A Nation in Search of Men
The senior senator from Missouri writes a personal exhortation to American men.
Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, by Josh Hawley, Regnery Publishing, 256 pages.
One day in October 2016, my maternal grandfather asked to be taken to hospice care. He knew that his body was about to give up. But not before he completed one final task: to draw up a sign, in big, bold Persian lettering, that would remind my forgetful mother to turn off the stove, remember her keys, and lock the door behind her. With the sign taped to the door of the flat they shared, he went to the “rehab” facility, where he parted from this earthly vale; he was 89.
Seyyed Mehdi Ziae—that was my grandfather’s name, the title “Seyyed” designating, according to Shiite tradition, that he was a descendant of the prophet—embodied the ideal of manhood for me. He still does. Though now a father of two myself, I have not even begun to fulfill that ideal. It is damned hard to achieve, a lifelong effort. And the middle-class comfort he struggled to pass on to me has its tendency to breed decadence and selfishness.
Manhood as my grandfather embodied it, notwithstanding his Iranian and Muslim background, is an ideal that should be familiar to many Americans, at least those of an older generation: that of the self-sacrificial “man’s man,” who quietly endures life’s burdens for his family and neighborhood, whose toughness lies not in the spread of his tattoos but in the depth of his love—and who expresses that love not with saccharine words, but in decisive action.
It is the ideal celebrated by Sen. Josh Hawley in his moving and well-conceived new book, Manhood. The book’s necessity is self-evident. America, as Hawley amply shows in painful anecdotes and even more painful statistics, is suffering—among many other crises—a crisis of masculinity and fatherhood.
Our culturally dominant idea of manhood vacillates between a cartoonish machismo and, well, Dylan Mulvaney. Meanwhile, on the material plane, there are the terrifying data: 18 million children, or one in four, growing up without a father in the home; a third of boys under 18 springing up with absent biological fathers; the “world’s highest rate of children living in single parent households” (per Pew); and on and on.
Every few weeks, it seems, I come across an article in the New York Times whose upshot is that such statistics are no big deal, that alternative family formations are just as swell as the natural family composed of a father, a mother, and their children. Yet as Charles Murray pointed out in his Coming Apart (2011), it is one of the most empirically established axioms in social science that other family forms yield worse outcomes than married, biological parents. Apologists for the current state of affairs typically point out that abuse, for example, takes place in the traditional family, as well. But this is sophistry. Yes, children growing up in traditional families may suffer abuse—but not nearly at the same rate as those growing up without fathers.
For Hawley, it is clear that there is some connection between the loss of the father, and of man as a heroic, self-sacrificing figure, and American society’s other bedeviling problems, from porn and opioid addiction to a widespread sense of meaninglessness and ennui. Manhood and fatherhood, as essential and irreplaceable categories, have been squeezed in the vice grip of market liberalism, which has destroyed dignified jobs for men, and social liberalism, which has ravaged male dignity as such (as an imposition of “patriarchal power,” blah-blah-blah).
To counter these tendencies, Hawley turns to the Bible—specifically to the Old Testament, which points men to their mission: “to work on nature through human art, to ennoble and perfect it,” as the Dutch Calvinist politician, journalist, and social theorist Abraham Kuyper (quoted by Hawley), put it. The Bible, in this telling, paints a picture of the cosmos as an orderly whole, which each individual, man or woman, is called to partake in and help improve, as an extension of God’s own creative action.
Within this whole, men—not in a generic human sense, but males—are called by the Bible to serve as husbands, fathers, priests, and kings (among other essential roles). Hawley devotes a chapter to each of these, interweaving biblical learning with surprisingly intimate anecdotes drawn from his own life.
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Hawley’s life was enriched by several old-school men, the quietly loving and enduring kind, such as a grandfather who urged him toward self-mastery through the simple act of telling him to learn to tie his own boot laces. There are also gut-wrenching episodes, such as a childhood friend’s suicide and the miscarriage of the Hawleys’ first child, that awaken the future senator to the mystery of evil and the reality of the Fall—that which differentiates the biblical account of the cosmic whole from the classical one and which points to the necessity of divine self-sacrifice for the final restoration of the broken whole.
At his best, Hawley reiterates the paradoxical wisdom, common to both the classical tradition and historic Christianity, that freedom and restraint aren’t enemies, but friends. Or as he puts it, that “order and self-command are not opposite to liberty but are liberty’s prerequisites. Freedom and character go hand-in-hand.”
That wisdom is for men and women alike, to be sure, but it is perhaps especially germane for today’s troubled young men. It is heartening that a senior American lawmaker would exhort them so, in handsomely crafted prose and with the aid of serious theological and philosophical learning. It is even more urgent that lawmakers apply this ancient wisdom in the councils of power. When he isn’t writing good books, Hawley is busy doing just that.