The young woman seated opposite me at the restaurant was an orphan. A few months earlier, her mother had died of cancer. Her father had departed this earth years earlier after a fall from a ladder. Both parents I’d known since college, a bookish pair who remained in the same four-storied house they’d purchased after they married.
Over the years, the couple had managed to fill the space with books, giving each room the appearance of a cozy library. Now the daughter was tasked with clearing away their history and she felt guilty. “I’m not much of a reader,” she admitted, her eyes meeting mine as if seeking absolution. “Who reads these days?” I shrugged as a way of satisfying her.
Oddly enough, I’d read an article that morning that said I.Q scores in the U. S. were falling. Could a general decline in reading be at fault? To my dismay, I’d learned earlier that among the younger generation Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Thomas Mann had fallen out of favor. The reason? Their sentences were too long. As a teacher and a writer, I felt my brain shudder when I read that. No better way exists to reveal the connection between disparate ideas than with long sentences.
Science agrees. For example, the Nun Study which has been underway for many years revealed that participants who wrote long, convoluted sentences in their diaries lived dementia-free lives. Could the data also suggest that a decline in the nation’s IQ stems from a decline in verbal reasoning–the capacity to understand complex ideas in written language? If so, then abandoning James’ literary flourish for Earnest Hemingway’s grunt-like sentences has done the human brain no favors.
Dictators are aware of the strong connection between the mind and language. That’s why they burn books and suppress free speech. Mussolini’s stench rose anew, recently, when Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni proposed banishing foreign words.
Not long after reading the I.Q story, my eyes fell upon an unrelated article reporting on a different decline. Young men are leaving the workforce in greater numbers than in the past. One expert explained why. Men are unhappy with their social status. Another labeled the condition an aggrieved male psyche. The root of the problem lies in a machismo nostalgia that is compatible with fascism. The hallmarks are homophobia, hostility to women’s rights, gun idolatry, and a wiliness to see violence as legitimate political action.
Donald Trump, a candidate for President of the United States in 2018, tapped into this angst when he vowed to “Make America Great Again.” (MAGA) The core of his platform was a promise to return manufacturing jobs to the United States, enabling men with little education to earn good wages. In response, these underclass males flipped their loyalty from the Labor movement with its Democratic leanings and voted Republican.
Overnight, the party of large corporations and one-percenters became a party that feared foreigners and embraced a narrow set of religious values. Out of sync with the majority of Americans, the recruits had enough political clout to divide the country and create a cultural upheaval not seen since the 19th century.
In the 19th Century, as the economy began to transition from rural labor to urban labor, people began to worry that boys were becoming weak because women were playing a larger role in their upbringing. So they attempted to find ways to encourage young men and boys to engage in physical activity, creating things like body building and later the YMCA and Boy Scouts.
Today, a similar challenge confronts undereducated men who cling to outmoded “masculine” values. For example, they choose to drop out of the workforce rather than transition into healthcare where jobs are plentiful. Caring for others is women’s work they say and point to the poor pay as a disincentive. Sociologist Michael Kimmel admits that before these men can transition, they will need a new male role model.
As a feminist, I will note that no similar generosity greeted women as they struggled to transition themselves. But I get it. The Republican Party will be short-lived if it is dominated by men who look back in anger.
In any case, a return to the past isn’t possible. Technology precludes it. What’s more, progress in that direction requires more light than falls from the discontent of disillusioned men. But where do we look for masculine role models? Republicans like Trump and Josh Hawley may imagine they fit the bill, but as they were born to privilege and received expensive educations, can their claims be creditable? Probably not. Still, they will attempt to create that illusion. They have no choice. The men with whom they have little in common control the launching pad for their ambition. These politicians may mumble shibboleths to attract supporters but that doesn’t make them role models. It makes them opportunists.
For the moment, the Republican version of masculinity looks like a snake attempting to swallow its tail. Who’s leading and whose following isn’t clear. What’s obvious is that both ends are promoting a cultural stagnation that will imperil the future.