Men are in trouble. That’s not news.
Much has been said and said again about the internal angst that has gripped men born into a world demanding they be something other than what they naturally are. The cries against “toxic masculinity,” a term used whenever a man knows the difference between a 2019 Chevrolet and a Model-T, have made guys petrified at the thought of approaching a pretty woman at a bar, let alone being openly in favor of the pro-life movement or male-only church leadership.
What have we ended up with? I don’t have to tell any woman the answer, because women are in trouble, too. We all know the sad plight of the 21st-century man afraid of his own shadow, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. The current pool from which women have to fish is pretty measly and too many of the fish have the sad disposition of Steve Buscemi’s limp-wristed character in The Big Lebowski. Men, indignant at such an accusation, might say the blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of the feminists who demand they shrivel. I, an Eve who feels pretty badly about handing Adam the apple in the first place, will readily accept some of the responsibility (though at the end of the day, let’s admit it: in biting the fruit, Adam behaved like a real doormat).
Over the past few years, some men—mostly conservatives of some stripe—have pushed back against such feminist demands, and rightly so. Anyone not brainwashed by the same brand of geniuses who came up with critical race theory can intuit that something is awry in a culture giddily androgenizing something like a dress.
This masculine resistance has had many facets. It’s ranged from an invigorated interest in dressing like a lumberjack all the way to the formation of the infamous Proud Boys. In a broader sense, it’s also looked a lot like electing Donald Trump. But most unfortunately, the masculine revolution has manifested as a collective cry of outrage on social media—resulting in a bunch of chest-beating Twitter threads and Facebook tirades against the downhill slide of culture.
Such is the way of the world, I suppose. The greatest war, the war against the mind in pursuit of the human soul, is destined to be waged in the comments below an errant tweet. Everything is stupid.
It’s a pity, too, because the medium thwarts the conservative message. In fact, if only Marshall McLuhan were still around, he’d remind us that “The medium is the message.” He’d be right about that too. The medium is no good, so the message is doomed to fail. Using social media, caring about social media, putting time into social media—it’s all the enemy of manhood.
A utilitarian case can certainly be made that conservative men cannot cede the social media ground to the left in entirety, seeing as that’s where human beings, elites and non-elites, are increasingly spending their time, and human beings must be reached if traditional thought is to have political and cultural sway. That makes sense. But, if I may, there’s an overarching element wherein we undermine ourselves in so doing. And as a woman with no predilections for equality, I’ll say with surety that this especially goes for men.
Social media, at its essential core, is built for hypocrisy of the subtlest, most pervasive sort. It’s the conduit for a numb disassociation that bleeds into the real lives of normal, sincere folks. We create online identities, ironically call them “brands” using our ugly commercial lexicons, and then struggle to understand ourselves without mentally referring to what we’ve presented ourselves as on the internet—whether that presentation is remotely authentic or not. For the online, they can no longer see themselves without looking through the prism of their carefully crafted brand. The locus of identity is entirely and dangerously external. And this disturbing, transhumanist melding of the virtual person and the real person is particularly bad for the common good, an entity conservatives spend a lot of time advocating for online.
The effects are showing and they’re not pretty. As Matthew Walther put it in a particularly insightful piece back in January, our public life is now “fundamentally unreal, a kind of live-action role-playing game augmented by digital technology.”
It’s also fundamentally unmanly. If masculinity is earned by real courage, unyielding principle in the face of unprincipled adversity, and conscious care for what matters, then the idea that you prove your manhood with adroit Twitter dunks, consistent likes, and a follower count north of 3,000 is as ridiculous as the notion that you should train for the Wimbledon Cup by playing several rounds of Wii Tennis.
Yet somehow, the traditionally conservative men of the world wide web have convinced themselves that this veneer of manliness is enough. That if only they send out enough tweets about localism, family, Aristotelian ethics, and the importance of T.S. Eliot, the culture will be shifted in their favor. As a bonus, a rosy-cheeked woman of valor and faith will come in the night, lie at their feet, and beg them to be their Kinsman Redeemer. Then, perhaps, they might finally start the family that they’ve written eight Facebook posts declaring to be the most important institution in our culture.
Except that’s not happening. Believe it or not, spending unmitigated amounts of time associating with fellow LARPers in their Twitter echo chamber does very little to shift public opinion or get them real-life girlfriends. And that’s a shame, because these traditionalists are onto something about building families. Without families, our society is in deep trouble. And families are in deep trouble without truly masculine men.
Nevertheless, the online speech-giving and incessant audience-building will go on, and it will continue to go against everything that conservatism, particularly the Burkean kind, stands for. Boiled down to suit our stupid digital times, the tenets of Burke’s conservative political philosophy are thus: reality over the virtual, human contact over the simulated, local over the global, in-person discussion over the typed, and good over the bad. I can promise that Burke would have a hard time being proud of the conservative man so entrenched in his global, online world that he has to use a smartphone app just to work up the gumption to ask a local woman to dinner.
Allow me to paint a rotten image for you. Can you imagine John Wayne creating an account on Bumble to get a date? Clint Eastwood hoping his tweet about the pitfalls of transgenderism exceeds 40 likes? King David adjusting his backpacker aesthetic on Instagram? I’m crinkling my nose at the thought. Hopefully, you are too. You should.
“Sure,” you might say, “but those men didn’t have smartphones. They had a better culture that allowed them to be men.” Perhaps that’s the point. Letting go of the first might precipitate the second.
It’s worth a try, anyway. And conservative men are just the ones to do it. They have an obligation to do better than the secular man. What’s more, if they want to shift the culture, they’ll shift it in the way Wendell Berry (and probably the Good Lord) would have it: by being engaged in the world around them. By leaving their iPhones at home. By thinking about the girl they’re on a date with instead of how well their latest meme is performing. By having an original idea that isn’t a composite of the day’s best tweets. To stop picking online fights over minutiae that won’t matter in the hereafter and standing up in the real world for what will. To be the face of God to those who don’t know Him. To take the day by the reins, to be a good coworker, to become a husband, and to create lots of children who just might be inclined to follow suit.
There’s a better, infinitely more conservative way to go about being a man. For the love of all that’s good, just log the hell off.
Emma Ayers is a roving writer from Appalachia. Her writing can be found in The American Conservative, USA Today, the Washington Examiner, and more.