Feminism is a vision that expects men to go from being “just guys,” accepting whatever they might happen to do, to being just guys—capable of autonomy and authenticity, inspired by justice. That is, feminism believes that guys can become men.

This gloss of what feminists want from men seems reasonable enough at first glance, though it includes a lot of built-in and arguable assumptions about what it means to be “emotionally present,” honorable or authentic. When compared to Hanna Rosin and Sandra Tsing Loh’s own accounts of what men can expect from their feminist wives in real life, the whole proposition is revealed as a farce. While it is true that not all women are self-centered, neurotic shrews like Rosin and Tsing Loh—I’d like to count my two sisters as examples of sane women capable of compromise and cooperation with their husbands — Kimmel doesn’t ask women to make any sacrifices or take any active role in making modern manhood more appealing.  Male readers of Guyland are ultimately left with nothing but Kimmel’s scolding, scare tactics and empty feminist platitudes about “justice” and “humanity” as reasons to “grow up” and become kitchen bitches.

In dismantling the patriarchy, feminists have disincentivized family life for men. It is disingenuous to withhold the mantle of adulthood from these men by holding them to the higher standard of a system that no longer exists or serves their collective interests. Men can be motivated to do just about anything. When they had to, they did support their families and shoulder enormous responsibilities. They built cities and crossed oceans.  What feminism lacks is something to offer that the majority of men actually want.

It is a regular hypocrisy of pro-feminist writing by men that while these authors portray traditional masculine norms as oppressive and absurd, they set up their own benchmarks for who is a man and who is not, and emasculate other men accordingly. Like the Newsweek writers who recently told men to “Man Up!” and take jobs they don’t want, Kimmel takes aim at jocks and frat boys – claiming they are not men because they don’t follow his own example.  This is ressentiment. Kimmel is inverting strength based masculine virtues and aiding the creation of an ad hoc moral system that elevates his own servile and sensitive intellectualism. In spite of his admiration for fluid feminine identities, Kimmel just can’t help himself. He isn’t abandoning The Guy Code, he’s just fashioning a new code to separate the men from the “guys.”

On Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly.

(Originally published at The Spearhead, Nov. 2010)

Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly, like Robert Bly’s Iron John, is around twenty years old this year. It remains in print, and remains on the very short list of “men’s studies” books written by men who don’t identify themselves explicitly as pro-feminist  – though like Iron John, Fire in the Belly is far more friendly to feminism than many feminists would like to admit. Keen differentiates between two kinds of feminism, what he calls “prophetic” and “ideological” feminism. He feels that the difference between them is “largely a matter of mood, tone of voice, focus, emphasis, feeling-tone.” Ideological feminism, for Keen, is about blaming, scapegoating and maintaining a state of total war between the sexes; it’s what others have called “female supremacism.”

Some of the most helpful messages Keen imparts have to do with female power and the way that an internalized, idealized “WOMAN” can keep men in thrall. His estimation of this power is sometimes dead on, but at other times so overblown and mythic that it evokes Camille Paglia’s work.  The best advice he gives comes in a recounted story from his youth, wherein a man tells him that:

“there are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.”

This much is true. If a man doesn’t know who he is, and he looks to a woman to complete and define him, she will inevitably walk all over him and will probably never respect him. A man who looks for a mother will probably find one, and she will treat him like a little boy. Like Bly, Keen believes manhood requires a move away from the world of women. Keen wants men to spend time in the world of men and define themselves as men and as individuals before they can truly love an ordinary woman. This is probably a good idea, but it also has an upper-middle class air of self-indulgent escapism about it. Life requires most men to get to work. This pre-marriage escapism would have to occur at roughly the same age when men would theoretically be starting careers and families. To what ripe old age can a viable civilization afford to extend adolescence?

The notion of “prophetic feminism” flows from Keen’s vision for the future. Keen believes that we “urgently need new visions of manhood and womanhood,” and that “as men, our challenge is to grow beyond the myth of war and the warrior psyche and to create a new form of ecological economics that will preserve the earth household.” Although he doesn’t always seem sold on the idea himself, Keen envisions a peaceful future where men and women coexist harmoniously and men become “fierce gentlemen” whose manhood is defined by their commitment to certain “vocational passion” and a set of values and morals.  It is because of his “gentle and earthy” vision of the future that the book becomes less about manhood and more about adapting the culture of men to serve his own philosophical and political ideals. In this, Keen shares much in common with feminists, who also believe men must change to accommodate their comparably gilded and utopian future of gender-neutral peace and prosperity. If “ideological” feminists were able to put aside their parochial refusal to allow men to have any distinct and meaningful gender identity of their own, they’d be passing Fire in the Belly out to all of the males in their lives.

