Looking Back, Looking Around

From Menletter July 2010


By Tim Baehr


I received the following e-mail this week from Jeff (first name only, for privacy), a young man who is new to Menletter:


Hello, I recently came across your website, Menletter. I'm still going through it; but, I'm very excited to see it. I'm always happy to see men's issues being talked about. Anyway, I came across one particular article that asked the following question:


"What is your vision of a 'men's movement'? Should it be a movement, or are we better off continuing an internal exploration? Are we better off in small groups, or do we need large crowds to create a 'critical mass' (and for what)? Will our sons have the same father issues that we did with our fathers? Can we, or our sons, make peace with women, or at least actively seek out women who want 'real' men (I didn't say 'real men'; there's a subtle difference)? Can men and women create relationships that don't objectify each other?"


I'd like to answer this by email, since you were asking your audience what they thought. My personal vision of the men's movement is that we are a civil rights movement, no different from any in the 1960s. We just don't have the recognition yet. I don't think "internal exploration" is the answer to any issue that faces men and boys. Our problems are external in origin, and our answer must be external too. The answer lies not within, but without. Men face discriminations from society and the government, and only when we recognize that, will we be able to effect change. Our feelings are important, yes, but they are irrelevant to the legalities that exist, with the Violence Against Women Act denying men service in domestic abuse shelters, with the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act ignoring the plight of baby boys, when their body parts are viciously cut off in that strange and cruel practice we call 'circumcision'. There are many examples of systematic discrimination against males; but, I think you don't [need] me to list them all for you. You've been in the men's movement for quite some time, no? The article that asked this question was dated 2002, if memory serves. I'm new to the movement, personally. I joined last year, after I had to sign up for the draft. I'm rather young, actually.


Anyway, I hope you respond. I'm very eager to hear your thoughts on this.


It seems appropriate for the 100th issue of Menletter (155 essays, reviews, articles, and stories, plus six guest essays) to try to answer Jeff's questions and observations.


The essay Jeff references begins like this:


The more things change, the more they stay the same?


I ran across a Web posting from Shepherd Bliss, whom I'd never heard of but who is one of the early leaders in the men's movement. In a 1987 article, "Revisioning Masculinity" (read it here: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC16/Bliss.htm), he lists the six major issues for men:


1.     The father-son connection

2.     Male friendships

3.     Men's health

4.     Male modes of intimacy

5.     Male modes of feeling

6.     The male body


(The full essay on "The More Things Change" is here: http://menletter.org/articles/The%20More%20Things%20Change-October%202002.htm.)


So we're talking nearly a quarter of a century since Shepherd Bliss talked about major issues for men, and he didn't even get to discrimination, circumcision, or domestic violence, or generally to civil rights issues.


I think that, if you look at the whole of US society, it seems that we are pretty much stuck in the 1980s, maybe even the 1950s. A tiny minority of us have indeed made some progress in male intimacy (and intimacy in general), honoring our feelings, taking care of our health, and taking care of "father issues." We're the ones who attend weekend retreats and longer gatherings.


I've observed that the task of becoming fully masculine, fully a man, is an ongoing process. To me, the process is analogous to male initiation rituals of traditional cultures in that it requires reliving of life ordeals in the presence of male elders with varied life experiences. Our initiations may be more protracted and sporadic than in other cultures, but like the traditional ones, they involve discovering of new abilities, new perspectives, new identities, new ways of serving family and community.


As for a men's movement, I don't think one exists now or has ever truly existed in the past. The popular press thought so in the 1990s and tried to compare it to the women's movement. It was about the closest we got. (Newsweek printed a story in 1991 called "Drums, Sweat and Tears: What Do Men Really Want?" with the subtitle "Now They Have a Movement of Their Own." But it was mostly a tongue-in-cheek bit of parody. The article, and perhaps others like it, may have produced enough ridicule to effectively kill any further spread. See my essay on this: http://menletter.org/articles/Drums,%20Sweat%20and%20Tears-May%202005.htm.)


The women's movement addressed some serious injustices and inequalities, and for many the struggle continues: job discrimination, wage inequality, domestic violence and date rape, school sports access, to mention a few. Some progress has been made, often through legislation passed by male-dominated legislatures. Some men were truly sympathetic to the cause; I suspect others just went along because they were fearful of losing a voting constituency.


Women had, and have, an identifiable opponent in their struggle: us men - if not all of us then the Men in Power. The Patriarchy.


What about men's struggles? Pogo Possum once said (regarding littering and pollution), "We have met the enemy and he is us." Men control, or potentially control, possible remedies to the rights issues that still face their male constituents today. Some of these are self-evident; others may be debatable but have been supported by substantial independent evidence: military draft registration required only for men; unfair or misapplied divorce, alimony, and child support laws; funding discrepancies between prostate cancer and breast cancer research; lack of protection and relief for male victims of domestic violence; uninvestigated and unpunished false reports by women of male violence and abuse; not-gender-blind family leave and newborn leave; apparent "disposability" of men in certain dangerous jobs where safety regulations are either not present or not enforced; open and unchallenged ridicule of men in advertising and the media.


(I'm not going to address circumcision except to note that the motivation for circumcision - even if the motivation is deemed mistaken or wrong - is vastly different from the motivation for female circumcision. Reasonable opinions exist both pro and con for male circumcision. See, for instance, http://artofmanliness.com/2009/02/22/clip-the-tip-pointcounterpoint-on-male-circumcision/.)


So yeah, let's get a big honkin' Men's Movement together and march on the - ulp - other men who seem to be running things.


Here's a more thorough exploration of the current world of men: http://www.menletter.org/articles/My%20State%20of%20the%20Men%20Address-April%202007.htm.


Jeff, I'm sorry if this sounds disheartening or even dismissive. Our problems are real, the civil rights aspect of some of the problems is real, and the solutions are not self-evident. But I can offer some advice:


      Some men have been actively working on injustices and discrimination for years. Pick one issue, Google the hell out of it, and join the veterans in the trenches.

      Or just pick an issue - an old one or one that has impact on younger men - and start anew. Maybe we older guys aren't going about things effectively.

      But don't lose sight of the need for inner work, and inner work in a community of men.

      Don't discount us older guys. Most of the men I know from men's gatherings are middle-aged and beyond. There's a huge amount of cumulative wisdom to tap into.


A final observation based on a couple of sentences in Jeff's letter: Our problems are external in origin, and our answer must be external too. The answer lies not within, but without.


Externalizing our problems without looking within feeds into a destructive victim mentality. Without the inner work, looking for answers outside of ourselves, we're just giving our power away.


©Copyright 2010 by Tim Baehr