Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jonathan Liu Reviews the 2nd Males Studies Conference

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_wYv6zDcanLY/S7ysb5ykBJI/AAAAAAAAARk/HHFIgh7SneE/s1600/Conference.jpg

It seemed there was a lot of excitement last year for the first Male Studies Conference - seems maybe not so much this time - a reported 40 or so in the room, with a presumed "hundreds" more watching online. So in the picture above is 1/8 of the attendees.

Jonathan Liu of The New York Observer offered the following review. He offers a perfect summary of my sense of their mission in this one paragraph:
That is to say, every manifest deficiency of the oppressed group is taken to be an artifact and construct of all-pervasive, willful injustice—socially engineered with conspiratorial intent. At the same time, there is one fully natural condition—so natural, in fact, that attempting to nurture away the difference is as morally repugnant as the aforementioned prejudice. Boys are, like African Americans used to be, set up by society to fail; they're also endowed by nature with special powers—the will to "breadwinning," for instance—simply incommensurable with girl-bodies.
Perfect. Here is the whole review.

"The Greatest Generation were men," insisted Gordon E. Finley, a professor of psychology at Florida International University. He was onstage last Wednesday in a second-floor meeting room at the New York Academy of Medicine, where the Male Studies Foundation convened its Second Annual Conference on Male Studies.

"The Greatest Generation was men who fought in World War II. Those who survived, when they came home, they were given adulation—the war to end all wars [sic]—and they were given the G.I. Bill. They took the G.I. Bill, and they ran with it. ... And this helped to propel the economic prosperity" of the 1950s.

Indeed, it's no longer so easy to be male. If you're a frog, this is literally true—modern environmental toxins can actually turn you into a female. If you're a human, they've merely halved your sperm count since the 1940s and zapped 15 percent of your testosterone since the 1980s. Also, you've never been less employable, both absolutely and relative to women, and you now account for just 42 percent of college students, and falling. (Campus gender ratios may be a small boon for undergraduate men, but they're a giant economic impediment for menkind.)

Wednesday's program was called "Looking Forward to Solutions," which brings to mind a semi-repentant World War II collaborationist (a Dane, say) assuring the local Nazi, "but we don't have a Male Problem." But you do, you really, really do: such was the takeaway of four hours and six lectures of Male Studies.

"The point of thinking about the Greatest Generation," said Mr. Finley, is to "weaken all arguments about boys being inferior, about men being inferior, that they can't handle academic work, and so forth."

But if boys have been pushed (relatively) down by malevolent forces, might we at least give girls the credit for pulling themselves up? Of course not. "What made girls and women so successful," Mr. Finley continued, "was basically social engineering. Girls and women claimed they were being discriminated against. ... They got a lot of positive feedback, they got tons of resources, they got the educational system readjusted to their learning style."

One wonders, did the G.I.'s beat back Hitler because of all the positive feedback their soldiering got?

Boys, Mr. Finley affirmed, are being humiliated and tortured daily by the sight of T-shirts that say "Girl Power" or "Girls Rule." "The message is, you're not one of them, and you don't rule, and you don't have power."

For the uninitiated, the comical dotage of the conference's septuagenarian attendees (and speakers)—40 or so in the room, with "hundreds" more said to be watching via webcast—suggested a particularly snoozy Kiwanis Club chapter. Their politics turned out to be more like that of an exceptionally militant Nation of Islam temple.

That is to say, every manifest deficiency of the oppressed group is taken to be an artifact and construct of all-pervasive, willful injustice—socially engineered with conspiratorial intent. At the same time, there is one fully natural condition—so natural, in fact, that attempting to nurture away the difference is as morally repugnant as the aforementioned prejudice. Boys are, like African Americans used to be, set up by society to fail; they're also endowed by nature with special powers—the will to "breadwinning," for instance—simply incommensurable with girl-bodies.

The Black Muslims needed a cosmology of UFOs and mad scientists to fashion an internally coherent theology (and render external coherence moot). The Male Studiers have loud, media-savvy and youngish stigmatics like Guy Garcia, a journalist and former AOL executive who wrote The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future.

