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Erin Bartram: In his weekly column, the more prominent of the two white men named David on the New York Times opinion pages wondered “where have all the real men gone?” Frustrated with the “varieties of wannabe manliness” he sees on display in the White House – the Bannonesque, the Scaramuccian, and the Trumpy – he urged us to consider his understanding of a Greek understanding of manliness instead. Be like the Greeks, he urged, which to him means be like John – Wayne, McCain, or Kelly. That, he believes, will rescue us from the “crisis of masculinity” we face today. Rarely will historians sanction the phrase “Throughout American history…” in a paper, but sometimes it feels like “Throughout American history, there has been a crisis of masculinity.” Today, we’re going to talk about how Brooks is using history to talk about gender roles, and how by doing so, he’s engaging in a long American tradition of freaking out about whether men are being the right kind of men. For once, the fact that we’re both 19th century American historians means we’ve read a lot about this.

Chris Bouton: It’s telling to me that Brooks immediately jumps to the Greeks as his exemplar of masculinity. He initially seems to idealize the Greek view of masculinity, but then complicates it. Suggesting that Greek views of masculinity had destructive elements.

Which of course, it did. The Iliad is all about honor and masculinity and its destructive force.

Then he pivots back to the US, where he sees 2 historical examples of the “magnanimous man.” George Washington and George Marshall, why those two? He never explains.

Erin: Another good Anglo name!

Magnanimity seems to be the key difference for him. If you look at his list of qualities, the one that he says is the problem is that the manly man is touchy: “He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due.” Frankly, it’s amazing he didn’t use George Washington as an example more thoroughly, or as the center of the piece.

Chris: And being magnanimous is about being generous to others, especially those below you. Brooks is writing in a frame of honor and masculinity, that there are those who have honor and those who aspire to it in some way, but fail

Erin: It sounds like the courtesy manual my students read in class, much like the one GWash copied over himself – respect thy superiors, despise not thy inferiors. A truly manly man (like a true aristocrat) just is, and doesn’t need external validation.

Chris: He’s also endorsing hierarchies of manliness and honor, but honor always relies on external validation. If honor is reputation, then it requires a societal judgment. At the top of his hierarchy are the Johns and the Georges and the thread that runs through all of them (McCain, Kelly and Washington, Marshall) is the military.

Erin: That, I think we can say, is something that is true and has been true for men and women, though the aspects of reputation/honor judged have been different.

Chris: Right they’re judged by different standards, but there is a judgment.

Erin: He’s trying to craft a definition of manliness that blends selflessness and sacrifice with the other manly virtues that are important to him. The willingness to fight, in a particular framework, is important. Would he consider MLK an ideal man? Or Father Daniel Berrigan?

Chris: Yes and as your framing question suggested, there’s nothing particularly new about it. Other than it’s been given the David Brooks gloss with crimes against the English language like “thrusting masculinity.”

How can masculinity thrust?

Erin: It can’t, that’s why it’s in crisis.

Also as a woman living in America, the crisis of masculinity is certainly thrusting itself into my space all the time

Honestly, much of my US I survey course centers around this perpetual, evolving crisis of masculinity, so Brooks’ paean to a masculine ideal of the past is familiar and frustrating. [I get that he wanted to go with Greece, but I was surprised not to see Cincinnatus in here]

Chris: I think this is a good chance to dig at the historical roots of this perpetual crisis.

Erin: As I think about how to get at those historical roots, I’m already expecting the question on the first day of my women’s history class in a few weeks, one that I always get: “So when did patriarchy…start?”

Chris: From the moment human beings attained sentience?

If we understand patriarchy as a social system of control, then from the moment those social systems/relationships began to emerge

Erin: Correct.

In terms of a colonial North American context, I think most of us think of gender order as one of the man things that informs the values of this colonial space, one that then shapes the racial system that emerges here. Whether you’re talking Edmund Morgan or Kathy Brown, you’re hard pressed to get away from the importance of particular ideas of what men deserve and expect in Anglo-Virginian society.

Chris: And what their concordant responsibilities are.

Brooks’ definition of a magnanimous man struck me as very much rooted in the American colonial/Revolutionary past. I’ll drop the whole quote in for context.

The magnanimous man has a certain style. He is a bit aloof, marked more by gravitas than familiarity. He shows perfect self-control because he has mastered his passions. He does not show his vulnerability. His relationships are not reciprocal. He is eager to grant favors but is ashamed of receiving them. His personal life can wither because he has devoted himself to disinterested public service.

Erin: He wants republican masculinity.

Chris: “Mastering passions” not reciprocal relationships, “disinterested public service.” He’s swallowed John Adams whole

Erin: Musical interlude #1

And it’s quite clear what historical ideas of masculinity he sees in the White House: Jacksonian masculinity, the liberal individual.


Unrestrained by passion – “peacocking” as he describes it.

Erin: And “touchy,” which I took to mean: if he does the baseline decent thing in a situation, he gets pissed when you don’t give him a cookie for it.

Chris: I’m struck by this idea of “touchy” since it gets at the root of the “crisis.” So much of masculinity and honor culture depends on that public acknowledgement, and when men don’t get that acknowledgement, they’re “touchy” about it, because they measure their honor against one another. Go back to Achilles sulking in his tent.

Erin: Frankly it’s why his use of McCain in this situation is a bit of a tell. It reveals to us that when he says there should be no peacocking, he just means “not tooooooo much.”

Chris: And the problems come when the personal sense of honor doesn’t align with the public.

Right, because McCain’s vote on the health care bill was a masculine performance.

