Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males

I was reminded of an old post of mine where I discussed an unintentionally humorous bumper sticker: “Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.” The logic being used is rather odd, the former having little to do with the latter. It just makes me smile.

The fact of the matter is that few kids do any of those things. It’s true that most kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies. But then again, it’s likewise true that most kids who don’t hunt, fish, and trap also don’t mug little old ladies. Despite the paranoia of right-wing media, there isn’t a pandemic of juvenile delinquents taking advantage of the elderly.

The culture wars never die. In one form or another, they’ve been going on for a long time. The same kind of rhetoric can be found even centuries ago. It’s a powerful worldview, eliciting generational conflict. It seems that adults have always complained about kids being worse than they were before, as if the entirety of civilization has been a slow decline from a Golden Age when perfect children once were obedient little angels.

Seeing that post again, I remembered a book I read about a decade ago: Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. The author explained the reason manliness and character building suddenly became an obsession around the turn of the century. It led to stocking rivers with game fish, the creation of the Boy Scouts, and greater emphasis put on team sports.

It was far from a new concern. It was built on the Jeffersonian views of agrarian democracy. Immediately following the revolution, it became a fear that the next generation of children needed to be carefully shaped into good citizens. The wholesome farm life was a major focus, especially among the ruling elite who worried about the unruly underclass. This worry grew over time. What exacerbated the fears over the following generations is that in the mid-to-late 1800s there was the beginnings of mass industrialization and urbanization, along with the commercialization of every aspect of life such as the emergence of a consumer economy and consumer culture. The consumer-citizen didn’t fit the heroic mould of old democratic-republican ideals of masculinity.

It relates to why Southerners worried about the end of slavery. It wasn’t just about blacks being free. It was a sign of the times, the end of the independent farmer and the rise of paid labor. Many worried that this would simply be a new form of slavery. How could a man be a man when he was as dependent as a child on another for his living?

This was a collective concern. And so society turned to collective answers. This contributed to the push for Prohibition and public schooling. It was a sense that boys and young men, in particular, had lost some essential element of character that once came natural to their agrarian ancestors. This new generation would have to be taught how to be real men by teaching them hunting, fishing, trapping, sports, etc.

* * *

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.

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4 thoughts on “Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males

  1. A loss of vigor leading to dishonorable wage labour and our recline and fall? Maybe those Southerners were a bit right, despite being aristocrats with Spartan aspirations on the livelihoods of their black neighbors.

    More and more I’m convinced of the classical line back to Plato, that the character of the political class reflects the citizenry as a whole. The post-Jeffersonian fitness craze seems to grasp at this reasoning, but concludes that it can be remedied with “cultural initiatives”, which is an anti-traditional, Rosseauian idea to the core.

    • I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s interesting. I like seeing how ideas, interests, concerns, etc can be traced back over the centuries. There are some very old, ongoing trends and developments. They speak to our society and maybe even to our human nature.

      If one really wanted to dig deep, one could find evidence of similar things in the ancient world. Some of the new Axial Age religions that arose out of the first wave of mass urbanization sometimes led to concerns about emasculated and feminized men. Dionysus and Jesus were often even portrayed as effeminate and had taken on traits of the old fertility goddesses such as self-resurrection/rejuvenation. Jesus didn’t marry and that was highly questionable behavior back when religious leaders typically married.

      The wariness toward Christianity continued into the modern era. In early America, the new wave of fiery preachers attracted many women and slaves. These services were highly emotional events with people swooning, losing control of themselves, speaking in tongues, and other unmanly behavior. Many men stayed away. Religious zeal and passion needed to be tightly controlled and made respectable by a masculine patriarchy. If you let the women gain control, they start demanding the end of dueling and alcohol consumption, dancing and card playing. Whenever women started having independent thoughts, they tried to reform the masculinity out of men in the hope of civilizing them.

      There has been this struggle going on for a long time. The conflict between a frontier society and the civilizing project has been central for centuries. An element of that can be found in the differing visions of Anti-Federalism and Federalism, specifically in terms of Jefferson’s agrarian democratic-republicanism and Hamilton’s semi-monarchical imperialism. As such, this resonates with the old conflict between barter economies and market economies, a conflict that has existed for millennia but became a more serious issue during the Renaissance. Capitalism first began threatening feudalism about a thousand years ago when sheep herding became profitable and began making the large populations of serfs irrelevant.

      One could push this back even further. The earliest conflict was between the first agricultural city-states and the hunter-gatherers/herders. Agriculture was originally women’s work. Men did manly things like go off hunting and fight enemies. But then agriculture became more intensive with the use of plows and so became man’s work. The taint of it being women’s work remained, though. All the way to the American frontier where there was conflict between cowboys of the old herding culture and the clodhopper farmers they looked down upon as not being real men. Once the frontier was gone, which was officially declared closed with the 1890 census, how were men supposed to go off into the wilderness to fight Indians and such in order to prove their manhood?

