I wrote this about a year before I pledged my masonic lodge, and a little less than a year before I joined my synagogue. This was an exploration of masculinity, and reading Robert G. Davis' book, Understanding Manhood in America, made me find this essay and reprint it. Were I to write it today, I would include what I have learned about masculinity from the Men's group at my synagogue and at my lodge.


I grew up in Australia. Australian men generally accept masculinity far better than American men, and I understand why this is. In every country on earth where boys play, there is a ritual of selecting members of each team, whether the game is soccer, cricket, football, baseball, kickball, mammoth-hunting, what have you. Most boys, at some time, have experienced the humiliation of being picked last, and it hurts. Even being picked second-last is much more tolerable than being picked last. It hurts—what is important, and culturally distinct, is how the boy deals with that pain and humiliation, when he's the one picked last.

In Australia, boys strive to be an asset to the team that picks them. They actually care more about how their team does than how they feel. This isn't ego annihilation, and it's not fascism. While playing the game, the game is what's important, not one's own petty issues. If a boy can table his own issues sufficiently to make a good catch, or kick a goal, he'll get picked sooner next time. He knows this. It's a question of priorities: the team wants to win, and they will pick those kids who will make it more likely that their team will win. How each individual feels during this process is irrelevant to the overall goal. Be dependable, be an asset to the team, and the rest of the team will take care of you.

In Australia, there is the concept of mates. The word loosely translates as "friend", but the truth is that Americans lack the concept completely. Your mate has your back, and you have his. Your mates help define you, and accept you unconditionally. Once you're in, you're in for life. It's not easy to get in. When I was nine, I had a kid who used to annoy me mercilessly on the playground. One day, I had had enough of his picking on me, and I knocked him over with a punch. He got up, shook himself off, and shook my hand. "We're having a party this weekend. Here's where it is."

I was still really angry, and I didn't immediately understand what he was doing. He wanted to know that I would stick up for myself when provoked. He needed to know if, after he was my mate, I'd stand up for him. Once he found out that I'd stand up for myself, I was in. At that party, everyone there treated me like a mate, and I felt more included than I ever did before, and I never got selected last for any game again at that school.

American boys don't have this. The best have a much weaker version of this, but the commitment is conditional and halting, the bonds constantly tested by vicious games of conformity and obedience. Maybe men at war have the real thing, but I have no experience of this. Coming back to the USA, I had to teach my male friends to be mates, and it never came naturally to any of my new friends. I have American mates now, some of whom I've been friends with for twenty years, but it took an enormous amount of work, and included really rocky periods, and a lot of struggle. New people I meet, especially younger people, have no understanding of what it means to be a mate. Friendships, especially among young people, are temporary, fleeting, strategic. They exist in order to jockey for social position. American men seem treacherous, insecure, and ungrounded in comparison to Aussie men. It's killing us as a society. It's one of the great tragedies of our time.

When an American boy gets picked last at a game on the playground, he gives up on ever being selected by the other boys, except last. He retreats into self-pity and misanthropy. This is encouraged by the adults, especially his parents, doubly especially when his dad made the same choices about being picked last himself. This boy tries to create a new playing field where he is the top of the selection. Because he knows he cannot compete on the playing field, he tries to compete in intellectual pursuits, or in a fantasy world, or in fandom. He collects comic books, or plays Dungeons & Dragons, or plays video games. Maybe he learns science, or literature, or art, or music. It never occurs to him to strive to improve himself, to make himself an asset to the team that might choose him. It never occurs to him that a drama is unfolding on a level bigger than that of his individual ego.

When adolescence hits, this boy tries to be cool. He creates a new pecking order based around musical taste, or fashion, or obscure knowledge. He tries out for the school play, or joins the debate team, or starts a band, or joins the school's literary magazine, and tries to win approval through his creativity and intelligence. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking approval through these channels, but the boy still has a chip on his shoulder about rejection. He strives to create not merely a new selection where he is on top, but a new selection where the kids who are successful at the old games are rejected here. He seeks to be even crueler than he thinks those other kids are—to cut them down before they can hurt him again. He doesn't realize that being rejected from the alternative he has just created doesn't hurt at all, really. His ego depends upon being top of some pecking order, even an imaginary one, and he will viciously defend his new status, especially by being cruel to those who are lower down on his new pecking order. He becomes an asshole, but it's everyone else's fault but his.

Ultimately, this is what it means to be cool, to be indie, to be avant-garde, to be hip. As a young punk rocker, I was saved from this insanity because I grew up in a small town where weirdos got their asses beat. In order to be weird, you had to band together and watch each other's backs. We had to trust each other in a fight, or we'd all get stomped. It was ugly, it was nasty, and it was exhausting, but at the end of the day, you really knew who your friends were. A realistic selection sprung up based on whether you were worth saving when everyone got jumped by rednecks. You sized up new potential friends for their value in dragging you out from under a half dozen pairs of steel-toed Doc Martins when the Nazi skinheads broke up your hardcore show. (I like traditional skinheads, but the Nazi skins suck ass). When the bored, redneck small-town cops harassed us for being weird, you needed to know your friends had your back when you split up and ran.

