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DO NOT BOTHER CHILDREN WHEN THEY ARE SKATEBOARDING
DANGER AND MASTERY
There was a time when kids skateboarded on the west side of Sidney Smith Hall, at the University of Toronto, where I work. Sometimes I stood there and watched them. There are rough, wide, shallow concrete steps there, leading up from the street to the front entrance, accompanied by tubular iron handrails, about two and a half inches in diameter and twenty feet long. The crazy kids, almost always boys, would pull back about fifteen yards from the top of the steps. Then they would place a foot on their boards, and skate like mad to get up some speed. Just before they collided with the handrail, they would reach down, grab their board with a single hand and jump onto the top of the rail, boardsliding their way down its length, propelling themselves off and landing—sometimes, gracefully, still atop their boards, sometimes, painfully, off them. Either way, they were soon back at it.
Some might call that stupid. Maybe it was. But it was brave, too. I thought those kids were amazing. I thought they deserved a pat on the back and some honest admiration. Of course it was dangerous. Danger was the point. They wanted to triumph over danger. They would have been safer in protective equipment, but that would have ruined it. They weren’t trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent—and it’s competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be.
I wouldn’t dare do what those kids were doing. Not only that, I couldn’t. I certainly couldn’t climb a construction crane, like a certain type of modern daredevil, evident on YouTube (and, of course, people who work on construction cranes). I don’t like heights, although the twenty-five thousand feet to which airliners ascend is so high that it doesn’t bother me. I have flown several times in a carbon fibre stunt plane—even doing a hammerhead roll—and that was OK, although it’s very physically and mentally demanding. (To perform a hammerhead roll, you pilot the plane straight up vertically, until the force of gravity makes it stall. Then it falls backwards, corkscrewing, until eventually it flips and noses straight down, after which you pull out of the dive. Or you don’t do another hammerhead roll.) But I can’t skateboard—especially down handrails—and I can’t climb cranes.
Sidney Smith Hall faces another street on the east side. Along that street, named St. George—ironically enough—the university installed a series of rough, hard-edged, concrete plant boxes, sloping down to the roadway. The kids used to go out there, too, and boardslide along the box edges, as they did along the concrete surround of a sculpture adjacent to the building. That didn’t last very long. Little steel brackets known as “skatestoppers” soon appeared, every two or three feet, along those edges. When I first saw them, I remembered something that happened in Toronto several years previously. Two weeks before elementary school classes started, throughout the city, all the playground equipment disappeared. The legislation governing such things had changed, and there was a panic about insurability. The playgrounds were hastily removed, even though they were sufficiently safe, grandfathered re their insurability, and often paid for (and quite recently) by parents. This meant no playgrounds at all for more than a year. During this time, I often saw bored but admirable kids charging around on the roof of our local school. It was that or scrounge about in the dirt with the cats and the less adventurous children.
I say “sufficiently safe” about the demolished playgrounds because when playgrounds are made too safe, kids either stop playing in them or start playing in unintended ways. Kids need playgrounds dangerous enough to remain challenging. People, including children (who are people too, after all) don’t seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it. They drive and walk and love and play so that they achieve what they desire, but they push themselves a bit at the same time, too, so they continue to develop. Thus, if things are made too safe, people (including children) start to figure out ways to make them dangerous again.165 When untrammeled—and encouraged—we prefer to live on the edge. There, we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop. We’re hard-wired, for that reason, to enjoy risk (some of us more than others). We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will.
The skatestoppers are unattractive. The surround of the nearby sculpture would have to have been badly damaged by diligent boardsliders before it would look as mean as it does now, studded with metal like a pit bull’s collar. The large plant boxes have metal guards placed at irregular intervals across their tops, and this, in addition to the wear caused by the skateboarders, produces a dismal impression of poor design, resentment and badly executed afterthoughts. It gives the area, which was supposed to be beautified by the sculpture and vegetation, a generic industrial/prison/mental institution/work-camp look of the kind that appears when builders and public officials do not like or trust the people they serve.
The sheer harsh ugliness of the solution makes a lie of the reasons for its implementation.
Success and Resentment
If you read the depth psychologists—Freud and Jung, for example, as well as their precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche—you learn that there is a dark side to everything. Freud delved deeply into the latent, implicit content of dreams, which were often aimed, in his opinion, at the expression of some improper wish. Jung believed that every act of social propriety was accompanied by its evil twin, its unconscious shadow. Nietzsche investigated the role played by what he termed ressentiment in motivating what were ostensibly selfless actions—and, often, exhibited all too publicly.166 For that man be delivered from revenge—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. The tarantulas, of course, would have it otherwise. “What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge”—thus they speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeange and abuse on all whose equals we are not”—thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!” You preachers of equality, the tyrant-mania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue.
