The Magazine

The Oldest War

Remember when the battle of the sexes was a laughing matter?

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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After a year or two the men’s movement went the way of all trend stories and vaporized. The new men’s movement that has recently emerged is far less suited to lighthearted features on the evening news​—​even if there were still such a thing as “the evening news.” The feathers are gone and so are the drums. At the heart of the new movement is a loosely defined notion of “men’s rights,” which have become casualties in the newly discovered war on men. This spring, a manifesto of the new movement was published, to much praise. Men on Strike is the work of Dr. Helen Smith, a psychologist from Tennessee. She writes a popular blog, called Dr. Helen, on the conservative website If the old men’s movement got men crying, the new one hopes to get them complaining.

Men on Strike relies heavily on material accumulated through Dr. Helen’s blog, which has gained a large following of men drawn to her daily briefs in their defense. The book has the energy, the hit-and-run tone, of a blog. She knows how to marshal an argument quickly and drive it home with what the marketers of breakfast cereals used to call vim. Her premise is that the tables have turned in the U.S.A.: Nowadays, she and her followers assert, men are more likely than women to be victims of systematic discrimination, in school or the workplace, owing to developments in divorce and family law, sexual harassment guidelines, school curriculums​—​indeed, in every area of social life where considerations of sex come into play.

This is a lot of ground to cover, and Dr. Helen manages to do it in under 200 pages. Her book is a “call to action,” she says, and it’s the place to start for any reader curious about the 21st-century men’s movement and the nascent cause of men’s rights.

 For all its range, there are signs that Men on Strike was written in haste and rushed into print by her publisher. Dr. Helen has a weakness for mixed metaphors; in one notable sentence we confront an Army of Davids gathering steam to turn a tide that has been brewing for more than 40 years. Several points are made more than once​—​more than once a page, in some cases. Her roundhouse exaggerations (“Our society tells men they are worthless perverts who reek of male privilege while simultaneously castrating them should they act in a manly manner”) lose their rhetorical oomph after a while. And sometimes the vividness of her imagery runs away from her, as when she refers to “men who must swallow their manhood.” Oh yuck.

Surely the condition of American men is not so perilous that we couldn’t have waited a few days while a copy editor looked the book over. But maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe we can’t wait. Dr. Helen’s tone is alternately sarcastic, disgusted, pitiless, and huffy, but never less than urgent. This is war! “[O]ur society is at war with men and men know it full well.” And according to Dr. Helen, an increasing number of these reluctant combatants are responding by going AWOL​—​from marriage and fatherhood, from the workplace, and from educational institutions. The percentage of unmarried men has tripled among some demographic cohorts, for those with college educations and those without. Labor participation rates for men are falling: In 1967, nearly 97 percent of men with no more than a high school education had a job, Dr. Helen says, citing figures from the Brookings Institution. Now the number is 76 percent. Among all working-age men, only 66 percent work full time​—​down from 80 percent 40 years ago. College admissions counselors across the country despair over the lack of male applicants. About 60 percent of college applicants each year are female​—​a ratio carried over into the student bodies of more and more schools.

So there’s evidence that a significant percentage of men are shying away from the social institutions that historically have required male participation for success, for both their own flourishing and that of the institutions themselves. For Dr. Helen, the reasons are straightforward. A right-leaning libertarian, she is a believer in homo economicus. The general retreat of men from their traditional responsibilities, she reasons, reflects a rational calculation of costs and benefits. When men go on strike, she says, they “are acting rationally in response to the lack of incentives today’s society offers them to be responsible fathers, husbands and providers.”