Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Common

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
 – Jay Z, Moment of Clarity

It was rightly pointed out to me on Facebook that this series would have to address hip-hop. I don’t think there’s a doubt that it is the musical genre that is most concerned with demonstrations of masculinity, and there has always been plenty of hip-hop that…ain’t feminist. Even positive hip-hop can include problematic lyrics. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I have been a fan for longer than my adult life. It wasn’t hard to think of someone I’d like to take a closer look at in terms of positive masculinity: Common.

In seeking a manly image of Common, I had way too many to choose from, but so many shots were from photo-shoots or from a public, red-carpet event. I wanted something that at least seemed candid, so here you go:

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There he is looking vaguely annoyed that someone was taking a picture of him.

I was excited to find that Spotify had Common’s albums all the way back to Can I Borrow A Dollar, from 1992, so I had a listen. I was 12 when this came out, so I hadn’t heard it before. But the funk-backed, clever lyrics are immediately recognizable. (Interestingly, only 5 of the 13 tracks are marked as Explicit.) He name-drops the villain of Super Mario Bros., so the nerdiness is there too. “Heidi Ho” is pretty awful, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. I think at this stage, Common was still “underground” – he hadn’t made it big, at any rate. His next album, 1994’s Resurrection, includes the first Common song I remember hearing: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” A long way from “Heidi Ho” already. His first big album, as I understand it, was One Day It’ll All Make Sense. And here we clearly have a rapper coming into his full powers. A little less fast-talking for its own sake, smarter lyrics, and deeper funk beats. 20 years old, and it holds up in my opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t a Common music retrospective. I’m under-qualified, though the “research” would be fun. Rather, this is profiles in positive masculinity. Now, Common has been involved in his share of stupid nonsense. He had a beef with Ice Cube in the 90s and more recently with Drake, though shots exchanged never went beyond diss tracks. But for me, Common stands out in general as a positive voice in hip-hop. I don’t think he went down either easy path in the genre: becoming primarily a safe rapper who avoids controversial topics, or a hard rapper who turns machismo up to 11. He seems to be someone who tries to contribute to the world through his music, who is aware of his potential to be a role-model, while still remaining relevant in a music genre that for some people is (wrongly) synonymous with misogyny.

He speaks out about racism, injustice and inequality, avoids most of the pit-falls of his genre, and at the same time has remained a significant figure in music for 20 years. He’s brains-over-brawn, though not without brawn, and I think a person could listen to his music and learn something. If he was harder, or softer, he would probably be more successful, but in listening through a few tracks each of his last 25 years of albums, he’s remained true to himself to an amazing degree. Intelligent, socially conscious, and plenty of funk.

Outside of his music and acting, he has also been an activist for some time. He has worked on behalf of PETA, of HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, and founded the Common Ground Foundation to help youth in poverty, among other things. 10 years ago he pledged not to use anti-gay lyrics anymore, which is progressive for hip-hop (and frankly for 2007, though things were turning).

It’s hard to remain relevant in pop music for 20 years. Who else from 20 years ago is still rapping and hitting the Billboard 100 in 2015? Even harder than remaining relevant for 20 years is remaining positive for that long. Using one’s art to try and make the world a better place. In a genre that is, let’s be honest, known for exhibiting many aspects of toxic masculinity, Common has shown both excellence and character, and he is today’s profile in positive masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Jimmy Carter

Similar to my profile of Justin Trudeau, this is not about who James Earl Carter Jr. was as President of the United States. I’m more interested in someone who can maintain their integrity, even having risen to the highest position in the most powerful nation on Earth. (Or at least one of the two most powerful, since we’re talking about the 70s.) Before we go on, though, we need a manly picture of former President Carter:

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The way that we structure power in most societies rewards toxicity – aggression, deception, tribalism and so on. Politics is, and always has been, rife with controversy and corruption because there are a lot of harmful behaviors that are rewarded. Normally, political leaders are judged on a different moral scale when compared to the rest of us. We expect a certain background radiation of scandal and abuse of power. When we find hypocrisy, we think “Well, of course, this person is a politician.” What this means is that it is all that much more difficult, I think, to be a genuinely decent person who rises to power in a modern society. You are competing with people who will have advantages over you. It’s like being in a boxing match where everyone else can hit below the belt. If you become a champion under those circumstances, that is noteworthy on its own.

