At this time of the year it can be useful to have some great, global problem to worry about. Staring moodily out to sea, or dozing over a Jeffrey Archer novel, many holiday-makers can find thoughts of a distant crisis – human rights, the state of the planet, mass migration – oddly invigorating.
This summer’s cause for concern is the crisis in masculinity. Men are in a terrible state, apparently, and worse is yet to come. In America, academics and thinkers have been publishing urgent studies. Kathleen Parker’s Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care has just been released into the bookshops, where it will be competing with such recent publications as The Disposable Male and The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes. On the way is Guy Garcia’s The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future, which has identified “a social predisposition to treat men as unworthy parents, betrayers and incorrigible philanderers”.
Adult males may be in a bad way but the next generation is likely to be even more hopeless, apparently. Kathleen Parker argues, with an exceptionally unattractive metaphor, that “boys today are marinating in pornography”, and her concern is shared by the caring new Conservative Party. In a speech this week, the shadow Secretary for Schools Michael Gove attacked “the instant-hit hedonism celebrated by the modern men’s magazines targeted at young males”. The moment has come, says Gove, to discourage “selfish irresponsibility among young men”.
Often when people start writing about a social problem and politicians begin making speeches about it, the issue has already reached another phase. So it is with the great male crisis. In the late 1990s there was indeed a rather stupid cultural bias against masculine values: lazy stand-up comedians and advertising copywriters discovered that the easiest way to get a cheap laugh was to portray women as smart and resourceful while their men-folk were blundering and feckless.
Today, on bad television and in tired commercials, the trend dribbles on but, like all clichés, it has become dull. The stupidity of characterising the average male as gormlessly inept has become clear to all but the most benighted.
So the great, ringing generalisations of those who have decided that men need saving from feminism, or pornography, or themselves, now seem annoyingly patronising. When Kathleen Parker writes that “what our oversexualised, pornified culture reveals is that we think very little of our male family members”, the only response is: speak for yourself, Kath – the rest of us have absolutely no problem with male family members. And when, promoting his book, Guy Garcia says the average American male is “tuning out, giving up, flipping off his future”, one is justified in asking whether he includes himself.
Michael Gove may be right in identifying “instant-hit” hedonism’s corrosive effect on young people’s ability to form relationships and contribute to society, but the problem belongs to culture generally.
The presentation of men as victims is going the same way as other gender stereotypes, from pre-feminist, anti-woman sexism to post-feminist, anti-male mockery. The moment has come for men to reject navel-gazing and walk tall, walk straight and look the world in the eye. We are not disposable, nor in decline and – thanks for offering – can certainly do without saving.
A puzzling problem of privacy
There are few more unseemly spectacles than the sight of a camera-happy public figure complaining about how tough it is to be famous. This week, the unlikely couple of Jeremy Clarkson and Sir Salman Rushdie have been enlarging upon problems of privacy.
Clarkson had found that “as a celebrity” he welcomed the verdict in the Max Mosley case. Now he would no longer have to be “constantly photographed by two-bit losers who think my new shoes are in some way of importance to the nation.”
The two-bit losers, we can safely assume, do not include the photographers for whom Clarkson cheerfully poses day after day in order to promote his TV programme, books or journalism.
Rushdie, pictured, is having an altogether tougher time. A certain Ron Evans, once a driver in the protection unit which guarded the author during the fatwa years, has written a nasty little book about the experience.
Wearily, Rushdie has described it as “a bunch of lies” and has threatened to sue.
Ron Evans and his publishers will be rubbing their hands with glee. Salman Rushdie, having campaigned so bravely for freedom of speech, can hardly be seen to be suppressing another author’s book, however exploitative and tawdry it may be.
* The finishing school is back. American TV, taking its cue from our own Ladette to Lady, is screening a reality show called From G’s to Gents, in which rough, tough guys with names like J-Boogie and The Truth are taught, with varying success, how to behave nicely.
Here, a smart new enterprise called the School of Life will soon, according to its founder Sophie Haworth, be “teaching essential stuff to bright people”. The teachers are an impressive group of writers and thinkers which includes Alain de Botton, and Geoff Dyer, Robert Macfarlane and the novelist Susan Elderkin, who will be teaching “bibliotherapy” to students, complete with a personalised reading list. There will be “sermons” from guest speakers, specialised holidays and the chance for one-to-one sessions with experts at £50 an hour.
What is the School of Life, and who is it for? On its website and in press releases, the soundbites come thick and fast. The course is “a chemist for the mind, a place where you can try out a variety of cultural solutions to everyday ailments”. It will be offering “a menu to good conversation” and will be “a travel agent for the mind”, aimed at “bright, busy people who want to make the most of their careers and lifestyles and limited time off.”
Now it becomes slightly clearer. A new and needy group of consumers has been identified. Rich, busy and motivated, they perhaps find themselves oddly lacking in certain basic areas: conversation, reading, curiosity, argument. For these privileged, yet deprived, people, the school will be offering nothing less than a taste transfusion, a culture implant. It deserves to succeed.
* Anxious not to startle visiting foreigners, the Chinese authorities have ordered the 112 official Olympic restaurants to take the traditional delicacy of dog off their menus. They are said to be worried about animal rights activists. Perhaps now the activists could turn their attention to imprisoned dissidents, authors and bloggers. It would be a considerable breakthrough if China’s new spirit of sensitivity could be extended from the canine world to the human one.