      Of course, as urbanization took over, farmers began to seem more masculine in comparison to the new professional classes. The conflict then was between the producers and the parasites — the latter including politicians, lawyers, managers, brokers, etc.

      The main thing that has changed is that we are coming to the end point of this process. The last of the small family farmers are dying out at this very moment. It’s possible few if any will be left remaining within a generation, unless something reverses the trend. Farming has become such a tough business that farmer suicide rates have been increasing like not seen since data first was kept. It’s the end of a lifestyle and most of the small towns are dying along with them. It was a process that began millennia ago and now we are seeing the final result of a fully urbanized society.

      How does one prove one’s manhood in a city? That is why many boys, when they don’t participate in team sports or enlist in the army, end up doing such things as join gangs, hate groups, terrorist organizations, etc. What other option is left them? When boys act like normal boys, we label them as ADHD and medicate them so that they’ll behave better like girls do. This just exacerbates right-wing reactionary politics and creates a nostalgia that becomes detached fantasy. This creates a longing for mass war, just so a generation of boys can prove they are men or die trying. It was that kind of attitude that led to the Civil War and WWI. As men feel increasingly emasculated, the military takes on greater meaning and a militarized society becomes more attractive. So, we get endless war as the result. The US has been at war, mostly wars of aggression, for nearly every year since its founding.

      It seems we need to find better answers to this perceived problem of masculinity. Simply denying it leads to it popping up in destructive forms. But turning masculinity into an ideal unto itself can be problematic as well. We’ve lost all sense of balance and everything gets pushed to extremes.

    • There was a book I came across some years ago, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was about nature and childhood, specifcally what the author referred to as nature deficit disorder.

      Fewer children are experiencing nature on a regular basis. This isn’t just because of media technology, although that is part of it. The population is becoming more urbanized. It’s a minority of the population who grows up in rural areas in this new generation of kids. For kids in suburbia and the inner cities, nature can be an unusual thing to see. Even parks aren’t all that common in many places, especially in lower class areas that don’t have funding for such things.

      There has been a fair amount of research about this. It has a lot of impact on childhood development. We don’t fully understand what this impact is. But what is clear is that civilization has increasingly created conditions that are vastly different to the conditions under which the human species and the earliest societies developed.

      What is easy to forget is how recent these changes are. Urbanization began with the first city-states. And mass urbanization began with the Axial Age empires. But it has only been in recent centuries that countries have taken it to a whole new level. Many other Western countries brought the majority of their populations to urban centers in the 1700s and 1800s. The US was a bit slower with this process because of the once established system of small family farmers. It was only around a century ago when the majority of US whites were urbanized. And it wasn’t until the 1970s when the majority of US blacks were urbanized, which is interesting as blacks are now most associated with inner cities and disproportionately effected by environmental inequalities.

      We’ve created a new urban society. It hasn’t been around for long. Certainly not long enough to either be a stable social order or for us to know what it all means. It will take generations or even centuries to see the full impact. We do know, from studies, that the process of populations moving from rural areas to urban areas leads to many social problems. That is at least true in the short term. This relates to the problems of immigration, as many immigrants are coming from still largely rural societies.

      Every major societal change requires at least centuries to stabilize into a new social order. Feudalism continued to exist in whole or part long after capitalism and the market economy was established. Subsistence farming and the barter economy still continued to operate in the rural South into the mid-20th century. With mass urbanization coming to an ending point, we are completing the transition began so long ago and yet we still aren’t clear about what is replacing what has been lost.

      The World that Inhabits Our Mind

      “We live in the ruins of what came before. It is hard for many of us to comprehend what that old order was. The mindset of pre-modern people is alien to us. Despite the signs of the old order all around us, the entire world has been transformed. The former context of meaning is gone.

      “This isn’t just something in our minds, but literally in the world. We’ve created social system that has become disconnected from so much of what once was familiar to humans. Let me give an example.

      “Most people today live in ecosystem deserts. We have created a dead world. It was a slow process and so imperceptible at any given moment. The destruction of biological diversity has been going on for centuries, millennia even. Some of the actual deserts of the world were once thriving ecosystems before agriculture decimated them. Maybe this transition had something to do with the slow demise of animism and the rise of monotheism (and other Axial Age religions). It is hard for us to perceive the world as animate with life because we have surrounded ourselves by that which is non-living. Our loss of faith in animism might not be because we are more rational than ancient people, but because we have simply lost the capacity to think that way. Our minds and experience is accordingly impoverished.

      “Our world has been shrunk down to a human size. The encounter with the wild has become rare. Even being confronted by the larger cosmos has become uncommon, beyond an occasional NASA photo. Most people today live in highly lit and smoggy urban areas, and so most stars are no longer visible. There was an earthquake on the East Coast back in the 1990s. One of the major cities, maybe Los Angeles, had all of its lights go out. The police had a mass influx of calls asking about the strange lights that occurred after the earthquake and what were they. After conferring with some scientists, they realized that these urban residents had seen the full starry sky for the first time in their lifetimes.