But what happens after you’ve risen to power? In Jimmy Carter’s case, what happened was that he returned to his peanut farm in Georgia. He wrote books and taught at Emory University. Most interesting to me, though, is that he has spent the last few decades working with Habitat for Humanity, working with his hands to build houses for the poor, and serving as a face for Habitat in the world.

I find it a compelling story, that someone like an ex-President, with so much potential power and influence, would choose to work with his hands. It is easy to see this as a mistake, as a waste of time. Couldn’t someone else build those houses? Why not do something like fundraising, which excites so many other politicians? Or be a highly-paid speaker? Cultivate wealthy friends and establish a philanthropic fund of some sort? Instead, he picked up a hammer and saw.

I like that Jimmy Carter has remained connected to simple things, despite having one of the most complex jobs on Earth for four years. Whatever one might think of his presidency, his life after the presidency says a lot about who he is. Justin Trudeau seems to be a highly effective liberal politician – more effective than Carter was, at least so far, and one who often remains true to his stated values. Nick Offerman is an incredible craftsman who builds genuinely beautiful things in his workshop, and a reflective person who has things to say about life and how to live it. Jimmy Carter just builds basic low-income houses. But of the three, Jimmy Carter is the one that inspires me the most. To rise to power, and then be cast down publicly, and then devote one’s life to helping others says a lot about who Carter is.

Of course it matters how someone uses power, but it also matters how someone reacts to the loss of power. His decisive loss to Reagan ended his political career. So what did he do? Among other things, he picked up a hammer and got to work, on behalf of the most vulnerable people around him. That says a lot. If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is a 92 year old man who builds houses for the poor with his own hands. At that age, I’d be proud to be half that manly. Heck, I’d be proud to be half that manly now.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Nick Offerman

I am a huge fan of Parks and Recreation. It is a show I’ve watched in its entirety three times through. I have a lot to say on the value of the show, and how it stands out compared to other TV comedies, and even how it relates to my beliefs about God. But that isn’t for this post. This post is yet another profile in positive masculinity, focusing on perhaps the most masculine person I can think of: Nick Offerman.

As with my previous profiles, I’m not going to go through all of Nick Offerman’s life and work, but rather I’m going to highlight a couple of elements of his life and work that I think exemplify positive masculinity. But first, as always, a manly picture – which for Offerman is not hard to find:

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Not only is Nick Offerman the ridiculously appropriate narrator for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the audiobook, but he has written a number of books himself – Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, and Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He is, often intentionally I think, almost a living parody of manliness. Smelling of whisky, flecked with sawdust, robust mustache or full beard, and just wafting androgen wherever he goes. Offerman’s success seems to come from embracing himself. I didn’t realize how similar he and his Parks and Rec character were until after the first time I watched through the series, and wanting to learn more I looked up the various actors and people connected to the show. He reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, and is one of the only people alive today who could say “Bully!” to describe something positive unironically.

I think of Ron Swanson as one of the best type-castings in TV history, and it’s fun to learn about how much Ron Swanson became like Nick Offerman. The Libertarianism was already present in the character, but he was expanded to include Offerman’s love of woodworking, red meat and Lagavulin whiskey. Scenes in Ron Swanson’s workshop on the show were shot in Nick Offerman’s actual workshop. (This didn’t make it into the show, but he and I share a love of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. As if I could love the guy more!)

In an interview with A.V. Club, he even reflects on his relative masculinity, something he also discusses in his books:

I think it’s fascinating that I receive attention for what people perceive to be a level of manliness or machismo, when amongst my family of farmers and paramedics and regular Americans, I’m kind of the sissy in my family. But when I arrive in Los Angeles in the entertainment community, and I use implements like a shovel and a hammer, our society has distanced itself so far from working with its hands that those incredibly pedestrian skills are perceived as somehow being extraordinary. I think the whole thing is kind of sad, honestly, in the same way that our civilization—particularly the consumers of pop culture—has grown so used to an emasculated, bare-chested leading man that something like simply growing a mustache can impress people. [Laughs.]

For such a manly man, Nick Offerman also has a lot of Feminist friends, including of course Amy Poehler. In interviews, he is open in his insistence on the necessity of Feminism. He also insists on the necessity of self-reliance. He’s kind of a Libertarian Feminist, which is not a creature one meets everyday.

