"In many ways," Waller R. Newell writes, "young men today are in deep spiritual trouble. But they are also yearning for a way back to the noblest ideals of American manhood." The Code of Man represents a deep and thought-provoking effort to help guide contemporary men back to those ideals, as embodied in what Newell calls the five paths to manliness: love, courage, pride, family, and country.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, he argues, we have grown so concerned about the roles of sex and violence in our society that we have forgotten the older virtues: romance and eros, courage and patriotism, the blend of love and bravery it takes to raise a family. In The Code of Man, he exhorts us to look to the traditional virtues of the past for inspiration. Contrasting the time-honored lessons of traditional voices -- Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen and Teddy Roosevelt -- with the chaotic signals emanating from sources like Eminem, video games like Thrill Kill, and Goth culture, Newell illustrates how we have come to associate courage with violence, "transgression" with wisdom. Most disturbing, he argues, the essential triumph of Western culture may have left us with a building reserve of untapped aggressive energy, and no consensus about how to channel it -- a situation that threatens to weaken us at the core.
Seamlessly weaving together literary references from a diverse body of sources, Waller Newell offers an open-eyed look at what it means to be a man in America today, and a clarion call to recapture our traditions if we are to preserve our character as a society ... and avoid catastrophe.
A recent study of boys in junior high school showed that, the day after watching professional wrestling on television, they called girls "hos" and "bitches" much more frequently than on other days of the week. It's one more item in the avalanche of evidence of the coarsening of eros and the decline of a vocabulary of refinement between men and women -- and how it begins at a depressingly early age. Throughout the cultures of mass entertainment, popular music, and fashion, the expression of delicate sentiments, courtesy, or heartfelt feeling between men and women is frequently derided as embarrassing and uncool, to the point where it has almost vanished. Open the pages of Vanity Fair or Details, and you see sleek, glossy young people who look like celebrities, draped in Calvin or Tommy or Mondavi, but always sullen and unsmiling as they glare at you through their sunglasses from the Hamptons or the Upper East Side. The message is: You too can be a celebrity, as long as you know the hip things to buy and always have a snarl at the ready. The approved cultural style is one of detachment, narcissism, and casual, unfeeling sex. As the poet Phyllis Gotlieb puts it in a way that sums up this culture of disaffection, "I'd rather heave a brick than say I love you."
There are many causes for this coarsening of eros. But the main one, in my view, is the caricature of manliness as macho, brutish, and aggressive behavior. Dinned into boys and young men for several decades now, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. David Foster Wallace, by some accounts the most popular of American writers on college campuses, has chronicled this effect in his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Here's his version of how men talk about women among themselves:
K: What does today's woman want? Whether it sounds Neanderthal or not, I'm still going to argue it's the big one ...
E: Like take your classic Madonna-versus-whore contradiction. Good girl versus slut. The girl you respect and take home to meet your Mom versus the girl you just fuck.
K: Yet let's not forget that overlaid atop this is the new feminist-slash-postfeminist expectation that women are sexual agents too, just as men are ... that for today's woman, it's almost mandatory to fuck around ... What today's woman wants, in short, is a male with both the passionate sensitivity and the logical firepower to discern that all her pronouncements about autonomy are actually desperate cries in the wilderness ... They want you on one level wholeheartedly to agree and respect what they're saying and on another, deeper level to recognize that it's all complete horseshit and to gallop in on your white charger and overwhelm them with passion.
So much for the project of changing male attitudes. Having been a college professor for some twenty years, I can confirm that David Foster Wallace's depictions of how young males discuss women are utterly convincing in their accuracy. They provide evidence for wondering whether one of feminism's main accomplishments has been to give men an excuse to act on their own basest impulses. Women say they're sexual agents, too, so why not give them what they want? After thirty years of relentless behavior modification, the grand result is that young men in college -- the future meritocratic elite of America -- feel justified in shamelessly proclaiming: Women want "the big one." This view of women is directly opposed to the goal toward which feminists have always claimed to be working. But when you tell women they should lose their old-fashioned hang-ups about femininity and assert their right to behave as coarsely and immodestly as men, and at the same time tell men that they are collectively prone to exploit women, what else should you expect?
This self-fulfilling prophecy is reinforced by the general trend in entertainment culture that encourages self-indulgence and hedonism. What began in the 1960s as relatively innocent and tentative extramarital experimentation and wife swapping (highlighted in movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) rapidly gave way to the heartless sexual acrobatics of Last Tango in Paris and the Dionysian sex and violence orgies of the Manson Family and Altamont. Today, these once shocking images have become routine, millions of them flickering across our eyeballs as we munch our Doritos, so that a Madonna video with S & M overtones becomes one small brick in an electronically simulated world of virtual normality.
And yet, every so often the baffled longing for love breaks through. You can cut human nature off from its sources of guidance, but you can't get rid of it. As long as human beings exist, they will long for love, and love is a structured longing with its own peculiar logic, language, and psychology. Young people feel pressured to conform to the glossy images of snarly narcissism and hip indifference to others, but in their hearts they want to recover their voice and find another person to love. In this chapter, we will explore a proposition so deeply rooted in three thousand years of the Western tradition that to recover it today would amount almost to a moral revolution, since so little attention has been paid to it in the last thirty years. This is the proposition that erotic passion and intimacy are fully satisfying only when men and women strive to exercise their capacities for moral and intellectual virtue.
But before turning to that hopeful message from the great thinkers and artists of the past, let's continue our rather dismal tour of the erotic wasteland of recent years. Another contributing factor to the coarsening of eros is the project of creating a genderless personality. The prevailing orthodoxy in our leading universities is that sexual roles are "constructed" out of nothing, and that we must "deconstruct" them in order to liberate ourselves from their restrictions on our spontaneous impulses ...