The incomparable English essayist George Orwell knew this sort of thing well. In 1937, he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, which was in part a scathing attack on upper-class British socialists (this, despite being inclined towards socialism himself). In the first half of this book, Orwell portrays the appalling conditions faced by UK miners in the 1930s:167
Several dentists have told me that in industrial districts a person over thirty with any of his or her own teeth is coming to be an abnormality. In Wigan various people gave me their opinion that it is best to get shut of your teeth as early in life as possible. ‘Teeth is just a misery,’ one woman said to me.
A Wigan Pier coal miner had to walk—crawl would be a better word, given the height of the mine shafts—up to three miles, underground, in the dark, banging his head and scraping his back, just to get to his seven-and-a-half-hour shift of backbreaking work. After that, he crawled back. “It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work,” stated Orwell. None of the time spent crawling was paid.
Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier for the Left Book Club, a socialist publishing group that released a select volume every month. After reading the first half of his book, which deals directly with the miners’ personal circumstances, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the working poor. Only a monster could keep his heart hardened through the accounts of the lives Orwell describes:
It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant.
In book’s second half, however, Orwell turned his gaze to a different problem: the comparative unpopularity of socialism in the UK at the time, despite the clear and painful inequity observable everywhere. He concluded that the tweed-wearing, armchair-philosophizing, victim-identifying, pity-and-contempt-dispensing social-reformer types frequently did not like the poor, as they claimed. Instead, they just hated the rich. They disguised their resentment and jealousy with piety, sanctimony and self-righteousness. Things in the unconscious—or on the social justice–dispensing leftist front—haven’t changed much, today. It is because of of Freud, Jung, Nietzsche—and Orwell—that I always wonder, “What, then, do you stand against?” whenever I hear someone say, too loudly, “I stand for this!” The question seems particularly relevant if the same someone is complaining, criticizing, or trying to change someone else’s behaviour.
I believe it was Jung who developed the most surgically wicked of psychoanalytic dicta: if you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences—and infer the motivation. This is a psychological scalpel. It’s not always a suitable instrument. It can cut too deeply, or in the wrong places. It is, perhaps, a last-resort option. Nonetheless, there are times when its application proves enlightening.
If the consequences of placing skatestoppers on plant-boxes and sculpture bases, for example, is unhappy adolescent males and brutalist aesthetic disregard of beauty then, perhaps, that was the aim. When someone claims to be acting from the highest principles, for the good of others, there is no reason to assume that the person’s motives are genuine. People motivated to make things better usually aren’t concerned with changing other people—or, if they are, they take responsibility for making the same changes to themselves (and first). Beneath the production of rules stopping the skateboarders from doing highly skilled, courageous and dangerous things I see the operation of an insidious and profoundly anti-human spirit.
More about Chris
My friend Chris, whom I wrote about earlier, was possessed by such a spirit—to the serious detriment of his mental health. Part of what plagued him was guilt. He attended elementary and junior high school in a number of towns, up in the frigid expanses of the northernmost Alberta prairie, prior to ending up in the Fairview I wrote about earlier. Fights with Native kids were a too-common part of his experience, during those moves. It’s no overstatement to point out that such kids were, on average, rougher than the white kids, or that they were touchier (and they had their reasons). I knew this well from my own experience.
I had a rocky friendship with a Métis kid, Rene Heck,fn1 when I was in elementary school. It was rocky because the situation was complex. There was a large cultural divide between Rene and me. His clothes were dirtier. He was rougher in speech and attitude. I had skipped a grade in school, and was, in addition, small for my age. Rene was a big, smart, good-looking kid, and he was tough. We were in grade six together, in a class taught by my father. Rene was caught chewing gum. “Rene,” said my father, “spit that gum out. You look like a cow.” “Ha, ha,” I laughed, under my breath. “Rene the cow.” Rene might have been a cow, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing. “Peterson,” he said, “after school—you’re dead.” Earlier in the morning, Rene and I had arranged to see a movie that night at the local movie theatre, the Gem. It looked like that was off. In any case, the rest of the day passed, quickly and unpleasantly, as it does when threat and pain lurk. Rene was more than capable of giving me a good pounding. After school, I took off for the bike stands outside the school as fast as I could, but Rene beat me there. We circled around the bikes, him on one side, me on the other. We were characters in a “Keystone Cops” short. As long as I kept circling, he couldn’t catch me, but my strategy couldn’t work forever. I yelled out that I was sorry, but he wasn’t mollified. His pride was hurt, and he wanted me to pay.
