Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Learning from the "War on Men" — and Stephen Colbert v. Fox News (30 November 2012)

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            In the "The Word" segment of The Colbert Report for Wednesday, 28 November 2012, many of us who do not watch much TV news beyond Colbert and The Daily Show could learn that Fox News is reporting a War on Men, part of which has resulted in American men not wanting to get married.

            I overstate and oversimplify here — and my scholarship is, let's say, casual — but all that’s pretty decorous given Fox reporting, and not just Fox.

            (I gave up on TV news after a drug warrior told Jim Lehrer that the major problem he encountered in the war on drugs was the large number of people who used cocaine without serious problems. Lehrer didn't ask a "WTF??!!" follow-up question. This occurred at the time PBS funding was under attack in Congress, though that may've been a coincidence. But as so often, I digress.)

            Anyway, in the beginning of this males-and-marriage brouhaha, as it came through on the Report, was a survey on attitudes on the importance of marriage wherein was found that among young women — or probably, at most, young American women — 28% thought marriage important in 1997 and 37% thought it important in 2010/2011. My arithmetic has that coming out to an increase of 9 percentage points. Among young men, 35% thought marriage very important in 1997, vs. 29% in 2010/2011, for a decrease of 6 percentage points, and putting young men in 2010-11 finding marriage more or less as important as young women did a dozen or so years earlier. (But don't trust my arithmetic; I tend to screw up "percentage" vs. "percentage points"; the point, though, still holds.)

            On the Fox News website, on 26 November 2012, Suzanne Venker took these data seriously and concluded in Colbert's paraphrase that "Sisters Are Doing It to Themselves" in this declining male interest in marriage in that, in Venker's words, "Women aren't women anymore" but angry and defensive.

            And the cause of decline in femininity was the sexual revolution, which I think means feminism here since the sexual revolution in terms of sex was in the 1970s, and its effects would've been felt long before 1997.

            For a nice evisceration of this analysis, listen to Colbert: the "The Word" segment is about ten minutes into the broadcast. My problems with the Venkerian conclusion start with her taking way too seriously any survey about attitudes. If you want to find out what people really believe, yeah, just ask them — but then check out in detail what they do.

            Still, The Daoist teach that we should listen carefully even to people we know are lying, and they have a point. Sometimes it may seem like picking out the peanuts from the elephant dung, but we should listen to one another and profit from what we hear as best we can.

            So consider this.

            Writing from a thoroughly sexist and patriarchal point of view (though enlightened and progressive ca. 1516), Sir Thomas More has his non-Christian Utopians very strict about sex outside of marriage. Not just adultery — which can get you a sentence of penal servitude for a first offense and death caught twice — but "Any boy or girl convicted of premarital intercourse is severely punished, and permanently disqualified from marrying" unless pardoned on the no-marriage part, and the adult couple in charge of the offending household is "publicly disgraced for not doing their jobs properly. The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one's life with the same person, and putting up with all that inconveniences that this involves — if they weren't carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise" (Book II, Paul Turner's translation, 1965: 103-04 [punctuation Americanized]).

            Now the stripping down of the family to its nucleus has been fairly recent, and big-family-man More would have been a little shocked by the isolation of contemporary Americans, and his Utopians were downright communal and communistic: More's Utopia is like one huge monastery. More presented a society where one could get companionship and intimacy in the general course of life; if you could also get sex, he asks provocatively, why marry?

            With the sexual revolution, it did become easier in the US to get sex outside of marriage, but alienation elsewhere increased, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if women in 2010 — if indeed this is the case — were more interested in marriage than in 1997. Women are increasingly in the workforce, and, as Colbert hints, more non-poor women now perform the alienating shit-work of a lot of jobs, and this may have more hungering for the companionship, intimacy, and relative stability of marriage: that shelter from the outside world for the Victorian father of the family.

            What about those young men, though, whose declining interest — and this may well be the case — needs some explanation?

            The major explanation may be economic, and indirectly educational. Guys haven't been doing all that well of late, and marriage would make most sense to us economically if we were to "marry up": as Colbert hints even more strongly, guys might want to marry a woman who could support them as househusbands.

            Gals, though, may be reluctant to marry down, and most of what's going on here may be that women place greater importance on marriage because it has become more of an issue for them because of a lack of marriageable men — but "No marriageable men around" may often mean no men it would be economically and socially advantageous to marry.

            So guys may find marriage less important because they feel less likely to marry. Aesop's fable on "sour grapes" points to the human tendency to assert, sometimes, we don't really want that which we are unlikely to get.

            More women want equality in marriage, and to a large extent are getting it, and that is all to the good.

            But, arguably, it's all to the good more for women than for men.

            Patriarchal marriage had a lot of advantages for men, especially for men who figured out that one of the most important things a human being has is time.

            Now a cousin of mine just sent me the latest viral video of a Rube-Goldberg device where, with much ado, a humongous chain reaction leads to some guys getting doused with paint. Etc. — check out Facebook and YouTube, to say nothing of XTube! So, obviously, a lot of people have a lot of free time on their hands. Still, one of the most important things we have is time, and traditional patriarchal marriage was very good to men in terms of time and labor: women did most of the work at home.

            An equal marriage nowadays is much less advantageous for men.

            Middle-class standards of housekeeping are very high in today's America, and few people can afford servants. Under strong traditional pressure, often from other women, women's standards for household neatness tend to be higher than men's — tend to be; clearly some men are neat and some women are slobs — and equitable division of labor in a married household probably means the husband spends significantly more time on housework then he did or would as a bachelor. When children come along the time constraints and other pressures on both parents nowadays are tremendous, and women want men to share that load.

            A "night club" when I was growing up meant a place my parents went. I had good, conscientious parents — who didn't think they had to come out to watch me swim or play football, much less coach a team. (By high school, we had "SACs," social-athletic clubs and fraternities, and we ran our own athletics.) And, of course, even middle-class and well-to-do kids until recently could be sent out to play on their own and were expected to walk most places or take public transportation.

            When kids come along, contemporary US parents are under tremendous strain — poor people probably more than the middle class and rich (though in different ways) — and significant numbers of women will work very hard to get men to share the burden.

            Much of that "burden" is self-imposed and a good deal enjoyable, but much is not.

            If a guy finds love and a "soul mate" — and that's an additional issue: the newish idea that every couple seeking marriage has to be Romeo and Juliet and powerfully in love, and working on the relationship — if a guy finds love and a soul mate and he can bring some wealth and skills to the marriage … well, yeah, he'll want to marry and probably will marry. But that may not happen.

            So, if young guys nowadays say marriage is less important to them than guys said in 1997, it could be sensible on their part: sensible if they're less likely to get married and if they are lucky enough to get companionship, some sex, and maybe even intimacy outside of marriage.

            There's no war on men, but there has been reduction in male privilege, and guys may be responding to that reduction in socially and economically rational ways.

            The nuclear family is a relatively new invention, and it's a bad idea. We're in an awkward period moving on to other possibilities. Get over it, conservatives, and start acting like real conservatives: working to increase community, and social supports.

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