He wants to inspire people to treat each other better, and he knows that to do that, you need to lift up the experiences of the oppressed and disadvantaged. Here, in his own words:

Honestly, in the case of Nick Offerman, I think his masculinity is unassailable (even without a mustache), and his positivity is immediately apparently in his acting, writing, interviews, etc. I probably should have started with him, but, you know, hindsight and all.

When I thought through these profiles, and talked about the phronemos, the Aristotelian exemplar of wisdom, I hadn’t realized how much I considered Offerman to be a phronemos, not just of positive masculinity, but of wisdom in general. I look forward to reading more of his writings, and learning more from Nick Offerman, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

 

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Justin Trudeau

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Not hard to find a manly picture of Justin Trudeau. I like this one because it is strong but also flexible and playful, not just flexing in a mirror after being misted with faux-sweat or something.

And as I move on from Michael Forbes to my second Profile in Positive Masculinity, I need to clarify a few things. One is that I’m not a journalist, and I already work 60 hours a week and am a dad, so I don’t have time to do what I’d prefer, which is to go out locally and find unsung heroes of masculinity. I have to work with people who are famous one way or another. Second, I’m not advocating for or against Trudeau’s politics. That isn’t what this profile is about. In fact, I am going to focus on two specific instances of positive masculinity and leave it at that. I don’t know everything about Trudeau’s life, any more than I knew all about Forbes’ life.

And lastly, remember, this is not meant to be flawless masculinity. Just positive masculinity.

The first instance of positive masculinity I want to highlight came during Trudeau’s interview for the Daily Show with Hasan Minhaj. It’s your standard Daily Show interview, and kudos to Trudeau for accepting the interview in the first place, since he had to know they were going to try to get him to say or do something silly. Hasan Minhaj is no Stephen Colbert, though, so the tables in the interview quickly turn.

What’s interesting is the moment that comes at 5:40 of the video posted below. Just…just watch.

See that moment? Hasan Minhaj has come to roast Justin Trudeau, but he gets shut down immediately. There’s a moment where Minhaj is clearly thinking, wait, did shit just get real? And it did not get real. Well, maybe briefly. But what I liked about that moment was just the quiet confidence that Trudeau showed, shutting down even a playful threat without bullying or blustering or threatening in return. He just says, “You might find that a little more difficult than you think.” Maybe I’m just a little jealous of someone who is that self-possessed. Maybe I’m reading reading too much into a situation where Trudeau is surrounded by armed security, sitting in his own capital.

The second moment I wanted to highlight is the moment when Trudeau does something almost no other world leaders seem able to do – he reached a handshake detente with Trump. (And yes, I will regularly present positive masculinity in contrast to Trump)

First, let John Oliver break it down for you with lots of examples of the Patented Trump Yank-and-Pull Handshake.

So, we see that pretty much every time Trump shakes hands with someone, especially another man in a suit, he yanks their hand over towards him, and sometimes leans in aggressively as well, and is probably squeezing as hard as he can as well. It’s clearly something he heard about from someone, as something that real men and strong leaders do. He shakes hands like an asshole, is what I’m saying. Almost invariably.

Forward to the most recent meeting between Trump and Trudeau. Trudeau knows about this handshake move, and he’s come prepared. Here is a video with a little bit of analysis:

He’s prepared for the adolescent power-move. He moves in close immediately, keeps his right hand close to his body, and puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as a brace. Trump tries to drag on his hand awkwardly a couple of times, then kind of gives up and leaves it in a state of detente.

So, clearly, Justin Trudeau is singular, the Prime Minister of a whole country. Not a goal most of us are going to reach. But all of us have to deal with assholes in our lives. Adolescent jerks who want to awkwardly show dominance, or punk us, or whatever. Stereotypical masculinity has a response to that – escalate. But I think there is a more powerful, positive response as well – what one might call quiet strength, and a little preparation if you see an asshole coming your way.

Man or woman, being self-possessed is compelling. Being at home in your own skin, and being committed to maintaining your dignity without having to fight back or one-up someone.

We can’t all be world leaders, obviously, but we can be a little bit more like Justin Trudeau, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

 

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Michael Forbes

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We begin with a manly picture of our first profile in positive masculinity. I decided to start with someone who is only somewhat famous – really just a regular Scotsman who somehow became embroiled in a conflict with the man who would be SCROTUS. I came to know of my hero Mr. Forbes through Full Frontal – first in their piece on The Original Trump Haters, and then more fully in their Web Extra: Michael Forbes: Trump Kryptonite. If you are interested, you can go backwards in time and see that he has been featured in a couple of documentaries as well, including You’ve Been Trumped.

