There is a strain of American male whose life is shaped by chronic insecurity. This strain's considerable numbers and pronounced behavior patterns make the phenomenon obvious -- yet largely invisible.
This male's symptomatic behavior is now so common, giving the impression of being the norm, that he is largely invisible, but with a little perspective his oddness becomes apparent. The macho culture of adolescent posturing and compulsive self-affirmation is everywhere: in ads; in the adulation of celebrities; in the stern cross-armed stance of TV anchors; in the alcohol fetish; in the unquenchable thirst for voyeuristic violence; and, of course, in the theatrical cocksure approach to women.
This last is rooted in nature and evident in all cultures -- in various modes, to varying degrees. It stems in part from the rivalry for mates; it also expresses the sublimated truth that many men often are intimidated and overwhelmed by the female persona when it is not reduced to basic eroticism. Maturity involves reconciling all these elements.
Maturing in American culture, however, is associated with growing old, with decay and dying. Dread of aging is what animates the worship of youth -- and, with it, a leeriness about what it means to grow up. No society on earth is as accommodating to the eternal juvenile. Of course, growing up is not un-American -- some indications otherwise notwithstanding. Still, acceptance of adulthood does appear as more of a challenge to many Americans than is natural. That is one general feature of our national culture that aggravates the male predicament. The unceasing and relentless status competition is another. That makes it difficult for an individual to come to terms with who he is, to feel securely placed among his fellows -- even to know who he is. He is status deprived.
Status is the most fragile of social markers. It is in constant jeopardy. Americans, especially male Americans, are riven with status anxieties. It is part of our cultural inheritance, commented upon since de Tocqueville's day. Money alone provides a means -- however imperfect -- to perpetuate status. The recurrent question "What has he done recently?" is the condensed expression of how status is constantly in jeopardy. We ask it of others; we ask it of ourselves. It forms part of our institutionalized neurosis. If the future constantly beckons, so do we sense oblivion looking over our shoulder.
America's restless and relentless status competition bears a resemblance to the Medieval towers of San Gimignano. Everyone strives to rise above the others while ever fearful that a neighbor will heighten his own efforts just when you're about to exceed him or that a newcomer will overtake you -- nerve-racking. Stoic coping is getting harder and harder. The signs are everywhere -- if we care to look.
The immense dependence on prescription drugs just to get us through the daily or weekly routine; the appetite for illicit drugs to do the same and more. The utter escapism of our juvenile pop culture in which a large majority of Americans immerse themselves. The loss of all resistance to fad and fashion in every sphere of life. The spread of sociopathic actions from Wall Street's financial manias and the systematic abuse of workers to the recrudescence of ugly racism and the cults of violence. Most striking is the widespread passive acceptance of this conduct. "But I need it" or "but I want it" has become the universal justification for every form of selfish or narcissistic behavior.
Like the Godfather whose line "I did it for my family" became totemic, we have an all-purpose excuse for abusing others and short-changing society. The elementary truth that when everyone acts in conformity with this ethic, the harmful effects on "Me" will more than outweigh the transitory benefits of selfishness has become incomprehensible. It takes mature people, secure in their self esteem and place in the social world, to absorb that logic and to follow it. That so many can't and don't is the surest indication of how far the fabric of collective life has unraveled.
All of these trends and contradictions get concentrated in America's current obsession with sex. America is suffused with sexuality. Most of it is adolescent -- at the level it is pitched and received. In its emphasis on the casual, the gross and the mechanical it is very much an American product. To raise the subject is to wade into very deep waters indeed -- as Mr. Holmes might say. The phenomenon is deserving of serious and sober treatment of a type that cannot be offered in the compass of a few paragraphs. There are, though, some things that can and should be said.
One, today's attitudes toward sexuality are related to insecurities and compensatory impulses so evident in other aspects of our present day culture. The degree of contrivance matches what we see in displays of ersatz patriotism and the pervasive stress on macho posturing.
Two, the genuine risks getting lost in the preoccupation with ostentatious display in both spheres.
Three, it has at once voyeuristic and self-absorbed elements. Neither involves actual engagement with other persons.
Four, there is a pronounced streak of dominance and violence. That, of course, is especially true of the seemingly omni-present pornography. It is mainly fare for male juveniles of all ages -- just as are war video games and "action" films that feature improbable super heroes. This last conforms to a feature of American society: women mature much faster than men and are less in danger of being emotionally atrophied at adolescence.
In regard to sexuality, as in other deformed areas of our pop culture, there is an enormous amount of pandering by the media, the entertainment industry, and just about everyone else who gets the public's attention. It's the old story of offering what sells and then over-doing it so that an unnatural demand becomes permanent and normal. At this point, it has become self-perpetuating. The creators and purveyors are as captive of their adolescent emotions as are their target audience. We need not expect everyone to emulate the fictional Sicilian detective Montalbano who instantly nods off in the presence of pornography to see its saturation of American culture as a sign of less than robust mental health.
