Liberating Men

May 25, 1994|By ANDREW SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA. — I"ve long believed that men in our society are in as much need of liberation as women. But lately some thoughts I've had about Bill Clinton and Dirty Harry have led me to see that the problem of men's liberation is more complex than I once thought.

When I was a boy, American culture gave me images like John Wayne with his six-gun as models of manhood. I ate it up, but as I grew into manhood, I saw how rigid and emotionally disabled these warrior heroes were. They were too much in love with violence, and too little able to express themselves in other ways. I thought men should be more able to express loving feelings, less armored with steely resolve and an iron fist.

I still think so, and I've had more heartfelt enthusiasm for Bill Clinton than for any other president in my lifetime. John Wayne could only show he cared about you by fighting to protect you, but Bill Clinton's caring about people is palpable. His heart, liberated from the encasements of warrior armor, is on his sleeve. I think it's great to have a hugger in the White House. A lot that's wrong with this country could be made right by a president with his kind of heart.

Now I live in the mountains of Virginia. The local library lends a vast collection of John Wayne movies, and the area natives contemptuously call Clinton a wuss. When I watch the movies with my little son, I can enjoy entering the simpler emotional spaces of my own boyhood. And when I watch the news from Bosnia, I understand that there were good reasons for giving young boys John Waynes and Dirty Harrys as heroes.

When I saw ''Schindler's List,'' the most upsetting segment of the film for me was when the Nazis rousted the Jews from the Krakow ghetto. It was terrifying to identify with those Jewish men utterly helpless as the stormtroopers brutalized their wives and children. To place myself in such a scene where no power is available to supersede the murderous guns of the Nazis was almost intolerable.

What made this frightening feeling particularly immediate was the realization that in central Europe right now other families are subjected to similar terror. Unlike in the Krakow ghetto, there are bigger guns that could protect them only moments of jet-flight away. But America and NATO have delivered warnings and ultimatums only to become conciliatory and compromising. Our resolve not to tolerate atrocities has a melting point far below steel's. The West's eagerness clearly has been not to punish the butchers of Bosnia, but to find excuses to refrain from forceful action. At the core of this unjohn- waynelike irresoluteness has been the American commander-in-chief.

Where is Dirty Harry's ''Go ahead, make my day'' when the world really needs it? I am convinced that if the American president had more of Dirty Harry's manly wrath there would be a lot more Bosnians alive today, a lot fewer families living in nightmares, and a signed peace in the region.

There are good reasons why, over the millennia, men developed the warrior spirit that tends to make us more capable of ruthlessness and violence than one might ideally wish human beings to be. In a dangerous world, men had to be molded to be the kind of creatures that would put their bodies on the line to protect the more vulnerable members of the tribe.

Just as many traditionalists, like my neighbors, fail to see the human costs of structuring men to be warriors, many in the counterculture have failed to see how necessary these macho virtues have been. New Age people too readily saw the warrior as the cause of the world's dangers rather than as an adaptive response to them.

A more enlightened position has been to concede the past necessity of the John Wayne-type man, but to declare that the world is now safe for men to be liberated from the strictures and the burdens of the warrior role. In his book ''The Myth of Male Power,'' Warren Farrell speaks sanguinely of our cultural transition from State I (where men had to be protectors and it was ''women and children first'') to Stage II (where both sexes can be freed of the burdens of their traditional roles). But I have grown increasingly dubious about claims that we have stepped across the threshold of a New Age where we can leave our old tools behind.

Has our world outgrown its need for warriors? Ask the Bosnians. The man with a passion for protecting the innocent, the man whose threat is palpably credible (Make my day!), whose resolve does not waver, who contains violence within himself like a poison to be administered medicinally only when the social body requires it -- this man remains an indispensable asset in a still-dangerous world.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.''

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.