I crouched down and hid behind some bikes, keeping an eye on Rene. “Rene,” I yelled, “I’m sorry I called you a cow. Let’s quit fighting.” He started to approach me again. I said, “Rene, I am sorry I said that. Really. And I still want to go to the movie with you.” This wasn’t just a tactic. I meant it. Otherwise what happened next would not have happened. Rene stopped circling. Then he stared at me. Then he broke into tears. Then he ran off. That was Native-white relationships in a nutshell, in our hard little town. We never did go to a movie together.
When my friend Chris got into it with Native kids, he wouldn’t fight back. He didn’t feel that his self-defence was morally justified, so he took his beatings. “We took their land,” he later wrote. “That was wrong. No wonder they’re angry.” Over time, step by step, Chris withdrew from the world. It was partly his guilt. He developed a deep hatred for masculinity and masculine activity. He saw going to school or working or finding a girlfriend as part of the same process that had led to the colonization of North America, the horrible nuclear stalemate of the cold war, and the despoiling of the planet. He had read some books about Buddhism, and felt that negation of his own Being was ethically required, in the light of the current world situation. He came to believe that the same applied to others.
When I was an undergraduate, Chris was, for a while, one of my roommates. One late night we went to a local bar. We walked home, afterward. He started to snap the side-view mirrors off parked cars, one after the other. I said, “Quit that, Chris. What possible good is it going to do to make the people who own these cars miserable?” He told me that they were all part of the frenetic human activity that was ruining everything, and that they deserved whatever they got. I said that taking revenge on people who were just living normal lives was not going to help anything.
Years later, when I was in graduate school in Montreal, Chris showed up, for what was supposed to be a visit. He was aimless, however, and lost. He asked if I could help. He ended up moving in. I was married by then, living with my wife, Tammy, and our year-old daughter, Mikhaila. Chris had also been friends with Tammy back in Fairview (and held out hopes of more than friendship). That complicated the situation even more—but not precisely in the manner you might think. Chris started by hating men, but he ended by hating women. He wanted them, but he had rejected education, and career, and desire. He smoked heavily, and was unemployed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he was not of much interest to women. That made him bitter. I tried to convince him that the path he had chosen was only going to lead to further ruin. He needed to develop some humility. He needed to get a life.
One evening, it was Chris’s turn to make dinner. When my wife came home, the apartment was filled with smoke. Hamburgers were burning furiously in the frying pan. Chris was on his hands and knees, attempting to repair something that had come loose on the legs of the stove. My wife knew his tricks. She knew he was burning dinner on purpose. He resented having to make it. He resented the feminine role (even though the household duties were split in a reasonable manner; even though he knew that perfectly well). He was fixing the stove to provide a plausible, even creditable excuse for burning the food. When she pointed out what he was doing, he played the victim, but he was deeply and dangerously furious. Part of him, and not the good part, was convinced that he was smarter than anyone else. It was a blow to his pride that she could see through his tricks. It was an ugly situation.
Tammy and I took a walk up towards a local park the next day. We needed to get away from the apartment, although it was thirty-five below—bitterly, frigidly cold, humid and foggy. It was windy. It was hostile to life. Living with Chris was too much, Tammy said. We entered the park. The trees forked their bare branches upward through the damp grey air. A black squirrel, tail hairless from mange, gripped a leafless branch, shivered violently, struggling to hold on against the wind. What was it doing out there in the cold? Squirrels are partial hibernators. They only come out in the winter when it’s warm. Then we saw another, and another, and another, and another, and another. There were squirrels all around us in the park, all partially hairless, tails and bodies alike, all windblown on their branches, all shaking and freezing in the deathly cold. No one else was around. It was impossible. It was inexplicable. It was exactly appropriate. We were on the stage of an absurdist play. It was directed by God. Tammy left soon after with our daughter for a few days elsewhere.
