Were the “Mad Men” Such Bad Men?
Reihan Salam is a writer, journalist, and Schwarz Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy institute. His writing appears regularly in The National Review, Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, Slate, and other publications. His article "The Death of Macho," concerning the disruptive effects of the recession on men across the globe, appeared in Foreign Policy in 2009. He is the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008).
Question: Will what you’ve called “the death of macho” set men free?
Reihan Salam: Michael Chabon just published this collection called “Manhood for Amateurs,” and in one essay he talks about how when you look at male culture post-70’s, post the sexual revolution it remains a "stultifying monoculture," and I thought that was a really, really good way of putting it. You know one thing I’ve always found is that a lot of men, particularly like straight men post-college, are very bad at making friends, and I’ve always felt like I’m an exception to this because I’m quite comfortable being weird. No, you know, I remember reading this essay. It must have been in one of these men’s magazines like GQ, and the idea was, you know, it’s weird for you to be like "Hey, you want to… stranger, you want to go watch football at my house later?" and it’s like, "Well, that’s odd," and so, you know, you just have the friends you made in high school or in college and you stick with them for life. And women in contrast seem really good at kind of reaching out to people, and that seems like something that’s incredibly counterproductive even in these narrow economic terms. If you can’t actually make these new kind of horizontal connections to people, even in this totally, like, horrible mercenary sense, let alone the way in which, you know, when you live a life in isolation or I think about men that I know who have been divorced and the common thread is, when you’re a guy and you’re dating women and your friends are like always, “How is that thing going?” Or, “How is it going with woman X or woman Y?” And you know, that’s great, and it’s like you’re able to kind of strategize and think and like this is, it’s this tremendously… you know, this tremendously strengthening kind of feeling, whereas when people get married it’s suddenly like, we can’t talk about that anymore because that suggests that it’s contingent. That suggests that it’s a process. That it’s continuing to be negotiated, and so you can’t talk about it. So the fact that men continue to have this kind of solitary, macho, “can’t acknowledge vulnerability or weakness” attitude I think is actually undermining in all kinds of ways. Leaving aside psychological health, also professional health, you need people that you can plot and scheme with, and when you don’t have that given the new environment, in which, again, resiliency is at a premium, you’re doomed, so if that’s what the death of macho means and I think that is what it means in part, that’s a really, really good thing.
Question: Is something important dying with the macho archetype?
Reihan Salam: That’s a really, really good point. This is something I’ve talked to a lot of my friends about. You know, a friend of mine, Matt Crawford wrote a wonderful book called Shop Class as Soul Craft, and the argument is that men traditionally had opportunities to work with their hands and to cultivate a different kind of skill or intelligence in their daily life, a problem solving intelligence and that in the modern workplace we’re abstracted from this in a way that is you’re kind of deeply undermining of certain kind of masculine virtues and I do buy that. Although I do wonder also if you know I think that women also kind of have a need for this kind of problem solving intelligence so it’s not particular to men though I think it might be particularly impactful of men given that again this kind of emotional component is often absent or kind of not present in the same ways.
So yeah, I definitely… I think my dream is an economy in which people are really cultivating what is their true competence, a world in which you know we’re kind of we’re not all part of the same status hierarchies or everyone has a kind of decent enough living so that you don’t feel as though well I have to kind of compete to work this job that I hate so that I can live in a school district kind of where my children will not be kind of savagely beaten to death my hooligans. And then I can take chances. I can, like, make things. I can you know be truly entrepreneurial. I don’t have to feel like I have to kowtow to someone. This idea of American culture at its best being something about self-starting, that’s really appealing, and I do think though that it has something to do with a masculine ideal, so I buy that, but again, when you look at the guys kind of in this kind of blue-collar universe who are the kind of happiest people. I mean, they had incredibly fulfilling relationships with kind of other people doing their work. They were relationships built on collaboration, so I think that we could have a constructive mix.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Is the post-sexual-revolution man an improvement? Or does the "Mad Men" phenomenon signal nostalgia for something important we’re losing?