'Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life' by Andrew L. Yarrow

'Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life' by Andrew L. Yarrow {
Julian Stratenschulte/dpa via AP, file

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Andrew L. Yarrow’s Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” which will be published tomorrow by Brookings Institution Press.

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On the renowned HBO TV series “The Sopranos,” James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano often reacted to a perceived softening of American culture and particularly of American men by asking “whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?” Throughout the series, Tony would experience moments of sensitivity and insight only to react vehemently against them in acts of rage, violence, or adultery.

This was an early pop culture hint of a problem that is now surfacing in our public discourse, though still generally lacking in definite contours or nuanced exposition. Were the series coming out now, the internet would be rife with think-pieces about Tony’s “toxic masculinity.”

Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former reporter for the New York Times, has made a bid to give this problem more definition. “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life” organizes a cluster of men’s problems — unemployment and underemployment, divorce, social isolation, addictions to porn, drugs, and video games, criminality, misogyny, and general irresponsibility — under the rubric of alienation. Men increasingly feel as if the job market, politics, and culture have no place for them. Their response has been, in various ways, to effectively drop out of society.

In telling the story of this crisis in masculinity, Yarrow is careful to avoid both a conservative tendency to identify culture as the sole culprit and a liberal tendency to place all the blame on the economy. Liberals, according to Yarrow, are generally right that “the social contract was broken” when, beginning in the 1980s, deregulation, hostility to unions, the financialization of the economy, and globalization conspired to dismantle the middle-class ideal of a man able to support a family on a blue-collar job. But, he points out, it’s also clear that even if these jobs were to suddenly flood back into middle America, the civic problems that plague many communities and the lives of the men that inhabit them would not simply disappear.

Of course, women suffer from economic stagnation and inequality as much as, if not more than, men. Yarrow is not out to deny that: Things may still be worse for women overall, but suffering is not a competition, he insists. Yarrow wants to show the particular features of the problem for men. Here culture becomes especially important.

It’s fitting that Tony Soprano’s model for masculinity was not a relative but Gary Cooper, an actor. When men and boys struggle today, they are less and less likely to find models for masculinity in local relationships and organizations. Men are less likely than women to go to church or synagogue; they participate less and less in clubs like Rotary or the Kiwanis; they have fewer friends, and when their marriages break up, they tend to receive limited custody rights and become disconnected from their children. Television, video games, and opioids flood in to fill the void. The internet makes alienated life more sustainable, providing endless distraction and simulacra of social engagement that provide temporary, sham relief while only deepening disaffection.

The result? A caricature of masculinity owing a great deal to pop culture gains sway. Artificial versions of strength, self-reliance, and stoicism — the Gary Cooper ideal — serve as thin veils for resentment, narcissism, and isolation.

Yarrow offers a number of policy prescriptions that address both the economic and cultural dimensions of the problem. These involve renewing the social contract by, for example, supporting unions, offering adults job training, and reforming the criminal-justice system. At the same time, Yarrow hopes we can once again “find a common core of values” through things like civics education, parenting classes, and better supports for civil society.

Perhaps more than these prescriptions, though, the value of Yarrow’s book lies in the way it shows how engrained tendencies in our black-and-white political dialogue prevent us from not only solving social problems, but from seeing them in all their shades and complexity.

Alexander Stern is deputy editor of RealClearPolicy.

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