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From Liberty Street: Manliness

Harvey C. Mansfield, said by some to be the only conservative professor of government at Harvard, has written a book called Manliness, which isn't getting very good notices. Publishers Weekly, for example, said of it, "Mansfield set out to write a provocative book, but ended up penning a juvenile screed."

I haven't read it and, considering all the things there are to read, I probably won't. But I can't help noticing the mini-furor it has caused, which tells me that the question of what men are supposed to be -- as contrasted with women -- is a continuing hot topic.

Mr. Mansfield's principal definition of manliness is "confidence in the face of risk," which must be intended mean that women don't have as much of that kind of confidence as men do -- women being the only control group to which we can compare men. I don't know whether that's true or not because I don't know what confidence in the face of risk means. Might the term be Mansfield's sneaky way of applauding pigheadedness? Does it imply that men don't worry about risk as much as women do? Or does it suggest simply that men approach their tasks with a belief they can accomplish them?

I have no objection to speculation about the distinction between men and women, though I do think most of it is wrong-headed. But when people reach hypotheses about gender differences which they are ready to apply to life that's when carefulness needs to step in. And care is needed most of all when we move from regulating and influencing personal relations and start meddling in governmental policy. It's not only ridiculous, it's dangerous to think in terms of a manly foreign policy, for example. There is no possible application of such a notion that would avoid violence, brutality, and arrogance.

When men and women take up the public's business, or when they go into the voting booth, they shouldn't be thinking of what is manly or feminine. The public is composed of both men and women, and so far as government is concerned, their common humanity is so much more important than their sexual identity, the latter shouldn't have much influence on their decisions. Do we not all need to eat? Do we not all need to be safe from disease and criminality? Do we not all need to live in a society in which a basic level of economic well-being is spread widely? There may be among those needs a few concerns that require taking sex into account. And when there are, it should receive its due. But overall the common human need requires, by far, the greater part of our concern.

It's troubling to see the Republicans spoken of as the manly party whereas the Democrats are denigrated as being feminine. When people start thinking and talking that way, then we know we're going to have bad politics, stupid politics, and corrupt politics.

Perhaps the most disgusting thing about the current presidential administration has been the adoption of a certain swaggering attitude which is clearly designed to express something about masculinity. In the first place, people who think of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney as being highly masculine have an insipid view of masculinity, as though the main way to express manliness is to go about killing little birds, and other things. In the second, the notion that the best manner of conducting a great nation's foreign policy is to take on the behavior of an elementary school bully is so little boyish it's nonsensical to associate any kind of mature masculinity with it. There is, after all -- or at least there used to be -- a concept of growing up.

I suppose, at this point, it might be supposed that I should offer my own one-sentence definition of what it is to be a real man. But I'm not going to do it because a single sentence definitions of anything as complex as the difference between men and women is bound to be more false than true. To attempt to capture masculinity with an abstraction, or even a series of them, is worse than trying to make a good dinner with no knowledge other than what comes out of a cook book. There are tastes, and impulses, and techniques of smiling, and and millions of little gestures, and other things beyond counting that require years of living to put them together into a whole. And one combination can be just as masculinely valid as another which seems almost the opposite.

My advice is not to derive your notion of a man from a professor of government but rather to keep your eyes open and see which of the humans you encounter measure up to the mark your  living has told you is the genuine item.



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