The cloud in every silver lining

October 24, 1999|By R.C. Longworth

A NEW BOOK by best-selling author Susan Faludi argues that the American man is dog-paddling in a sea of angst, wandering lost and lonely in a world that has usurped his traditional role as hard-working breadwinner and head of household, but has bestowed no new role in exchange. In short, he no longer knows who he is.

Ms. Faludi's book is called "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," and behind the phallic pun of its graceless title, it makes a good point. Feminism has blurred the roles of men and women.

Once, women had the babies and men brought home the bacon. Now, women still have the babies, but they also bring home the bacon, sometimes more of it than the man does. Women can do what men do, but men can't do what women do. Hence his quandary: What's he good for, anyway?

This is a question that could launch a million debates in bars, if men still hung out in them. But it won't be answered here. Instead, it is raised as the latest example of a truth that seems to be demonstrated everywhere we look these days: every silver lining has a cloud, every good thing has a downside.

No revolution, no matter how beneficial, takes place without wounding some innocent bystanders. The next time some gaudy parade passes, we should spare a thought for those who must trudge behind, cleaning up the mess.

This is true of feminism and it is true of the civil rights revolution, of the collapse of communism, of the blooming of prosperous suburbs, of the global economy, of the development of powerful technologies.

Of all the great social trends of the past half-century, the feminist revolution may be the most successful, far-reaching and permanent. That it is still incomplete does nothing to undermine its achievements. It has freed half the people to use their brains and talents, and the benefits have spread far beyond women themselves.

And yet, anyone who remembers the pre-feminist revolution days also recalls the sense of male pride in supporting a family, in making the difference between security and the poorhouse, even -- or especially -- if the job were a burdensome one.

Unlike the consultants and arbitragers of today, the men of that earlier generation did jobs their kids could understand. Such jobs still exist, but it's so hard to make ends meet with the paycheck from just one of them that few men now support their families alone.

Increasingly, women have become the sole breadwinners in single-parent households. Raising a family with only one parent may or may not be advisable, but it's being done. All of which creates a sense of uselessness among men.

Women's roles

Both men and women like Ms. Faludi seem to sense this: an expectant couple will often try to tell friends that "we are pregnant." Well, "we" are never pregnant. "We" can have a baby, and hopefully, "we" will raise the child, but there remains only one true essential role in the American household, and women have it.

As with feminism, so with the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall flew open 10 years ago this autumn, it unlocked a prison that had subjected some 400 million people to a failed economic experiment and a brutal police state that deformed the lives of generations.

In the process, it ended the era of nuclear terror, reunited a divided continent and enabled nations to slash their defense spending. But the end of the Cold War has spawned a new world that has produced problems that just did not exist back in the old, controlled days of the superpowers.

The old, casual corruption of the Soviet Union has exploded into the Russian mafia, a global crime syndicate that may cause more trouble than the old Sicilian Mafia ever did. The threat that the Soviets might launch a nuclear Armageddon appears to have ended, but in its place is a black market in old nukes, sometimes with a Russian nuclear scientist thrown in.

From Congo to Indonesia to Kosovo, local disagreements that the superpowers kept under control are now free to erupt, and they do. In Russia, the collapse of communism has brought in not a capitalist paradise but a criminal economy that has enriched the few while leaving the many at a sub-subsistence level below even the drab but predictable standard of Soviet times.

Even in Poland and other ex-communist nations that are doing well, some segments of the people -- farmers, say, or pensioners -- are worse off. Almost no one, including most of the Russians who lived better under Soviet rule, would wish a return to communism.

But if the Wall is gone, so are the ecstatic Germans who danced on it. The revolutions of 1989 have brought their own problems.

Only a tree-hating churl would deny that millions and millions of Americans have seen their lives broadened and enriched by their escape from crowded cities into the space, grass and fresh air of suburbia.

But in a recent series in the Chicago Tribune, reporters Charles Leroux and Ron Grossman talked about the disintegration of family closeness and parental control before the forces of suburban anomie.

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