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15.1.04

Youth Culture Killed My Dog

Anyone who found my occasional posts about "this particular order or chaos" interesting might want to read a couple of recent posts by Will Wilkinson that state more or less the same idea.

Wilkinson is a bit more sympathetic to the conservative side of the case, as evidenced by the fact that his second post respectfully disagrees with an article on the decline of manly virtue. I first encountered the article in question through Diotima (who praises it) and found it so profoundly ignorant that I couldn't read past the first third or so. Maybe I shouldn't comment until I've slogged through the entire thing, but what the hey. It's revealing that Moore (the author) selects the hat as the defining characteristic of the "barbarians" that today's young men have become. On the one hand, hat-wearing ettiquette is a perfect example of a completely arbitrary social convention, the defense of which is the dark side of conservatism. On the other hand, the backwards baseball cap is not in fact so prevalent as Moore thinks among the kind of dissolute young men that he's trying to illustrate. Based on my own unsystematic observations, going bareheaded or wearing a stocking cap pulled down tight are just as popular. This mistake demonstrates two things. First, it's a lazy recycling of a cliched judgement that pretends to be a principled social critique (a phenomenon Wilkinson criticizes in his first post). Second, it sets the stage for Moore's overall attitude toward today's youth. Despite the wealth of sociological work that has been done on youth culture and the ample opportunities for first-hand ethnography, Moore prefers the perspective popular among 17th Century armchair anthropologists. These scholars looked at the "savage" societies of the newly discovered lands and made the mistake of confusing "different culture" with "no culture." So these non-European "barbarians" were said to have no religion, no government, no science, no morals, and a barely functional language. Moore likewise seems to think that young men's speech consists of little more than synonyms for "whazzaaap!" and that "heavy metal" (by which I think he means to include punk and rap as well) is not, properly speaking, music. There are trenchant critiques to be made of the various subcultures of modern young men, but to make them you first need to know something about the actual state of the people in question.

Wilkinson states that:
What we need is a rethinking of what it is to be a man when women don't need us economically, don't require our paternalistic care, don't conceive of themselves primarily as units for the production of babies, and thus look to relationships with men to meet human needs beyond economics, protection, and reproduction.

It's correct that we need a new model -- or rather, models -- of proper manhood. The first step, I would argue, is to reduce the scope of "manliness." Because the sexual division of society is less rigid (a trend that should be encouraged), gender becomes less necessarily central to a person's identity. For example, I find it awkward to say "I am a man," despite the fact that I've never really "questioned my manhood" or sexual identity. I take into account my Y chromosome and all it entails, but it's a minor part in how I construct my existential life-project compared to statements like "I am a geographer" or "I am politically liberal."

Coming back to Moore, in the part of the article I made it through, he said something that I can agree with if taken out of context:
Manhood is not simply a matter of being male and reaching a certain age. These are acts of nature; manhood is a sustained act of character. It is no easier to become a man than it is to become virtuous. In fact, the two are the same.

What Moore means by this is that when a boy finds out how to be a proper man, he will be virtuous. But I would put it the opposite way: when a boy finds out how to be virtuous, he will be a proper person, and because he happens to be a male person, he will be a proper man. Maleness need not be more than another empirical condition (like "good at math" or "lives in Chicago") that shapes the particular implementation of the general principles of virtue in a life. The question is then how that shaping should take place -- in what way does a person striving to be virtuous have to take into account the fact that he happens to be male.

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