A reader writes:
You have previously commented on the attraction of the alt-Right to young males (ages 15~30). I will adopt the same narrative frame you and Mr. Evans have used, to understand the mind of the young males of today. As with you and Evans, this following narration does not imply endorsement or justification, it is merely my best description.
They are boys searching for meaning and purpose. They wish to be warriors, but they see no dragons to slay. They want to be heroes, but they can find no one to save. Instead, they are told that they are the monsters, it is they from whom others must be saved. If they want to do their part, they can kindly walk to a dark corner, sit down, be quiet, and wait to die. If they want a few bonus points, a few nods of approvals from their masters (who are overwhelmingly all women, K-12), they can turn traitor against their sex, and ritually abase themselves and beg penance for the sins of all men. They can read stories and write essays about weak men and strong women. They can write poems about evil men and victimized, and therefore virtuous, women. They can be “allies”, second-class citizens in the righteous war against patriarchy, and seek whatever scraps of meaning they can find from slandering their own fathers and grandfathers.
All of this is deep, corrosive poison to boys. Fathers, both real and symbolic, are necessary to their development as men. Some of them have absent fathers, and have never known a man who bears the burden of existence with honor. Their future is a blank canvas, one that is rapidly-filled with the relentless propaganda of popular culture and school curricula that teaches toxic masculinity, and that the only virtuous masculinity is none at all. Some have weak fathers, whom they love desperately, but cannot truly respect. They see a meek life of drudgery and subjugation, both to the great systems that stand over them, and often to their wives. Just as the father shouts impotent curses at the banks and HR, so the son rages in silence at the school. For those who do have good fathers, those who live with honor and noble bearing, this ritualized slander is even more unacceptable. They are being asked to speak lies.
What is the response of boys? First, they learn self-censorship. Every boy, certainly every smart one, knows by the age of six that there are things he is not allowed to say. Some of this is the process of civilization, but the domain of the verboten is constantly expanding. They see their less intelligent, or less fortunate peers castigated for infractions, and they learn accordingly. Remember, they are still children at this age. Adults are demi-gods who speak the truth. They learn to repress their energies, temper their shouts. They see girls praised and boys chastised, and simply accept that this is what reality is.
By contrast, girls are actively encouraged at every opportunity. Girls are constantly told to be more confident, to speak more often and more loudly, to be a leader, to be rebellious. There are camps, scholarships, guest speakers, and STEM workshops, all for girls only. It’s a 24/7 pep rally. Obedient women don’t make history, et cetera. The boys grow more sullen, and the girls grow more contemptious of boys.
As they grow older, the sexual frustration grows from a persistent hum to a screaming roar. All constraints have been released from the expression of female sexuality — girls can wear whatever they want, bare as much skin as they wish, with makeup and pouts and selfies that advertise their desirability. Conversely, boys are told that revealing any hint of desire is wrong, and expressing any unwanted desire is criminal. This is basically psychological torture. It is parading frosted glasses of ice-cold water in front of a parched man in a desert. You can look, but you can’t touch. Actually, don’t look either.
Boys may learn to accept this, and even configure themselves for success in this environment, and negotiate a productive arrangement that affords them some autonomy. Smile and nod. But the desire is still there. They want to slay the dragon, save the girl. They want to be the hero. And they must find a way. Their psyche demands it. And if reality denies them, they will find it in fantasy. And so they do. In video games, where them can meet the enemy, where competence is rewarded. Where skill determines status, where teamwork and coordination against a common enemy builds trust and camaraderie among boys. They learn to make decisions, to act with decisiveness and to succeed, in a world with clear rules that they can understand. They find it in Japanese cartoons (anime), where the hero archetype has not been wiped out, and they can endlessly replay the narrative of the ambitious boy at the bottom of the totem pole, who, with hard work and loyal friends, overcomes many hardships to overcome nature, the enemy, and his own weakness, to reach the top and win the girl. And the sexual aspect? Well, porn is there, in ultra high-definition, with doe-eyed cooing women flattering them, regardless of how wretched they might be.
Unconditional acceptance. Video games, anime, and porn … it’s not merely a cliche, it’s a spiritual epidemic.
Then along comes a blog post on the internet, a video on Youtube. It’s a man, a man who speaks without apology. Who tells them that they don’t need to apologize for existing. He says that their lot in life is not to sit quietly and die. This is a man who hates the same people that have tormented them their whole lives. Who offers hope and a narrative in which they are not the bad guys, but the heroes they’ve always wanted to be. And he gives them a new enemy to fight, and new brothers-in-arms to fight with. He tells what them what they have always known, but have been waiting to hear: throw away the video games, anime and porn, and go for the real thing. He promises them purpose, meaning, power, and even success with women. What do you think happens next?
The church must offer a compelling alternative if it wishes to win the hearts of boys.
Thank you for this challenging comments. About your last line, you might recall the student reader who wrote earlier this year to say how concerned he was about white nationalism manifesting among his classmates at a conservative Christian school. I asked him what he thought the attraction was, given that by his account, everybody in the school was comfortably middle class. Shouldn’t the church have inoculated them against this kind of thing? I asked.
