In the trenches of the gender wars
FILE – This Oct. 1996 file photo shows a replica of a Neanderthal man
When my book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” was published a few months ago, I expected some backlash from both left and right. What happened instead has been quite a different story — one that speaks volumes about how our divided politics make it very difficult to talk about issues basic to our culture.
In my preface, I wrote that sometimes I would sound quite conservative, at others, pretty left wing. However, I tried to give a balanced account of intertwined problems facing tens of millions of American men — with work, with health and mental health, with their relationships with women and their children, and of their alienation from America. These are not all men, but they are a huge population, part-victim, part-culprit, battered by a ruthless economy and a changing culture.
It would seem as American as apple pie that we would try to help any of our people who are having a hard time or suffering.
My book has turned out to be kind of a Rorschach test. Many men see themselves in its pages — lonely, sad, out of work, fearing unjust allegations of sexual harassment. Many ex-wives and other women recognize good-for-nothing husbands or boyfriends. Parents see their sons’ struggles.
Many men and women across the political spectrum got my message: Women have suffered from sexism, oppression and violence, but that does not mean that all men are evil and that no men are having a hard time in 21st century America. How often have I said, “It’s not a zero-sum game of men win, women lose (or vice versa).” In many (but certainly not all) media outlets — from Fox News to newspapers including The Chronicle and the Washington Post — I found audiences and editors who understand that the issues facing many men are real and worth sober discussion.
When one interviewer introduced me as a men’s right proponent, I said: No, I’m pro-people, and it’s not good if men or women are treated badly or unfairly.
However, all too many reacting to my book went to their corners, ready to beat the hell out of their presumed adversaries. I often found myself caught in the crossfire.
During the Brett Kavanagh hearings, some liberal media wanted to hear my views on the fraught concept of “masculinity.” Yes, I told them, there’s a lot of misogyny, particularly on the internet, and considerable bitterness toward women and feminism.
Then, some liberals and feminists started muttering that it was “tin-eared” to talk about men’s problems in the era of #MeToo. The glib assumption was that men, or at least white men — as if all are alike — are the problem: If that’s right, they can’t possibly have problems worth understanding and addressing.
In response to a recent Washington Post commentary, one woman declared that men should become “extinct.” I doubt that most mothers would want their sons to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Others — who seemed to have read only the word “men” in my 90,000-word book — wrote that “men are finally getting what they deserve,” or derided me for the heresy of writing a book about men. Some repeated the tired truism that many men are sexist and need to get with the program of Manhood 2.0, as if culture turns on a dime when elites say so. Yes, more than a few men I met made similarly grotesque statements about women.
The all-men-be-damned rants sounded eerily similar to those of racists, anti-Semites — and, yes, misogynists. They also seemed deaf when I repeatedly said that a white male elite still had most people under its thumb.
One self-proclaimed socialist got it right that some progressive elites and feminists see working-class men as troglodyte white trash, but also believe that a vastly expanded welfare state would solve all problems. It would solve some.
On the right, I became a favorite of those who think that many men aren’t getting a fair shake, and that feminism has done much for women but little for men. Some bemoaned men’s status and not so implicitly attacked women. Other conservatives took a different tack, seeing the “men out” as lazy “losers.”
Some on the right have also assumed that “Man Out” was an unequivocally “pro-men” book, and those further to the right damned me for not understanding what terrible things women have done to men.
In short, the very fact that a large contingent of women and men see each other as the enemy, and that many on the left and right see the “man problem” so differently, mirrors the hideous polarization in other parts of our culture and politics.
As one of my more thoughtful readers — someone who didn’t identify their politics or gender — opined: “There is room in our hearts to care for all those who are hurting.”
Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and affiliate faculty member of history at George Mason University, is the author of “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life” (Brookings Institution Press, 2018).