That’s the mantra that got me through 237 pages (not counting 51 pages of endnotes) of Andrew L. Yarrow’s new book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, without succumbing to a panic attack. I’m not especially inclined to consider myself a “man out,” in Yarrow’s formulation, but that self-assessment may be a matter more of wishful thinking than of data.
The numbers are daunting, and you’ve doubtless seen them run through the think-piece wringer, especially since the 2016 presidential campaign. American men are increasingly out of work or underemployed. They’re increasingly unmarried and under-involved in their children’s lives. They’re increasingly addicted to alcohol, opioids, and electronic entertainment. They’re increasingly sick and alone. They’re increasingly distrustful of government and disengaged from civic and community life. And they’re killing themselves at an appalling clip.
I should say “we.”
I’m a 51-year-old white man. And while I don’t have every last marker of Yarrow’s men out, I do have a few. With the exception of a short-lived partnership in my early 30s, I’ve never been married, and my relationship history doesn’t exactly scream stability. I don’t have children. I don’t own my home or have any significant retirement savings. I lost my job as an editor eight months ago when the newspaper I worked for shuttered, and I’ve yet to find steady and sustaining work to replace it. Neither video games nor opioids have gotten their hooks in me, but I’ve had cause, like many men I know, to keep a warily careful eye on my drinking.
And while I consider myself more feminist than misogynist — thanks in large part to a decent education, a dedicated mother, a strong sister, and the patient and loving ministrations of several caring women in my life — I’m well aware that patriarchy, like racism, is an air we breathe. I’m a long way from immune to its vapors, and I continue to try to learn my way out from under its most harmful privileges.
It didn’t ease my distress to find that one of Yarrow’s personalizing anecdotes, drawn from a multitude of interviews conducted for this book, involves another shuttered newspaper, which once provided the now-struggling town of Horicon, Wisconsin, with “a sort of social glue,” according to its 86-year-old former editor, who now “lives in a mobile home adjacent to twenty-nine others in a park on the edge of town.”
The example is a perhaps a touch on the nose for this reader, and the book contains a wealth of such cautionary tales to fit almost any circumstance. But as conscientious men are slowly learning to recognize, not everything is always about us. Yarrow’s inventory of male dysfunction reflects personal impacts on individual men, of course, but these aren’t purely personal problems. Male disengagement from marriage and family affects women and children. Male disengagement from civic and community life impoverishes the public square. Male anger at government contributes to political polarization and, not to put too fine a point on it, fertilizes the ascension of demagogues like Donald Trump. And male disengagement from the workforce, of course, has obvious impacts on the national economy.
These collected disengagements, Yarrow demonstrates, disproportionately affect millennials, people of color, and the incarcerated, reinforcing each other in an intersectional sucking spiral.
At this point it’s worth noting, and Yarrow is at pains to do so, that not all men, or even most men, are struggling. And by many measures both economic and cultural, women continue to have it worse. But where women are experiencing many, though still inadequate, gains in contemporary America, too many trend lines for men are moving in the wrong direction.
Even so, I’ve had more than one friend side-eye my reading of Man Out, as if to say, Oh please, men are marginalized? Not marginalized enough, if you ask me. This is a legitimate reaction in this contemporary moment of gender-role reassessment, and one that Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and current senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, is right to anticipate. But while women “tend to have lower wages, bear the burden of single parenthood, and are the objects of misogyny and harassment,” they are also “far less likely to have been incarcerated, are better educated and more likely to be independent, and are in better health. It isn’t a competition for who’s better off — or worse off.”
Having dutifully cataloged the Man Out problem, Yarrow then extends his balance-seeking to the question of blame. Conservatives, he acknowledges, tend to align along an essentially moralist causal axis defined by a decline in values. The culture, in this assessment, has become increasingly more dissolute since the days of World War II’s Greatest Generation, abetted by the fabled permissiveness of the 1960s, personal empowerment, feminism, and a media machinery that undermines the tenets of personal responsibility with instant gratification and consequence-free indulgence.
Liberals, obviously, chafe at the stuffy oversimplicity of such judgments, and will find some evidence of Yarrow’s personal biases in his barely veiled disdain for “those who wind up in de facto ‘man caves,’ where the internet, the beer fridge, endless movies (usually puerile, violent, or sexist), sports memorabilia, near-empty bags of marijuana, loneliness, and lassitude define their lives.”
Liberal explanations, on the other hand, tend broadly to blame economic and other external factors for the dire straits in which men find themselves. Corporatization, the decimation of unions, stagnant wages, and the decline of well-paid manufacturing work are well-documented stressors on the economic security that is a keystone of societal health.
Neither explanation, Yarrow sanely contends, is likely to constitute an entirely sole cause of such deeply multivalent issues. In his relentlessly moderate view, it’s certainly a bit from Column A, a bit from Column B. In eschewing sound-bite-friendly blame, Yarrow provides a real service that runs counter to the all-or-nothing polarization that commonly infects such debates. He also places himself at a frustrating remove from the sort of unequivocally straightforward answers that inspire action.
His book closes, as such a book virtually must, with a chapter aimed at solutions. But given the shotgun spray of factors pushing men into the margins of American life, Yarrow’s almost perfunctory way forward looks like a spaghetti-splattered wall of incremental half measures, starting with — no kidding — the proposed establishment of a governmental commission on men’s issues. Perhaps that ought to wait for a new administration. One can only imagine the man Donald Trump might appoint to such a body.
