"Real Men: They're Back" proclaims The American Enterprise magazine in its September issue. The firefighter, policeman, fighter pilot and even the spy enjoy renewed respect in a nation that has rediscovered danger and finds that heroes are not all "anti."
All well and good. But when it comes to defining what "manliness" is, watch out. The spirit of feminism still stalks the land, casting withering spells on any sprouts of traditional masculinity that push green shoots through the earth.
The contributors to the "Real Men" issue are not brutes (well, I should hope not, since I'm one). Amid the paeans to hunting, military service and fast cars, there are more circumspect appreciations of male virtues. Harvey Mansfield, for example, writes that "Manliness can be heroic. But it can also be vainly boastful, prone to meaningless scuffling, and unfriendly. It jeers at those who do not seem to measure up, and asks men to continually prove themselves. It defines turf and fights for it -- sometimes to protect precious rights, sometimes for no good reason." So true.
As the mother of three males, I consider myself something of an expert on masculinity. Our eldest, Jonathan, is the Ur-male. Never one for sitting still, Jon was allowed to run around the lawn and shrubs at the outdoor theater called Wolf Trap near our home. When the show was finished, my husband instructed Ben (then 5) to empty his pockets of the pebbles, bottle caps and other treasures he'd collected from the lawn during the performance. "You too, Jon," he instructed. At which point Jon reversed his pockets and let fall a veritable petting zoo of worms, beetles, fireflies and slugs. That's my boy.
David has been known to stick his feet right under Ben's nose, proclaiming, "Inhale the perfume!" Out of respect for the sensibilities of some readers, I'll refrain from repeating the bathroom humor -- but trust me, their creativity on this score is prodigious.
There are people who love masculinity -- with all its undeniable untidiness, rudeness and mayhem, and those who don't. Roughly speaking, those in the former category are known as conservatives and the latter as liberals. Lovers of masculinity recognize that boys need to be civilized, their aggression properly channeled and their boisterousness constrained in church, synagogue and school. But they also know that a boy's heart can be made of pure gold, that his capacity for unselfishness is vast, and that his strength and courage, when he becomes a man, is still necessary in this fallen world.
Liberals, and this includes virtually all Europeans, believe that masculinity is unseemly as well as passe. When President George Bush said we want Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," liberals groaned. This sort of talk makes us look primitive, they lamented. The French immediately confirmed this by getting an attack of the vapors.
Europeans live in a protected cocoon of civilization, purchased with their own and large portions of American blood. Inside this cocoon, disputes are settled by bureaucrats, not armies and navies. And diplomacy calls upon the feminine more than the masculine virtues. Still, it would be nice if the Europeans might, once in a while, recognize that we Americans have taken on global responsibilities and stand nose-to-nose with some of the nastier characters on the planet -- and that you cannot deal with Saddam and Osama and Charles Taylor across a polished conference table.
During the war in Afghanistan, as Jay Nordlinger reminds us, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked why the United States was deploying such heavy bombs. Rumsfeld explained, "They are being used on frontline Al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them." Any other questions? That sort of brisk attention to the task at hand as well as disdain for euphemism is very manly.
Manly men may begin life as riotous boys, but they can grow up to become the pillars of civilization.