The first problem with Keen’s idea of where men are going is his unlikely interpretation of where they’ve been. Keen, like many of his contemporaries, believes that early humans were relatively peaceful goddess-worshippers. He blames much of the current state of masculinity on traits that were necessary to maintain the “warfare system.” While it is very reasonable to suggest that culturally constructed aspects of masculinity help to prepare men for the stress of combat and associated trauma, the notion that early humans lived in relative peace and harmony is not supported by evidence. In War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley makes a convincing case — using both archeological evidence from thousands of years ago and accounts from recent tribal societies — that early humans not only made war, but that they were also pretty darn good at it. Primitive peoples generally engaged in guerilla style warfare and wars of attrition that were often devastating to their comparatively small populations.

In a particularly striking disparity, Keen mentions the Tahitians as people who “encourage men to be gentle, easy, graceful, generous to strangers, slow to take offense, and unconcerned with defending masculine ‘honor’.” (Even Keen admits that people like this are rare.) Keeley, on the other hand, notes that:

“In Tahiti, a victorious warrior, given the opportunity, would pound his vanquished foe’s corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho.”

Grisly examples, based on hard archaeological evidence (like mass graves, decapitated heads, arrowheads in skulls, etc.) abound in War Before Civilization, and Keeley believably explains why some of his predecessors chose to de-emphasize this evidence and “pacify the past.” Keeley is careful to remind readers that humans are not necessarily destined to be warlike simply because peace between humans has been rare, but that lying about the past isn’t the way to solve problems in the present. However, in light of evidence provided by Keeley, a good chunk of Keen’s storyline about how the warfare system corrupted men and masculinity caves in on itself. Humans are violent for approximately the same reasons they’ve always been violent. For another outstanding refutation of the noble savage mythos, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The second problem with Keen’s call to reimagine a kinder, gentler, earthier man is that it fails to acknowledge the hard realities of cultural and demographic competition. This “reimagining masculinity” is, for the most part, a SWPL meme. The idea that well-off, highly educated, completely protected Westerners can set the moral bar for the world and that everyone else will leap to follow them is a hubristic fantasy. Asians and swarthier folk aren’t moved by the same guilt complexes (after all, according to the SWPL belief system, they didn’t ruin the planet and everything else). As Keen’s fierce gentlemen belly-ache about violence and social justice, hold spirited debates, buy recycled toilet paper and explore their personal woundologies — a poor kid in the ghetto is getting jumped into a gang, and that kid is going to rob his remodeled urban homestead and rape his narcissistic vegetarian wife. Both Keeley and Keen’s peaceable solutions, if put into practice on Earth, would require one world government and the forced redistribution of wealth by a near police state. The truth is that not everyone is going to sit around having spirited debates. The people who enjoy that have a natural aptitude for it. Not everyone is burning to explore their individuality and inner creativity. (Most people aren’t that creative or interesting.) Someone is still going to have to scrub the toilets and mow the lawns and build the buildings, and those people are going to want the same things average people have always wanted: food, shelter, stuff, entertainment and sex. The calm and sober delights of pampered patrician philosophers do not necessarily appeal to the conflict hungry, reality TV-loving rabble. As Gracchus said in Gladiator, “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum.”

Like all books explicitly about manhood, Fire in the Belly is really a philosophical treatise. The question “what kind of man shall I be” is a highly philosophical question, and your answer is going to draw on some of your most basic assumptions about the human nature,  politics, ethics and what makes life worth living. Keen is an engaging if sometimes uncomfortably confessional writer, but to sign on to his program, you have to agree that the world he envisions is possible and desirable. Twenty years on, it seems neither.

On Robert Bly’s Iron John.

(First Posted to The Spearhead, Nov 2010)

Robert Bly’s Iron John touched off a national discussion about manhood when it camped on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 60 weeks, starting in 1990. The enduring popular caricature of the “men’s movement” — a bunch of guys sitting around a campfire banging on drums, trying to get in touch with their inner warrior — is likely the product of media coverage that followed in the wake of the book’s success. Men’s therapy groups heavily influenced by the Iron John, like the eyebrow-raising Mankind Project, continue to draw new recruits. Twenty years after its initial publication, it remains in print, and remains a relevant read for anyone trying to make sense of men’s movements and men’s psychology.

Iron John is peppered with meaningful insights, but it is also insufferably fruity. And therein lies the problem. But to be charitable, let’s start with the insights that still ring true.

Bly opens by correctly observing that men have become soft, gentle and too eager to please women.  While the less receptive, more traditional model of manhood is equated with violence, receptive manhood is rewarded in our “non-violent” post-feminist service economy. Sex realists and “game” enthusiasts today would be quick to point out that soft, “beta” men are often abandoned for harder “alphas,” but it is accurate to say that society in general rewards men who behave submissively in adulthood.

