William J. Bennett would like to blame the fall of masculinity on the fall of religion and role models. In my opinion, he’s right — our society has weakened proper masculine roles to the point of outright destroying them. While some legitimate arguments can be made against Bennett (see, e.g., NeoGAF, Reddit), I’m writing this article to defend him against some of the hate he’s received on the Internet. In short, we need to stop feeling that video games are under attack and acknowledge the simple fact that Bennett is right.
Before I discuss Bennett, let me cover the basic gist of his argument. In short, Bennett argues that men are becoming weak and, in a sense, losing their edge in the face of “you go girl” feminism. Bennett blames this decline on the loss of “founding virtues”: work, marriage, and religion. Forgoing these virtues, Bennett argues, men are more likely to play around with video games, television, and music, media sources which provide questionable guidance on masculinity. Bennett concludes:
The Founding Fathers believed, and the evidence still shows, that industriousness, marriage and religion are a very important basis for male empowerment and achievement. We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.” It’s time for men to man up.
For the most part, I agree entirely with Bennett. Men are increasingly subjected to a strange, duplicitous sort of definition of masculinity in modern society. On one hand, movies and TV shows such as The Simpsons, Two and a Half Men, and various romantic comedies depict men as something like mindless sex-robots, insinuating that men are unintelligent and uninterested in anything beyond sports and sex. On the other hand, more testosterone-laced shows like Jersey Shore and various music artists encourage boys to assume hyper-violent, hyper-sexual roles in order to (ostensibly) “prove” their masculinity. In short, society tells boys to either be a bumbling idiot using his salary to beg his wife for occasional sex, or to become something between a pickup artist and a street fighter. This strange juxtaposed message is precisely the “confusing signals” Bennett describes, and insofar as his argument concerns these signals, I entirely agree with him.
I even agree with Bennett’s implicit statement about work — namely, that it acts as a sort of social glue that used to help boys become men. While the masculinity and values of yesteryear are greatly exaggerated by many, one thing is certain: our ancestors worked a hell of a lot harder than we did. They studied harder, worked harder, and generally fought harder than we do. America is as proverbially fat as it is literally fat: we’ve gotten lazy, slothful, and ignorant. The new trend of lazy Americans posting “We are the 99 Percent” photos and whining about their (mostly) self-imposed debt and financial problems would make our ancestors laugh — where we cry and post pictures with our $500 iPhones on Tumblr demanding someone fix our problems for us, our much more manly ancestors would have simply worked harder and fixed the problem themselves. Our masculine ancestors — and mind you, I say masculine ancestors because the women were just as “manly” as the men in terms of their guts and effort — wouldn’t have protested their problems. They would have worked hard and self-improved in a way that would make Horatio Alger cry in happiness. In contrast, the desire of modern men and women in America to actually succeed in the global marketplace is dead, and it almost seems just that the Chinese economy is at the gates demanding our throne of economic superiority.
I will admit I can’t agree with Bennett on his implied assertion that marriage and religion act as social glue. While this is in a sense true — arguably, if we all were pious and married we’d probably have to be more organized and less lazy in some sense — such values may simply not interface with our society quite like they did in the past. Moreover, given our appalling divorce rate, I don’t exactly think we should be pushing boys into marriages they won’t value anyway.
But let me get to the allegedly offensive part of his argument involving video games:
We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.” It’s time for men to man up.
Okay, I’ll admit this is offensive. There simply is no reason to assume that people who play video games — including myself — are going to be lazy. Video games, being a recreational activity like anything else, are pretty innocuous by themselves, and video games qua video games aren’t the only progenitor of male laziness.
So is Bennett totally off the mark when it comes to video games? Actually, no — I’d still say he has a point. Recreational activities themselves aren’t the problem, but they sure as hell don’t help the situation. No matter what a boy does that keeps him from being a man — playing video games, obsessing over movies, pretending to be a pickup artist and selling godawful books in order to satiate his insecurities — it needs to stop, or at least significantly slow down. It just so happens that video games are a common denominator in terms of American male laziness.
Ultimately, Bennett has a solid argument. Society has all but destroyed proper male role models, and we’ve become lazy and useless as a result of that. I’d be willing to postulate that it is this laziness that has weakened us in the economy and made us the veritable laughing stock of the world. Even though Bennett may be a little bit antiquated on his views of proper society, the man has a point, and we need to stop attacking his offhand remarks regarding video games as a proxy for ignoring his argument altogether.