Friday, September 4, 2009

Grim Mandango – Does Putting on the New Man Mean I Have to Wear a Tie?

We Can Rebuild Him. We Have the Technology.

Yesterday I was perusing a feminist blog, because I’m regarded for my strong pro-feminism outlook. About a month ago, the eponymous Pink Scare wrote on George Sodini and the 2009 Collier Township shooting in a blog titled Pro-sex? Anti-porn? Where do I fall? Among the things she had to say on the topic were

Men all over the internet expressed horror at what he did, but expressed that they understood what he was talking about…. What's clear is that a lot of men think they have a right or entitlement to have sex with women, simply for being alive….

I was one of the men she addresses, who felt torn between feelings of consternation and empathy. Under no circumstances do I condone what he did and he was undoubtedly a sick man who needed to either get psychiatric help or turn the gun on himself before he did on twelve others. After reading online his journal, however, I felt pity for him. Pink Scare said it’s clear men think they are entitled to sex; I told her she was overly simplistic in her analysis. Even more, however, I can’t help but feel there’s a cultural insensitivity for the plight of men. At, one person attacked a poster who was trying to demonstrate the negative effects of patriarchy on men with “Alright, buddy, man up. Stop whining about how feminists aren't doing anything and start your own god**** movement. You've made some good points, but you are moving into whiny douchebag territory” (emphasis mine). This was said to someone who agreed with the feminist agenda.

All of this got me thinking about being a man in the 21st century. I’m a devout cynic and have developed a tin ear to the predicament of “the oppressed” because it seems to turn out good for one group at the expense of another. I remember hearing recently about a Jewish man, whose family had endured the Holocaust, being critical of how Palestinians were treated by the Jewish people in the Middle East because they had applied the maxim “Never Again” only to themselves. Similarly, I remember being at a dinner party and made a faux pas in making what was thought to be a racist joke – it was actually a joke about the poor, but that’s not important here. Later I was told by a female that she was more bothered by racist jokes than sexist ones. I later came across this quotation by Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way.

I completely agree with Stanton and take it further: all prejudice to me is equal in offense if equal in degree. To not be considered for a job, to be mocked, or to be exploited because of sexual orientation, age, weight, or appearance are all equally contemptuous in my estimation. There is no “better or worse way” to demean another human being.

Ya'll don't know what it's like, being male, middle class and white.

Not to play the martyr – for men are hardly doing as badly as black people or women did, you know, basically forever – but the circumstances of injustice against my gender have inspired more sadness than anger in me. Even if I thought it could be effective, there were never any fantasies of a Lysistratan ultimatum to requisition parity. When I first began looking into this subject, I came across some rather lengthy videos by Warren Farrell. At the time I was introduced to Farrell I was fearful of becoming a woman hater, and I felt that would be completely unproductive in my life. (I was also afraid of being misunderstood or judged by others – fears which are just as alive and awake now.) But Farrell said something that encouraged me: “Men aren’t being heard because women aren’t listening; men aren’t being heard because they aren’t speaking.” I have since found a peace that obviously eluded Sodini. My heart goes out to people like him: I don’t think the prescription is as simple as “give men sex,” but I wonder if we might do better than mere scapegoating.

As a gender, men must come vis-à-vis the issue of death early on. Signing up to be eligible for the draft is just one milestone in a young man’s life where he must encounter his own mortality. More mundanely, however, men are fully aware of this in the realm of sex. Simply put, eggs are expensive; sperm is cheap – and by extension, so are women and men. Servicing the procreative the needs of the human tribe can be more than adequately filled by a handful of virile alpha males. One of the most fortuitous turn of events in human history for most men was the advent of resource-demanding children, no longer leaving the majority of men without recourse for their biological imperative.

