July 5, 2010

Safe times are tough times for heroes

In the comments to the wicked step-parents post below, Dahlia says:

Finally, my experiences [with having had a wicked step-mother] make me completely immune to the romanticisation of the beta male (and denigration of the alpha as synonymous with the thug-cad) that I sometimes see go on in the Steveosphere. Many of these guys are probably not that weak to allow such evil to be visited upon their own children, but it is still a very harsh world and strong men are still needed.

For there to be heroes, there need to be bad guys. When violence rates started plummeting in 1992 (continuing through today), people felt safer walking around their neighborhood at night because they saw far fewer muggings, broken car windows, dangerous young males loitering, and so on. So they felt less of a need for someone to protect or rescue them. And on the heroes' side, they had fewer opportunities to prove their heroism.

It didn't take more than a few years of this decline in heroism for it to show up in popular culture, as in the 1997 hit song "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" My hunch is that a lot of what people call the decline of the American male (starting in the '90s and lasting through today) has little to do with shrinking manufacturing employment, third wave feminism, being raised without a father, women earning their own income, or growing income inequality. Lugging shit around a factory, not having to hear from feminist wackos, having a dad around, and earning the same income as everyone else would not tend to make you feel very manly -- a little, but not much. And anyway, most of those trends started at least back in the 1970s, yet the '70s and '80s were the peak era of the popular demand for maverick male heroes.

Rather, masculine accomplishment involves some kind of heroism, protecting the greater community from danger. We live in such an incredibly safe society that men have almost no chance to get their buddy's back when some thug tries to pick a fight in a nightclub, or to chase away some creeper who makes lewd remarks at his sister or his chick friends. We tend to focus only on extreme feats of heroism, but it's the sum of all of these smaller acts of rescue that make men feel like they've earned their balls in a dangerous society. So it's not the lack of extreme heroic acts that makes the average man feel adrift without purpose, but rather the lack of everyday community protection.

This is what other accounts like Fight Club get wrong -- they believe there's some primitive blood-lust that men must satisfy in order to feel male. Of course, only losers are complete nihilists, so establishing a Fight Club would only remind them how pathetic their lives are. Rather, violence has to be put to some righteous end in order for it to feel good, like kicking the shit out of a bully or shooting a mugger in the back as he runs away.

The human mind was fashioned mostly during our hunter-gatherer stage of existence, and to a lesser extent during the agricultural stage. In both stages, protecting against violence was one of a man's basic duties, as well as hunting animals for food for H-Gs. The capitalist stage of our existence has only lasted about 200 years, and we don't seem to have adapted mentally to what gets one ahead in such a society. Merely filling a slot in the labor market, or even making a boatload of money at it, does not satisfy our craving for meaning in life, and others who judge our worth don't really care about these things.

Our minds reflect a way of life where you had to put yourself in danger by hunting fierce animals or fending off the bad guys in order to earn your credentials as a man. The only time we get the chance to do so in a modern society is when the violence rate swings up for awhile before returning to its long-term downward trend. Not even being a good father has this power. After all, it's mostly your wife and close kin who care about you sticking around and investing in your children. The rest of the tribe respects you based on what you've done for them. Being a good dad may benefit them somewhat, but nowhere near the benefit they'd enjoy if you hunted down a giraffe and gave them some meat, or if you helped to chase off an invading tribe that would've raped and killed everyone.

Following this logic, which groups have suffered the most and the least since the death of the hero? Well, those who are most genetically adapted to a warlike society will be harmed the most -- they'll feel alienated and even obsolete when they can't take on the hero role. And those who are most adapted to a peaceful modern society will feel the greatest -- finally, no more pressure to lift weights or throw yourself into harm's way! In America, the Scotch-Irish are probably the best example of the former, being descended from a quasi-lawless clan society. They are vastly over-represented in the military. (And again, I think this is a big part of the talk about the recent decline of Appalachia and the Rust Belt.) Only one group is fairly well adapted to a peaceful capitalist society, namely Ashkenazi Jews, so I'd expect them to be the least troubled by the vanishing of the heroic culture. War is bad for business, so they feel more at home when there isn't a lot of violent disturbance on the horizon, and where Enlightenment values reign. (Dionysian or Romantic values burst forth in response to the threat of high levels of violence.)

