On fatherhood, manliness, and failure May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
I was once reasonably dignified. I dressed like a gentleman and luxuriated in the cultural heritage of Western civilization. My three places of residence—my home, my office, and my mind—were free of clutter and arranged so as to allow me both to make the most of my days and to begin to venture out into intellectual life. Then I became a father.
One afternoon, I was changing my infant son’s diaper when he began micturating. Not in a feeble stream, but in a great, turbo-charged geyser, like one of the fountains in front of the Bellagio. As was his wont. So I reached over, cupped my hand above his manhood, and waited in quiet satisfaction as he peed on me. I was pleased—genuinely pleased, the way I once might have been, say, after finishing Middlemarch—that my reflexes had prevented him from spraying the wall and nearby bookshelf. The dismantling of my dignity took three weeks, more or less. I don’t keep strict count of these things. Not anymore.
This is about when I started to realize that the primary effect of children is to take things from you. It begins with sleep, time, and dignity and then expands over the years to include serenity, sanity, and a great deal of money. I am making an observation here, not complaining. It’s just what they do. In that way, children are like the aging process itself: an exercise in letting go of the ancillary parts of your existence until you are stripped bare, and what remains is your elemental center. Your soul. I’m told Jews see something of this in the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah. Christians know it as the Way of the Cross. A consultant from McKinsey would call it addition by subtraction.
I’m not going to lie to you. In fatherhood there is much—so much—to be lost. But there is much to be gained, too. For example, while it may seem diametrically opposed to the indignities of the job, fatherhood is the wellspring of a quality critically important to our culture: manliness.
There is a school of thought that views the idea of manliness—and even men themselves—as obsolete, or unnecessary, or perhaps even harmful. You can see it in contemporary books, such as Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (which is more celebration than lament), but you also find it earlier. At the height of the women’s suffrage movement, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a novel called Herland in which three male explorers stumble upon a lost society made up entirely of women. It’s paradise. Until the men muck everything up. Obviously.
For thousands of years masculinity and femininity were the yin and yang of the world—the opposing sensibilities whose interaction created harmony at every level, from the societal to the personal. As a result, the modern push to downgrade half of humanity has created some confusion. On the one hand, it’s now socially acceptable for young men in their early twenties to wear footie pajamas. Which suggests surrender. On the other hand, there has emerged a self-conscious “men’s movement.” What began with drumming and sweat lodges has expanded to include Brooklyn hipsters paying for facial-hair transplants. It often manifests in a talk-radio-friendly form, such as Helen Smith’s book Men on Strike or the collection of websites known as the “manosphere.” The men’s movement is fighting what its followers see as a feminizing culture and asserting themselves as manly men. This frequently involves complaining about child custody laws and bad divorce settlements. Not that I’m judging.
Any way you slice it, manliness is in a patch of trouble. Yet it remains an indispensable, vibrant quality that shapes the world in ways large and small. Consider two men, Dave Karnes and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
You probably know about Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident and writer who was one of the most consequential figures of the last century. He was born in Russia in 1918, a bad time in a hard place. In 1945, he was arrested, tortured, and sent to the Gulag for criticizing the Soviet regime in a private letter. During his imprisonment he began what would become his life’s work—a series of novels and poems dissecting communism and erecting a moral framework for opposing it. He wrote in secret, while doing hard labor, under the threat of further torture, and while battling the early stages of cancer. During one stretch he composed an epic poem, “The Trail,” more than 7,000 lines long, entirely in his head because he had neither pen nor paper.
May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Father’s Day is still a few weeks away, but it’s not too soon to order the perfect gift for the fathers in your life. We’re referring to the fabulous new book edited by our colleague Jonathan V. Last, The Dadly Virtues: Adventures from the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love (Templeton Press). Not since the 1927 Yankees has there been a Murderers’ Row like the writers Jonathan lined up: P. J. O’Rourke, Matthew Continetti, Stephen F.
Mothers, sons, daughters, and soldiersDec 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 16 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
When young men and women join the armed forces, their families understand the seriousness of “the knock.” When a soldier is killed, the Department of Defense dispatches officers to find the next of kin, knock on their door, and inform them of the loss, face to face.
What, if anything, can be done to save the family? Oct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
You can tell a lot about a society by its taboos. Several weeks ago, America reeled when Adrian Peterson—the great NFL running back of his generation—was indicted on charges of “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” Peterson is alleged to have disciplined his son by “whooping” him—these are Peterson’s words, not mine—with a “switch.” The child, a 4-year-old boy, suffered cuts on his backside and thighs.
Jonathan V. Last abdicates the ThroneAug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire might be the most daunting mountain in the history of fantasy fiction. The cycle includes five fat books so far, totaling over 4,500 pages, and Martin suggests that at least two more volumes will be needed to conclude the story. Compared with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Asimov’s Foundation books, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t just Everest—it’s the entire Himalayan range.
Challenge, not deference, to the majority.Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
One of the government’s slyest powers is the right to grant licenses. As a piece of law, the license is rooted in the idea of communal interest: In areas of life where the general public can easily be harmed by bad actors, the government seeks to mitigate harm by credentialing certain actions. Hence the driver’s license, which ensures some minimal competency for operating an automobile. And the physician’s license, which upholds a reasonably high standard of competency for doctors.
4:01 PM, Apr 12, 2013 • By MICHAEL WARREN
Our own Jonathan Last recently released a top-notch book, What to Expect When No One's Expecting, about America's coming demographic disaster. The book has been well received by readers, among them the justices on the Texas supreme court. On the sixth page of the court's recent decision for Strickland v. Medlen, Justice Don Willett cites a fact from What to Expect: "American pets now outnumber American children by more than four to one.”