Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Fin D'Siecle American Male Identity?

patrickwyman |  The assumed subject of this culture is a straight, young-ish (18-40) dude who’s kind of into fitness of some kind, whether that’s lifting weights, a little jiu-jitsu, or what have you. He probably played sports and currently enjoys watching them. He’s familiar with but not super dedicated to video games and likes beer and maybe some weed from time to time. He may or may not have a college degree, but either way has a solid but not extremely high-paying job. He probably lives in the suburbs, exurbs, or a rural area, rather than a dense metro. He’s probably but not necessarily white. He’s disproportionately likely to have served in the military, and if he hasn’t, he knows people - family or friends - who do or did.

These various demographic, and therefore cultural and social affiliations, don’t exist in isolation from one another. Put together, they form a relatively stable melange, an ecosystem with its own influencers and heroes, values and principles, and connections to other social, cultural, and political phenomena.

It’s rooted in physicality and the body, self-ownership through activity. While it doesn’t necessarily eschew the life of the mind - Jocko Willink, for example, constantly discusses and advocates the reading of books on his podcast - that’s simply not the main focus for self-actualization or identity. If you want to talk about intellectual pursuits, you can do it while pulling 500 pounds or beating the hell out of a heavy bag.

Some aspects of this are obviously new, like social media and the role of influencers. But others aren’t. Fitness culture, one of Bro Culture’s constituent pieces, has been around in various guises for a long time; weightlifting came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, Crossfit in the 2000s, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the last decade, but other manifestations - like respectable men’s Muscular Christianity around the beginning of the 20th century - have been around for much longer. Bare-knuckle boxing was a manifestation of rough-and-tumble, working-class manhood in later 19th century America. That working-class manhood revolved around taverns and drinking, gambling on fights and races, a combination of activities familiar to any self-respecting Bro today whether he participates in them or not.

One parallel that’s particularly striking to me, though I wouldn’t take the comparison too far, is with medieval chivalry.

Hear me out.

The popular conception of chivalry, as a moral code guiding the behavior of honorable knights, is flat-out, laughably wrong. That’s a creation of 19th-century authors like Walter Scott, and the popular fantasy authors (basically up until George R.R. Martin) who built on their worldview in the 20th.

In reality, chivalry was all about one particular version of Guys Being Dudes. Chivalry could refer to a few different things, but the most common meaning was simply battlefield deeds, executed with some style. This, what knights referred to as “prowess,” was at the core of the broader ideology of chivalry: raw, bloody, physical performance, violence done effectively and to an agreed-upon aesthetic standard. The second major concern of chivalry, honor, grew directly out of the first. Honor wasn’t an abstract concept to medieval knights; it was a possession, a recognition of their particular status and place in the social hierarchy, which they were well within their rights to violently defend and assert through their prowess. Piety was the icing on the cake, but no knight really doubted that God approved of their actions.