As I pointed out before, during safe times the only sort of hero that we find is the mock hero. With all sincerity having evaporated, people don't hesitate to denigrate, parody, or insult the heroes who came before or even the very idea of heroism. At best we get attempts to celebrate heroes but that nevertheless fail to strike us in the guts because the product is too removed from reality and overly stylized. Even a self-doubting tragic hero like Hamlet moves us more with his righteous bravery than does a description of a more iconic hero if it's written in safe times, e.g. Tennyson's poem about Ulysses.

More recently, look at the movies based on comic book superheroes: the villains in Superman or Batman remind us of the roving packs of young thugs when crime is high, whereas those in the Spiderman movies do not appear to menace an entire community. So when Superman wipes the floor with General Zod's crew, or when Batman wipes out the Joker (both times), we want to cheer -- "Thank god he's here to protect us!" You never get that feeling watching Spiderman, Gladiator, the new Batman movies, etc. Sure, the bad guys get their comeuppance, but you don't breathe a sigh of relief that Tobey Maguire is out there to protect you.

This extends even to children's culture. Little boys and girls who grew up during the '90s and 2000s had no heroes to look up to on TV or in movies. For the past 20 years kids' culture has been so... well, juvenile. Barney, Pokemon, SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer, etc. When violence was rampant in the '80s, the typical character that little kids worshiped was a crime-fighter, whether here and now, in a Medieval setting, or perhaps in the future. He-Man, G.I. Joe, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, C.O.P.S., hell even Jem was styled as a heroine who battled the villainous Misfits.

Video games too reflect the change: the beat 'em up genre was at its peak at home and in the arcades, and these all featured bold crime-fighters who were going to flush the hordes of urban hoodlums down the sewer where they belong. Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Splatterhouse, N.A.R.C., and a million others fascinated little boys -- it was like training for your eventual rite of passage into manhood. Now there are few heroes like this, and even worse young males fantasize about being a petty criminal as in the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto series. How manly.

As for popular music, a wide variety of songs from the 1970s and especially the '80s sought to pump you up in preparation for giving the bad guys what they deserve. "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky III, "You're the Best" from The Karate Kid, "Holding Out for a Hero" from Footloose, and just about all of the Top Gun soundtrack address a common man who hasn't yet convinced himself that he's strong enough to take on his protector role, to motivate him to give it his all. This genre didn't survive the pacification of the early 1990s. As an aside, this is the perfect music to lift weights to, coming as it does from a time when weightlifting carried a powerful motivation -- to keep you and others safe from the bad guys -- compared to now, where the only motive is merely "to look good naked." No wonder guys half-ass it these days.

Is there any refuge from the harms of security? You could always move to a more dangerous neighborhood, but that still won't take you to a place like New York in the mid-'70s. Plus you probably wouldn't fit in and thus wouldn't have many people close to you who you'd feel compelled to protect. It would only work if your own neighborhood got scarier. Without having intended it, I have noticed one thing that works -- hanging around teenagers. Violent and property crime is overwhelmingly the practice of young loser males.

When I ate meals in the campus dining hall with a then 18 year-old friend, she would occasionally mention that some sketchy guys behind me were leering at her and weirding her out. It felt great just to be able to slowly turn over my shoulder and stare them down until they turned their eyes away, embarrassed at getting caught and dealt with (even slightly) in public.

Teenage boys, being more desperate, are also more likely to harass girls in clubs or start fights. So if there's a good 18+ club nearby, that'll give you more chances to step in to break up a fight or to expel an unwanted loser male from the space near a group of girls who are too timid to stand up for themselves yet are clearly creeped out by him. And they just might well try something with you. Last week at '80s night, some high school dork repeatedly bumped into me behind my back with his butt to try to push me off-balance. Bitter boys often try to attack the guy who's getting attention; it's a sign that you're doing things right.

Unlike his cowardly ass, I turned around and approached him head-on, locked my hands onto his shoulders and said calmly but firmly to his face, "Don't ever do that again." If he tries to wiggle out of it, just squeeze harder. He tried to blow it off like "yeah ok, whatever dude," but I humbled him. Within a few moments, he was led away in shame by his chick friend to another part of the room. He was muscular, by the way, could have even been a jock -- but given how safe times are, he'd probably never gotten into a fight before and shut down mentally when someone actually put their foot down on his smart alec bullshit.

And of course, insulating yourself from the mocking of heroism in popular culture will help you survive these safe times. For the next DVD you rent or buy, make it Ghostbusters instead of a Will Ferrell movie. Download the soundtrack for Top Gun rather than Juno. If you have small relatives, entertain them with Thundercats or Jem, and not that Go Diego Go. It won't transport you to an earlier place, but it'll make here and now bearable.


