The Virtuous Male

More than a decade has passed since I learned manhood is something
that has to be achieved. This discovery came to me during a 1981
interview with poet and raconteur Robert Bly, who was about to
become famous for his opinions about what a mere male must do to
become a bona fide man. I was 26 at the time; Bly was in his

I can still remember how Bly, using a fairy tale called ‘Iron
John’ as a model for men’s lives, insisted on the importance of
men’s rites of passage: ‘The ancient societies believed that a boy
becomes a man only through ritual and effort — that he must be
initiated into the world of men.’

I was captivated by this idea, inspired by its challenge, its
sense of mystery, and its connotation of primordial truths. Still,
I didn’t agree with all of Bly’s thinking, especially his
traditionalist assumptions about the ‘true essence’ of manhood and
what seemed to me a propensity to pick and choose motifs from world
mythology, buttressing a romanticized view of primal cultures and
their rituals. (Also, Bly’s emphasis on the ritualized hard work of
‘making’ masculinity made me wonder whether I had even the energy
for manhood.)

Fourteen years later, a magazine assignment took me among 50,000
Christian men chanting, singing, and shouting the praises of Jesus
at the Oakland Coliseum. Two weeks after that, I sat glued to
C-SPAN’s coverage of the black-men-only Million Man March in
Washington, D.C. In both cases, I ended with feelings every bit as
mixed as my response to Bly’s ‘mythopoetic’ men’s movement.

Journalist Jeff Wagenheim, reporting on the predominantly white
male Promise Keepers, and author Glenn C. Loury, on hand for the
overwhelmingly black Million Man March, saw what I saw: two mass
gatherings where men began breaking down the isolation that keeps
them fearful of their own masculinity and looking for ways to prove
they’re ‘real’ men. On the other hand, leaders of both gatherings
— Bill McCartney and Louis Farrakhan — are on record in favor of
discrimination against gays. As for the womenfolk, well, clearly
men must reclaim the upper hand.

Says who? Why is it so difficult for so many of us to imagine a
path other than domination, at one extreme, and submission at the
other? What’s wrong with partnership? Why should attorney Debra
Dickerson, whose poignant essay appears in the following pages,
have to express astonishment that for one ‘entire, righteous day,’
the day of the Million Man March, she found herself addressed by
black males respectfully: as ‘auntie,’ ‘sister,’ and ‘daughter,’
not once as ‘bitch,’ ‘ho,’ or ‘sweet thang’?

Clearly, we’re living in anxious times. Once upon a time,
masculinity was tacitly defined in terms of the extent to which men
had control over their labor and could be self-reliant in the
workplace. If a man failed, he could always head ‘West’ —
geographically, metaphorically — in search of a new frontier. A
self-made man could always start over.

Today, an increasingly mechanized and bureaucratic workplace
offers little true autonomy. With the civil rights crusade of the
1960s, followed by the rise of the women’s movement and the gay and
lesbian movements, the homosocial world of the traditional
workplace has a new visitor: the ‘other.’

Surely, anxiety about these shifts accounts for part of the
resurgent appeal of men-only events, especially for middle-class
straight white men in their late 20s through their 40s, the
mainstay of Promise Keepers (and of Bly’s ‘mythopoetic’ men’s
movement). Still, economics is only part of the story; something
else is going on.

‘Responsibility’ is the watchword of the growing evangelical
men’s movement, just as ‘atonement’ was a crucial theme of the
Million Man March. What shifts might this return to male virtue
foretell? Hopefully, a new masculine frontier — this time not so
far from home. There are babies and young children to be cared for,
equally by men and women. Raising our voices in unison, we could be
a mighty tide for changing hours of work and promotion rules to
make that possible.

Looking further, we could work to discredit domestic violence,
gay bashing, and sexual assault. We could stand up — white men and
minority men together, also women and men together — against the
systematic economic disenfranchisement of those who didn’t have the
time, the energy, the money, or the hope to join the millions who
marched on Washington.

All this could happen. The choice is ours.

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