But how important is this? Couldn't we just write it off as a harmless if not very edifying trait of post-modern culture and society? It's not that simple. Let's leave aside the unfathomable realities of what effect all this has on emotional maturity and the sorts of lives that people (and their families) lead. There are pathological behaviors that result which do harm people. Rape at university campuses is one of them. The phenomenon is intriguing as well as repulsive. Never before in American history have sexual norms been as relaxed as they are today. We are four decades at least into the sexual revolution. Yet, violent sexual behavior is commonplace. There is something sick about this. So is the indulgence of binge drinking in an era when marijuana is readily available. Some young men today cannot cope with the self-assured, autonomous young women. They are intimidated by them. A couple of generations ago, they struggled emotionally with the lack of access to women. Now the opposite is the case. They are immature. One way of coping is the resort to violence in order to depersonalize and negate women. Most of what is going on around them encourages and trains them to do exactly that.
Equally shocking is the equanimity with which rape is viewed by university authorities and faculty. We now see compelling evidence of what amounts to criminal negligence on the part of officials at scores of schools. In a few instances, negligence has crossed the line into something that amounts to their acting as accessories to the crimes. Oddly, a majority of those administrators at the first level are women. Money and institutional image and career trump feminism. They trump decency and integrity as well. When this reprehensible conduct is exposed, very few get agitated by it.
Faculty remain mute with only a tiny number of exceptions. Some of the latter, of course, then get punished for their breaking the code of omerta (as at Harvard). University Presidents appear briefly to vow, with a patented 'butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth' half-smile, that they will not tolerate "unwelcome sexual advances" -- their preferred euphemism for rape. The impact of those weasel words is zero. In some prestigious universities (Yale), the sexual predatory actions of distinguished (medical school) professors can be concealed for decades -- despite wide acknowledgement of serial perversity (in public settings) -- with no more than a suggestion that they attend a "sensitivity training" session.*
The wider response is similarly unedifying. Real dedication to remedying the situation rapidly has given way to verbose pseudo debates and political posturing. This is the norm in American society nowadays when an awkward truth emerges into the limelight. Think of domestic spying, institutionalized financial crimes, or torture. So what we get are task force reviews, surveys, "conversations," and endless hair-splitting about due process. Yes, due process is essential to protect the rights of the accused as well as the accuser. But much of what is proposed and advocated is little more than intellectual self-promotion and avoidance behavior.
Thus, distinguished law professors design so-called adjudicatory systems for universities whose intricacy suggests that they came from the same shop that gave us Obama's Rube Goldberg-esque health care set-up. Others devise far-fetched schemes of social engineering that seem to be adopted from Saturday Night Live scripts. Outstanding case in point: permission slips to be signed by both parties later to be registered with proper officials. (Blue for his, pink for hers?) This idea already is being introduced at some schools. One gets the distinct impression that the great legal minds that spawn such an idea have never had a sexual encounter outside of the marital bed. That itself is not to be denigrated; but it does mean that they literally don't know what they're talking about.
We know the answer to sexual violence against women at universities -- in principle. Swift, stern punishment of those found to be guilty -- in the short-term. The maturing of attitudes toward human sexuality in the long run. Growing up and behaving as an adult is not un-American -- contrary indications notwithstanding. Acting on these principles obviously is not easy. Sadly, however, at the moment we are indulging in the growing American habit of elaborate obfuscation and the substitution of aimless motion for substantive action. The wretched acts of these delinquents is matched only by the cravenness of the university administrators whose reaction typically runs through three stages: suppression or whitewash; arranging an encounter group between perp and victim to overcome "misunderstandings" and "misconduct; " and -- in those occasional instances in which there is some determination of culpability made -- a "punishment" that equates to requiring the guilty party to write on the board 100 times "I promise to be a good boy" -- going forward.
Absurd, senseless, escapist -- and therefore serious. In other words: 21st century America
*A singularly troubling case of malfeasance by university authorities is the University of Rochester. There, the gross mistreatment of a woman rape complainant included her being handcuffed by police and threatened by a Dean. The latter has reached a new low in the debasement of university standards in monitoring student conduct. He (is this case a man) told the young woman that an accusation of rape without witnesses could only be credited if she was so drunk as to be nearly unconscious; otherwise consent should be assumed. Moreover, he warned, the University of Rochester would prosecute her for violating New York state's prohibition on underage alcohol consumption. That grotesque ploy is reminiscent of a Roman practice whereby an autocratic Emperor could circumvent the ban on the execution of young virgins by first having them raped. The Rochester story received minimal attention -- as per usual.