The point is that every boy and every man needs to know his friends chose him. It's hard-wired into our brains. We need to know that we were worth picking, that we're valued for what we contribute to the people around us. We need it in our jobs, in our friendships, and in our relationships. Those boys and men who never get chosen, who never become the people anyone would want on their side, are damaged goods. They're not really cool, they're undeveloped. No tattoo or piercing, no leather jacket or pair of glasses, no boots or records or novels or comic books or mp3s or posters or t-shirts; no commodity of any kind is going to make a pair of balls occur where they wouldn't anyway.

We live in an advertising culture where we are constantly told that the only thing that stands between our current state and wholeness is a particular commodity. It's the central lie of our culture, and the people who hate mainstream culture the most seem to cling to this lie the most intensely. Notice how many "alternative" people define their non-conformity by how readily they conform to an alternate standard? How they buy objects that articulate their rebellion for them? It has become so ingrained in our culture that the current crop of teenagers makes no distinction between consumption and expression. They are frustrated that consumption alienates them from their own feelings and desires, but they express that frustration by consuming more commodities. It's a vicious circle. Let go. Quit being cool.


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Tags: Australia, Lessons, Lessons in Manliness, Manliness, boys, in, manhood, masculinity, sports

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Comment by Brett McKay on August 25, 2009 at 11:38am
I read this post as making generalizations and kind of disregarded the "completely" he threw in there as exaggeration. It's like saying that British men are more reserved and polite than Americans or that Japanese men are more concerned about honor than Americans. There are certainly exceptions but that doesn't mean you can't use the generalizations to make interesting comparisons.
Comment by Jamie Q on August 25, 2009 at 11:33am
Overall, I thought this was a good, insightful piece, Symplectic. However, I don't think the black-and-white contrast between "Aussie boys" and "American boys" was necessarily accurate. Sure, every culture has its own quirks, but I'm sure you'd find the equivalent of your "mateship" concept over here, too. As James pointed out, we, too, develop some unconditional friendships that last a lifetime; it really isn't fair to make a blanket statement that "Americans lack the concept [of mates] completely."

People are people, wherever you go; we have insecure jerks here, and I'm sure there are a lot of insecure jerks in Australia. Perhaps your 3 year stint down under left you with a bit of a nostalgic shine on your memories?
Comment by Jeremy Gross on August 25, 2009 at 10:55am
Probably the biggest flaw in my original blog entry is that I haven't successfully defined mate. It's one of those words, like grok that is a place-holder for an aggregate of highly subjective experiences, which makes them hard to define. Someone can read Stranger in a Strange Land without ever really understanding what grok means, whereas another person can pick up the meaning through context the first time they hear the word used colloquially.

The method of taking away the concept of friendship, and replacing it with an implicitly superior term that is never adequately defined is a rhetorical dirty trick. Being offended is not an unreasonable response, although offending my reader was not my goal. I don't think I use friend and mate interchangeably, but if it comes off that way, then my lack of writing skills is to blame.
Comment by James! on August 25, 2009 at 10:55am
I can agree with the basic premise of the blog. I am easily annoyed with hipster culture and the absence of any true sentiment in preference to a clever turn of phrase. I have found with regards to harvesting solid friendships the key is to offer it, be genuine outside of labels and the status quo. People flock to it when they sense it and they learn to return it.
Comment by James! on August 25, 2009 at 10:42am
So if I wrote that the term "douche-bag" roughly translates to the word "jerk" and that Austalian boys are douche-bags would it make a difference? Especially since if they are being used interchangeably with the only difference being that one is perceived as being superior to the other. I (and a fair amount of Americans)wouldn't use mate because that is not part of my regional vernacular. You began you post stating that you were raised in Australia instead of just visiting for a few years, so I can only comment on what you've written.

At least you admit to writing an unfair generalization of Americans comparisons notwithstanding. So fair enough.
Comment by Jeremy Gross on August 25, 2009 at 10:27am
I don't know a method for determining during good times who will stick around during bad times, but the ones who stick around are mates.
I didn't want to erase the above comment, but I don't like this sentence. It reads like a definition of mate, in which it fails. I should not have used the word mate in this sentence.
Comment by Jeremy Gross on August 25, 2009 at 10:05am
The word loosely translates as "friend", but the truth is that Americans lack the concept entirely

Americans lack the concept of mate, not friend. Mate often gets translated as friend, but that's not a good translation, as friend is too general a concept, covering everything from mere acquaintances to blood brothers. A mate is a personal relationship combined with an obligation, and mateship is not a concept Americans have. We have our own versions of friendship, some deep and some shallow, but we don't have mates. You may have friends with whom you share a bond similar to that of mates, but I am willing to conjecture by the way you reacted to this post that you don't use the word mate to describe them, nor do the parameters overlap exactly.