Bly is also spot-on in his explanation of the deterioration of relationships between young men and older men that gave men a sense of community among other men. Boys who spent time in their mother’s world sooner or later learned a trade from their father and went with men to do men’s work. Men’s groups, compared to groups for women, have become comparatively rare and are too often subject to female supervision. Due to changing economic circumstances, young men grew up seeing their fathers leave the house to go to work every day. Young men learned to relate more to their mothers, to see their mothers as whole people, to see things from their mother’s perspective. The grumpy, tired dads who came home at night became alien and suspicious. Bly writes, “one could say that many young men in the sixties tried to accept initiation from women. But only men can initiate men, as only women can initiate women.” As single motherhood has increased dramatically since then, this problem has become much more acute.  However, if the current mancession has a silver lining, it may be that many boys have ended up spending more time with dad than they would have otherwise during the last few years. It’s conceivable that a generation of boys will grow up seeing their mothers as frazzled, career-minded shrews, while dad seems unfairly hen-pecked, easy going and fun — if a little beaten and lost. It’s too soon to say.

In Bly’s scenario from another era — where dad was always gone and mom was always around and the son was allied with his mother against his father — the boy also learns to see his own masculinity from a woman’s perspective. This is profound and palpable in a great deal of writing about men, written by men. How many snide and dismissive editorials about men have been dashed off defensively by boys who felt alienated from or abandoned by their fathers, or who felt most allied with their mothers? These are the men, for the most part, who I think Bly is reaching out to with Iron John. It’s hard to imagine men who have strong bonds with their fathers — say, men who were heavily involved in sports or some sort of hobby with dad — having this sort of overwhelming distrust of the masculine.

Iron John also touches on the importance of katabasis for men, especially for upper class, middle class, and particularly verbal, intellectual or artistic men. Katabasis is basically a period of humbling or lost status. It literally means “to go down,” and it’s actually a favorite theme of mine in literature and film. In Captain’s Courageous, The Sea Wolf, and even Fight Club, men learn about manhood and become more grounded by losing their protected places in the world. Bly associates it with a kind of depression, and it could be a depression, but it could also be a more coincidental phenomenon that drives men downward when one would expect them to reach upward. Bly sniffs at the military often — we’ll get to that  – but he misses the appeal of boot camp, even the once famous allure of the French Foreign Legion. Disappear, give your identity to someone else for a while, start from the bottom.  This is a guy thing. There’s also an analog in some schools of martial arts, and it should be said that maybe getting in touch with one’s inner man or inner warrior would be more healthily pursued in that kind of environment than in a therapy camp.  Male initiation need not be so literal, so forced. If you surround yourself with men for a while and you are able to descend, be humble, and abandon your ego — it seems to happen naturally.

One of the biggest problems with Iron John is Bly’s palpable resistance to allow actual warriors to embody “warriorhood” in his scheme of things.  Warriors are men who make war. We don’t all have to be warriors, and we can all draw inspiration from the courage and heroism required of men who hunt, fight and kill that “most dangerous game.” But the story of Iron John is based on a Grimm fairy tale, and Bly will only allow fairy tale violence into his world. Iron John, who personifies Bly’s “wild man” is big and hairy and scary, but at heart he is really a gentle giant, and that seems to be what the tall poet Bly believes mature men should become. There is something dishonest and ahistorical about this view of man as a misunderstood softy — like the monster from Harry and the Hendersons. In Bly’s world, the boy goes into fairy tale battle, but one cannot reconcile this magic, ritual battle with the kind of Arthurian battle wherein knights are cut down “horse and man.” Indeed, the majority of Bly’s mythological references are strangely sanitized and benign. Homer is mentioned, but the central themes of rage, vengeance, bloodlust and the shockingly explicit gore of the Iliad are never considered.  Cú Chulainn is mentioned as a mythological hero properly welcomed home — Bly is right that this is missing from modern warfare — but he fails to mention how the story celebrates the hundreds and hundreds of men the hero kills, often brutally, in battle. Bly repeats an incredibly silly maxim, “never give a sword to a man who can’t dance” and this more or less captures his tone when it comes to actual warriors versus his new-agey “inner warrior.” It is terrifically disrespectful, vain and solipsistic to speak of warriors but somehow claim that spoiled middle aged men in therapy know more about “true warriorhood” than actual combat soldiers do. If you want to get a sense of what it is like to be a warrior, read War by Sebastian Junger (2010, Twelve).  If you want to approximate it and get in touch with your “inner warrior” without going to Afghanistan, take up a martial art and compete.  If you just want to read about it and be inspired by warriors, that’s OK too, but don’t make yourself ridiculous by running around calling yourself a “true warrior.”