  1. This is the age in which men are no longer asked to be...men. Male strengths have lost their pertinence. The masculine way is shrugged off and the corporate environment (which I believe is the 'canary in the mine shaft' of modern social mores and trends) has transformed, almost overnight, into a feminized conglomeration of groups and departments which now wears the Mark of Woman in its newly emerging structural dynamic.

    The void left by the powerful presence of man has been filled in by the rapidly advancing culture of degreed and consumerist females. The article entitled "End of Man" which appeared in the July 1 issue of The Atlantic was a great synopsis of this devolving cultural phenomena. And believe me...it is "devolution." A world driven by ambitious and powerful women is certainly incapable of traditional psychological and physical evolution which brought us to this mark in history which even allows women to fulfill a masculine role in the first place.

    Back to your point: the bland and sedentary innocuousness of our times leaves little room for man to assert his strengths. Enter Woman, stage right. A world designed by woman has no serious strife, no harsh environments which must be surmounted or defeated. A woman's world is populated by petty feuds and protracted discussions...hardly an environment in which heroism can find a place to shine.

  2. Even during the dangerous times of the 1970's and 1980's, I would doubt if more than a very small percentage of men ever did something heroic such as overpowering a mugger or shooting an armed burglar. We can make a pretty good determination of the latter number. According to FBI statistics there are about 250 fatal self-defense shootings each year in the entire country. Even if we assume that there are five non-fatal shootings for each fatal one (more than 85% of gunshot victims survive) and further assume that these incidents were three times as common during the Bad Old Days, we're left with the fact that FAR less than one-tenth of one percent of men ever did this sort of heroic act.


  3. Peter, first, shooting someone is a too high a bar. More importantly, it isn't just what % actually did something like that. It's the feeling that being ready to take someone on is relevent. That's the difference between working out to be stronger, faster, and tougher, and working out to have great lats. One feels like it could matter. The other is vanity.

  4. George McFly from Back to the Future is a good cinematic example of the difference a heroic outlook can make.

  5. Safe times are bad times for males in general. The 1990's were especially harsh and denigrating to school boys, the time when schools panicked about girls not doing as well in math. The kind of resentment I see that kids who went to school during the 1990's against feminism is palpable.

  6. "For the next DVD you rent or buy, make it Ghostbusters instead of a Will Ferrell movie. Download the soundtrack for Top Gun rather than Juno. If you have small relatives, entertain them with Thundercats or Jem, and not that Go Diego Go."

    When my son was little, about 7 or 8, I grabbed a bunch of DVD cases one day and set them on a coffee table. There were about 5 of the goofy Will Ferrel/Jim Carey variety and roughly the same of the heroic variety. I asked him to point to which group of men he admired more and he naturally pointed to the heroes. I then gave him a brief lecture about why his answer was a good one and that he was to strive to be a strong and heroic man.
    Bringing up our son to be both manly and patriarchal is something we take seriously and the visuals for the little guys are good.

    BTW, nice handling of the punk at the club. Weaker guys will try to come up with an excuse to their woman/circle that both tries to make him look strong and gets him off the hook for avoiding *any* confrontation. It doesn't work.

  7. I've been thinking about this recently after watching the original Terminator. One thing I have noticed is how unbelievable heroes have become. In Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Harry, Terminator and so on back to John Wayne, Bogart and Clark Gable, heroes were not supermen and they often had vulnerabilities. They were also believable as tough guys. Even Michael Keaton as Batman or Reeves as Superman were believable.

    The original James Bond exemplified this. He was a professional and doing his duty was the most important thing. He was far from impervious but he did what was needed.

    Even Han Solo in the original Star Wars was rough and masculine. The Cantina scene shows this. He kills the bounty hunter without hesitation and flips the bartender a coin for the mess as he walks coolly out.
    Lucas, from his new movies and his redone versions, has clearly lost his grasp on that roughness and wildness that pervaded the original movie.

    Modern heroes, on the other hand, appear unbeatable but at the same time you cannot take them very serious because they are too pretty and lack that rough, masculine edge that heroes used to have. That is probably why Wolverine is the most popular of the x-men.

    The problem is that we have lost touch with heroes and villians and now it is all about erscapism. That is probably why there is the rise of the cute little girl hero, why people can somehow conceivably believe that a 110 pound girl can beat up men twice her size.

    And included throughout modern hero movies is plenty of humour and self mocking, lest the movie become too serious.


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