Men will be boys

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

My fa­vorite daily read­ing has long been of the obit­u­ar­ies of World War II vet­er­ans that are al­most a daily fea­ture in the Lon­don Daily Tele­graph. For some years past, they have pro­vided me a seem­ingly end­less sup­ply of fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries about the of­ten as­ton­ish­ingly coura­geous deeds of men who were dec­o­rated for valor in that war. There are fewer of them now as the ranks of these old war­riors are fur­ther thinned and as we grow more and more dis­tant in time from the cul­ture that, what­ever its faults, was able to pro­duce men of such cal­iber.

The only way to un­der­stand the present is in terms of the past. My apolo­gies if that seems ei­ther ob­vi­ously true or ob­vi­ously un­true, but it is the foun­da­tional ax­iom on which Kay Hy­mowitz’s “Man­ning Up” is based. To a gen­er­a­tion of young males for whom the study of his­tory has been op­tional, at best, there can be noth­ing very re­mark­able about the fact that so many of them while in their 20s or even 30s, in­stead of risk­ing their lives in the ser­vice of their coun­try, or even get­ting a job and get­ting mar­ried as young men in peace­time have for cen­turies been ea­ger to do, are unem­ployed and/or still liv­ing with their par­ents.

It is only by com­par­ing their lives to those of their fathers and grand­fa­thers, many of whom at their age had com­manded men in battle and most of whom were mar­ried and had chil­dren of their own, that those of us old enough to re­mem­ber such men find any­thing un­to­ward.

Play­ing the devil’s ad­vo­cate, I could re­mark that this is the an­swer that Ms. Hy­mowitz’s crit­ics could make to her dev­as­tat­ing cri­tique of the in­fan­tiliza­tion of our cul­ture and the rise of what she calls “pread­ult­hood,” es­pe­cially among young males: Yeah? So what? Where is it writ­ten that “grow­ing up,” as the term was un­der­stood by those bound by eco­nomic cir­cum­stance or so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion a gen­er­a­tion or more ago — let alone the sex­ist-sound­ing “man­ning up” — is com­pul­sory?

Times change. There are no Nazis to de­feat, the parental units have plenty of money and the girls are com­pli­ant with­out ex­pect­ing you to marry them. Deal with it, Kay Hy­mowitz. Man up.

Yet such crit­ics are, I be­lieve, mis­taken. The kids are not all right and they may even be not im­mune to the shame of their long-de­layed ma­tu­rity. If they are boys, they may even be stung by the im­pu­ta­tion of weak­ness, cow­ardice, de­pen­dency and lack of am­bi­tion. All of these qual­i­ties would have had neg­a­tive sur­vival value dur­ing the mil­len­nia of our evo­lu­tion as Homo sapi­ens, much of that time spent in per­pet­ual war­fare, so it is rea­son­able to as­sume that the pos­i­tive value of the abil­ity to feel shame in idle­ness and de­pen­dency would have been hard-wired it into us.

The slacker “life­style” — like “life­style” it­self — is there­fore a kind of drug that we know is very bad for us, may even be killing us, but that we keep tak­ing any­way be­cause deny­ing that knowl­edge makes us feel bet­ter than ac­knowl­edg­ing it. Ms. Hy­mowitz does a ter­rific job of anat­o­miz­ing the prob­lem and set­ting out its less salu­bri­ous so­cial con­se­quences, but she is a lit­tle too shy about at­tack­ing its causes.

On the last page of text, she gets around to this, writ­ing that the “un­der­ly­ing theme of this book is one eas­ily mis­un­der­stood by Amer­i­cans: the lim­its of in­di­vid­u­al­ism. Peo­ple don’t or­der or cre­ate a mean­ing­ful life out of whole cloth. They use the cul- tu­ral ma­te­ri­als avail­able to them. The ma­te­ri­als avail­able to young men are mea­ger, and what is avail­able of­ten con­tra­dicts it­self. At bot­tom, they are too free.”

I think this is right, but the so­cial im­pli­ca­tions of the ob­ser­va­tion are too tremen­dous for her to get into in the half a page re­main­ing to her. “Pread­ult­hood is not go­ing away,” she writes, and she fol­lows this melan­choly but prob­a­bly all-too-true con­tention with what sounds like the forced cheer­ful­ness of urg­ing girls “to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed by their bod­ies” and men to “man up.”

You can un­der­stand why she wants to avoid end­ing on a note of de­jec­tion and de­spair for the prospects of the race, the nation, the cul­ture and, per­haps, the world. It wouldn’t be good for sales, but it might be more hon­est. I agree that what she grandly calls the de­mo­graphic shift to­ward pread­ult­hood is not go­ing away — not, any­way, so long as moral­ists like her­self pull their punches be­cause they are more ashamed of their mor­al­iz­ing than the pread­ults are ashamed of their un­will­ing­ness to grow up.

James Bow­man, the au­thor of “Honor: A His­tory” (En­counter, 2006), is a res­i­dent scholar at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter.

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