Pt III: So Many “Broken Boys”!
Me Too The #MeToo movement started and spread quickly only 4 years ago (October 2017). I usually stay away from popular press and social media, but this movement directly involves the work of some younger family members. It’s another phase of women’s movements, and men’s reaction to them, which fits the topic of this post – ‘So Many Broken Boys!’. The catch phrase Me Too (without the hash-tag) was taken from an organization founded by Tarana Burke in 2006. She had no intention to make it a meme in popular media; in fact, she tried to avoid publicity. Why? To protect her clients’ privacy and safety, bless her heart!
Evidently Ms. Burke was not motivated by the money. But she’s a rare example. I believe most organizations are motivated by money and power – not by the cause they allegedly serve, as stated in official ‘mission statements’. (I’ve attended many meetings to develop a mission statement. Nowadays that’s another niche market.) Of course every group needs money to meet its goals, but does ‘the end justify the means’? If the means are persuasion, manipulation or deceit, the ethical answer is ‘No’. Even non-profits with good causes today use the same sales techniques employed by for-profits in the world at large, because they are very effective. Which means they are also persuading, manipulating and deceiving their ‘customers’. They should be careful of this. For-profits sell products and ideas with ‘no worries’ whether what they push helps or harms the people they target. Without help, ‘ordinary people’ don’t know what is good or bad for them. ChengCheng Dreambody Slimming capsules are bad for you; they’re on Google’s list of ‘don’t advertise’ products. But Burn 7 Fatloss Capsules are ok (not that they’ll work). Can we all tell the good guys from the bad guys? Do rules and norms teach us who’s a scammer and who’s honest? Ask yourself whether government laws and regulations about health (HHS), environment (EPA) , workplace safety (OSHA), the media (FCC), consumer protection (FTC) etc, have stopped the marketing of damaging ideas and products. I think not.
‘Follow the money’ is true as ever, to understand cultural trends, though the trail is often covered by secrecy, and smart, hypocritical words, generated by masters of deceit. It’s discouraging to anyone looking for honesty. In politics, as in business, sales pitches appeal to ‘brand loyalty’, further polarizing citizens into camps – ‘Us’ v. ‘Them’. These approaches make elections into a publicity contest among sales teams, which does great harm to Democracy. That’s sad, but immeasurably more sad is how much unjust and needless suffering the ‘sales approach’ to life can bring about – ignorance, poverty, unmanageable debt, social isolation, hopelessness, addiction, ill health, sickness and death, especially for those who can’t find employment or even a safe place to live.
Throughout history, societies have been controlled by small numbers of men, through the influence of religion, royalty, class, armed might, statesmanship and especially wealth. For example, the notorious Marcus Licinius Crassus – “the richest man in Rome” -helped turn the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, built and maintained by a seemingly unstoppable military. Only male citizens had any rights. Crassus was a general and statesman who made a fortune with a private fire brigade of slaves. He would offer to extinguish fires, sometimes burning in whole neighborhoods, in exchange for the buildings. Crowded Rome had lots of timber and brick tenements (Insulae) that often caught fire. Then he would sell the property back to the owners, or others, at a very large profit. Sound familiar? Real estate today is the main source of wealth (and of poverty), when ‘debt service’ costs are more than a home’s value, and creditors evict the owners or tenants. Boarded up ‘underwater’ homes like this dotted Las Vegas neighborhoods a decade after the 2007 boom and crash. Illegal squatters add crime to the ills of these communities. Michael Hudson critiques these issues in a 52 min. interview (video and transcript), from a Naked Capitalism post of October, 2020.
As we’ve discussed in Pts I and II of this series, women had no voice through most of history, and men’s voices didn’t need amplifying. It’s only recently that women are getting loud voices, and again, some men (especially boys) are saying, ‘What about me?’. Interestingly, it seems that well-educated middle class white women have often taken the lead in organizing major protest movements in the last, say, five years, e.g. Black Lives Matter, Black Students Matter, and DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – also called the “Dream Act”. Of course Blacks and Browns have taken part as well, but at more personal risk, discussed on this NPR report about protests in Lafayette Park, D.C., June 1, 2020, against police violence and the earlier death of George Floyd.
Back to Broken The term ‘Broken’ is often used to describe children (boys and girls) who have suffered abuse or sexual assault by adults. Statistics range widely, because it’s hard to know what the terms ‘abuse’ and ‘assault’ mean, and what a ‘child’ is, as well as victims’ hesitancy to report, and to whom. That said, even the lowest estimates are staggering to learn (and the traumatic results can continue through the victims’ lives). A study from the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association estimates 1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 6 boys in North America are ‘abused or assaulted’. The RAINN organization in the U.S. estimates a much lower number of abused children – 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys. However, these sources and others generally agree that almost two thirds of the perpetrators are acquaintances, almost a third are family, and the remaining small fraction are strangers. Both these agencies define ‘child’ as anyone under age 19, and ‘abuse’ as ‘any touch, forced or by persuasion’. Clearly in some cases the sexual behavior was truly consentual. I’ve known several young men who’ve had to report to local police wherever they reside, because the parents brought charges, against the young women’s wishes.
