Sunday, August 14, 2011

Where are All the Men?

Fabrizio, bewildered and unattached on the battlefield at Waterloo, stumbles into the company of three other stragglers and an otherwise unnamed corporal:
“That’s good news! We’re all in the same boat,” said the corporal; “but do what I tell you and you’ll get through all right.” His eye fell on five or six trees marking the line of a little ditch in the middle of an immense cornfield. “Make for the trees!” he told his men; “lie down,” he added when they had reached the trees, “and not a sound, remember. But before you go to sleep, who’s got any bread?”

“I have,” said one of the men.

“Give it here,” said the corporal in a tone of authority. He divided the bread into five pieces and took the smallest himself.
--Stendahl, Charterhouse of Parma 60 (Signet ed. 1962)


Accept it as a universal: unattached, underemployed young men are a misfortune and in sufficient numbers can be a calamity.  I've argued before that we (they) will probably breed young men out after another couple of generations, but in the meantime here is another home truth, perhaps more contentious but I think no less true.  That is: the only force that society has ever devised sufficient to control anarchic young men is older men: men old enough to have banked the fires of testosterone poisoning, to have acquired mortgages and steady gigs they don't want to lose--but who retain enough energy and personal magnetism to slap the young ones into line.

I'm not talking superman here, not vainglorious displays of macho bravado.  Precisely the contrary--that is young man stuff.  I'm talking the humbler and more demanding task of Keeping the Wheels on the Bus. Women will say that is women's work and in large measure they are right.  But the preponderance of the evidence tilts towards a melancholy truth: they can't do it on their own.  Say what you like about what "a mother knows," the fact is they are too often bullied or--what is worse--suckered by the young hot-bloods to maintain stability and good order on their own.

What men, exactly?  One's first thought may be "pastors"--priests, rabbis, but I'm not so sure.  I'm inclined to vote with Ann Douglas and recognize that pastors are mostly about women.  For men, I'm thinking rather of a humbler category: petty officers, top sergeants, shift commanders, shop foremen and the like.  And I'm specifically not talking about heroism here.  I'm just saying that a decent society can't run without them.

[Aside: in passing, I'd say that this insight helps to explain the enduring popularity of a particular kind of TV show--my old favorite Hill Street Blues, for example, or Coach, or the immortal (interminable?) Law and Order.]

All of which makes me wonder: where are the men in London, specifically Tottenham and Wood Green?  The short answer is that I haven't a clue: I've spent a lot of time in London but I don't think I ever set foot in either place.  All I know is that it's pretty clear that some sort of social glue is missing.  In America, some people would say this sort of thing is an artifact of excessive incarcertion: lock the men away for a generation and you've got nobody to mind the home front. In some places, you might find that it's a function of immigration patterns: young folks come to the city while old folks stay home (think New York in the 1880s-90s).    It some places, it may be that the older men have never got plugged in themselves--that they remain without jobs and mortgages and the other indicia of stability that work to put them on an even keel.    Ironically, one thing underlying this model is the very philosophy of policing, as invented in modern England by Sir Robert (Bobbie!) Peel."

I stress I don't want to pretend that I know enough to push any one of these particular theories: I'm posing a question, not giving an answer.  All I'm saying is that a society with a surplus of underemployed young men is sitting on a bonfire.  And a society without a network of plugged-in older men is very likely to find itself stuck with the former.

1 comment:

marcel said...

Your description of how a well functioning society works, in re younger and older males, puts me in mind of elephant society.