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.