Near Christmas time, that same year, my younger brother and his new wife came out to visit from western Canada. My brother also knew Chris. They all put on their winter clothes in preparation for a walk around downtown Montreal. Chris put on a long dark winter coat. He pulled a black toque, a brimless knitted cap, far down over his head. His coat was black, as were his pants and boots. He was very tall, and thin, and somewhat stooped. “Chris,” I joked. “You look like a serial killer.” Ha bloody ha. The three came back from their walk. Chris was out of sorts. There were strangers in his territory. Another happy couple. It was salt in his wounds.
We had dinner, pleasantly enough. We talked, and ended the evening. But I couldn’t sleep. Something wasn’t right. It was in the air. At four in the morning, I had had enough. I crawled out of bed. I knocked quietly on Chris’s door and went without waiting for an answer into his room. He was awake on the bed, staring at the ceiling, as I knew he would be. I sat down beside him. I knew him very well. I talked him down from his murderous rage. Then I went back to bed, and slept. The next morning my brother pulled me aside. He wanted to speak with me. We sat down. He said, “What the hell was going on last night? I couldn’t sleep at all. Was something wrong?” I told my brother that Chris wasn’t doing so well. I didn’t tell him that he was lucky to be alive—that we all were. The spirit of Cain had visited our house, but we were left unscathed.
Maybe I picked up some change in scent that night, when death hung in the air. Chris had a very bitter odour. He showered frequently, but the towels and the sheets picked up the smell. It was impossible to get them clean. It was the product of a psyche and a body that did not operate harmoniously. A social worker I knew, who also knew Chris, told me of her familiarity with that odour. Everyone at her workplace knew of it, although they only discussed it in hushed tones. They called it the smell of the unemployable.
Soon after this I finished my post-doctoral studies. Tammy and I moved away from Montreal to Boston. We had our second baby. Now and then, Chris and I talked on the phone. He came to visit once. It went well. He had found a job at an auto-parts place. He was trying to make things better. He was OK at that point. But it didn’t last. I didn’t see him in Boston again. Almost ten years later—the night before Chris’s fortieth birthday, as it happened—he called me again. By this time, I had moved my family to Toronto. He had some news. A story he had written was going to be published in a collection put together by a small but legitimate press. He wanted to tell me that. He wrote good short stories. I had read them all. We had discussed them at length. He was a good photographer, too. He had a good, creative eye. The next day, Chris drove his old pickup—the same battered beast from Fairview—into the bush. He ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into the front cab. I can see him there, looking through the cracked windshield, smoking, waiting. They found his body a few weeks later. I called his dad. “My beautiful boy,” he sobbed.
Recently, I was invited to give a TEDx talk at a nearby university. Another professor talked first. He had been invited to speak because of his work—his genuinely fascinating, technical work—with computationally intelligent surfaces (like computer touchscreens, but capable of being placed everywhere). He spoke instead about the threat human beings posed to the survival of the planet. Like Chris—like far too many people—he had become anti-human, to the core. He had not walked as far down that road as my friend, but the same dread spirit animated them both.
He stood in front of a screen displaying an endless slow pan of a blocks-long Chinese high-tech factory. Hundreds of white-suited workers stood like sterile, inhuman robots behind their assembly lines, soundlessly inserting piece A into slot B. He told the audience—filled with bright young people—of the decision he and his wife had made to limit their number of children to one. He told them it was something they should all consider, if they wanted to regard themselves as ethical people. I felt that such a decision was properly considered—but only in his particular case (where less than one might have been even better). The many Chinese students in attendance sat stolidly through his moralizing. They thought, perhaps, of their parents’ escape from the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its one-child policy. They thought, perhaps, of the vast improvement in living standard and freedom provided by the very same factories. A couple of them said as much in the question period that followed.
Would have the professor reconsidered his opinions, if he knew where such ideas can lead? I would like to say yes, but I don’t believe it. I think he could have known, but refused to. Worse, perhaps: he knew, but didn’t care—or knew, and was headed there, voluntarily, in any case.
Self-Appointed Judges of the Human Race
It has not been long since the Earth seemed infinitely larger than the people who inhabited it. It was only in the late 1800s that the brilliant biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95)—staunch defender of Darwin and Aldous Huxley’s grandfather—told the British Parliament that it was literally impossible for mankind to exhaust the oceans. Their power of generation was simply too great, as far as he could determine, compared to even the most assiduous human predations. It’s been an even shorter fifty years since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ignited the environmental movement.168 Fifty years! That’s nothing! That’s not even yesterday.