This masculine tone-deafness, the reliance on a fairy tale reality, the fetishization of childlike innocence and deference to feminine imagery are problematic throughout the book. I called it insufferably fruity above, and as a writer who has been mocked for getting caught up in his own rhetoric I do not do this lightly or to make myself feel smart or witty. It’s a legitimate problem, and it’s part of the reason why, despite its success, the book and its message never connected with younger men or became a powerful force of lasting change. When you start going on to men about their “internal woman,” their “deep masculine” and the “nourishing dark,” you’re really not talking to average guys any more. For Bly, male mentors can’t simply be mentors or guides or surrogate fathers; they have to be “male mothers.” His focus on woundology is so heavy handed that parts of the book feel like a male version of The Vagina Monologues. Bly’s often overwhelming New-Ageyness is most prominent in the following passage:

“The younger body learns at what frequency the masculine body vibrates. It begins to grasp the song that adult male cells sing, and how the charming, elegant, lonely, courageous, half-shamed male molecules dance.”

After scraping the rainbows and magic dust from my eyes, I can extract something meaningful from that about young men needing to get a sense of how it feels to be a man by spending time with their elders. But c’mon, man…

Bly frames Iron John as a book primarily for men ready to do this kind of “inner work;” men around the age of 35. If you’re going to really change manhood, you have to reach out to young men, too. A movement for 35 year old men has no future. Group therapy culture can’t replace authentic, organic masculine experience. That’s a problem I still see with the men’s movement, though I think this is changing. A transformative movement that is going to appeal to young men has to have balls. Iron John contains some truth, and Bly is a natural storyteller, so the book is very well written in its own way.  Bly acknowledges some of his own weaknesses and that requires a certain courage and honesty. But ultimately, Iron John offers no path to power for men. At best, it outlines a way to make peace with a wounded male soul.

On Geoffroi de Charny’s Book of Chivalry

(Originally Published on AlternativeRight.com, May 2010)

The Hagakure is a collection of commentaries on the Way of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, recorded between 1709 and 1716. Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a samurai during a period of peace who was not permitted to commit seppuku following the death of his retainer, Nabeshima Mitsushige. He retired to the mountains and lived as a hermit, frustrated by what he saw as a collapse of Traditional samurai culture into decadence and weakness. The Hagakure is often contradictory and curmudgeonly, and it is characterized by dark humor and what Yukio Mishima, who wrote his own commentary on the book, referred to as a “manly nihilism.” Whereas Musashi’s Book of Five Rings focuses more on swordsmanship and strategy, the Hagakure is more directly about a Way of living and dying.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a trained samurai, but he never saw combat. Geoffroi de Charny did.

Charny died heroically in battle, still clutching the oriflamme, a sacred banner charged to him in 1355 by Jean II, King of France. The bearer of the oriflamme was to be “the most worthy and adept warrior,” a knight “noble in intention and deed, unwavering, virtuous, loyal, adept, and chivalrous.” Charny had proved himself thus again and again in battle. When Jean II feared that French knights were becoming decadent, weak and cowardly, he formed the Order of the Star, a group of virtuous knights meant to reform French knighthood. Charny was an exemplary member, and it is likely that he produced The Book of Chivalry at Jean II’s request.

The Book of Chivalry is not a manual on tactics or technique, it is a treatise on how to live — and die — like a knight. It describes “The Way of the Knight.” And, importantly, it was written –likely dictated aloud to a scribe as the Hagakure was — by an actual knight. Charny was not a monk or a poet or a politician or a novelist or a Victorian or a modern historian. He was a battle tested knight held in high regard as an exemplar of chivalry by his king and his peers. Chivalry was his Way.

Putting the Ladies in Perspective

The word chivalry is most often used today to denote some sort of Victorian gentlemanliness, especially deference toward women. While Charny notes that men can triumph when they put their hearts into winning the love of a lady, he also says that such men are “so naïve that they are unaware of the great honor they could win through deeds of arms.” He acknowledges the draw of women and their ability to motivate men, and advises both men and women to love loyally, but sees obsession with romance as a distraction from winning honor and places romance in perspective. The word chivalry comes from the French chevalier, meaning horseman, and it is the French equivalent to the word English word “knight.” The knight was a warrior, analogous to the samurai. His primary function was to kill men in honorable combat for his lord, his King, his God, and occasionally just on general principle. The Knight did not exist merely to impress and fawn over the ladies. Chivalry was the Way of the knight, his code of conduct, his standard of honor. And it was with fostering knights of exemplary worth, courage and honor that Geoffroi de Charny was primarily concerned.

