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Trouble everywhere: let's blame men

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 16 November 2016


Where are men at these days? Is it true that men must 'man up', as some are saying? And is it men who are to blame for so much trouble in the world?

Men in strife

Turn on your TV or check your news on the web. Here's yet another footballer in strife. He's taken some illegal substance. His name doesn't matter. Nor does the type of football. And so he has to go away and get better. It seems typical of our times that the word detox has become part of everyday currency. Stories everywhere of men in trouble of one kind or another: fighting on the street; soldiers committing atrocities; men abusing drugs and not taking care of their health.

And work is part of the trouble. Once it was true that men worked, and work was what men did. In my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers I interviewed men who had grown up from the 1930s to the 90s. Men worked on the railway, or on the farm. They needed muscles to do the work and keep their families fed. Men were respected as breadwinners; today this term is almost extinct. Men were expected to perform at work, protect their families; and provide a roof over their heads. The three Ps, if you like.

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The GFC hit men hard

But the Great Financial Crisis turned men upside down. Countries like the USA, Spain and the UK saw big financial crashes. Industries already in decline worldwide were heavy industries, and man-heavy too: steel-making, shoe-making, munitions, and the auto industry. These took heavy hits during the GFC. Globalisation and automation have pushed the decline of manual labour (i.e. in our day, labour for men to do). Among European men, there was an 11.7 per cent rise in suicides in the 15-24 age group. In the Americas, the biggest increase was among men aged 45-64, which saw a rise of 5.2 per cent.

We saw earlier that men were expected to provide. Many men couldn't provide a roof over their families' heads any more. In the USA, more than 9.3 million homeowners went through foreclosure, surrendered their home to a lender or sold their home in some kind of distress sale. The figures come from the US National Association of Realtors, hardly a source of wild radicalism. The pattern was so widespread that" "leaving the keys in the letter box" became a familiar phrase.

Did angry white men hand the US to Trump?

It's been suggested that white working-class anger has contributed to widespread disenchantment in the USA with the system of government and the rise of Trump. But it's not fair to blame 'angry white men' for Trump's success. Only around half of all those who could, decided to vote. Around two per cent of Americans are 'felons', or criminals, not entitled to vote. Because of the zeal the US has for jailing miscreants, this means about 1 in every 13 African-Americans. About half of all white women voted for Trump, according to the New York Times' exit polls. Although the media savaged Trump for his disgusting behaviour towards women, women voters decided in many cases that he was a nice, successful man and the real problem was with the bias in the media. Or with 'the system'. (This covers almost everything in a handy way, as Hitler found, among others). There are other technical reasons for people not being allowed to vote, as well as fear and intimidation of the weak.

So we can't blame Trump's success on 'white men'.

In any case, it does seem true that there is fear and anxiety among working-class people in the western world about the distress in many parts of the western economy. Here in Australia we have seen our car-making industry disappear, along with all the small industries that it supported. Australians' underwear, pajamas, T-shirts, shorts and so on are made in China, Bangladesh, Barbados - anywhere but locally. And we see every day that Australian property is sold to China, the UK, USA and other foreign countries, including historic homesteads and swathes of agricultural land.

The World Economic Forum says jobs in decline include office work, manufacturing and production, construction and mining, and media. Demand for skilled, savvy people in business operations, teaching at all levels and personal care will increase. Many of the declining jobs are male-heavy; many of the growing ones, women can do well in. The world is turning and doesn't favour poorly skilled working-class men who are not too strong on empathy and communication. Look at the job ads and notice the emphasis on teamwork, understanding the corporate ethos and working with a diverse mix of people. These tend to be skills women are better at than the average guy. Yet if men react to these worrisome issues, they are condemned as 'just another lot of angry men'. No wonder many do turn to escape: drugs, alcohol, gambling and even suicide.

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So where do we turn with males? Some feminists seem to bridle at the very idea of helping boys improve. But if we want a better society, helping boys grow up thoughtfully is an essential part of the equation. We don't want our daughters and grand-daughters marrying grunting thugs and abusers. Or self-important oafs who regard women as people they can treat with zero respect. In a better world we'd all like to see men talk through their issues, and take stock of themselves and their health. And in sum, be happy, confident people who can communicate with loved ones and live fulfilling lives.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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