Returning to Pink Scare’s blog, she laments the current state of affairs in eros. She sees Sodini’s woman-hating rage in a continuum, with bad sex comedies making light of the “tag ‘em and bag ‘em” machismo at the other end with men’s objectification in pornography falling in between. For this feminist, though, I pose this question: Is this perhaps not, at least in part, feminism’s making? In the past, we may have had more parity than is currently perceived: women traded sex for security and men traded wealth for sexual access. Men provided three key functions for a woman: income, physical security, and the ability to father and raise children. Our society can now circumvent a great deal of those three things, for women are now free to earn incomes, be protected by police forces, and conceive with IVF technology. The question is now before us, to quote Maureen Dowd, Are Men Necessary? What I’ve been trying to say from the start is, I question how necessary we ever really were.

With bony hands I hold my partner,
on soulless feet we cross the floor.
The music stops as if to answer,
an empty knocking at the door.
It seems his skin was sweet as mango,
when last I held him to my breast.
But now we dance this grim fandango,
and will four years before we rest.

To what degree might we say all these poorly manufactured jokes and movies are men’s sexual swan song? Flannery O’Connor famous dictum is that “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures. By distortion, like a Picasso or an auto stereogram, a corny romantic comedy allows us to encounter the Other, our aegis down, and return to the bromidic having both seen and still seeing.

One critique I have of feminism is why I hear nothing of men’s portrayal in media. From Homer Simpson to Peter Griffin to Everybody Loves Raymond, men are portrayed and buffoons. My feelings are summed up on the issue here and here. Maybe men and women aren’t meant to want the same things and see things the same way. Women can now do with their bodies what they want and restrict men’s access – and this is very important to my view of the world – that means that there will be losers in the game of love. There always have been losers, but now these losers don’t have to turn to prostitutes, but can look up pornography on the world-wide web, a sex-substitute that makes men feel powerful and wanted in the ways men want to be powerful and wanted. Historically, men fought wars and saw women as toys. Now women call the shots in their own lives and men are now relegated to being sexual “servants and supplicants,” to quote Christopher Hitchens, which we always were. Women have utter control in a relationship and repeatedly put the brakes on men’s advances, and we wonder why Halo and football are so popular.

To recap, men’s lives are cheap, we have to face repeated rejection, told to “suck it up” when we fail in life, and must beg for the thing we want most from women. Isn’t it a wonder there aren’t more Sodinis? I remember watching some video bemoaning the effects of pornography with some freshmen Christian girls in the Central College chapel. They found the notion of what men do with porn gross. Though I hate to be insensitive and try to genuflect to people’s fragile sensitivities as often as I can, maybe asceticism isn’t realistic. One beef I have with the faith of my youth is the over-feminization of the ecclesia.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling - William Butler Yeats

As I said before, I’m a committed believer in cynicism and really hold humanity to the lowest of standards. I am, however, a bit of a futurist, and think some of humanity's problems may be improved upon with time and technology. The escapist in me wonders if maybe we can, in fact, build a better man, improve upon him, and not be bondslaves to our genes and the environment that produced them. Then I came across a video of Harvard professor Michael Sandel on the subject of cosmetic genetic engineering. They were discussing whether or not parents should be able to select genes for their children that enhanced their lifestyles, such as genes for height. Dr. Sandel said,

When people choose to answer society’s prejudices by changing themselves or their children, what they are doing is leaving those prejudices in place. So, if we respond to the prejudice in favor of tall people in our society, not by challenging those prejudices, socially, politically, taking them on, but by simply making ourselves or our children taller, to fit the prejudice, we’ve really caved into that prejudice.

The effect is, we think we are freeing ourselves by using technology and high-tech, but what we’re really doing is leaving in place unquestioned, unchallenged prejudices that could be otherwise. So it seems to me that the truer freedom is to try and ask ourselves and debate as citizens of all our societies, What sort of rewards should go with what sorts of traits and contributions? And the more we devote ourselves to just trying to figure out how to save ourselves, and to equip our children to compete in a world where the reward system may be unjust in many ways, the more likely we are to leave in place unquestioned those prejudices. And so, I think rather than trying to change ourselves to fit the world, we should try to change the world to make it more hospitable to the strengths and also the imperfections of the human beings we are.

Which is why I wrote this for you.

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