Qui Plus Fait, Mieux Vault

Charny believed that workers and priests and others could be good and worthy men in their own way. Following this line of thought, he also believed that there were “no small feats of arms.” Competing in jousts and tourneys was worthy and honorable, as were other pursuits that tested men or placed them in harm’s way. But as a knight, Charny placed good men who sought out honorable combat at the pinnacle of his chivalric hierarchy of worth. His refrain throughout is “qui plus fait, mieux vault,” or “those who do more are worth more.”

“Those who do more are worth more” is a motivational quotation that could apply to a variety of manly pursuits. But with it, Charny also admirably accords some worth to men who push themselves while reserving more worth for men who push themselves even harder or who face even greater trials. This can be applied to modern life easily, and puts many things in perspective. Combat is the reigning metaphor for most sports and all of the martial arts, and these things can be viewed as honorable and worthy pursuits, while men who charge into battle and face death are accorded greater honor and worth.

On Fighting for Our Lord… (Or Crom)

Charny was undoubtedly a Christian knight. Indeed, he briefly participated in a crusade and is listed as the first known owner of The Shroud of Turin. The Christian God figures heavily in his worldview, and in Chivalry he compares knighthood to priesthood, discusses the monastic orders and explains how men-at-arms can be pleasing to God. For Christian men, especially fighting Christian men, this aspect will no doubt make Charny’s work all the more appealing and inspirational.

However, for those who are not Christians, Charny’s faith does not overwhelm his other ideas. As with many fighting Christian men — who ask for God’s favor in smoting and slaying and applying rear naked chokes — it is often easy enough to mentally replace the word God with “Crom.” Charny’s God is pleased by valor, prowess and righteous violence.

A Way of Life and Death

Like the Hagakure, Charny’s Chivalry acknowledges death as an inevitable part of life and offers a way of life that prepares the aspirant for an honorable death.

men of worth say that a man is happy to die when he finds life pleasing, for God is gracious toward those who find their life of such quality that death is honorable; for the said men of worth teach you that it is better that death is honorable; for said men of worth teach you that it is better to die than to live basely.

The worthy knight spends his energy and resources liberally in the pursuit of honor. The worthy knight is not a glutton, and he should not be overly concerned with plunder. Men of worth keep themselves tough and avoid excessive comforts and luxuries, because they gain great pleasure in winning honor and living honorably, and the paths to honor involve stress and discomfort and risk. The man who clings too dearly to life becomes melodramatic, miserly and cowardly.

Worthy men should avoid unnecessary quarrels, as some are foolish, some are dangerous, and many are vile or unbecoming. Men of worth:

…should be humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful toward those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies, pleasant and amiable with all others…

…Love and serve your friends, hate and harm your enemies, relax with your friends, exert yourself with all your strength against your foes. You should plan your enterprises cautiously and you should carry them out boldly. Therefore the said men of worth tell you that no one should fall into despair from cowardice nor be too confident from great daring, for falling into too great despair can make a man lose his position and his honor, and trusting too much in his daring can make a man lose his life foolishy; but when one is engaged on an armed enterprise, one should dread cowardice more than death. Take care not to be so greedy as to take what belongs to others without good cause. And be sure that, as you value yourself, you do not let anything of yours be taken from you.

Charny lived by his own code, which was a mix of cultural and reflexive honor. To him, a man’s word was his bond, and when he was betrayed in one instance he quartered his enemy’s body and displayed it at the town gates. He did not seize the man’s property, however, because he wanted it known that he was not making an act of war or conquest — just settling a personal score.

In Chivalry, Charny also weighs in on a number of other topics, from who should rule to what young ladies and men should wear. For instance, according to Charny only women should wear flashy jewels or clothing, because these things are ultimately a substitute for the greater honors that men can achieve through honorable deeds. He praises simplicity of heart in men, while remaining suspicious of “those who present themselves outwardly as generous and devout” and “those who are too ingenious and over subtle.”

Upon reading Charny’s work, a modern man cannot simply stand up, gather his gear and ride off on a quest to win honor in combat against other knights. At least not exactly. We live in a different world now. There is a dearth of men who live honorable lives — a dearth of men who would even want to. But when Charny wrote his Book of Chivalry, he clearly saw dishonor and chaos around him as well.

The Book of Chivalry offers a Western alternative to contemporary Westerners who tend to seek out exotic, non-Western philosophies for inspiration and guidance — an opportunity to look inward instead of outward for answers. It’s a straightforward, concise source that outlines a path of honor, handed down from a brave and good man who walked his talk.

You could learn a lot about masculine honor and worth from a 14th Century knight.

On Honor: A History by James Bowman

(Originally published at AlternativeRight.com, May 2010)

What happened to honor in the West? And without honor — or at least an honest understanding of it — are we capable of facing the challenges of the 21st Century?

