Man Down

by James Howard Kunstler, June 24, 2011

Last week, in an incident that didn't get much attention in the national news, a man named Tom Ball set himself on fire in front of the county courthouse in Keene, New Hampshire. He left a 15-page suicide note explaining his actions. He was angry at the state child protection bureaucracy and the courts after a ten-year battle over a child abuse charge that became, for him, a Kafkaesque struggle with cruel authority. The long suicide note he left was a thoughtful and disturbing indictment of the legal procedures now common across America that have had many unanticipated consequences — from breaking up families to homelessness — but it was also a grim comment on the condition of American manhood.

A casual Martian observer hanging around any convenience store in the “fly-over” zones of this nation must be impressed with the striking way that American men present themselves to the world. Forgive me for revisiting an oft-dredged-up theme — male costuming and adornment in our time — but I wouldn't keep bringing it up if I didn't think it was significant. On the whole, American men present themselves as savages. I think they do it because they feel very insecure about themselves — similar to the insecurity that prompts a politician to wear a flag lapel pin. Should there be any doubt that an elected official cares about his country? Or maybe we should ask: what kind of country produces such craven, weak, pandering elected officials? What kind of culture produces men who get themselves up like chain-saw murderers?

The same country that furnishes an endless diet of super-hero movies to pubescent males who are not expected to develop normal adult coping powers. The same country that supplies gruesome, sado-masochistic video games to occupy the idle hours of young men — and then lets them take those “skills” to some tilt-up bunker in Nevada where they sit in air-conditioned comfort and direct drone aircraft 10,000 miles away to incinerate suspected “enemies” in mud villages. (Sometimes “mistakes are made” and they blow up a wedding party or something — but the drone controllers still get to leave the bunker at the end of their shift and roll down the strip for a plastic tray full of burritos.)

This month's WeinerGate was another instructive incident. Up-and-coming wonderboy politician revealed to be secret sex schlemiel, undone by “social media” — which turns out to have the unanticipated consequence of undermining the impulse control of supposedly grown men. Who knew? But what interested me more than Weiner's pitiful dishonesty was the parade of women journalists on cable TV news who all agreed that poor Weiner's downfall was yet another conclusive demonstration of how hopeless men are — not to mention that their male colleagues on-screen, Blitzer, King, O'Donnell, sheepishly agreed with them. This ceremonial posturing for moral brownie points in an extremely moralistic and puritanical culture does tend to obscure the reality that adult male humans are sexually alert in an inconvenient way that is not identical to the experience of females. Notwithstanding the evident insanity of Dominque Strauss-Kahn jumping the hotel maid, men sometimes make passes. American women cannot forgive them for this. Lesson: perhaps American men should not make such an effort to seek forgiveness. I am waiting, personally, for some Mark Sanford type (former South Carolina governor caught in an “affair” with an Argentine firecracker) to go before the microphones and say to media (and the voters), “this is none of your goddam business.”

Which brings me to the troublesome subject of gay marriage, which is lately up for debate in the legislature of New York State where I live, making it the public's business. I have an unpopular view of it for men of my demographic (Democrat, Boomer). I'm not in favor of it. I don't think it is a good idea. I don't have empirical proof, but I suspect that unsettling such an age-old and fundamental social arrangement will produce strange unanticipated consequences that we are not prepared for. I don't believe gay marriage is a genuine social justice issue. I think it is a bid for a kind of broad social approbation which does not require ritual enactment in law, and would be socially mischievous to pursue. Civil unions would cover the necessary legal issues. Otherwise, it is a case of unwarranted relativism, a Boomer weakness. Not all conditions or states of being in this world are the same. Some things are on the margins because they are marginal.

What fascinates me in the debate is the narcissism of Boomers, males especially, who advocate so earnestly in favor of gay marriage. Is it really about the law and social relations, or is it about making yourself feel good? Is it just more posturing for moral brownie points, for approval? Is your job and social position or maybe even sense of yourself at stake if you have a differing view?

I had an interesting experience with my last two books (World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron), which were set in a post-oil, post economic collapse American future and depicted daily life in a way that was quite unlike the way we live right now. I received a heap of criticism from female readers — including peak oil activists — full of consternation that I did not present female characters in the kinds of dominant valorized roles that are favored today: the post-oil equivalent of CEO, news anchor, CIA-Ninja warrior, Presidential candidate. What struck me was their complete failure of imagination. They could not conceive of male/female relations that were different than today's, even in a world that had been turned economically upside down.

However, this was not inconsistent with the failure of American men to know how to act like men in this anxious moment of history. The choices are pretty unappetizing: be a jobless loser in a “Pray for Death” T-shirt with neck and knuckle tattoos, or a loser in a corporate cubicle, or a loser in that Nevada drone-control bunker, or a loser in the eyes of the family court, or a loser on cable TV. Tom Ball, the man who set himself on fire in Keene, New Hampshire recommended something that sounded a lot like violent revolution, though his tone was eerily measured for someone about to commit the most desperately personal public act. I hope we don't have to go through a convulsion in this land to find out what it means to be a man.

James Kunstler’s excellent books are available at all the usual places.

One Response to Man Down

  1. chuck becker Reply

    June 26, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Wonderful piece, with an interesting perspective. The pseudo-macho thing isn’t strictly American, look at what happened in Vancouver, BC the other day. Young men throughout the Western world are being denied a healthy, real world outlet for what it is that young men do. This will not lead to good outcomes for Western civilization.

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