Thursday, July 27, 2006

A question of manliness

A comment from Britain

There is, apparently, a resurgence of manliness in America. Superman has returned to the big screen and unshaven, testosterone-charged film stars such as Colin Farrell no longer look socially marginalised. The A To Z Of Manliness, a compendium of tips on such matters as how to punch properly, is number two on the New York Times bestseller list, while a rash of academic books on the importance of real men have added fuel to the fire. The Boston Globe recently summed up the phenomenon: "We're in the middle of a Menaissance."

Years of feminism, which insists on the absolute interchangeability of the traditional roles of man and woman, are giving way to a reassertion of the male attribute of machismo, it is claimed. The metrosexual, that urbanised, sensitive, emotionally and physically androgynous model of 21st-century manhood, is dead.

What is manliness?

All hail the modern caveman. But wait a minute. Before we even ask what kind of man modern women really want, how exactly are we defining manliness? My dictionary lists "courage, valour and energy" as key characteristics of the manly man. But by that measure, my wife, who has gone through the horror of childbirth and who runs a family of six, is more of a man than me. Nor can we equate Superman with Colin Farrell as fellow icons of the new American manliness. Superman is discreet about his gifts, he is modest, he wears a suit when not saving the world (when he opts for the kiss curl and tights). Mr Farrell is an indiscreet wildman. Manliness should not be confused with machismo. I will give you an example.

Years ago, I was on the family ranch in Argentina with my uncle, leaning on a fence, the other side of which stood a huge Brahman bull. The bull was in a tetchy mood because his testicles were dragging along the floor and had become infected. My uncle, with a twinkle in his eye, handed a spray can of disinfectant to his foreman, a strutting, mustachioed gaucho, and asked him to apply it to the infected area. A look of horror flitted across the foreman's eyes, but then he thrust out his chin, squared his shoulders and, before my uncle could stop him, jumped the fence and sprayed the bull before walking away nonchalantly.

"Que macho (what a man)," I exclaimed. "That wasn't macho," said my uncle. "That was stupid. A real man would have told me to f*** off." Machismo gets you stabbed in bars "for looking at my bird", or flattened by the 10: 15 to Euston during a drunken game of chicken with your mates. Manliness is not braggadocio. It is stoicism, self-respect, decisiveness, assertiveness. Of course, advocates of the Menaissance may argue that we shouldn't be too concerned about what kind of a man women want these days. Isn't that, they would say, the way we arrived at simpering metrosexuals desperate to please their other halves?

And yet it's instructive to consider that a woman's understanding of manliness tends to be very different from a man's. My wife and daughter are fixated by the American drama Lost, in which a group of people stranded on a remote island after a plane crash battle to stay alive against sinister forces. They frequently confer on which male characters are the sexiest, and in doing so make the perfect distinction between machismo and manliness. The men they say they would fall in love with are not the washboard-stomached firebrands, but rather the ones most able to protect them and provide for them in those inhospitable surroundings.

These characters are possessed of a calm stoicism, and a desire to look after the weakest first. This judgment by my wife and daughter does not indicate fluffy submissiveness, but cool pragmatism. Their heroes are not to be found blubbing on a football pitch like half the England team, or taking part in the orchestrated grieving that has become an integral part of British national life.

It is the atavistic desire to provide for those you love that forms the basic building block of manliness. It has existed since the physically stronger sex travelled the plains in search of meat for the family and it continued until the rise of feminism in the 1960s, a movement which would have us believe that men and women are biological and emotional clean slates, each possessed of identical and interchangeable faculties when it comes to work, life and family. This is the lunacy that allows women fighter pilots to get aloft even though a man is more effective in combat because his stronger frame better protects him from G-forces. It is the feminist orthodoxy that renders my wife faintly embarrassed when she owns up to being a housewife. It is the notion that children do not need fathers.