In Honor: A History, Bowman places these questions in a political context, as a clash between the old honor culture of the Islamic world and the anti-honor culture of the modern West. In this sense, his question is similar to the one Mark Steyn asks in America Alone. If Islam has all the attributes of what Osama Bin Laden famously called “a strong horse,” will the pampered and polite social democracies of the West be able to survive its galloping onslaught?

This horse race bookends a rare and worthwhile exploration of the concept of honor itself, which is a confusing topic in the contemporary West where honorable ideals have been discredited as anti-modern, and the word “honor” has been reduced to a mere synonym for neutered, universal, non-hierarchical values like “goodness” or “honesty” or “integrity.” The bumper sticker banality “honor diversity” renders the word honor a substitute for the verbs “value” or “esteem.” While you can certainly follow the dilution of honor’s meaning here, this is a world apart from a word once closely connected to glory won in battle.

Reflexive vs. Cultural Honor

Bowman identifies two kinds of honor: reflexive honor and cultural honor.

Reflexive honor is fairly simple and defensive. If you hit me, and I don’t hit you back, you know that you can hit me as often as you like without repercussions. In the most basic sense, a man’s honor is his reputation for strength and courage — his willingness to stand his ground and protect his interests. His interests have long included protecting and corralling the women in his life, and female honor has most often been associated with chastity (or at least the reputation for it).

Cultural Honor is far more complex and variable, because according to Bowman it has to do with “the traditions, stories and habits of thought in a particular society about (among other things) the proper and improper uses of violence.” Cultural honor moderates reflexive honor, which has a tendency to get out of hand, and provides an ethical or moral framework for the idea of honor. Chivalry is an example of cultural honor, as are elaborate codes of conduct developed to guide the actions of men who wish to consider themselves honorable. Bowman adds that our modern ideal of sportsmanship or “fair play” is a particularly Victorian flourish of cultural honor.

A key point of Bowman’s thesis is that reflexive honor never really goes away — it’s part of human nature — but has become so buried and almost unrecognizable in the West today that we don’t know how to speak about it or deal with it.

A Balance Between the Demands of Honor and Ethics

Reflexive honor, the threat of retaliatory violence, is the gold standard that makes civilization possible. The iron words of life and death. Don Corleone may as well have been speaking about honor when he told his successor that “Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” Men who don’t understand the basic reality and necessity of reflexive honor, who are careless about honor, ought to be treated like women and children. But reflexive honor can also, as mentioned above, get quickly out of hand and turn into a completely irrational pissing contest. As Sam Sheridan wrote in A Fighter’s Heart, “…no one is more sensitive than tough guys.”

The Greeks showed some concern for this intrinsic problem of honor, that men who care about honor alone or above all things can do great damage to their communities. The threat of retaliatory violence may make civilization possible, but this physical courage, scrappiness — thumos – can also be destructive. It must be tempered by reason and morality. The Roman concept of virtus, for which this column is named, evolved as the empire stabilized and roles became more specialized. Eventually, in a prosperous, ordered and complex society where a majority of men will never see combat, the ideal of manly virtue cannot be limited to martial valor without effectively emasculating the majority of men. Men must still demonstrate a reputation for strength, but to maintain order in a stable community that strength must be abstracted a bit, and guided by rules and common values.

This is one area where Bowman misses an opportunity to explore honor in a cross-cultural fashion. While the Eastern honor culture of Japan is mentioned, there are some powerful parallels in the conflicts between samurai values and the merchant values — and the transformation of the role of the samurai during the Tokugawa shogunate — that would aid in understanding what happens to martial ideals of honor in times of relative peace and prosperity.

In Bowman’s view, Christianity also created some moral conundrums for the honor-obsessed. It has always been difficult for those who believe that a good man should “turn the other cheek” — in contrast to a more reflexive Roman honor culture — to reconcile their faith with the valorous demands of martial masculinity. He highlights this using the example of Lancelot, who was considered virtuous by virtue of his strength and battle prowess, but who created a conflict of conscience for all who knew that he was an adulterer. This creates an interesting distinction between public and private honor that, with the help of Christian morality, over time drew the idea of honor inward and personalized it. Public acclaim alone could not make a man truly honorable if he was, in his heart, dishonest, insincere, disloyal or sinful. The Christian ethos doubtlessly had a hand in transforming Western honor from something reflexive to something reflective and personal, though there are shades of the same move inward in non-Christian Japanese texts on honor like the Hagakure.

Honor cultures in the West became increasingly sophisticated, especially in the European upper classes, who cultivated gentlemanliness. However, the martial and reflexive aspects of honor were always simmering just beneath the surface, and the official culture gave vent to them perhaps most notably in the form of gentlemanly dueling. The emergence of the importance of the individual, especially in fiercely democratic and egalitarian America, set the stage for honor’s true decline in the West, which in Bowman’s view happened during and following World War II.

