The ten-letter word no man speaks

As I was reading last month’s Atlantic magazine, I was struck by what was actually being discussed in several articles, without being named in any of them.

For example, in “Breaking Faith”, Peter Beinart examined possible consequences of declining church-going among the “religious” right. He quotes a sociologist: “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

What exactly are these “traditional” ambitions? Are they morally neutral? These white men replace intolerance for some categories of people (i.e. homosexuals) with intolerance of other categories (i.e.ethnic minorities), he notes.

Beinart concludes that maybe these white men are more overtly discontent now because they haven’t imbibed “the values of hierarchy, authority and tradition that churches instill.”

S’okay … anybody see any circular reasoning here? Men with unmet traditional aspirations suffer from the lack of tradition that churches instill? Men intolerant of those they see as their inferiors suffer from the lack of hierarchy that churches instill?

It’s tough to argue logically when you can’t bring yourself to name the problem you’re trying to analyze. Beinart is actually suggesting that one form of patriarchy could ease the problems caused by the lessening of another form of patriarchy. I don’t think so.

The “traditional aspirations” of white men, church-going or not, are to be top of the heap. If white men can’t all be president of something, at least they can be head of a household, in charge of women and children. Or maybe head of a town council, or a school, or a school board. But. goddam it, what white men want is to be in charge. They want the recognition of their superior capability, they want the control, they want the privilege and the status. And they’re not getting it. Boo hoo. (Unless they’re in the tech industry where they’ve forcibly created a whole  vacuum-packed environment that duplicates the social patriarchies of a hundred years ago — the subject of another article in the same issue)

Only a man could fail to see that these “traditional aspirations” are by no means morally neutral. If you value equality and freedom, as Americans claim too, you cannot say that hierarchies are without moral consequence. Power corrupts, as the adage goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A man given sole power in a family is a menace to that family.

If these white men have trouble getting married, or staying married, it’s highly likely there’s something women find unsavoury about them. Probably that something is a neediness for power and control. Self-respecting women find such a quality pitiful. These men are probably stuck in  patriarchal male gender restrictions: don’t show your feelings, better yet don’t have feelings. If you have to have a feeling, make it anger. Just to name one such restriction.

The authority and hierarchy of Christian institutionalized churches has been used to legitimize political and social masculine authority and hierarchy. Sending these lapsed Christians back to church is not likely to solve the problem.

What we really need is a much more comprehensive knowledge of patriarchy, and men willing to analyze patriarchy without shame. We need school courses on the History of Patriarchy, sociology courses on variations of patriarchy across cultures and times, anthropological courses on patriarchy, philosophy courses on patriarchy. Women’s studies courses have, in the past fifty or so years, tried to cover all these bases, but there’s too much. Way too much. And now women know something about patriarchy, but all those men who did not take women’s studies in college don’t.

Patriarchy is as water is for fish. It’s such a given, so omni-present, so apparently necessary, so much just “the way things are” that it’s invisible, especially though not exclusively to men. One seeming result is that men are ashamed of it. They appear to think they’re personally responsible for it. The fact is that the values of patriarchy, while originally created by men for men, have become so thoroughly propagated that everyone lives them, largely without questioning them. Only a tiny fragment of any given population actually and intelligently wants to smash the patriarchy. The rest of those who complain about male power just want to massage it, open it up a bit so women can have more control over their own lives. They don’t know the full extent to which patriarchy suffocates, constricts, enslaves and kills.

Truly spiritual people do, as it turns out. Men like Jesus, and countless prophets, saints, sages of all cultures have tried to warn men to give up their patriarchal values. The teachings of Jesus are largely in praise of the qualities men have derided as “feminine”: be compassionate, non-judgmental servants of your fellow humans. And, really, isn’t this what those intolerant, dissatisfied shouting white men need more than anything else?

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