We’ve only just developed the conceptual tools and technologies that allow us to understand the web of life, however imperfectly. We deserve a bit of sympathy, in consequence, for the hypothetical outrage of our destructive behaviour. Sometimes we don’t know any better. Sometimes we do know better, but haven’t yet formulated any practical alternatives. It’s not as if life is easy for human beings, after all, even now—and it’s only a few decades ago that the majority of human beings were starving, diseased and illiterate.169 Wealthy as we are (increasingly, everywhere) we still only live decades that can be counted on our fingers. Even at present, it is the rare and fortunate family that does not contain at least one member with a serious illness—and all will face that problem eventually. We do what we can to make the best of things, in our vulnerability and fragility, and the planet is harder on us than we are on it. We could cut ourselves some slack.
Human beings are, after all, seriously remarkable creatures. We have no peers, and it’s not clear that we have any real limits. Things happen now that appeared humanly impossible even at the same time in the recent past when we began to wake up to our planet-sized responsibilities. A few weeks before writing this I happened across two videos juxtaposed on YouTube. One showed the Olympic gold medal vault from 1956; the other, the Olympic silver medal vault from 2012. It didn’t even look like the same sport—or the same animal. What McKayla Maroney did in 2012 would have been considered superhuman in the fifties. Parkour, a sport derived from French military obstacle course training, is amazing, as is free running. I watch compilations of such performances with unabashed admiration. Some of the kids jump off three-storey buildings without injury. It’s dangerous—and amazing. Crane climbers are so brave it rattles the mind. The same goes for extreme mountain bikers, freestyle snowboarders, surfers of fifty-foot waves, and skateboarders.
The boys who shot up Columbine High School, whom we discussed earlier, had appointed themselves judges of the human race—like the TEDx professor, although much more extreme; like Chris, my doomed friend. For Eric Harris, the more literate of the two killers, human beings were a failed and corrupt species. Once a presupposition such as that is accepted, its inner logic will inevitably manifest itself. If something is a plague, as David Attenborough has it,170 or a cancer, as the Club of Rome claimed,171 the person who eradicates it is a hero—a veritable planetary saviour, in this case. A real messiah might follow through with his rigorous moral logic, and eliminate himself, as well. This is what mass murderers, driven by near-infinite resentment, typically do. Even their own Being does not justify the existence of humanity. In fact, they kill themselves precisely to demonstrate the purity of their commitment to annihilation. No one in the modern world may without objection express the opinion that existence would be bettered by the absence of Jews, blacks, Muslims, or Englishmen. Why, then, is it virtuous to propose that the planet might be better off, if there were fewer people on it? I can’t help but see a skeletal, grinning face, gleeful at the possibility of the apocalypse, hiding not so very far behind such statements. And why does it so often seem to be the very people standing so visibly against prejudice who so often appear to feel obligated to denounce humanity itself?
I have seen university students, particularly those in the humanities, suffer genuine declines in their mental health from being philosophically berated by such defenders of the planet for their existence as members of the human species. It’s worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the planet. They’re not welcome. At the junior high, high school and university level, they’re falling behind educationally. When my son was fourteen, we discussed his grades. He was doing very well, he said, matter-of-factly, for a boy. I inquired further. Everyone knew, he said, that girls do better in school than boys. His intonation indicated surprise at my ignorance of something so self-evident. While writing this, I received the latest edition of The Economist. The cover story? “The Weaker Sex”—meaning males. In modern universities women now make up more than 50 percent of the students in more than two-thirds of all disciplines.
Boys are suffering, in the modern world. They are more disobedient—negatively—or more independent—positively—than girls, and they suffer for this, throughout their pre-university educational career. They are less agreeable (agreeableness being a personality trait associated with compassion, empathy and avoidance of conflict) and less susceptible to anxiety and depression,172 at least after both sexes hit puberty.173 Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people.174 Strikingly, these differences, strongly influenced by biological factors, are most pronounced in the Scandinavian societies where gender-equality has been pushed hardest: this is the opposite of what would be expected by those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct. It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.175 Boys like competition, and they don’t like to obey, particularly when they are adolescents. During that time, they are driven to escape their families, and establish their own independent existence. There is little difference between doing that and challenging authority. Schools, which were set up in the late 1800s precisely to inculcate obedience,176 do not take kindly to provocative and daring behaviour, no matter how tough-minded and competent it might show a boy (or a girl) to be. Other factors play their role in the decline of boys. Girls will, for example, play boys’ games, but boys are much more reluctant to play girls’ games. This is in part because it is admirable for a girl to win when competing with a boy. It is also OK for her to lose to a boy. For a boy to beat a girl, however, it is often not OK—and just as often, it is even less OK for him to lose. Imagine that a boy and a girl, aged nine, get into a fight. Just for engaging, the boy is highly suspect. If he wins, he’s pathetic. If he loses—well, his life might as well be over. Beat up by a girl.
Girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy—by being good at what girls value, as girls. They can add to this victory by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. Boys, however, can only win by winning in the male hierarchy. They will lose status, among girls and boys, by being good at what girls value. It costs them in reputation among the boys, and in attractiveness among the girls. Girls aren’t attracted to boys who are their friends, even though they might like them, whatever that means. They are attracted to boys who win status contests with other boys. If you’re male, however, you just can’t hammer a female as hard as you would a male. Boys can’t (won’t) play truly competitive games with girls. It isn’t clear how they can win. As the game turns into a girls’ game, therefore, the boys leave. Are the universities—particularly the humanities—about to become a girls’ game? Is this what we want?
The situation in the universities (and in educational institutions in general) is far more problematic than the basic statistics indicate.177 If you eliminate the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs (excluding psychology), the female/male ratio is even more skewed.178 Almost 80 percent of students majoring in the fields of healthcare, public administration, psychology and education, which comprise one-quarter of all degrees, are female. The disparity is still rapidly increasing. At this rate, there will be very few men in most university disciplines in fifteen years. This is not good news for men. It might even be catastrophic news for men. But it’s also not good news for women.
Career and Marriage
The women at female-dominated institutes of higher education are finding it increasingly difficult to arrange a dating relationship of even moderate duration. In consequence, they must settle, if inclined, for a hook-up, or sequential hook-ups. Perhaps this is a move forward, in terms of sexual liberation, but I doubt it. I think it’s terrible for the girls.179 A stable, loving relationship is highly desirable, for men as well as women. For women, however, it is often what is most wanted. From 1997 to 2012, according to the Pew Research Centre,180 the number of women aged 18 to 34 who said that a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life rose from 28 to 37 percent (an increase of more than 30 percentfn2). The number of young men who said the same thing declined 15 percent over the same period (from 35 to 29 percentfn3). During that time, the proportion of married people over 18 continued to decline, down from three-quarters in 1960 to half now.181 Finally, among never-married adults aged 30 to 59, men are three times as likely as women to say they do not ever want to marry (27 vs 8 percent).
Who decided, anyway, that career is more important than love and family? Is working eighty hours a week at a high-end law firm truly worth the sacrifices required for that kind of success? And if it is worth it, why is it worth it? A minority of people (mostly men, who score low in the trait of agreeableness, again) are hyper-competitive, and want to win at any cost. A minority will find the work intrinsically fascinating. But most aren’t, and most won’t, and money doesn’t seem to improve people’s lives, once they have enough to avoid the bill collectors. Furthermore, most high-performing and high-earning females have high-performing and high-earning partners—and that matters more to women. The Pew data also indicate that a spouse with a desirable job is a high priority for almost 80 percent of never-married but marriage-seeking women (but for less than 50 percent of men).
When they hit their thirties, most of the top-rate female lawyers bail out of their high-pressure careers.182 Only 15 percent of equity partners at the two hundred biggest US law firms are women.183 This figure hasn’t changed much in the last fifteen years, even though female associates and staff attorneys are plentiful. It also isn’t because the law firms don’t want the women to stay around and succeed. There is a chronic shortage of excellent people, regardless of sex, and law firms are desperate to retain them.
The women who leave want a job—and a life—that allows them some time. After law school and articling and the few first years of work, they develop other interests. This is common knowledge in the big firms (although it is not something that people are comfortable articulating in public, men and women alike). I recently watched a McGill University professor, female, lecture a room full of female law partners or near-partners about how lack of childcare facilities and “male definitions of success” impeded their career progress and caused women to leave. I knew most of the women in the room. We had talked at great length. I knew they knew that none of this was at all the problem. They had nannies, and they could afford them. They had already outsourced all their domestic obligations and necessities. They understood, as well—and perfectly well—that it was the market that defined success, not the men they worked with. If you are earning $650 an hour in Toronto as a top lawyer, and your client in Japan phones you at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, you answer. Now. You answer, now, even if you have just gone back to sleep after feeding the baby. You answer because some hyper-ambitious legal associate in New York would be happy to answer, if you don’t—and that’s why the market defines the work.