Honor’s Decline and the Post-Honor Society

honorahistoryBowman blames the decline of Western honor culture on the complimentary convergence of three factors in the early 20th Century: modern warfare, therapy and feminism.

The mechanized modern warfare of World War I made the combat experience feel less honorable, less “knightly” and more like indiscriminate, anonymous slaughter. Numerous postwar memoirs, plays and films focused on what many of the participants regarded as pointless, horrific violence for its own sake — or for the sake of the Old honor of the European upper classes. Bowman makes the point that “Anonymity — literally namelessness — is of course antithetical to honor, which in its essence means ‘name’ or ‘reputation.’”

Men who emerged were often seen as “survivors” instead of heroes, especially due to the relatively new discipline of psychology. Using the example of Siegfried Sassoon, Bowman shows how the idea that “shell shock” or psychological trauma at the individual level cast a different light on what the honor group and the honor elite would have normally deemed “cowardice.”

Suffragettes in World War I were predominantly anti-war and had no interest in fighting wars. As a matter of necessity, women joined public life to support the war effort, and “brought with them something of their traditional role as nurturers and caregivers.” This sympathy played into the expansion of psychotherapy; feminism and psychotherapy “tended to reinforce each other.”

Modern warfare, therapy and feminism severed much of the West from older, more aristocratic forms of honor after World War I. There were still remnants of the old honor culture in World War II, but war had become more democratic, more about the everyman. The reasons for fighting changed from ideas of national and individual honor to fighting for peace, fighting “a war to end war,” and especially in the post-war wrap-up, fighting evil — fighting a moral war. Old rules were broken; there were increased attacks on civilians, and winners rationalized show trials to enact “victor’s justice,” as with Nuremburg, rather than respecting the honor of their opponents. Further, the prominent Traditional or quasi-Traditional honor cultures of the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians made World War II, in some sense, seem like a war against old honor culture itself.

The rote denigration and discrediting of those honor cultures following the war continues to inform our own culture and perception of honor on a daily basis. Any attempted revival or sympathetic treatment of Traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian Western cultures of manly honor are almost always automatically and immediately compared to Nazis and fascists. Umberto Eco provides a typically convenient, blanket reduction of many aspects of any Traditional masculine honor ethos to a pathologized “Ur-Fascism” in his 1995 essay “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” This anti-authoritarianism fueled the tiresomely famous protests and social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s and, filtered through popular culture, continues to fuel youth culture today — even though “the man” of the 1960s has more or less been replaced by “the assorted persons” on the left who rebelled against him. Youths rebelling against “the man” today are just going through the motions and following the example of their parents and, increasingly, their grandparents. The hierarchical honor culture of “the man” is mere whisper of what it was even a few generations ago; they’re rebelling against a ghost.

Bowman also makes the point that honor cultures have been abandoned in part because the wars America has fought have been increasingly “limited” and cynical. He frequently contrasts General Douglas MacArthur’s old idea of war — that no end other than victory was worth the sacrifice of war — to the post WWII idea of war as a chess game, typified by the Pentagon Papers and obvious in the recent debates over what “victory” even means in Iraq or Afghanistan. Soldiers are unfortunately now more often portrayed as pawns and victims of war than as heroes. As a result of this warranted distrust of authority and the progressive personalization and internalization of the idea of honor following World War I, Bowman notes that the Army has taken to marketing individually centered rationales for enlisting — like “Army of One” or “Army Strong” — instead of relying on the call of duty, honor-seeking, or patriotism. The old “white feather” campaigns would never fly in our officially gender-neutral, post-honor society.

All of these aspects of honor’s decline considered, it boils down to the loss of the honor group. Bowman points out that “honor depends on the honor group,” and it seems that unless you have a group of men who collectively agree to hold certain kinds of behavior up as an aspirational, honorable ideal, honor cannot survive. Traditional Honor is hierarchical; there is an element of competition to it, an element of reputation-building and fame-seeking, a desire to be seen as a Man of Honor that collapses if there is no group to hold the Man of Honor in esteem above others. There seems to be a “sweet spot” in Western honor culture, a balance between the conscience and authenticity of the individual and the demands of the honor culture that has tipped in favor of the individual at the expense of the group. One of the drawbacks of losing the honor group is that a man can rationalize virtually any behavior, his self-perception is subjective and self-serving. Being true to yourself can mean anything, and frequently, it does. The honor group standardizes conduct, it defines virtus, it creates a code to guide a man’s internal sense of honor.

