Thursday, March 01, 2018

Myths, Dads, and Photon Torpedoes

Editor's note: I was looking for an old e-mail from someone, and found this thing that I wrote in 2006. While you would not be surprised to find that I did not treat the subject with any gravitas, what is interesting is that I utterly failed to anticipate that the men's movement would morph into something much darker and angrier.

Even funnier, I have had more than ten PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) tests since then. Turns out that pretty much every male in my family gets prostate cancer, and you gotta stay on top of that.


If you are a guy reading this, let me ask you something: How much do you know about feminism? Ever read any books about it? Given it a good thinking over? Discussed it with other guys? If you answered ‘no’ to these questions, then good; there are many more important issues that us men need to spend our intellectual power resolving.*

Also, if you answered no, I’m going to take a guess that you didn’t know that back in the late eighties, there arose in the United States and Canada a splinter movement from the mainstream men’s movement of the time. I hear your questions. You’re asking, “What mainstream men’s movement?” Ah. That would be the men’s movement that arose in response to ascension of feminism in the seventies.

The early proponents of “masculism” and “men’s rights” were--and there is no nice way to say this--a big bunch of pantywaists. They were so concerned with the rise of feminism and feminist identity, that nobody would pay attention to the poor oppressed men-folk. Here are some of the injustices they were worried about:
  • Portrayal of violence against women as more consequential than other forms of violence
  • Men sometimes get charged with rape and sexual harassment when there is only the word of the victim against that of the accused
  • Since conscription was only applied to males, they were the ones forced to risk their lives in military service
  • Medical research funding for breast cancer is consistently higher than that for prostate cancer, yet the fatality rate is roughly the same for both types
  • Male reproductive rights

Just so we are all clear on the above points, yes, these guys got upset that only men were drafted and killed in wars, even though it’s men who have all the political power and start all the damn wars in the first place! And prostate cancer? Not only should men not be concerned with this, but I don’t think guys have any business knowing what or where a prostate is. I sure don’t.** And male reproductive rights? Ha ha ha.

So, while we can ignore the mainstream men’s movement as being comprised of clueless goons, let’s get back to that splinter movement. It was called the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, and was based largely on the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell and poet Robert Bly. If you are not familiar with the word “mythopoetic”, don’t worry. It is a made-up word coined in the eighties. It relates to the creating and maintaining of living myths, and how myths influence identity.

What kind of myths? Let’s kick a couple of examples around: Warrior. Father. Leader. Husband. I hear your protests. You are most likely saying that these are not myths, they are simply roles that men play. But more than that, they are the original models of identity (some people would call them “archetypes”, but we won’t because that’s a snobby sounding word), and the concepts they represent come with fifty thousand years of psychological and social baggage. Baggage that we as men do not always deal with real well, because introspection and self-awareness are not integral of any of these myths.

The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement asked some pretty serious questions about male roles, took them apart, and put them back together again with some unexpected additions. Male bonding was a primary feature, and it involved a lot more than hanging out with other guys, getting drunk, and watching football. This bonding included storytelling and rituals, and re-established what it meant to be a man in the modern world. An important ritual it tried to bring back was the rite of passage. Many cultures have such rites, such as the Bar-Mitzvah or the confirmation. These religious rites signified a coming of age in ancient times, but nobody today considers a thirteen year-old a man. So, what other ceremonies do we have today that do signify achieving manhood? High-school graduation? Joining the military? To fill this disjunction, the mythopoetic man borrowed from ancient European and Native American mythology, and new rituals and ceremonies were created to mark and celebrate the coming of age.

Another key issue for these new men was what they called ‘reclaiming fathers’. At meetings and get-togethers, participants would introduce themselves like, “I am ______, son of _______.” Although this sounds kind of archaic and Viking-like (in fact all of those Scandinavian surnames like Ericson, Robertson, etc. are derived from exactly this kind of naming tradition), the idea in bringing back this convention was to tie men’s identity more strongly to that of their male ancestors. Who you are was not to be decided by their jobs, nationality or religion, but by the credo that you are your father’s son, and the father to your children. I think this would be seen as unnecessary in a lot of cultures, where there is a strong tribal and clan identity, or even here in Taiwan, where the veneration of ancestors is a daily part of life. Surely those ancestor-altars in people’s homes do a pretty good job of reminding men here of their patriarchal lineage and their place in it.    
So far, nothing in this new men’s movement seems particularly bizarre. For men to get together and re-define the roles and definitions of what it means to be a man is perfectly reasonable. But there is a good example of why we are talking about this movement in the (mostly) past tense: Drumming. Part-therapy, part male bonding, and part “releasing the wild man within”, bands of men took to the forests, removed their shirts, and started pounding away their aggressions together. And what was essentially a support group, turned into something distinctly weirder.

Robert Bly wrote: "The Wild Man encourages a trust of the lower half of our body, our genitals, our legs and ankles, our inadequacies, the "soles" of our feet, the animal ancestors, the earth itself.…" Now I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but while drumming may indeed have a therapeutic and cathartic affect, common sense tells me that doing it shirtless and in the company of other men, all the while trusting my genitals may not be the wisest approach to finding myself. Besides, when women hear talk of ‘releasing the wild man’, their reaction is almost always going to be negative. Most women have seen enough of the ‘Wild Man’ in their lives. And so, the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement faded away to the fringe.

Now, nearly two decades later, the questions that this movement asked remain largely unanswered. When do we become men? How do we connect as males without the crutches of sports and alcohol? When and how can we show vulnerability? And what the heck is the concept of ‘warrior’ supposed to mean to men today?

I can’t answer these questions, but I am pretty sure of one thing. If Kirk was the captain, then the Enterprise would win.

* Like who would win in a battle between an Imperial Battle Cruiser and the U.S.S. Enterprise?

** The legal department of the Taichung Voice would like to recommend that all readers age 50 and above talk to your doctor about prostate cancer screening.   

1 comment:

Karl Smith said...

"Know this, son of Coul."