The increasingly short supply of university-educated men poses a problem of increasing severity for women who want to marry, as well as date. First, women have a strong proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance hierarchy. They prefer a partner of equal or greater status. This holds true cross-culturally.184 The same does not hold, by the way, for men, who are perfectly willing to marry across or down (as the Pew data indicate), although they show a preference for somewhat younger mates. The recent trend towards the hollowing-out of the middle class has also been increasing as resource-rich women tend more and more185 to partner with resource-rich men. Because of this, and because of the decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs for men (one of six men of employable age is currently without work in the US), marriage is now something increasingly reserved for the rich. I can’t help finding that amusing, in a blackly ironic manner. The oppressive patriarchal institution of marriage has now become a luxury. Why would the rich tyrannize themselves?
Why do women want an employed partner and, preferably, one of higher status? In no small part, it’s because women become more vulnerable when they have children. They need someone competent to support mother and child when that becomes necessary. It’s a perfectly rational compensatory act, although it may also have a biological basis. Why would a woman who decides to take responsibility for one or more infants want an adult to look after as well? So, the unemployed working man is an undesirable specimen—and single motherhood an undesirable alternative. Children in father-absent homes are four times as likely to be poor. That means their mothers are poor too. Fatherless children are at much greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Children living with married biological parents are less anxious, depressed and delinquent than children living with one or more non-biological parent. Children in single-parent families are also twice as likely to commit suicide.186 The strong turn towards political correctness in universities has exacerbated the problem. The voices shouting against oppression have become louder, it seems, in precise proportion to how equal—even now increasingly skewed against men—the schools have become. There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women (and other select groups); successful only because of that domination and exclusion.187 The Patriarchy: Help or Hindrance?
Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant. What we inherit from the past is willfully blind, and out of date. It’s a ghost, a machine, and a monster. It must be rescued, repaired and kept at bay by the attention and effort of the living. It crushes, as it hammers us into socially acceptable shape, and it wastes great potential. But it offers great gain, too. Every word we speak is a gift from our ancestors. Every thought we think was thought previously by someone smarter. The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West, is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity. Culture takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives more with the other. To think about culture only as oppressive is ignorant and ungrateful, as well as dangerous. This is not to say (as I am hoping the content of this book has made abundantly clear, so far) that culture should not be subject to criticism.
Consider this, as well, in regard to oppression: any hierarchy creates winners and losers. The winners are, of course, more likely to justify the hierarchy and the losers to criticize it. But (1) the collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit not matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning. We experience almost all the emotions that make life deep and engaging as a consequence of moving successfully towards something deeply desired and valued. The price we pay for that involvement is the inevitable creation of hierarchies of success, while the inevitable consequence is difference in outcome. Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself—and then there would be nothing worth living for. We might instead note with gratitude that a complex, sophisticated culture allows for many games and many successful players, and that a well-structured culture allows the individuals that compose it to play and to win, in many different fashions.
It is also perverse to consider culture the creation of men. Culture is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male. That’s partly why the idea of “the patriarchy” is so easily swallowed. But it is certainly the creation of humankind, not the creation of men (let alone white men, who nonetheless contributed their fair share). European culture has only been dominant, to the degree that it is dominant at all, for about four hundred years. On the time scale of cultural evolution—which is to be measured, at minimum, in thousands of years—such a timespan barely registers. Furthermore, even if women contributed nothing substantial to art, literature and the sciences prior to the 1960s and the feminist revolution (which is not something I believe), then the role they played raising children and working on the farms was still instrumental in raising boys and freeing up men—a very few men—so that humanity could propagate itself and strive forward.
Here’s an alternative theory: throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity. Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength. In addition to the filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty and ignorance that characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century (when even people in the Western world typically existed on less than a dollar a day in today’s money) women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burden of too many young children. Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill. At least such things might be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism.
It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery. The recent case of Arunachalam Muruganantham provides a salutary example. This man, the “tampon king” of India, became unhappy because his wife had to use dirty rags during her menstrual period. She told him it was either expensive sanitary napkins, or milk for the family. He spent the next fourteen years in a state of insanity, by his neighbours’ judgment, trying to rectify the problem. Even his wife and his mother abandoned him, briefly, terrified as they became of his obsession. When he ran out of female volunteers to test his product, he took to wearing a bladder of pig’s blood as a replacement. I can’t see how this behaviour would have improved his popularity or status. Now his low-cost and locally made napkins are distributed across India, manufactured by women-run self-help groups. His users have been provided with freedom they never previously experienced. In 2014, this high-school dropout was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. I am unwilling to consider personal gain Muruganantham’s primary motivation. Is he part of the patriarchy?