Erin: The two other Republican women – who embodied every one of the virtues he calls “manly” – just voted and got it over with.

Chris: He won, in Brooks’ eyes, honor for himself through his public behavior. In this case, McCain’s personal honor and his reputation were aligned (from Brooks’ perspective)

Erin: His column put me in mind of Amy Greenberg’s book Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. She talks about two kinds of masculinity in the mid-19th century – restrained and martial.

Chris: Yes, I’ve been thinking about Greenberg this whole time.

Erin: Brooks, like so many other men we study, seems desperate to find a way – or at least a living example – of blending the two.

Chris: Because a man should exercise self-control, but also needs to be able to kick some ass when needed. There’s a recognition that neither type of masculinity can solve the “crisis.” Restrained men can be too passive and martial men too violent.

Erin: And “his personal life can wither” because another person is supposed to take care of that anyway.

Chris: George Marshall had Mrs. Marshall to care for the children and the like.

Erin: He never says it, but there’s one thing that’s at the core of his ideal masculine world, one thing that I think he thinks is missing. The magnanimous man never takes favors (charity) and can think about public disinterested service only if one part of his life is secure. Without the economic security and credit he thinks men are due, they can never be the kind of men he wants.

Chris: To go back to the American Revolution context, he must free from dependence, he must independent.

Erin: Bingo.

Chris: Hence property owning requirements for voting and office holding. Now all of these colonial/Revolutionary men who proclaimed this ideal were in debt up to their necks…

Erin: And they were in debt even with the unpaid labor of their wives, children, and slaves.

Chris: Jefferson needed that French wine!

Erin: And when most white men can’t meet those requirements, the choice is either tell men they can’t vote even though their fathers could, or change the way one becomes eligible to vote.

I mean, I don’t actually want to read this column, but I would like to know, given what he claims as “manly” here, what is left for women? I’m not sure he actually even cares that much, so intent is his focus on men.

Chris: And that’s also historically fitting.

Erin: Defining white masculinity against a variety of dependents.

Chris: Exactly.

And it’s no wonder that masculinity is always in crisis when you look at the arguments and assumptions underlying it.

Erin: It also reminds us of the ways that Obama’s masculinity was constantly questioned. His fashion sense? Effete. His refusal to get angry? Submissive. His mustard choices? Elitist and possibly gay.

Chris: Out of all the figures that Brooks cites, Obama’s masculinity came closest to his definition. In terms of his behavior in office, I mean.

Erin: Absolutely, though I think few who read Brooks and agreed with him would acknowledge that.

He didn’t even let his private life wither away! He could do it all!

Chris: And that’s why his fashion sense is effete, his lack of anger meant he was submissive etc. You can’t be more masculine/honorable, he’s from a historically dependent and marginalized group.

Erin: I’m thinking of François Furstenberg on autonomy and Manisha Sinha’s great piece on reading the caning of Charles Sumner in the context of racialized masculinity. IIRC, she argues that [Preston] Brooks’ caning of Sumner, rather than challenging him to a duel, was essentially to communicate “If you’re going to associate yourself with enslaved people, I’m going to treat you like one”

Chris: Brooks did not treat Sumner like an equal.

Erin: Musical Interlude #2

And that’s the thing [David] Brooks consciously or less consciously avoids: that a key part of American ideas of masculinity involves hierarchy and dominance and differentiation from those not capable of full independence.

Chris: Yes, these ideals of masculinity that he’s mourning and celebrating all rely on notions of inequality.

Erin: Without saying as much, by defining manliness this way, and only including white men as examples, he communicates as much.

Chris: His examples of masculinity tell us everything we need to know. Greeks, the Georges, and Johns.

Erin: Not, as we saw, the Hillarys, the Elizabeths, the Kamalas.

Chris: The Lisas and the Susans.

Erin: They’ve got those characteristics in spades, but sorry, David Brooks has reserved them as “manly virtues.” At best, a woman displaying them remains invisible. At worst, she’s pilloried.

Chris: Brooks’ work is so rooted in this veneration of Western Civilization and its traditional masculine heroes. It’s like he was born a century too late. Or should’ve been teaching Solon in the Classics Department at Harvard in 1840.

Erin: I believe those are the qualifications listed when applying to be a columnist on the NYT opinion pages. Seriously, we’re pretty close to explicit faculty psychology with this column.

Chris: Or your ability to turn conversations with cab/Uber drivers into sweeping generalizations about globalization. That’s right I’m coming for you Thomas Friedman and your the world is flat BS.

Erin: Can’t A Man Get A Manly Sandwich Anymore?: The Collected Columns of David Brooks

Chris: I feel like we missed one other key piece of the column. David Brooks wrote the words “it’s man-craving all the way down” and I’m pretty sure he has no idea the other connotations that phrase could take.

Erin: I mean, he uses the term “man-crush” as well, which makes me wonder how he’d process 19th century male friendships.

Chris: To turn away from the joke, his unconscious use of language reveals the hetero-normativity of his understandings of masculinity. After all, he ignores the Greek understanding of masculinity which involved same-sex relationships and was intimately tied up in these ideas of honor. Why does Achilles go back into battle? Because Patroclus dies.

Erin: And Trump’s adoration for Putin is marked as something inappropriate, stemming from Trump’s own masculinity issues.

Give me a primary source of a dude talking about manliness and I can have a fruitful discussion with any group of students.

Chris: Seriously, look how long we’ve talking about it.

Erin: I guess, David, we’ll call it a draw: you get to keep having your column, and we get to keep thinking it’s wrong.