Authoritarians forever concern themselves with other people's choices. Like normal people with similar worries, they fret that the culture has gone off-track one way or another. But, convinced they have the right to meddle, authoritarians add that government must do something to force the wayward back into line. So, we arrive at a moment when Sen. Josh Hawley, a nationalistic Republican from Missouri, voices concern identical to that of the Chinese Communist Party about the supposed feminization of men, with proposals to match. Horseshoe theory, which holds that control freaks of the right and left inevitably resemble one another more than they do those inhabiting the more-savory parts of the political spectrum, has delivered us an international dick-measuring contest.
"The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic," Hawley complained in Orlando at the National Conservatism Conference, which was billed as presenting "an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism." He went on to claim, "They want to define the traditional masculine virtues, things like courage, and independence, and assertiveness, as a danger to society."
"Can we be surprised, that after years of being told that they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games," Hawley huffed.
In his concerns about the status of men in modern society, Hawley echoes nobody so much as the Chinese leadership. The Chinese education ministry recently responded to a "Proposal to Prevent the Feminization of Male Adolescents" with plans for the "cultivation of students' masculinity" (English-language BBC write-up here). The country's officials fret over "sissy men and other abnormal esthetics" in popular culture corrupting national manhood.
True, Hawley and the Chinese leadership aren't alone in their concern over men's status. Twenty years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers (an occasional contributor to Reason) penned The War Against Boys, which posited that boys are ill-served by public schools. In particular, she wrote that "it became fashionable to pathologize the behavior of millions of healthy male children" and warned that educators tried to suppress boys' normal, aggressive behavior rather than channel it to constructive ends.
After several years of fretting by academics, cultural elites, and even advertisers over "toxic masculinity" and "manspreading" on subways, it's impossible to deny that some cultural commentators are a little obsessed with characterizing men overall, and not just misbehavior by men, in a negative light. In some circles, guys are seen as a problem, rather than as people who occasionally cause problems.
"Socialization for conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males' psychological development," the American Psychological Association (APA) insisted in guidelines published in 2018.
The appropriate reaction, it should go without saying, is to vigorously mock the APA and to refuse to take its guidelines or its officials seriously. People are perfectly capable of disdaining and avoiding institutions that have gone off the rails, and of finding alternatives that have a better handle on sanity.
"The school is thriving," Sommers writes of The Heights School, a Catholic academy that encourages and channels male behavior in ways that she approves. "There is new construction and a population of 460 fully engaged male students, grades three through twelve. Competition is part of the everyday life of the students, and awards and prizes are commonly used as incentives—but this competition is deeply embedded in an ethical system."
That is, good people reject ideas and institutions that they find (to borrow a word) toxic, and they turn instead to those that are healthy. By contrast, authoritarians impose their preferences from above. The Chinese Communist Party, for instance, finds masculinity so endangered that it must be protected by the heavy hand of the state from the dread scourge of boy bands.
"China's government banned effeminate men on TV," NPR reported in September. "That reflects official concern that Chinese pop stars, influenced by the sleek, girlish look of some South Korean and Japanese singers and actors, are failing to encourage China's young men to be masculine enough."
China's government also shares Hawley's worries over video games, and restricted children's use of them to three hours per week lest they be corrupted by the debilitating influences of Fortnite.
For his part, Hawley sees salvation for the virtues of masculinity by encasing them in a nurturing terrarium of nationalistic 1950s nostalgia.
"We must make every effort to restore a vibrant manufacturing sector in this country that can employ working men at living wages," Hawley told the National Conservatism conference of his objections to the effects of free trade and free markets (a common theme of his). "I'm talking about wages that can feed a family and support a community. And we can start by requiring that at least half of all goods and supplies that are critical to our national security – at least half – be made right here in the United States of America."
The senator also wants to drag men off the sofa with financial incentives for traditional married life. "There is no higher calling and no greater duty than raising a family and we should encourage every single American man to pursue it. Without apology. So, to that end, I believe the time has come for explicit reward in the tax code for marriage."
What if the main beneficiaries of economic nationalism are American robots? Will Hawley be pleased if a little help from the tax codes prods men to marry each other? We'll have to wait for a future conference (probably held amid much commiseration in Beijing) to find out.
It's perfectly reasonable to object to cultural trends. Whatever captures interest on TikTok or television is often silly for its own sake, and most flights of fancy among professional intellectuals seem designed to elicit eye-rolls from anybody who doesn't spend a lot of time in a faculty lounge. Besides, telling the world of the moment to get off the lawn is a time-honored tradition. In a free society, we spurn things we dislike and pick alternatives that we prefer.
But authoritarians want to take away our ability to decide for ourselves because, fundamentally, they don't respect our judgment. That's why Hawley joins with Chinese communists in trying to jam a fixed definition of manhood down the throats of a public seen as weak and effeminate. Those of us living in places that still allow us choice would be wise to leave the sausage panics to people who think masculinity is so fragile that it needs to be reinforced by the state.