The Election and the Male Identity Crisis

LAWRENCE HENDERSON

November 25, 1992|By LAWRENCE HENDERSON

At times what marks an important book is the author's capacity to upend our interpretation of things we thought we already understood.

In January of 1990, on public television, Bill Moyers interviewed an almost unknown American poet named Robert Bly about Mr. Bly's interest in the identity crisis of the American man. That broadcast brought in a deluge of requests to PBS from viewers asking for transcripts of the interview. Later that year, Mr. Bly published his thoughtful book about men, ''Iron John,'' and it quickly became a best-seller. The media began to speak of a ''men's movement.''

As I watched the progress of this year's presidential campaign, I was struck by some remarkable parallels between what was happening in the campaign and what Mr. Bly had said in a general way about men in today's America.

But in all the analysis on television in the months before election night, and throughout the strenuous effort television made to make something of the exit polling, I didn't hear an explanation of the sort Mr. Bly might have made. This despite the fact that other attempts to interpret the public mood which were to prove quite wrong had often been given a loud voice. (Example: The voters were angry at the mere thought of incumbents and would be giving them the boot in record numbers.)

Here then, in an over-simplified way, is what might have been said.

Since World War II we have ''invented'' new kinds of men (males) whom most of our great-grandparents would not have recognized. (Or, perhaps more accurately, it is the presence in our world of large numbers of such men that our great-grandparents would not understand.) Our first ''invention'' was the man of the 1950s, labeled the ''Organization Man,'' a man accustomed to a work world of tall office buildings, large corporations and big bureaucracies.

Our second ''invention'' was the man of the 1960s, a man more outwardly sensitive, a man committed to -- or at least well reconciled to -- the idea of women as equals. For the most part this man is also a man at home in large organizations and with the complexities of modern urban life, but he has lost that presumption of male dominance that the man of the '50s brought along from earlier generations.

Robert Bly wrote about a deep and wide undercurrent of frustration and anxiety in American men, about emotional reactions which are connected to expectations that men today must be these new kinds of men who were largely unknown to people living just three or four generations ago. As a result, many men (and women too) are interested in an earlier male, a man of more independence; and it is at this point in our story where I find an interesting coincidence.

For in the very same years during which the nation has seemed to slip from its position of unquestioned economic dominance and international hegemony, the dominant social position of males in our own society was first questioned and then reduced. Today, both matters remain in doubt and argument. What is this nation's role in the world going to be? And what is the male's role in life going to be?

What I noticed during the long campaign was that we worked an amazing kind of magic this year in bringing to the front and center three men, each of whom is a sharp epitome of the conflicting ideas people have about maleness in American life: Mr. Bush, the organizational man of the '50s; Mr. Clinton, clearly a sensitive man of the '60s; Mr. Perot, the take-charge cowboy of our ungridlocked past.

The political scientist fantasizes that elections are resolved intellectually in the minds of the voters, that the outcome of this one was the result of calculations made comparing one man's plan for the troubled economy to those of the others. (Did you have clearly in your mind on election day just what those plans were?)

Much of the decision-making, I believe, is a function of the subconscious; and because of television, the subconscious has much to operate with. We watch the smallest wrinkles of expression move across a candidate's face, and we monitor the rise and fall of this tone of voice. These impressions connect up with our troubled feelings about what a successful (''problem solving'') man would be.

This interest in an earlier kind of man -- a cowboy -- has become a major influence in our presidential choices. In 1980 we chose a cowboy, Ronald Reagan, and removed from office an organization man, Jimmy Carter; and we kept Mr. Reagan on for a second four years in 1984.

The dissatisfaction with yet another organization man, George Bush, was so strong this year that we gave more votes to a third candidate than at any time since . . . well, since 1912, when our most macho president, Teddy Roosevelt, rode in on his horse to join Taft and Wilson to make a three-way race.

Lawrence Henderson writes from Baltimore.

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