He replied that everybody goes to megachurches with sappy worship where everything is about feelings. These young men find that something to be scorned, not admired or emulated. I was thinking about this on Monday having a conversation with a male Southern Baptist friend, who said that he’s convinced the feminization of American church life plays a role in driving young men away from the church.
UPDATE: Reader Gaius Gracchus comments:
We used to have a strong identity for young men. They were expected to do great things and mature into manhood. Institutions like schools, churches, and scouting help shape young men into the backbone of society. Growth led to responsibility and happiness.
But, it was largely destroyed, bit by bit.
Lost young men are often picked up by those who offer a path, a goal, an ideal.
The other night I met a lost 19 year old boy. Tall, handsome, intelligent, friendly, he should have been heading back to college and advancing in life, a natural leader in everything he does. Instead, he had dropped out of community college after one semester.
A child of a single mother and without any religion in his life, he had never taken the SAT or ACT, but was reading Herodotus for fun.
He has no clue what he is, who he can become, what he is good at, where his talents lie. Luckily for him, he is smart enough to realize the trap that drugs can be.
But he is lost and vulnerable. I ended up talking with him for 2 hours and trying to help him find some direction.
The most startling thing was when he said he never takes risks, he never risks failure.
I suspect too many young men are like this one, lacking a sense of self, lacking the concept of manhood and healthy masculinity.
How can someone like this develop an identity as a man and an American and a member of the Western Enlightenment tradition when everything in culture and society is attacking this? I hope he can avoid the white nationalism trap, but so few are putting forth anything positive for him to hold and adopt.
“Diversity is strength” crowd holds him as the most evil person on earth. If he reads anything online, he will be told he is full of toxic masculinity and white privilege. Everything about him is subject to attack.
I fear for our society when boys who should be evolving into the backbone of our country instead all lost, alone, and confused…..
UPDATE.2: Charles Featherstone comments:
Spending time doing ministry on the West Side of Chicago, I was always struck by how alienated young African American men are from the world — they use machines they don’t understand and cannot fix. They have no mastery over anything, and thus, the world is an absolute mystery to which they are utterly subject. Something that a successful, long-term urban ministry would do would be to teach young people how things work, how to fix them, and how to make them.
I see that as well among a lot of white and latino kids here in rural central Washington, but there is also a huge difference — this is the land of the FFA and 4-H. And the young people I’ve seen who have mastered something, whether its raising sheep or cultivating timothy as a forage crop or welding or even rodeo riding, know that they live in a world where they have some control, can determine some portion of their fate, can do something meaningful. The difference is staggering. It also requires families have some resources, and many of the kids who don’t and can’t come from families that don’t and can’t.
I know an older black man — quite old now — whose kids are grown and gone, and making big successes of themselves. He has taken it upon himself to mentor young, fatherless black boys in his neighborhood. He teaches them ordinary father-to-son things, including how to do practical things that they can make money with (e.g., growing and selling vegetables). The old man told me that it amazes him how helpless these boys are, in the sense of believing that they have no agency. They think of him as rich — he’s middle class, but to these kids, he’s rich — and they cannot comprehend what he tells them: that he was raised even poorer than they are, but he got his education, worked hard, saved for the future, got married and stayed married, and built a life for himself, his wife, and his kids. The boys he’s trying to help are not bad kids, but the idea that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between work, self-discipline, and making progress in life is very hard for them to grasp, he said.
UPDATE.3: The reader who sent in the original comment e-mailed this response:
There are a large number of responses, and I will not respond to them individually, but rather separate them into three categories.
The first category denies that this characterization is accurate, and calls it hysterical hyperbole, and cites personal examples of young men who do not fit this tale of self-pitying woe and victimhood. Fair enough, I’m sure there exist some young men who, by some incredible surplus of sanity or support, have run the gauntlet successfully and have emerged unscathed. Congratulations to you and yours. Just one question – would you mind terribly if I checked the internet browsing history of your or your friends? Or your son and his friends? All will be as you say it is, I’m sure. And as to the truth of this characterization, well, the statistical evidence is all around you. Declining levels of male achievement and socialization is a universally acknowledged fact.
The second category acknowledges that this narrative exists among young men, but denies its validity. Boys are ungrateful and wrong to think this, they should man up and stop complaining, go outside and talk to people. It’s not that bad, there’s still baseball, sunshine and hot dogs. Again, fair enough – this victimhood narrative certainly asks very little of boys, and some of the attraction to boys is to justify and escape responsibility for their own loserdom. But what then? “Hey boys, I know you feel bad because you’re a loser, but really, it’s your own fault that you’re a loser, so stop feeling bad about yourself, because it’s unjustifiable and enormously unfair to the true victims here, everyone besides you.” Good luck with that, let me know how it goes. Send a postcard.
The third category acknowledges that is narrative exists, and, to some degree, accepts that external factors other than the boys in question bear some responsibility for its existence. Not necessarily total responsibility, but some responsibility. If so, we are in the same fight – to turn boys away from this siren call of half-truths, to a fully-realized manhood worthy of their forefathers.