(I’ll explore the idea of a lost honor group and what it means for men who find themselves attracted to Traditional ideals of honor in a forthcoming essay for Alternative Right. )

Reviving Honor

Bowman presents a program for a revival of honor, but seems unconvinced that such a revival is possible — especially since the media currently feeds on scandal and dishonor.

First, Bowman writes that we must “revive the warrior spirit,” by allowing our politicians and military men to make use of the language of Traditional and group honor. We must be loyal to our own, instead of incessantly prosecuting each other over policy differences. In addition to the phenomenon of every administration these days trying to treat its opponents in the last administration like criminals, I suspect Bowman would agree that we need to stop demonizing and prosecuting our troops every time they fail to hug an enemy combatant. He also believes we should culturally encourage honorable and heroic behavior on the part of citizens, giving the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93 as an example. Another way to do this would be to expand on the idea of Good Samaritan Laws, and defend or expand ideas like Castle Doctrine. In military matters, but perhaps even more so in civilian society, our post-honor society is paralyzed by litigiousness and the perception that potential acts of heroism will often result in lawsuits or even jail time for the hero. We’ve created a society where intervening on another’s behalf will more than likely be punished.

Bowman recognizes the need for “a new inequality” — a revival of virtue over cynicism.

Honor can be made compatible with a great many seemingly antithetical ideas, but it can never be compatible with any serious degree of egalitarianism. By its very nature it separates people into unequal categories of higher and lower, good and less good, honorable and less honorable-and, yes, dishonorable too.

He also says that politicians would have to demand some sort of respect and stop pandering by trying to be nice and accessible-they would have to be more manly and noble. The problem of course is that this is unworkable in a democracy, especially one that runs on a 24-hour news cycle. Bowman also expects too much of politicians here; the American politician follows public opinion, he does not create it.

We must also put celebrity in its place, according to Bowman. Mainstream culture focuses not on rewarding honor, but on rewarding fame-often for fame’s sake alone, as with reality television and people like Paris Hilton. Men of actual achievement should have the courage to mock celebrity culture back when it mocks honor and achievement, and fight the desire to pander to the tastes of pop stars and actors and musicians. Interestingly, Bowman suggests that the celebrity culture of the mainstream media could be shamed into better behavior by more substantive outlets in the blogosphere.

There is also the thorny problem of feminism, and the challenges it poses to any viable honor culture.

Now it is women’s right to a full measure of humanity that is here to stay, and honor must accommodate itself to that concept or become irrelevant. Or at least, as it has been up until now, unmentionable. Going back to the idea of women as property, which still prevails in many parts of the world, is now as thinkable for western Europeans and Americans as going back from democracy to absolute monarchy was for their ancestors in the nineteenth century.

This assumes that the modern social democratic state is infinitely sustainable, which it probably isn’t. And it also assumes that women’s “full measure of humanity” requires that they participate in state and business affairs in exactly the same way as men do. They can only do this now, and they only want to, because of the way the current system works. Bowman addresses this by suggesting that it is perhaps still possible to conceive, as other cultures do, that more traditional roles for women do not necessarily render them sub-human, and that there is a comparable but distinct value to be revered in the roles of wife and mother. By and large, issues like putting women in combat are symbolic for the feminist movement — like same-sex marriage is for the gay movement. Most women don’t really want to go to war, they just like the idea that they should be able to, no matter what the expense or social cost.

Conclusion

The long view of history suggests that our choice is eventually going to be not between the liberal, unisex, pacifistic society of the feminist ideal and some throwback to caveman honor, but between some throwback to caveman honor and some more civilized and feminist variant of the long-dormant Western variety.

Bowman’s point here, back in its political context, is that the all but extinguished Western honor culture, which has been civilized and moderated in the past, is increasingly finding itself at war not with itself, but with a far less civilized and more barbaric honor culture. The choice may be between the balance of old Western honor culture and the honor culture that beheads its enemies and stones its women. The Traditional Western way of honor offers a middle way between Britney Spears and the burqa, between John Lennon and the suicide bomber. The Western left seems to be in denial of the possibility that these are very real polarities. It prefers instead to continue the West’s war on itself, and hopes its progressive intentions will somehow trickle out and heal the world. The Western left believes questions of honor are silly playground games for boys; it has removed honor as a variable to consider. Bowman doubts it is truly possible to escape the basic reality of reflexive honor, no matter how we mask it or talk around it. In the West, if we’re unable to embrace our moderated version of honor and say with conviction that our honor is better than their honor, then their version of honor may one day be the only alternative.

Recommendation

Honor: A History is an important book on the topic that, even outside of its own political context, provides insight into the history and present state of Western honor, as well as providing a valuable framework for discussing it — particularly in terms of the differentiation between reflexive and cultural honor.

For more from James Bowman, visit: /www.jamesbowman.net/