'Feminists bearing pitchforks'

Up and down America, feminists bearing torches and pitchforks are on the trail of Harvey Mansfield, a Yale University professor whose book, Manliness, laments: "We are in the process of making the English language gender neutral, and 'manliness', the quality of one gender, or rather of one sex, seems to describe the essence of the enemy we are attacking, the evil we are eradicating." He continues: "Feminism needs to come to terms with manliness. I think women are confused about what they want men to be and that leads to male confusion."

Mansfield believes there are stark differences between the sexes, and that they should be celebrated. If those manly attributes are hard to pin down, most women tend to know them when they see them. A straw poll of the wives and mothers in my small Kent community offered up the following characteristics. A real man is chivalrous and emotionally robust and mature. He is modest, does not wear his heart on his sleeve, and is dutiful to wife or lover, and to family. A real man provides for and protects those he loves. All those attributes that allowed men to drag down mammoths for their families and communities in prehistoric times - aggression, competitiveness, decisiveness - still survive and govern the most basic aspects of sexual attraction, marriage and child rearing. This does not make a man superior, but underpins the fact that men and women complement each other, bringing unique gifts to the business of ensuring the survival of the species. It was the caveman who went about the rather unsophisticated business of killing the mammoth and dragging it home, but it was the cavewoman who turned it into food and clothes.

Feminism, as Prof Mansfield suggests, has sought to eradicate one vital side of this equation. The result is a confused hotchpotch of duties and responsibilities, and the emergence of what has been untidily dubbed the metrosexual male - tieless, depilated, sarong-clad and permanently engaged in the exhausting business of anticipating feminine disgruntlement. So what hopes for a Menaissance in this country? Although I have serious doubts about America's ability to distinguish between manliness and machismo, it is still a far more manly place than Britain.

Just look at our cultural icons. We worship the cry-baby Beckham, hairless, smothered in costly unguents, neurotically self-aware. We hang on to every syllable uttered by the mindless, spoiled and usually gay men in the Big Brother house. The Yanks have Superman, Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Here, the Tory leader makes sage pronouncements on the evils of chocolate oranges and four-wheel-drive vehicles, not to mention the respect and deference due to hooded youths as they happy-slap their way across Britain.

And there are greater cultural differences which mean that the so-called Menaissance may be a long time coming to these shores. First, while America is still a Christian country, Britain is post-Christian. As the historian Michael Burleigh has said, the Anglican Church is little more than an 'echo chamber' for the latest purely secular moral, political and social trends. In the Christian tradition, the man has a set of immutable duties towards wife and family that cannot be overlooked, and these duties rest on the ethics of personal responsibility, morality and, overriding all this, a responsibility to provide for the family. How dramatically those duties have been eroded.

Secondly, in Britain we have lived for more than 50 years under the umbrella of an all-powerful welfare state. This is a good thing in that it protects the weakest, but bad in that our taxation and redistributive structures have served to stamp out that key element of manliness - self-betterment and provision for those you are responsible for. Why bother working? Why bother marrying and remaining faithful to wife and family if a single mother on benefits garners more than a low-paid married couple with one child, both of whom work?

In meritocratic America, where welfare is harder to get, self-betterment is a constituent part of staying fed and housed. Men cannot afford to be feckless. If they don't help themselves, no one will. And America, it must be remembered, is a country which still venerates male icons: heroes such as Jim Bowie are loved because the nation's history is force-fed to the young in schools.

Here, the devaluation of our history curriculum and the rejection of our imperial past, which still forms a deep part of the national psyche, have left our young men with no sense of heroes and heroism. And yet there are occasional green shoots pushing through the surface in the battle to reassert manliness in Britain. Much has been made of the best-selling tome The Dangerous Book For Boys, which in its introduction says that "in this age of video games and mobile phones there must still be a place for knots, tree houses and stories of incredible courage". The book seeks to allow fathers and sons to enjoy enterprises such as the building of go-karts. I remember the authors being quizzed on Radio 4 by Mariella Frostrup, who, it soon became apparent, was somewhat hostile to the notion that the activities described should be the sole preserve of males.