In brief, here is the story. Trump arrived in Scotland with the intent of building a golf course and started throwing his weight around – primarily the weight of his ego of course, and his presumption that money can buy anything. He received a classic Scottish warm welcome, being referred to as (apologies for the brogue):

a custard-flavored jobby, leather-faced piss jar, mangled apricot hell-beast, bawbag-eyed duck bumper, glaikit heidbanger, touped ducktrumpet, knuckle-braind fart lozenge, blinkered plum, huffy wee duckin bampot, utter cockwomble, degenerate corned beef face syrup wearing wankstain, rug-wearing thunder nugget, duckin walloper, uncooked pastry, hamster heedit bampot, duck-knuckle, rotten orange ducknut, onion-eyed flap dragon, wee orange rodent, mop-headed fud, cock-juggling thundercunt, witless ducking cocksplat, gerbil-headed, woodstained, and haunted spunktrumpet…

among other colorful terms. (And yes, I enjoyed listing all of those.) Like I said, classic Scottish hospitality extended to anyone of Trump’s stature. Surprising no one, Trump’s plans did not go well, and hit a solid wall of manliness when he came up against Michael Forbes.

Michael Forbes is a local farmer, part-time salmon fisherman and quarry worker who owned land that Trump wanted for his golf course. Trump demanded that Mr. Forbes sell the land, and Mr. Forbes told Trump to shove it. Many times. Went to court to say it, and won. Ultimately, Mr. Forbes would literally chase Trump surrogates from his land because he was tired of Trump’s nonsense and would have no more of it. This led Forbes to experience some, in my view quite well-deserved, fame. He has appeared in a couple of documentaries and has been interviewed many times.

A self-described shy person, Michael Forbes lives in his farmhouse with his mother and his wife Sheila. He stood up to someone who has successfully cowed the entirety of Republican leadership in the US and a large segment of Democrat leadership as well; someone who rode rough-shod over 17 other Republican candidates in the primaries; someone who has made a brand out of being intimidating and implacable in getting what he wants – the ultimate deal-broker who, if nothing else, can surely build a damn golf course in Scotland.

But no, turns out, he can’t. Because of Michael Forbes, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

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Positive Masculinity

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We are awash in toxic masculinity. This has probably almost always been the case in recorded history, but now is a time when we have plenty of critical abilities that enable us to notice how toxic things have become. Just like ancient Romans sweetened their wine with lead, there has been plenty of toxicity that we’ve ingested because it seemed right at the time. But now we know what that lead does. Maybe I pushed that metaphor too far.

In recent years, toxic masculinity has felt like a resurgence – maybe I’m just becoming aware of what was going on all along. But there’s no doubt that many forms of toxicity are being given tremendous attention right now. It starts at the top with President Puss-Grabber Himself. And we have the toxicity of Breitbart and the alt-right neo-Nazis. Not long ago GamerGate was a hot topic, so hot that it spilled out of gamer culture into pop culture, driven by the surprising (to me) force of toxic masculinity in gaming.

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There’s a whole new lexicon produced by toxic males: Men’s Rights Activist, incel, Red Pill and Blue Pill (and Purple Pill), cuck, MGTOW, “Social Justice” used as an insult, ignorant misuse of terms like alpha male, beta male and omega male, Manosphere, ignorant misuse of “Cultural Marxism,” hypergamy, gynocentrism, and so on. It’s a jargon-fest over there in Toxic Masculinity Land, and it functions how jargon always functions – to strengthen group cohesion and insulate the group from others. The miasma just swirls around as the Douchebag Ouroboros eats his own tail. (But not fast enough.)

I put significant time looking into the Men’s Rights Movement and related movements and groups – watching YouTube videos, reading articles and blog posts, watching recorded debates and so on. Probably a few dozen hours in total. And I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever positive aspects might be mixed in with the MRA and related groups are so mired in toxicity as to be irrecoverable. There are a handful of good, valid-seeming points they try to make, but they make it amidst a vile combination of racism, sexism, violence, rape apologism…it’s really just appalling. Even looking at featured voices in the ‘movement’ (whom I will not name because of their biliousness), one just scratches the surface to find a Nazi screed or call for violence against women – even from the women who are part of the Men’s Rights movement. It is, to paraphrase a turtle story, trolls all the way down.

