Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, in his speech before the National Conservatism Conference, had a point: Stereotypically male traits are receiving a lot of criticism. As he said, “traditional masculine values,” most notably “assertiveness,” are now cast as “toxic.”
Now that I’m the father of a son, however, I believe Hawley has identified the wrong culprit. The issue is less about persistent attacks on masculinity and more that he, and others like him, have set expectations for men too low. If American culture follows Hawley’s lead, men will not face a brighter future. They will instead face inevitable bitterness.
In listening to Hawley, they would believe their masculinity itself makes them great.
Yet being a man entitles them to nothing.
When the time comes, I will tell my son he should take pride not simply in being a man, but in being a good man. Then he will have earned respect, not pouted for it.
Hawley’s vision of masculinity runs counter to historical and religious definitions of being a good man. In Hawley’s mind, a man should define himself by his independence. Yet a good man will define himself by what he can do for his family, his community and his country. This is not some new, “woke” ideology. It is ancient. It comes from St. Peter, who said that “each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace.”
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In Hawley’s mind, a man should define himself by his liberty. Yet a good man will define himself by his responsibilities. In his speech, Hawley quoted President Theodore Roosevelt yet seemed to forget that, in Roosevelt’s concept of manhood, privilege did not entitle men to liberty. Rather, as Roosevelt told the wealthy young men hearing his famous “Man in the Arena” speech: “To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected.”
Hawley is not alone in providing a weak perspective of masculinity. Indeed, my duty as a father will be to protect my son from so many malign cultural influences that could warp his sense of manhood. Joe Rogan defines masculinity by whom you can beat up. Yet a good man is defined not by whom he can dominate but by whom he can protect.
Rogan, of course, is just one problem for young men. TV shows (and frat houses, and country music songs, and Supreme Court justices) will tell my son his masculinity is defined by how many beers he can drink. A good man, I’ll need to tell my son, can have a beer or two, but he will measure up by never using alcohol as an excuse to hurt other people. Especially not a woman.
Facets of American culture will also tell my son that he should judge his manliness by how many women he can “score” with. This is an unfortunate, pervasive aspect of our culture, be it Joey from “Friends” or former President Donald Trump, who called avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1970s his “personal Vietnam” and bragged about cheating on his wife. A good man, however, shouldn’t concern himself with one-night stands and notches on his belt, but with whether he is a provider for a family and a loyal boyfriend, fiancé, or husband.
No doubt, I have often fallen short of being a good man. Which brings me to one of the most important virtues that distinguishes a mere man from a good man: A good man is strong enough to admit when he is wrong, to be humble, to know when he needs to improve. Too much of modern masculinity is wrapped up in always being right, whether it’s Sean Penn’s absurd insistence that Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro were great leaders or President Donald Trump’s insistence that he won the 2020 election.
Trump’s father should have told him that when you lose, lose like a man.
As a father to a son, I appreciate Hawley raising the difficulties young men face today. Yet Hawley’s expectations of men are too low, and his need for easy answers is too high. While corners of progressivism may harbor ill will toward all men, far more liberals — including me — simply expect more from men. Men, we believe, are not entitled to trophies just because they’re born with a Y chromosome. Rather, individual men must earn respect.
My son should never be ashamed of being a man. But that doesn’t mean being a man should make him proud, either. That pride, he will learn, is reserved for good men.
Neal Urwitz is a public relations executive and a father to a newborn son.