The authors Conn and Hal Iggulden were sent into paroxisms of denial that their book was in any way sexist. I remember thinking that if you write a book about manly things, you should be ready to defend it in a manly way. Their response should have been: "Boys and girls are different, Mariella. Get over it." Instead they were borne under by the sheer weight of BBC political correctness. What a pair of wets. The sad thing is that Mariella represents the consensus. A while ago, a young lad came to play with one of my sons. They spent the whole day in pitched battles with toy guns. When his parents arrived to take him home, their faces dropped. They told us they did not allow him to play with guns, and marched him off for a dinner of nut cutlets and yoghurt. Poor little fellow.

The feminist lobby, which has achieved much for women over the past 40 years, must take its foot off the accelerator. It is established beyond doubt that men and women are equal in all fields ranging from human dignity to employment rights, but this must not be allowed to evolve into the idea that men and women are the same. Men must learn to reclaim manliness, not in the machismo mould of previous generations, but in a modern incarnation that will serve as an anchor in the shifting sands of today's gender politics.



Anything to distract themselves from their crime problem. So much easier to push law-abiding people around

If you're a cell phone-using, goose liver-eating, cigarette-smoking, fast food-loving person, Chicago might not be your kind of town. In this city that once winked at Prohibition, members of the City Council are trying to crack down on things they deem unhealthy, immoral or just plain annoying. A proposal that would restrict fast-food chains from cooking with artery-clogging trans fat oils got a public airing last week, and in the past year alone aldermen have banned smoking in nearly all public places and the use of cell phones while driving.

In April, Chicago became the first U.S. city to outlaw the sale of foie gras, a goose liver delicacy that is decried by animal-rights activists because it is created by force-feeding birds to fatten up their livers. Critics, including the mayor, wonder if the City Council has suddenly deemed itself the behavior police. "We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers," an angry Mayor Richard M. Daley said earlier this year. "We have real issues here in this city. And we're dealing with foie gras? Let's get some priorities."

Aldermen say they are addressing real problems and protecting their constituents. And they deny the proposals are diverting their attention from major issues like a city budget crunch. "The fact that there may be greater wrongs to address doesn't mean we cannot also address what we might also view as lesser wrongs," said Alderman Joe Moore, who led the effort to ban foie gras.

Some observers say aldermen who used to do what Daley wanted them to do are feeling emboldened because Daley has been weakened by a City Hall scandal that has snared some of his top aides. Others wonder if the proposals have more to do with a changing city, one that is no longer home to steel mills and stockyards. "This is the legislation of refinement," said Perry Duis, a University of Illinois-Chicago historian who has written extensively on Chicago. "This is a city of Starbucks rather than the steel mill."

Alderman Burton Natarus, who has sponsored a host of noise ordinances aimed at turning down the volume on street musicians, construction workers, boom boxes and motorcycles, agreed with those who argue the council is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong. "I think we are trying to control people's behavior too much," said Natarus, who regrets voting for the foie gras ban. "We are trying to itty-bitty regulate every facet of somebody's life."

The latest target is trans fat, found in some oils used to fry chicken, fries and other foods. A proposed ordinance would limit the use of such oils by fast-food chains in the city. Like the foie gras ban, the proposal earned the mayor's scorn. "Is the City Council going to plan our menus?" he asked.

When the trans fat idea first came up, the Chicago Sun-Times weighed in with an editorial facetiously referring to the council's "special Committee to rid Chicago of Everything That is Bad for Us," and wondering if it was "only a matter of time before they propose ordinances against certain cell phone ring-tones, secondhand barbecue smoke and bug zappers." More than a few Chicagoans say they don't need the City Council looking over their shoulders at lunch time. "I'm a big boy," Kerry Dunaway said as he ate fried chicken recently. "I can take care of myself."


