Saturday, February 2, 2008

Be a Man

Over at NRO, Kathryn Lopez bemoans the state of manhood and the raising of boys in her "review" of Juno. She's disturbed by Mark Loring, the would-be adoptive father of the title character's unborn baby:
Mark Loring reminded me immediately of Leonard Sax. His book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, reiterates some of what Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about in her War Against Boys, and what many of us can see around us: While there are no interest groups worrying about how often they raise their hands or get called on in class, something bad is happening to our boys. Sax — a psychiatrist — writes: “What’s troubling about so many of the boys I see in my practice, or the boys I hear about from parents and teachers, is that they don’t have much passion for any real-world activity.” They’re playing video games that “seldom connect with the real world”; they are like Mark Loring, who sits at home and watches The Wizard of Gore while bemoaning the fact that he’s sold out and no longer plays in a band in bars. (He composes music for commercials to pay for kitchen remodeling while he really wants to be the next Kurt Cobain, as Vanessa complains when he announces he no longer wants to be married.)

(Read the linked Sax interview--the point about Kindergarten being harder on boys because of its emphasis on academics is well taken. In my experience, boys lag girls intellectually by about a year at that age, catching up to girls only when they encounter the train wreck that is puberty.)

But Lopez's piece turns out to be a fine lesson in why social conservatism is vaguely silly. Are there policy approaches to re-instilling manliness in American Society? Sure. Will they achieve only their intended consequences? Absolutely not. For some reason, social conservatives think that society is amenable to engineering in exactly the same way that economic liberals think that the economy is manipulable. Complex systems are complex systems. Be very careful.

Let's look at Mark Loring a little more closely: He writes advertising jingles for a living. In short, he produces intellectual property in the information economy. He bemoans the loss of his band. In other words, he feels isolated by working at home.

I liked Juno a lot, incidentally. But I certainly didn't read into it what Lopez did. Vanessa Loring (the Jennifer Garner character) is an ambitious, driven woman. She want to have the successful career and the kids and the happy marriage. She's single-minded about those things. Other than that, she's not paying much attention.

I know lots of people like that, men and women. At one time, I was somewhat like them (although I fell more onto the "workaholic" side of the spectrum). It used to be that ambitious, driven men were our social ideal. Lopez is right that that's changed.

But I also know lots of people like Mark Loring. In fact, I'm probably more like him today than I am like Vanessa. I work at home. I'm a software geek, not a jingle-writer, but frankly there's just not that much difference any more. Society probably benefits a bit more from the ability to make phone calls than it does from advertising but the topic is at least debatable. I blog (to very few people, apparently) for fun. And yes, I do feel isolated and unfulfilled.

But I am right smack in the big fat middle of the information economy. I am its poster child. The growth is happening around me and people like me. Is that a a reason to bemoan the fact that most men no longer aspire to be a character out of Atlas Shrugged? The world has changed--it's changed a lot. In the industrialized nations, the way we live would be utterly unrecognizable--and repulsive--to a man from the Enlightenment. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I do know that it is what it is and there's no going back to an industrial economy, short of a complete economic and social collapse. That may happen. Maybe what we've wrought is unsustainable and needs a sharp correction.

Or maybe this is what social progress looks like. That it looks more like Brave New World than it does a Robert Heinlein novel may be regrettable but it's the way it is. It would be lovely to think that we are capable of consciously choosing our path forward. I'm not sanguine about our ability to do that. We simply don't have the technology. I suspect we're better off keeping our eyes open and enjoying the ride.

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