I haven’t seen my copy of Men On Strike for several weeks. I kept careful watch on the book until I finished interviewing her, but after that it disappeared into the Bowyer-Family-Book-Sharing Vortex from which it has not yet emerged. That’s because it is an easy read about a topic which is interesting in both a social science theory way, and in a figuring out how to get by in the current world kind of way.
Men on Strike is pretty much what the title says it is, a book about how many men have decided not to participate in certain areas of life, most notably in school, family, and increasingly in work. What separates the work of Helen Smith, a psychologist who deals with men like the ones she writes about in her book, is the lack of scoldiness that you might find in the similar work of say Kay Hymowitz’ Manning Up. For Smith, the men are in large part acting rationally. They’re more John Galt than they are Peter Pan. The book could as well have been titled Andros Shrugged, if ancient Greek titles sold books.
“Boys and young men are no less rational, or capable of adapting to incentives, than girls and young women are. They are, in fact, adapting very well to the incentives for female power and independence–which inevitably also serve as disincentives to male reliability and self-sacrifice.”
Before the Hymowitz/Taranto controversy erupted, I sat down with Dr. Smith across a Skype connection (one set up by her tech savvy husband, Glenn Reynolds who also writes a popular blog here) for a delightful conversation about the book and whatever else happened to come up.
Jerry: “Our guest is someone who has a fascinating idea about the relationship between the genders in our modern world, particularly the impact that it has on men. She’s a psychologist who specializes in forensic issues and men’s issues. She’s also a blogger for PJ Media, and she’s the author of Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters. My guest is Dr. Helen Smith – psychologist, PhD – just Helen to her friends so as you’ve indicated I’m not going to call you Dr. Smith throughout this interview. First of all Helen, thanks for joining us today.”
Jerry: “So, do we need to defend any longer the idea that men are on strike, or has there been enough commentary about the withdrawal of men from higher education – and to some degree from the job market and the marriage market – that that is now no longer a controversial idea? That men are in some sense not functioning in a proper, completely connected way with modern society?”
Helen: “Well, I think people always think it’s controversial when you say anything positive about men or try to stand up for them, but I think that you’re right; there’s been a lot of information out there and there have been a lot of books about men not getting married or going to college. There have been books like Hanna Rosin’s End of Men, or Manning Up (Kay Hymowitz),Save the Males… and the basic message of these books has been that men are acting immaturely, and the reason I wrote the book is that actually I think they’re acting rationally. The rewards for men in the fields of marriage, education, career, and fatherhood are just a lot less than they used to be, and the cost and dangers are just a lot higher. So they’re opting out, and whether people want to believe this or not, it’s happening.”
Jerry: “It’s interesting – you mention Kay Hymowitz’s book, which is in some ways similar to yours but in other ways very different. Let’s not single her out in particular, but there does tend to be a scold-y tone. Yeah, that’s really going to work with men, right? There does tend to be a scold-y tone in a lot of the “what’s wrong with men” vein, the “failure to launch”, “they’re not going to college”, “they’re not participating in the economy” – a tone that seems to (interestingly for liberals) place no obligation whatsoever or no causal effect whatsoever on larger societal factors.”
Helen: “I definitely think there is a scolding factor and I think people are so used to shaming men, and that’s very prevalent in the culture. I think that we see – I mean, there are so many messages through the commercials, through the media, that men are just no good. And so it’s just so easy to pick up and say that, “Yeah, men are worthless. They’re not good fathers.” We’ve got so many messages out there and I think that’s a really negative thing to be sending to men and particularly young boys in schools and in society. Going back to some of these books like End of Men or Manning Up, you’re right: the message is basically, “You know what, you’re doing this because you’re just an immature man.”
There’s a chapter in Hymowitz’s book about Child-Man in the Promised Land and it’s looking at how men just have so many options and this is why they’re doing what they’re doing. My point in my book is that men are not going to participate in a society that is not going to reward them for that behavior. In other words: if you’re a good father, a good husband, and you do all of the things you’re supposed to do, society still will go after you if you step out of line in any particular way.
In the old days, it was sort of like – fifty years ago a man was head of household, looked up to, treated with respect, and now a married man in many ways is seen as less of a man (not more of one) and it’s doubly so if he has kids. We see the whole, “He’s no longer Ward Cleaver. He’s some schlub carrying around a flower diaper bag.” There are huge risks involved in divorce which is very unfriendly to men. When we look at the workplace, sexual harassment laws and the growth of HR bureaucracies – which are mostly made up of women – these are hostile environments to men. People don’t think about that. They think of hostile environments as only places where things happen to women.
There was even an interesting article written at Forbes by Kyle Smith, who is one of the contributors, and interestingly enough he pointed out a study that showed that something like 93% of HRs are made up of women, and a lot of times these women are choosing people to hire who are either unattractive women or attractive men. The only thing that studies generally care about is, “Oh, pretty women aren’t getting picked for jobs,” but what we need to do is look at the flipside: how are men being affected in the workplace? How are they being affected in the family? How are they being affected in our society? We only look at how women are affected in our society and in our culture; we just don’t care about how men are affected and that’s really why I wrote the book – to talk about, “In what ways are men affected?””