Commission aside, Yarrow’s approach to pulling men up by their bootstraps is a two-pronged proposal, addressing both policy-oriented and cultural fixes:
From civic virtue to sociability, nonmisogynist masculinity to engaged, inclusive fatherhood; from values like responsibility and drive to better public health and prisoner reentry; from workforce development and decent jobs to the kind of safety net that we’ve been told is impossible — we need it all. At least we need to start moving in that direction.
Jared Yates Sexton had to start with himself. Where Man Out is data-driven, The Man They Wanted Me to Be is about stories: the calcified and increasingly maladaptive stories that men have learned to tell about themselves, and the stories that Sexton inherited from his own experience as a son and a partner. Where Yarrow casts a wide net in his attempt to capture the panoply of the male experience, Sexton homes in tight on a buzz-phrase du jour: “toxic masculinity.”
He starts with a short primer on the social development of the normative masculine ideal, heavy on war, John Wayne, and post–World War II economic prosperity. Both books treat this pre-Vietnam boom, when men could support a family and access the consumerist “American Dream” on a labor wage, but before racial and gender privilege came under sustained attack, as a baseline for the expectations that contemporary men find increasingly out of reach. But only Yarrow acknowledges that this storied period — when America was last ostensibly “great” — might be a historical anomaly.
That masculine ideal, Sexton writes, was always a lie, and he’s dedicated to unlearning it. As a young boy who liked books more than heavy machinery, he was subject to the cruel socialization that in-groups routinely apply to apparent outsiders. He watched as his mother, to whom the book is dedicated, suffered through a series of unsuccessful marriages to men who struggled, abusively, to live up to the primacy they had been trained to consider their due. He eventually succumbed himself, he writes, to the false tenets of American manhood, with predictably unedifying results. He documents a period of young adulthood when he took to binge drinking and “hard, stoic, brooding and self-damaging” posturing in an attempt to fit one of the few prescribed male molds, and regularly slept with a loaded rifle near his bed, ready to eradicate the effort when the strain overwhelmed him.
In Sexton’s story, domestic violence is a tactic that enforces patriarchy, and patriarchal masculinity is often deployed as a coping mechanism in response to shame, fear of metaphorical emasculation, and economic abuse. He casts toxic masculinity as a militarized counterattack on challenges to male entitlement.
Sexton had seen that dynamic before, as an early adopter of chat-room internet culture, where he initially found expansive relief from the constrictions of standard-issue male role models, before watching that culture’s descent into performative nihilism.
He went on to become an early reporter on Trump’s campaign rallies in 2016, and what he recognized at those gatherings was a concentrated distillation of the mostly white, mostly male anger that had been such a prominent feature of his own youthful relationships with men. He describes his own father, who died before he could cast a 2016 vote, as a proto-Trumper who, under the influence of the men in his own life, was susceptible to the paranoid conspiracy theorizing that marks the Red Pill “Manosphere.”
At Trump rallies, he was surprised to find that he was able, even as a self-described “sensitive intellectual male,” to pass, while reporters, protesters, and other out-group infiltrators were identified and threatened. Angry white men talked to him. They recognized him as one of their own.
Sexton was pretending, he realized, to be the man that his family, and the stories available to him, wanted him to be. And in the process of pretending, he discovered, he was becoming a man he’d never felt comfortable being.
As anyone who’s ever had cause to reassess the fundaments of self-identity can testify, that’s a tough nut to crack. As Yarrow documents, and as Sexton’s lived experience bears out, the dissonance between expectation and reality can break a man.
Sexton is too self-aware a writer to give himself a full-fledged redemption arc, but his is a story of ongoing struggle and escape. He got a leg up, as many of us do, from racial and gender privilege. He got another helping hand via education. He was also lucky enough to have the example of a grandfather — an umimpeachably masculine veteran — whose wartime experience had humbled rather than hardened him. Even his proto-Trump father had a late-life softening, admitting his shame about his own father’s judgment.
Such models of a more expansive and more inclusive definition of masculinity seem key to navigating the changes that these books convincingly and sometimes harrowingly address.
I’m not afraid to say that these books scared me. Check that: I am afraid to say I’m scared. Fear feels like weakness, and weakness is vulnerability, and while decades of therapeutic messaging has started to chip away at the stigma of showing a soft belly to the world, the story that vulnerability is an invitation for America to chew you up is deeply ingrained, and supported by evidence that’s hard to dismiss. Marginalized communities aren’t claiming their place in this country by showing fear. They’re claiming it with shows of strength. And men who respond to the diminishment of their privilege with aggression, resentment, and entrenchment may be responding badly, but they’re not responding to nothing. The diminishment is not imaginary. It is real. It is also an overdue and necessary movement toward justice. But people are generally not inclined, or well equipped, to cede power and influence.
Anyone who’s paying attention can see how deeply power’s lack damages the people and communities that lack it. Men who hold privilege are as desperate to avoid taking on that burden as those who carry it are desperate to throw off its yoke. That assumes, of course, that power is a zero-sum game, that justice for one demographic requires injustice for another. It is an act of considerable faith — and a necessity — to proceed as if things were otherwise.
As Yarrow writes, “The paradox of oppression is that although freedom and justice are more difficult to attain, it is easier to understand what they mean than what it means to shed the role of the oppressor.”
Sexton’s book provides more inspiration, though without the trite sentimentality that usually accompanies self-conscious self-improvement. He has dragged his own knuckles through the mud, and if he’s found no pat answers, he’s at least found ways to engage the journey toward becoming a better man. It’s a path that men need to walk. And we can use all the roadmaps we can find.
Brad Tyer is the author of Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape. He lives in Missoula, Montana.