      “For all of human existence until the past few generations, the stars dominated human experience. It was the basis of so much religion and the bedrock of human inquiry. The stars in their predictable patterns helped promote the earliest mathematical and scientific thinking. It also simply created the sense of being small beings in a vast cosmos. We’ve almost entirely lost that. No wonder that we simultaneously lost the way of being in the world that went along with it.

      “We moderns are obsessed with our own humanity. Everything about our confined worldview is dominated by human society. Few people, especially in the developed countries, remain in rural areas and fewer still continue in the ancient tradition of farming. We moderns don’t tend to even have much sense of deep roots in a particular place, even cities, as we move around so much. The idea of being connected to the world around us has become foreign.”

    • I was reading your comment again. The second part stood out to me.

      “More and more I’m convinced of the classical line back to Plato, that the character of the political class reflects the citizenry as a whole.”

      I would take that a step further. The citizenry as a whole reflects the society as a whole. That includes all of the environmental factors, social conditions, and economic influences that shape a country. It becomes somewhat circular, though. The political class, from centuries ago to the present, have had a disproportionate impact in determining those factors, conditions, and influences.

      For example, regional cultures were largely established in the colonial era by the political class that established and controlled the colonies (at least according to some explanations; see David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard). That had an impact on the political systems put into place, the social norms established, and the immigration patterns. Those regional cultures, once established, are hard to change. They become internalized by the citizenry and so largely determine what kind of citizenry develops.

      Or consider the old debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. This was a debate between the elite in the political class. They didn’t ask the opinions of the citizenry. They simply struggled for power and the winning side enforced their vision onto all of American society. It wasn’t a democratic process. And when the citizenry voiced their opinion on the matter, they were violently put back in their place (e.g., Shay’s Rebellion).

      The winning side pushed for a capitalist/corporatist society. This meant vast growth and wealth, but it also meant that Jefferson’s agrarian social order would be slowly but surely dismantled. Most of the citizenry were small farmers with little political clout and so hey were powerless to stop these forces once they were set into place. There was nothing inevitable about the doom of the small farmer. It was an economic system that was intentionally created by the political class to favor certain interests, which in the long term meant big ag and industrialization.

      The citizenry is born into a society. They inherit what came before, which includes centuries of decisions made by the political class who have shaped the society they were born into. This precludes certain choices. Even if the majority of the citizenry wanted to return to the yeoman farming of Jeffersonian agrarianism, they couldn’t within the present political order and economic system. All of the incentives and disincentives push the population toward further urbanization and disconnection from nature.

      Then again, the political class are like anyone else. Most of them are born into families with legacies of wealth and power. They inherit their life conditions and worldview, just as do the rest of the citizenry. Societies have a way of perpetuating themselves across the generations, as each new generation is shaped by what came before. It usually requires a revolution to shift a society into a new social order for the simple reason that humans have a hard time imagining something new until the old is already undone, mortally wounded, or quickly disappearing.

      “The post-Jeffersonian fitness craze seems to grasp at this reasoning, but concludes that it can be remedied with “cultural initiatives”, which is an anti-traditional, Rosseauian idea to the core.”

      Based on what I’m arguing, this is why “cultural initiatives” miss the point. They can’t accomplish a reversal of society.

      Even Jefersonian agrarianism when it was functioning was very much a recent invention. There was nothing traditional about it. It was simply what became of all the peasants after they were kicked off the English commons and many of them sent packing to the colonies. As peasants, they had been farmers and then, without lords and commons, they kept on farming but as yeomen.

      It was simply the result of post-feudalism. But it wasn’t a fully stable social order. The colonial world was in flux. Maybe Jeffersonian agrarianism could never have been anything more than a transitional stage. I don’t know.

      I doubt that small family farming (or any other form of rural lifestyle) has survived for the majority of the citizenry of any major country in the world, no matter their political ideology: democracy, corporatism, fascism, communism, theocracy, etc. Global neoliberalism has transformed nearly the entire world, no matter what local citizenries may think about it. International trade agreements aren’t voted on by the citizens of the respective countries.

      I’m not sure what the citizenry as a whole are supposed to do about any of this. The recommendation of “cultural initiatives” has an old history behind it.

      The empires sending the poor, unemployed, and criminal to the colonies was intended to morally reform them through hard work on the frontier of civilization. The Russian Empire had the same idea when it started sending problematic people to Siberia, the reason many of those people were problematic likely related to the creation of landless peasants with the end of feudalism. Early modern prisons, workhouses, and orphanages were also created centuries ago with the original purpose of making people into good citizens, although it never worked out that way in practice.

      For longer than the US has existed, many in the Western world realized problems were developing with the ending of the ancien regime. But no one yet has seemed to have found a good answer in dealing with the consequences. It obviously goes far beyond a superficial understanding of culture and the reactionary politics of cultural initiatives.

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