Public broadcaster bias in Australia

Excerpts from a recent talk by Senator Santoro

Recent weeks have seen terrorists yet again unleash their work of destruction. In Mumbai, as in London a year ago, indiscriminate slaughter has proven the terrorists' weapon of choice. And in the Middle East, Hezbollah and Hamas - evil twins born of, and sustained by, the same evil parents - have provoked violence, knowing full well the cost their naked aggression would impose not only on innocent Israelis but also on many tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians and Lebanese alike.

Faced with these outrages, it is not enough for us to shake our heads and hope that the world will set itself right. Rather, we must protect and assert the values that underpin our Australian society: values in which there can be no place for terrorism's supporters and fellow-travellers. To that end, we must affirm our commitment to those throughout the world who are on the front line of the fight against terrorism - a commitment which is not merely intellectual and emotional, but also practical: that is, we must contribute as fully as we can, to ensure that terrorism, and the vile threat it poses, is defeated and ultimately destroyed. The Howard Government's commitment to fighting terrorism has been and remains steadfast. Absolutely steadfast....

In an open, democratic society such as Australia's, the media plays a central role in shaping our understanding of the world. It is mainly through the media that we are informed; and it is from the media that we get many of the images and analyses that help determine the way we see the world. It is because the media is so important that we provide large-scale financial support to the ABC and SBS - so that the community will have access to the impartial information it needs and deserves. It is a clear indication of the on-going government support for the ABC that public broadcasting received a substantial funding increase in this year's triennial budget allocation.

I want to state clearly here tonight my belief that both the ABC and SBS in so many ways provide a valuable service to Australian public life. Australia would be a poorer place without so many aspects of the services provided by the ABC and SBS. However, the public broadcasters lets themselves down regularly by failing to apply the same rigour to the task of self-critique that they would claim to apply to the task of representing the truth to their audience. The ABC, for example, has a charter requirement to cater to all Australians. But if it was truly capable of honest self-assessment, the ABC would be more willing to recognise, acknowledge and correct the deep-seated and institutionalised bias that is manifested in its recent reportage of both domestic and international affairs. Some very recent examples I can quote here tonight are staggering.

Merely a week ago, Fran Kelly, the presenter of ABC Radio National's Breakfast program, chose to interview Robert Fisk on the events in the Middle East. Mr Fisk, she said, is a much praised and award winning journalist. And indeed he is - for he has received praise from no less a judge of character than Osama bin Laden himself, who, in a videotaped message on the eve of the 2004 presidential election in the U.S., commended Fisk by name for his incisive and "neutral" reporting. Did Ms Kelly disclose any of this? Obviously not.

As an aside at this point, I would like to quote the same Mr Fisk from an opinion column in The Canberra Times last week. In it, he quotes - without challenge or question - terrorist leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah claiming that in its rocket attacks on Israel "Hezbollah originally wished to confine all casualties to the military". Fisk then goes on to criticise the - quote - "cruelty of Israel's response" - unquote - to those unprovoked and deadly attacks. It's no wonder that he attracts rave reviews from Osama bin Laden!

To take another example, let's consider for a minute SBS's coverage of the conflict in the Middle East on its flagship 6-30 PM news for Sunday July 16th. Israel's military actions in Lebanon were described as variously "murderous", "illegal" and "contrary to the laws of war". As for what Hezbollah had done, and its disastrous consequences for the people of Lebanon, the report SBS chose to air - and I emphasize the word chose - cutely said this: that Hezbollah "had some little explaining to do".

The Prime Minister John Howard decisively attempted to stop the rot on the AM program on July 14th when he was asked, and I quote: "Has Israel gone too far?" Mr Howard asked the reporter why the question must always be couched in terms of what Israel has done wrong and whether it should be condemned. He was, of course, appalled by the loss of life on both sides of the conflict. But - and to quote again - the Prime Minister said "the assumption that it was started by Israel in this particular instance is wrong".

That the Prime Minister should feel the need to highlight to a reporter the skewed nature of the question he was being asked is indicative of a deeply-ingrained culture - a reflex anti-Semitism - in parts of the media. Such questions betray a belief that Israel is always at fault and has no right to defend itself in any way against attacks from terrorists such as Hezbollah. To say that this is outrageous, and a disgrace, is an understatement.