Mr. Garcia perhaps lacked the academic fig leafs to be an actual presenter at the conference, but he was a smashing emcee (or "moderator"). "When I was a staff writer at Time magazine in the '80s and '90s," he dangled, early in the day, "the magazines at Time Inc. that made the most money catered to males; the most respected editors at Time Inc. were men; the president and CEO of Time Inc. was a man. Within the course of five or six years, this completely changed. [Now] they don't know why men aren't reading magazines and what's disturbing is they don't care."

Was he saying a cabal of editrixes plotted a coup? (Incidentally, showing solidarity by demanding that more of your people be employed in magazine journalism seems altogether perverse.) Are wives actually hen-pecking husbands into dropping their This Old House subscriptions for Real Simple? Happily, the gentility (and clannishness) of quasi-academia means never having to say you're saying what you're saying.

"In the media," Mr. Garcia threw out a bit later, "men and testosterone are blamed for the failure of institutions and industries that they had built." Really? The media, as such, have scapegoated men, as such, for the Great Recession? Either he's a mediocre fabulist or a hard-core masochist: Even with mighty Time Inc. laid low by skirts, one doesn't have to only read Maureen Dowd.

"Emasculation," by the way, "is a national blood sport."

Mr. Garcia's greatest hit came some time later, an off-the-cuff theory on the scandal of male underemployment. "As we all know," he said, "when boys are growing up, the way teenage males define themselves is against their mothers. They want to be not-Mom. So what do you think happens when Mom works?"

Gray-haired, gray-mustachioed Tom Mortenson, from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, was the first speaker proper. Capable of striking sanity, he unfolded the very real problems in about 10 minutes of charts, graphs and slow talk. Men have indeed been affected disproportionately by the most recent downturn, as well as longer-term economic trends that have seen jobs in agriculture and manufacturing move to the service sector. Unlike the old lifers in factories and mines, service jobs tend either to require a college diploma or to pay too little to raise a family on. And boys, for whatever reason, have been trailing behind girls in school performance—from kindergarten through bachelor degrees and perhaps beyond.

As you'd imagine, it's the whatever reason that brings out the cranky and crackpot in Male Studiers.

According to the men of Male Studies, people are constantly saying mean things about men. Which gets to the great paradox about the "discipline," and "masculinists" in general: As much as it is invested in (these are Mr. Garcia's words) the "strength, risk-taking and single-mindedness" unique to men and devalued in our "networking" or "collaborative" postindustrial economy, Male Studies imagines the average American male as having a psychological makeup closer to Lindsay Lohan than John Wayne.

For speaker Michael Gilbert, the author of The Disposable Male and a researcher at USC, even the intimation that girls might be equal—or, let's say, physiologically comparable—so scars young men that they no longer want to be "breadwinners." In the manner of gay marriage making weddings less awesome for everyone else, he thinks it a scandal that boys can't be the only ones to play sports now, or get bar mitzvahed.

"In the trendy '60s" Mr. Gilbert explained, Jewish feminists "begot the bat mitzvah. But girls already go through a whole series of powerful, female-affirming experiences. ... Regardless of their religion, boys don't get to flower or transform in the process of adolescence.

"Their bodies don't move to lunar rhythms—menstrual cycles. Jewish boys will not get a sweet 16. They won't be given away in marriage—which is a bride-centered ceremony—behind a mysterious veil. Jewish husbands will not get pregnant, they will not go through the tunnel of birth, they will not suckle infants at their breast. All these powerful, recurring, female-affirming passages aren't available to males."

As for gentiles, Mr. Gilbert believes high-school track and field was how the Greeks tested their young men (and how!), and the presence of women cheapens the experience. Likewise, foreign relations-even in Gilgamesh!-has always been a male vocation. His slide show ended with pictures of all the women involved in Middle East policy-from Hillary Clinton to some subconsular broad in Peshawar-and a delightfully open-ended query: Will the Arabs take us seriously?

Note that nowhere is the claim that females can't do the job. Male Studies-as opposed to plain old manly pride-starts with the dispiriting idea that they appear to do most jobs better than males. But must unequal outcomes always imply "inequality," or even iniquity, in the moral sense? Yes, they're down on themselves, but how exactly are men being Jim Crowed or red-lined or denied suffrage?

"Go to any university Web site," Mr. Finley instructed the room, "and ignore the text and go to all the different pages. Count how many pictures of white males you see. ... Most of you will not need more than one hand." This reporter stopped counting at 64, but his alma mater's site is admittedly overstuffed.

