A friend recently sent me a story from the New York Times about “survival schools” in which men, mostly young and urban, paint themselves in camouflage and pretend to be soldiers or survivors of plane crashes. These games are a pursuit of manliness, avowed to be such by the participants. (“Manliness likes to be unconventional,” [an instructor] added. "It likes to disobey the law. So now we have reality camps.”)
The woman who wrote the piece made the participants seem fairly ridiculous, which one would expect of a writer both female and an ornament of a volcanic vent of conventionality. They also made themselves sound ridiculous. Being interrupted by one’s cell phone in the midst of a firefight is hard not to smile at. I once covered Mitch WerBel’s survival school (Cobray) at Powder Springs in Georgia, in which bored podiatrists came to learn “Advanced Sniping Techniques,” having learned earlier in the morning “This little thing is the trigger.” It was absolutely ridiculous.
Ridiculous, until I thought about it. Why were intelligent men (some were engineering students for example) playing like little boys, I wondered? The answer I think is that today there are so very few outlets for manliness. Such is the grip of feminism on the country that the very word sounds faintly silly.
Manliness certainly isn’t in demand. The women of today seem to want a metrosexual who loves to shop, helps with the housework, and never does anything that she wouldn’t want to do. He may wear an earring. Modern marriage sounds like a sort of heterosexual lesbianism. The man should be as little like a man as possible while having complementary genitals.
This gelding of men, pushed everywhere in the media (note the universal prevalence of girlish male models with waxed chests and slight figures) can easily be seen as the desired consequence of female hostility to men; the corresponding de-feminization of women, as another front in an anti-male war led by hostile feminists. Perhaps. I have assuredly thought so at times. Yet women seem as unhappy in their mannish roles as do men in womanish ones. One thing is sure, which is that women do not understand men—their drives, needs, nature, or inner light.
For example, I would love to set out on horseback across the Great Plains as they were in say, 1825, with a few friends, a good rifle, and a dog or two. Why? A woman would call the idea absurd, and say that I was trying to prove my manhood or regain my youth or something similarly psychotherapeutic. But that’s not it at all. It has nothing to do with impressing anyone, and everything to do with a freedom and independence that a man craves, even when he doesn’t quite know that he does.
I think of huge skies with the occasional buzzard circling in the updrafts, of towering clouds darkening with distant rain, wind picking up and hissing through the brush, and nobody there, nobody. For a rifle, I’d like the Savage thirty-thirty lever-action that a buddy had for a while, not because it is the best gun for the purpose but just because it was such a sweet weapon.
How do I explain to a woman why I love the wild places of the earth, places where I can be alone with the jungle or the plains or the mountains? Alone, and left alone? Where things are not certain, predetermined, and suffocatingly secure? What meaning can “a sweet rifle” have for her? None. Why would she want to be uncomfortable and insecure? She does cupboards and rugs. I put up with them.
A normal woman, bearing no ill-will but simply puzzled, will lapse into “boys and their toys.” A hairy-chested feminist, more poisonous but equally uncomprehending, will run on tediously about machismo and phallic symbolism. Both are clueless.
I have no fantasies about shooting anyone. I have seen enough of that for one lifetime. I don’t hunt, having no desire to kill anything I don’t have to kill. I don’t need to pose with a rifle. Having carried one in the Marine Corps, I do not regard them as exotic. But when you are far from anywhere, you provide your own security. I am comfortable with the idea. So are a lot of men. In today’s suburban, mall-ridden world security is what answers 911.
Somebody said (or if no one did, I will) that women are realists pretending to be romantics, and men, romantics pretending to be realists. Yes. The male desire is to explore, to fly higher and higher, to invent and dare and go and see. The Apollo landings were not inspired by a desire to know the nature of lunar rocks. A man does not get on a rice-burning crotch-rocket on a desert road in Arizona and scream through the hot vastness, wap-wap-wap through the gears, 95, 105, 120…125 (go baby, get it on, do it for me), because it is particularly practical. It is the sheer glory of the thing, the speed and power, controlled but on the edge.
And now he wakes at five-thirty for the two-hour commute from Fredericksburg to Washington in crawling traffic, then to his cubicle at Agriculture where he tracks soybean yields in North Carolina. For his entire life.
It is not what men are wired to do. We just do not domesticate well. While male behavior is perhaps no more inherently absurd than female, it has little application to the suburbs and bureaucratic salt mines.
The world today, the modern parts anyway, is very much a woman’s world. It will become more so. The economy values orderliness, routine, and avoidance of waves. It needs patient people who will do the assembly-line work of huge offices whirring with air-conditioning. Women are better at this. I’m not sure that they really like it, but they handle it well.
Women want security, comfort, nice houses and nice cars. Men eventually feel cramped by them. Of course there are exceptions. The old social order, in which women were shy and retiring and stayed in the house, was to a considerable extent artificial. You now see women on the long mountain trails, sometimes solo, and diving the deep walls in the Caribbean. But they are exceptions.
And so you get a young engineer who knows that something is wrong but may not know what. He’s bright. Engineers are. He is working on some detail of the hot section of a big new high-efficiency turbo-fan. It is interesting work and well paid. After work every day he goes to the local hangout to check out the babes, though somehow they aren’t quite what he’s looking for, and his buddies come by with their new Lexuses, and they drink beer and talk about the market. Every night. Another birthday rolls around. He asks the overarching question for a lot of young males today in a world that isn’t theirs: “Is this all?”
Maybe he gets a motorcycle, or skydives, but it’s still the controlled world, artificial adventure. Or, just maybe, he goes to some silly survival school, an answer arguably ridiculous to a question that isn’t.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.