The other day I had the interesting experience of finding myself in an exchange with friends that virtually reiterated an exchange from one of my novels — but in a sort of mirror image way. In my book The Identity Man, an old fellow says to the young hero, “So help me, all it takes for the world to crumble to nothing is for women to lose their virtue and men their honor.” The young man smiles to himself and thinks, “It was the usual old man complaint: the world’s not what it used to be. It’s all going to hell. Back in the day, everything was better. Blah, blah, blah. As if there was ever much honor or virtue in the world.”
Fast forward to about a week ago when my young pal R.J. Moeller wrote an essay for the excellent pop culture site Acculturated. The essay was called “Modern Manliness and the Perpetual State of Low Expectations,” and it lamented the lack of manly virtues in today’s young men. An honest soul-searcher, R.J. even raked himself over the coals for being part of it:
We’ve been lowering expectations on young men for decades. The only reason we’re still calling it progress is because we lost the direction–the vision–of what manhood (and life itself) is really all about. Even the adjectives that the men in their twenties living half a century ago wanted associated with their name and character — sacrificial, honorable, resourceful, diligent — have been replaced with such lackluster descriptors as “progressive,” “open-minded,” or “stylish.”
The problem here is that these are not, broadly speaking, manly things. By this I mean that there are manly things. We just don’t seem to prize them anymore, and this is, in part, because they are not easy to obtain and require hard work to maintain.
I tweeted a link to the article — whereupon I received an email from an older friend. I don’t have permission to name him so I won’t but he’s a very smart writer for an intellectual journal and in his sixties. He said, basically: Hey, you know what? I knew those men in the old days and they weren’t so hot either!
In my novel, it’s the old guy who complains about the falling off of virtue and the young guy rolls his eyes. Here it was the young guy doing the complaining and the old guy rolling his eyes.
I sympathize with both. My older friend (and younger character) are surely right that people have never been paragons in any age. But I think the problem R.J.’s experiencing is that, whereas once men may have failed to live up to their values, today’s society no longer values what is actually valuable in them.
In any case, I think we should all go re-watch High Noon and remind ourselves that if you want to walk like a man, you have to learn to walk alone.