Mr. Gilbert suggested even darker social control: Facing coed—but really, girl-centric-schools that care about things like "penmanship" and "sitting down and sharing values," "one in five Caucasian boys will be put on either Adderall or Ritalin during their schooling."

It's wondrous how, in certain crowds, "male" inevitably becomes a byword for "white." (Was the late Geraldine Ferraro-or Shirley Chisholm-right about what's really unspeakable in polite society?)

But what White Men! This dread demographic used to at least charm with rhetorical constancy: All we want is true color- and genital-blindness, a Western Civ that everyone can be proud of. No more. Allan Bloom, and William Buckley and David Horowitz would take the objective advance made by girls as yet more reason to abolish Women's Centers and Women's Studies programs from higher education.

The Male Studiers take it as reason to create Men's Centers that agitate for special privileges for men, because that's what they think—in 2011!—"gender" or "queer" studies does for ladies.

Men, Mr. Gilbert said, will obviously still dominate in "action fields"—"science, technology, the gaming industry and what's left of muscle work"—but the encroachment of women in what we might, crudely, call "women's work" (magazines, teaching, the humanities professoriate) threatens to demolish the whole evolutionary foundation of the species, which is "the eternal pair-bond bargain."

Put in other words, even if women are simply more capable at everything, they must accede to a sort of affirmative action for men lest the latter lash out for wont of things to do. "We know what happens," Mr. Garcia warned wanly, "when men have no hope—they turn to violence." (Women, you'll remember, already get to menstruate.)

When a break was called, the degradations to the gender only continued. A sign informed that there were "ladies lounges" on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors, but just one men's room, on the ground level. Given the composition of the crowd, and the size of everyone's prostates, and the wideness of several stances, this made for very intimate waits at the urinals.

Back upstairs, foundation director Edward M. Stephens was reciting a plea straight to the webcast camera. "Today, as I stand before you, I would like to ask for the first million dollars. ... A million dollars would simply give us the tools to expand what we've done here [in] the direction of the creation of the body of scholarship necessary to reverse ... the international epidemic of the decline of men."

A grant from the Lily Endowment is already funding pilot Men's Centers on 14 college campuses-including, most notably and aggressively, at Wagner College on Staten Island.

After the bathroom break, the panel's only woman, Marianne Legato of Columbia Medical School, presented the only original empirical natural science of the day, about why men die so much earlier than women. Hers was also the only presentation that did not suffer a PowerPoint mishap.

Next, an ironical British ad man named Michael Wilcox explained his agency's "Wear the Pants" campaign for Dockers, with the look of someone who'd grossly misread an invitation. No, Mr. Wilcox answered a questioner, he did not think that ads depicting men being struck in the groin were one of the culture's most pernicious and ubiquitous evils. Another panel member asked him whether the anchor in the Dockers logo was a penis.

From the back row, looking at the sea of shiny pink scalps, it was easy to chalk up the whole scene to a category error: Someone mistaking the biographical decline of a man—namely himself—for a historical Decline of Men. Yet, strange as it may sound, grown men still have influence—if only on not-grown men—and should perhaps not be cut the slack reserved for the subjugated and infantilized.

Mr. Garcia concluded the conference with the story of an email he received from a young man. All his life, this young man wrote, he felt different, out of place at home or school. Then he read Mr. Garcia's book and the problem was clear—a society that "has deeply betrayed the modern male."

The young man, Fabio Botarelli, sent Mr. Garcia a poem, and Mr. Garcia read it out loud, wiping away a few tears in the process. It ran for about a dozen stanzas and was called "The Plight of the Modern Man": "The plight of the modern man/ Curtails the yang ambition/ For if a man says that he can/ He's mocked into submission. Nothing he does is ever right/ His own society hates his guts/ No matter how he tries to fight/ He won't escape this prison rut ..."

What is to become of Mr. Botarelli? Despite the poetry and the correspondence with men like Mr. Garcia, the boy doesn't seem entirely lost to learned helplessness. Just graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, he has a job in real estate, a head full of brown hair and, one suspects, the first inklings that what's for him just a phase becomes, in adulthood, a lifestyle.

"I especially took a half-day off from work to come to this," Mr. Botarelli told The Observer. "But I told them I was going to a creative-writing class."


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