"Blood in from a bully" fails to adequately describe what happened on the playground that day. It's reductionist and fails to grasp what really happened. I didn't become his friend because of the fight. I became his friend because I stood up for myself in a way he was looking for. It took going from outsider to potential insider to become an insider. At the party, I was treated like a mate, responded well to that treatment, and therefore became a mate. I could have screwed up at the party and found myself on the outside yet again, but I didn't.

I agree that "American men seem treacherous, insecure and ungrounded" is an unfair generalization, especially when you omit the qualifier "in comparison with Aussie men".

I'm still friends with the guys I chose in high school. There's nothing temporary or fleeting about those friendships. The truth is that when I've been on top, happy, self-satisfied, prosperous, I seem to be surrounded by friends and a portion of them seem to disappear when my fortunes change. The ones who stick around when things are bad for me are my real friends. I don't know a method for determining during good times who will stick around during bad times, but the ones who stick around are mates.

I have other friends from every period in my life except my early childhood from before I lived in Australia. I am good at making friends, but I learned that skill in Australia, by treating my friends like mates. I'm not sure I understand how the "rednecks that were beating your ass" were probably my friends. Either that's instantly clear in your writing, and I'm too stuck to see it, or you haven't adequately explained yourself.

I lived in Australia from age 7 to age 10. I'm not sure "not being raised in America" is accurate in my case. I have lived in the USA for the last 30 years, so I think I might have some perspective on the dynamics of American friendship.

If you are offended by my use of the word redneck, I sincerely apologize. I wrote this post a few years ago, and reading Jim Goad's book The Redneck Manifesto made me realize that there's probably not a time in which it is appropriate to use that word, except when quoting someone else.
Comment by James! on August 25, 2009 at 9:39am
The thing I am seeing with this post is that you are writing in broad and unsupported generalizations probably based on your personal experiences which are not broad enough to blanket over the entirety of American men. Such as when you wrote "The word loosely translates as "friend", but the truth is that Americans lack the concept completely." So now Americans completely lack the concept of friendship? I can call bullshit on that just as easily by stating that I have friends that have risked their own red necks for me, then turn around fist fight with me and begrudge me at other times but in the end they are friends. Then you go on to promote a "blood in" from a bully as a good prerequisite for friendship? Screw that.

At one point you write "Friendships, especially among young people, are temporary, fleeting, strategic. They exist in order to jockey for social position. American men seem treacherous, insecure, and ungrounded" Then you go on to write that you "... sized up new potential friends for their value in dragging you out from under a half dozen pairs of steel-toed Doc Martins when the Nazi skinheads broke up your hardcore show." How is that not "strategic" or "insecure"? You know those rednecks that were beating your ass while you waited to be deemed worthy of saving by your mates? They were probably friends.

Your post would have worked better as a rail on showboating in teamsports than a critique on American friendship. Has it crossed your mind that based on not being raised in America you are probably not an authority on the dynamics of American friendship and that your time in Australia has made you biased?
Comment by Jeremy Gross on August 24, 2009 at 10:36am
I would consider myself to be a geek, but it was only after surrendering after a long struggle. I have an MS in pure mathematics and two years of a PhD, and I worked for two years as a Perl hacker on servers running Solaris and later Red Hat. I would consider myself an intermediate at UNIX shell tools, and pretty good with a slide rule, a life-long Doctor Who fan, and pretty decent at taking a server apart and putting it back together. I'm no stranger to a soldering iron, made my own speaker wire, and can prove the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus without warning if you tap me on the shoulder and ask me to. I was in a GURPS campaign that lasted over a decade, played a lot of Classic AD&D as a kid, have a complete set of Icehouse pieces, a Fluxx deck, and a lot of other things that cement my geek bona fides.
That being said, I have a black belt in aikido, and before that art made me more gentle, I did get into a lot of fights as a kid. I was an ice hockey goaltender growing up, going to hockey camp every summer. When I was a Boy Scout, I was very into scoutcraft: making my own rope, tying 30 different knots on command, I even built a 20' signal tower with a crew out of spars lashed together with my rope.
I was careful not to pick on geeks per se in my original post. Goths, high school actors, very political (especially left wing politics) kids, all seem to be the ones who took the challenges of the playing field as boys and cashed them in for a field they themselves control. This is all about control, here. Rather than attempt to control the situation they find themselves in, a lot of American boys seek to find a new playing field they have built themselves, that they can control, and master that playing field, rather than the one that originally challenged them. There is virtue in this (basically all specialists and experts start out this way), but the danger is that they never make their peace with what upset them in the first place. A man has to master many challenges, and if he fails his formative challenges, he never really gets over it.
Comment by Andrew Schultz on August 22, 2009 at 6:27pm
Lightbringer- I'm Australian and all the engineers I know (5 personally, 3 of whom I would count as "mates") and they are all (bar one) athletic, sporting types.
And yeah, with sports, I agree that in Australia the point seems to be more about the activity/game/struggle than the players feelings.
Interesting read Symplectic!

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