What makes bias so dangerous, and also so difficult to control, is that it is not only what is said, but rather what is not said, that can be profoundly misleading. Take the reporting - again on the ABC's AM program - of the statement by Mr Chirac that Israel's response to the invasion of its territory and the kidnapping of its soldiers was "disproportionate". Now, how often did you hear Tony Eastely note that this was the same Mr Chirac who merely a few months earlier, had said that were France subjected to a terrorist attack, he would not rule out retaliating through a nuclear attack? The simple answer: not once.

Nor did Mr Eastely make the same point when Mr Putin criticised Israel's response to the kidnapping of its soldiers as "disproportionate" and called on Israel to negotiate with terrorists. Surely, one might have expected our national broadcaster to ask how consistent this was with Russia's own behaviour in Chechnya - but no, yet again, the ABC chose the convenient course of silence.

Equally, how often have you heard the terms "indiscriminate", "illegal", "contrary to international law" and "disproportionate" applied by the ABC and SBS not to Israel, but to Hezbollah's and Hamas' practice of shelling civilian towns in Israel? The answer: not once!

And when the ABC and SBS interviewed Lebanese Government Ministers, who merely washed their hands of Hezbollah's actions, did you hear the interviewer ask how Hezbollah has been allowed to build up its arsenal in Southern Lebanon? No, of course you didn't - because they wouldn't even have thought to put the question, much less to fearlessly pursue the point. Similarly, how balanced is it for the SBS to selectively run commentary from the BBC - commentary which is systematically and aggressively hostile to Israel - rather than say, also running the stories aired on US channels?

Another form of bias is sympathetic language. To give just one example, the ABC refers to Kassam Rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian terrorists as "home made rockets." This has the effect of makings the Palestinians seem like the underdogs, battling away against the might of the Israeli military with home made weapons. In truth - as you all know - Israel is a small country with a small population, virtually surrounded by hostile and in some cases increasingly fanatical countries. The terrorists it faces are well-organised, aggressive and persistently violent. They are financed and armed by Syria and Iran, which are countries far larger than Israel. They cynically exploit the Western media's desire to convey graphic images of casualties by locating themselves in civilian areas, ensuring that women and children will be among the worst victims of the conflicts they ignite and promote. They are hardly the home-made Dad's Army the media language would suggest and would want us all here in Australia to believe.

The decisions to portray events in this way smack of deliberate, thought through, deception. They are what biased journalists do when they want to hide from claims of bias, while still slanting the way the news is presented. A few token interviews, ritualistically presented, with Israeli spokesmen or commentators, or others more sympathetic to Israel's predicament, only make this deceitful purpose all the clearer.

Blatant bias about Israel is nothing new. But the scope of the problems is far broader. When terrorists targeted the London underground, time and again our public broadcasters' reports linked the terrorists' murderous actions to the Britain's participation in the Iraq war - suggesting, if not stating, that the ultimate fault lay not with the murderers but with the Blair government. The further, important, inference was that - just as Blair had brought the wrath of the terrorists onto London - so the Howard Government was exposing Australians to unacceptable risks: risks that, according to many ABC commentators, had already eventuated in the Bali bombings.

Given that, one might have expected the ABC and SBS to at least comment on the fact that India could hardly be claimed to have any role in Iraq - a war it had actively opposed. Rather, here was further proof, if more proof was needed, of terrorism's indiscriminate character. But far from it: no such thought was expressed....

I believe a media which fails to distinguish between good and evil, and which equates `balance' with studied relativism, fails its constituency: if we are not willing to call terrorism evil, then we have lost any sense of truth.

If some journalists on the ABC and SBS are frankly sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah, or even on balance believe they have the stronger case, why don't they have the courage to say so, rather than hiding behind a pretence of moral relativism? The cause of truth is not well served when those who have so much power to shape perceptions refuse to disclose, and be held accountable for, the perspective they take.

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