After what seems like 150 years of “mommy wars” in America, we haven’t solved anything. So we’re applying what we haven’t learned to a new front: We’re adding men to the fray. Welcome to the Daddy Wars!
When it was revealed that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was taking four weeks of paternity leave to care for the newborn twins he and his husband had adopted, the right-wing death eaters were scathing. Tucker Carlson mocked Buttigieg on his Fox show, sneering, “Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.” And QAnon-adjacent Lauren Boebert, who is an elected member of the House of Representatives because, I guess, we are being cosmically punished, popped off with some non sequitur about how she had given birth to one of her four children in a truck, and so, therefore, people shouldn’t take time to bond with their kids?
Senator Tom Cotton tweeted his disapproval of Buttigieg, objecting that he was “absent during a transportation crisis that is hurting working-class Americans.”
Always trawling for a big cultural fish to land, Senator Josh Hawley has taken up the defense of masculinity, telling the National Conservatism Conference that “the left has been pursuing” an “attack on men” and “we must seek a revival of strong and healthy manhood in America.” As night follows day, a critic in the Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi, opined that, contra Hawley, “it’s not feminism men need to be worried about, it’s people like Hawley.”
This “debate”—if you can call it that—will not move us one inch closer to solving one of our most pressing social problems, the loss of family connections.
Though it pains me to say this, I actually agree with some of the points Josh Hawley made in his speech (as did Arwa Mahdawi actually). Many men, particularly poor and working class men, are not doing well in America in 2021. They represent 59 percent of high school dropouts and a similar percentage of college dropouts. Women now earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 58.5 percent of master’s degrees, and 52.9 percent of PhDs. As Nicholas Eberstadt noted in Men Without Work, male labor force participation rates have been declining steadily for decades, during economic downturns but also during economic expansions. Men are more likely to die of diseases of despair, much more likely to be incarcerated, and more prone to substance abuse. And many more Americans of both sexes are suffering from loneliness and isolation. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans living without a spouse or partner has increased from 29 percent to 38 percent, while the percentage of adults who are married has declined from 67 percent to 53 percent.
Hawley is also not wrong to protest that the term “toxic masculinity” is unhelpful to say the least.
There has been a tendency in progressive circles to pathologize normal boyishness and to disdain everything associated with “traditional masculinity.” While some of the traits once considered essential to masculinity—like excessive stoicism—are best modified, others deserve appreciation. Men tend to be risk takers, for example, which can sometimes lead to disaster but also yields dynamism and innovation. Men at their best are brave and protective and it’s foolish to disdain those virtues. Traditional femininity, it need hardly be added, has plusses and minuses as well. And progressives could use a dose of vive la difference instead of the androgyny they seem to elevate as the ideal.
While Hawley raises some valid points about appreciating manliness, his pitch is marred in a few ways.
He observes that boys and men are lagging behind girls and women in important respects but leaps to conclusions that are wobbly at best. “Can we be surprised that after years of being told that they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games?” he asks. He suggests that everything from poor school performance to declining labor force participation to excessive consumption of porn is the result of insulting cultural messages about toxic masculinity.
This is what happens when politicians make culture wars out of complicated social issues. Everything becomes a cudgel. The problems of men are not traceable to insulting college courses on patriarchy or ridiculous constructions like “birthing people.” Men are falling behind because families are falling apart.
Poverty and growing up in a single-parent home is tough for both sexes. But there is mounting evidence that early hardship is more damaging for boys than girls. In other words, to raise healthier, happier, and more successful men (and women) we need stronger foundations, which means stable, two-parent families.
But here is the bigger problem with the conservative critique on masculinity and family issues: Hawley and Cotton and Carlson and Boebert and their crew all pay lip service to family values while lashing themselves to the Greatest Toxic Male in American history. They have embraced the vilest form of masculinity—strutting, bullying, disrespectful, selfish, vain, childish, and reckless, not to mention philandering and sexually assaulting. Theirs is the party of Hershel Walker, Eric Greitens, Sean Parnell, and Max Miller, all of whom, as The Bulwark’s Amanda Carpenter has documented, have or are alleged to have engaged in various degrees of assault against the women in their lives. They are members of the GOP in good standing, while Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are pariahs. And Hawley and Co. mock Buttigieg? He’s doing the hands-on work of fatherhood. If more American men were deeply involved in raising their children, many of the problems that worry social conservatives would be drastically reduced.
These avatars of manliness are confirming the worst suspicions of feminists, and moving us further from the goal that both sides should embrace—repairing marriage, decency, and family stability.