On the other end of the spectrum from toxic masculinity, we have gender non-conformity; the queering of male-ness and breaking of the boundaries around what was traditionally considered male. Personally, I welcome this, but not everyone does, nor will most people in the near future. We are not close to a society where the majority of men are gender non-conforming, but I think we are currently experiencing a society where the majority of men aren’t clear on what the heck they’re supposed to be doing, much less why. The rise of toxic masculinity has occurred, in large part, because men have not stepped up to define ourselves in positive ways. On the surface, the cultural story as experienced by a significant number of men has either been “men are terrible” or “don’t let those nasty women call you terrible, here join this toxic movement.”

So I’m going to be writing about men who embody ways to be positively masculine. That is, neither terrible nor toxic, but masculine, each awesome in their own way. I’m choosing examples that are not perfect. These aren’t supposed to be boundary-shattering men who redefine what it means to be a man, because that’s too high a bar and no one outside of liberal enclaves will even want to do something like that. These are just some cool non-toxic dudes to emulate if you want.

In Aristotle’s philosophy, if one wants to learn wisdom one must seek out the phronemos. The phronemos is one who is already wise, and one can learn wisdom by emulating such a person. Wisdom is one of those things that is really hard to teach, even for Aristotle, but he thought about it like Justice Stewart thought about pornography – you know it when you see it.

These men I’ll be profiling are each to be like a phronemos in the quest for positive masculinity. It’s difficult to teach, and difficult to define, but I do think we can know it when we see it.

Detoxing Masculinity

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It’s weird to feel called to deal with masculinity, in its many current toxic forms, when I don’t see myself as very masculine to begin with. With the exception, maybe, of body and facial hair. But my adolescent experience was getting bulled and being called a “faggot” until I learned to defend myself with humor (and occasionally fists). My dad was convinced for a couple years that I was gay because I wasn’t dating and had a couple really close friends I spent all my time with. But on some level, his assessment also amounted to “faggot”, and that made an impression on me. (I don’t know that he ever changed his mind) Terrible at sports, short and never in good shape, not sexually active until well into my 20s, depressed, prone to anxiety and panic attacks, not good at fighting or fixing things, phobic of firearms because of a past experience – not anyone’s picture of masculinity. What was I into? Nerdy stuff, and theater, and and writing; lots of reading and video games. Maybe a couple of stereotypically male interests, but zero masculine interests.

And yeah, there’s a difference. I’m sure my dad or brothers would explain it to you if you don’t know. Me – male. Them – masculine.

I’m not a man that other men are drawn to. I don’t think I’m, like, repellent, but I’m simply not the sort of man that other men look to as an example. For my own examples, I look elsewhere, to other men who are quite different from me. I am, at the very best, male-neutral as an adult. But no one’s looking to me to learn what a man is and does – with the possible exception of my daughter, at least at this stage of her life. (Yikes. OK. Deep breath.)

This isn’t to say that I’m not acknowledging that I am awash in male privilege – quite the opposite. The things that female colleagues in my profession have to deal with are just ridiculous (not to mention black colleagues, gay colleagues, etc.). I would have to ignore everything they have ever said not to get it. I was born with the straight white male winning Lottery ticket, and it is my job to do what I can to dismantle that. Got it – I am in. But. I’m thinking through this, and have been for a long time now, precisely because I see the need to do my “straight white man work,” but the man part is the most challenging.

I’m a default participant in male privilege, but I am not an active participant in masculinity, if that makes sense. Nor am I gender-nonconforming. I’m just gender-blah. And there’s a part of me that has this intuition that Doug over here doing his due diligence as a man is a bit like Doug over here playing Dungeons & Dragons – it’ll have no impact on the wider world other than being another weird thing Doug does. And I could do worse, so I do some of my man-work over here. It’s just, let’s say, not a strength; not a clear path forward.

Even though I understand that male privilege can be experienced as monolithic, it gets complicated in that masculinity is not monolithic at all. And I know that part of the agenda of feminism, which I whole-heartedly identify with, is to enable the full expression of all of these diverse takes on gender. But…I’m not sure how to actually do that, and not just do that, but help the world around me do that too.

Feel free to roll your eyes and post a comment about the obvious thing I’m missing. I’ll keep slowly chiseling through my own baggage in this area and trying to do more good than harm, and maybe I’ll put it together.