Broken Boys as a title occurs in many forms, in a spectrum from life altering to not serious. Stephen Grubman-Black wrote Broken Boys/ Mending Men in 1990, about the damage done to boys by sexual abusers. A decade later (2002) a Boston Globe expose brought the abuse of boys in the Catholic Church to public consciousness. And you’ll even find Broken Boys mentioned in current pop songs, e.g. singer Cage the Elephant’s “Broken Boy” (2019), and Nicole Rayy’s “Broken Boys” (2020).
I’d like to consider an interpretation of Broken Boy that differs from those listed above -important as they may be – to stay with our topic of ‘Men’s Movements’. In February of 2018, comedian Michael Ian Black caused a stir about gender issues from a very different perspective. Black is a well known comedian and writer, but his commentary was anything but funny. In a response to seemingly endless gun violence, he suggested on Twitter that it’s related deep down to immature and perverted concepts of masculinity still in our culture. “American boys are broken. And it’s killing us,” he said. Black suggested that women have found effective ways to talk about their feminity, and display it, while remaining individuals. But men – especially young men – are still bound to ‘traditional’ views of manhood. The rigid definition of how they should talk and act allows no hint of being ‘soft’ or ‘tender’. Here is his short interview about ‘broken boys’ given on NPR shortly after the flurry of Tweets.
My long career of teaching in a suburban community college supports, but doesn’t prove, Black’s opinions about masculine attitudes. When discussion topics turned to what traditional cultures think about gender relations – e.g. in a comparative religion class – male students often said something like ‘When I get married, I expect to be the king of my own castle!’. These are middle class students in suburban Chicago. Their ideas were challenged, especially by females in the class, many of whom were returning to school as adults and mothers. The southwest suburbs were started during the ‘white flight’ from Chicago, in reaction to the ‘great migration’ of Blacks to the city in the middle of the 20th Century. Blacks are predominant in the southeast suburbs. ‘Progressive’ communities tend to be ‘Northsiders’, in the city and northern suburbs.
It’s not clear how widespread the machismo attitude is, but I think it’s still strong. Whether or not it causes young men to act out violently with guns I can’t say, but I’m sure that American culture includes elements which thrive on the spirit of violence of all sorts, in film and news, on TV screens, in bloody fights broadcast on UFC, in contact sports where parents or fans shout “Kill ‘im!” But whether it’s scheduled programming or news items, the press knows that ‘random acts of violence’ grab more eyes than ‘random acts of kindness.’
Who we are is often a function of where we live – even our zipcodes can tell people what to expect. I know someone from Bronzeville in Chicago, who has a responsible job, helps the needy and is doing fairly well financially. The neighborhood of 25,000 has become almost totally Black, and median household income is still low ($31,000). Other neighborhoods in southeast Chicago such as Englewood and Woodlawn are even poorer, and notoriously violent. Many residents there have no access to education, employment, or at times even a place to live. And Chicago’s streets are hard in winter! Housing for many poor people can be ‘out of reach’ as this nlihc.org report shows, and calls it a racial issue. Guns are everywhere, and random shootings occur daily. Of course I can’t know what’s going on in the mind of any shooter, or anyone else. But I can imagine the buildup of hopelessness, frustration, resentment, and rage until one day he ‘goes bonkers’ and starts spraying bullets around. ‘I got nothin; so I got nothin to lose’. “Hurt people hurt people”, as black blogger Marley put it, in one of her ‘Marleyisms’ posts.
Less physical forms of violence can bring great hardship and distress to many people as well, such as the common ‘winner-take-all’ thinking. This leads competitors to try to destroy their opponents, whether in politics, business or gang activity.
Last, but certainly not least, our country seems to have a deep-seated spirit of belligerence in relation to other countries. In Pt I of this essay, I discussed our long – seemingly endless – history of wars around the world, big and little, which often turned out to be unnecessary and/or ill planned. Unfortunately they have been too easily justified, or even romanticized and glorified later on. Selling any war, before or after the fact, is a place to practice increasingly more effective and deceitful sales techniques.
Not surprisingly, the modern women’s movement gave rise to a men’s movement. I’m sure some of the men’s reaction was simply to ‘keep them in their place’, perhaps from fear or prejudice. But other men were honestly trying to counter what they felt to be the ‘feminization’ of boys and men, in a culture which had increasingly come into conflict with men’s traditional roles as breadwinners, and role models for their children.