In 1847, James Young Simpson used ether to help a woman who had a deformed pelvis give birth. Afterwards, he switched to the better-performing chloroform. The first baby delivered under its influence was named “Anaesthesia.” By 1853, chloroform was esteemed enough to be used by Queen Victoria, who delivered her seventh baby under its influence. Remarkably soon afterward, the option of painless childbirth was available everywhere. A few people warned of the danger of opposing God’s pronouncement to women in Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children …” Some also opposed its use among males: young, healthy, courageous men simply did not need anaesthesia. Such opposition was ineffectual. Use of anaesthesia spread with extreme rapidity (and far faster than would be possible today). Even prominent churchmen supported its use.
The first practical tampon, Tampax, didn’t arrive until the 1930s. It was invented by Dr. Earle Cleveland Haas. He made it of compressed cotton, and designed an applicator from paper tubes. This helped lessen resistance to the products by those who objected to the self-touching that might otherwise occur. By the early 1940s, 25 percent of women were using them. Thirty years later, it was 70 percent. Now it’s four out of five, with the remainder relying on pads, which are now hyper-absorbent, and held in place by effective adhesives (opposed to the awkwardly placed, bulky, belted, diaper-like sanitary napkins of the 1970s). Did Muruganantham, Simpson and Haas oppress women, or free them? What about Gregory Goodwin Pincus, who invented the birth control pill? In what manner were these practical, enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting patriarchy?
Why do we teach our young people that our incredible culture is the result of male oppression? Blinded by this central assumption disciplines as diverse as education, social work, art history, gender studies, literature, sociology and, increasingly, law actively treat men as oppressors and men’s activity as inherently destructive. They also often directly promote radical political action—radical by all the norms of the societies within which they are situated—which they do not distinguish from education. The Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, for example, encourages activism as part of their mandate. The Gender Studies Department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, “teaches feminist, anti-racist, and queer theories and methods that centre activism for social change”—indicating support for the supposition that university education should above all foster political engagement of a particular kind.
Postmodernism and the Long Arm of Marx
These disciplines draw their philosophy from multiple sources. All are heavily influenced by the Marxist humanists. One such figure is Max Horkheimer, who developed critical theory in the 1930s. Any brief summary of his ideas is bound to be oversimplified, but Horkheimer regarded himself as a Marxist. He believed that Western principles of individual freedom or the free market were merely masks that served to disguise the true conditions of the West: inequality, domination and exploitation. He believed that intellectual activity should be devoted to social change, instead of mere understanding, and hoped to emancipate humanity from its enslavement. Horkheimer and his Frankfurt School of associated thinkers—first, in Germany and later, in the US—aimed at a full-scale critique and transformation of Western civilization.
More important in recent years has been the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, leader of the postmodernists, who came into vogue in the late 1970s. Derrida described his own ideas as a radicalized form of Marxism. Marx attempted to reduce history and society to economics, considering culture the oppression of the poor by the rich. When Marxism was put into practice in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, economic resources were brutally redistributed. Private property was eliminated, and rural people forcibly collectivized. The result? Tens of millions of people died. Hundreds of millions more were subject to oppression rivalling that still operative in North Korea, the last classic communist holdout. The resulting economic systems were corrupt and unsustainable. The world entered a prolonged and extremely dangerous cold war. The citizens of those societies lived the life of the lie, betraying their families, informing on their neighbours—existing in misery, without complaint (or else).
Marxist ideas were very attractive to intellectual utopians. One of the primary architects of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, received a doctorate at the Sorbonne before he became the nominal head of Cambodia in the mid-1970s. In his doctoral thesis, written in 1959, he argued that the work done by non-farmers in Cambodia’s cities was unproductive: bankers, bureaucrats and businessmen added nothing to society. Instead, they parasitized the genuine value produced through agriculture, small industry and craft. Samphan’s ideas were favourably looked upon by the French intellectuals who granted him his Ph.D. Back in Cambodia, he was provided with the opportunity to put his theories into practice. The Khmer Rouge evacuated Cambodia’s cities, drove all the inhabitants into the countryside, closed the banks, banned the use of currency, and destroyed all the markets. A quarter of the Cambodian population were worked to death in the countryside, in the killing fields.
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