Issues about the role and value of men in society go back at least to the beginning of the industrial age – i.e. when James Watt developed the steam engine (1765) and Adam Smith gave his views about economics (1776). The two are related, since the machine age made mass production possible, and capitalism aimed at the lowest costs for labor. Thus workers became cogs in a wheel whose purpose was (and remains) to crank out products as cheaply as possible. No longer were they respected for their skills, which they might pass along to their children. And their jobs could be filled by the cheapest worker, whether man, boy or woman. It reminds me of Bob Seger’s 1978 hit, “Feel Like a Number” sung in this short recording.
Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990) deals primarily with the role of men in primitive society, referring to traditional groups that go back, even mythically, to the beginnings of history. But Bly thinks men’s work in post-industrial society has been so demeaned that children don’t respect what fathers have to offer. Keeping in that spirit, his main idea seems to be that men are inherently different mentally from women, and each gender has its part to play in a healthy society. Not surprisingly, his view of sexuality – greatly influenced by Jung- has many critics. Its binary notion of sex roles may be too simplistic, seeming to ignore the great complexity of current ‘gender identity’ social trends and their political expressions.
We find references to wild men (and women) in medieval European literature, but the oldest example is Enkidu – a wild man in Gilgamesh (2700 BCE), written in ancient Iraq. Greeks and Romans referred to goat-like satyrs and nymphs. Grendel in Beowulf (c. 700-1000 CE), Nebuchadnezzar’s life as a beast told in Daniel 4:3 (6th C. BCE), the Yeti (abominable snowmen) of Tibet, illustrated here from Britannica, Sasquatch and other Big Foot forest spirits of America’s northwest are also well known tales, some only oral.
Bly’s thoughts were expanded, critiqued and ‘updated’ by Moore and Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1990), Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly (1991), John Gray’s Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus (1992), and others. All these ran into serious, mostly feminist criticism. A common thread expressed among them is the controversial belief that boys need to be initiated into adulthood, and helped to find their proper roles in society. Maturation in boys during puberty is not so obvious as it is in girls. More importantly, boys have societal obligations that are best provided through male role models who are actively present. Lacking this adult help, boys remain puerile, while the ideal of masculinity is perverted and abused. The Introduction to King, Warrior, Magician, Lover puts this nicely:
“What happens to a society if the ritual processes by which these identities are formed become discredited? In the case of men, there are many who either had no initiation into manhood, or had pseudo-initiations that failed to evoke the needed transition into adulthood. We get the dominance of boy psychology. Boy psychology is everywhere around us, and its marks are easy to see. Among them are abusive and acting-out behaviors against others, both men and women; passivity and weakness, the inability to act effectively and creatively in one’s own life and to engender life and creativity in others (both men and women); and, often, an oscillation between the two — abuse/weakness, abuse/weakness.”
The real story of Iron John that Bly quotes is called Eisenhans in the Grimm Brothers collection of 1812. But the oldest know version of the tale was from Italy – in Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s Facetious Nights (1550-1553). But whether Renaissance or Romantic, Italian or German, having “iron skin” is key to the story’s message. The character is not wearing armor; it’s his skin that is impenetrable. It’s part of him, part of his manly quality, but not the only part. He’s not a monster, in the popular sense of that term – a non-human. (Actually the word monstrum just means something strange – or different – for people to point at, as in a freak show.) He’s not an animal, but a human – a strong, wild, untamed, hard to approach or understand human. He is not civilized, so he seems to threaten civilization.
The Iron John character is not supernatural, but an archetype of natural man. Arethra Franklin might have such a man in mind when she sings “You make me feel like a natural woman!” In some versions (e.g. Gilgamesh), he is tamed with the help of a sacred temple prostitute. This suggests a ‘holy’ affirmation of the need of (or slap him around).
A ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ person might easily reject all these ‘natural’ qualities, saying humans are meant be spiritual, and keep their nature under strict control. But Iron John seems to be as good as he is bad. He helps the boy. He teaches and trains him to to gain his manhood, and to separate from his queen mother. He exposes the injustice and artificiality among the conspiring courtiers of the good king.
I do believe that a person whose primar interests are wholly in the natural world, and who acts in the interests of others only for his or her reputation and self-benefit, is not ‘a good person’. But the Iron John character may represent what is genuinely and consciously spiritual – i.e. the true ‘spirit of man’; and that may well be radically different from the ‘spirit of woman’. Carl Jung, who inspired much of Bly’s analysis of Iron John, appears to think this way, when he discusses a female and male soul (mind ) – both of which exist in every individual. Jung was greatly influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, before he met Freud. Jung and Swedenborg believed in the spirituality and eternity of human life. Whether or not Bly shares this same spiritual orientation, I don’t know, but his analysis of masculinity, and the problems it involves in modern western society, are very useful.