The 21st century has not been kind to men in the developed world. By most metrics, they have fallen behind women in school, the workplace, and at home. More and more women are now choosing to opt out of marriage and children altogether because, among other reasons, there are simply too few good men with whom to start a family and make a home. It seems that many men are fine with this, contenting themselves with beer, porn, and video games.
There are various reasons to explain this situation, but at the top of the list is the breakdown of the family and the absence of fathers. With fewer male role models, it logically follows that boys are more likely to grow up into losers who can hardly take care of themselves, let alone a wife and kids.
A related to this reason is the influence of media and technology. Filling the void left by an absent father, the great majority of boys are raised by the screen. Whereas their father would teach his son virtue and play catch with him, it’s now Disney indoctrinating his son with anti-male narratives, and Nintendo keeping him company while he plays indoors by himself.
However, there is an alternative explanation for the decline of men, or at least an explanation that goes one step further: modern feminism, an ideology that has vilified men, disparaged the family, and “liberated” women from the home. It can be argued that feminist ideology in schools, in media, and even in the legal system collectively crippled men and incited women to actively compete against them, if not outright destroy them.
Although picking one of these explanations in itself doesn’t necessarily fix the problem of lackluster men, it does ultimately inform any proposed solution. Most guides for manliness and personal success tend to focus on the first two causes—bad role models and bad habits. However, the recent book of writer S.K. Baskerville, A Gentleman’s Guide To Manners, Sex, and Ruling the World, seeks to address the latter cause of modern feminism, as is indicated in the subtitle: “How to Survive as a Man in the Age of Misandry—and Do So with Grace.”
Baskerville’s other goal in this book is to move the conversation away from adopting the popular poses of suave manliness (“to be like David Niven or Lawrence Olivier, to tie a bow tie, mix a martini, and dance the quadrille”) and discuss “the logic behind the rules [of being a gentleman].” All too often, advice for men tends to dwell on these caricatures of masculinity without explaining the principle behind it. If that’s all the reader wants, he can read any number of manliness manuals that cover “the different options for tying a tie, landing an airplane, and other everyday necessities.”
So what is the underlying principle of masculinity? According to Baskerville, it’s leadership: “Being a man has always meant being a leader, and it always will mean that.… Leadership is not an option but an imperative; it, too, comes with the Y chromosome.” All the other manly virtues like strength, courage, and industry all stem from the idea that a man must lead and assume responsibility. Moreover, becoming a leader is all the more important at a time when true masculinity is deemed toxic and men are told to step aside.
It is with this deeper purpose in mind that Baskerville goes on to discuss “the basics” of gentlemanly habits. Much of this is common sense—don’t use profanity, don’t dress like a slob, avoid silly cliches and colloquialisms, steer clear of vices, learn to write well, get some exercise and be mindful of others, etc.—but Baskerville takes the time to explain the rationale of each gentlemanly habit. As a man, it’s essential to project an image of maturity and seriousness. Dressing like a child, saying stupid things, and lacking self-control all detract from this.
In his next chapter, Baskerville broadens his discussion into the gentlemanly lifestyle, focusing on dancing, music, sports, firearms, military service, church, and philanthropy. Although there’s little to unite these activities besides being things that a gentleman has to think about, the discussion is pleasant enough. If anything, Baskerville demonstrates here that conservative principles go hand in hand with being a gentleman: He exercises self-reliance, can defend himself and his country, and assumes responsibility both for himself and his community.
Perhaps the strongest discussion in this book (aside from the introduction) is Baskerville’s treatment of a gentleman’s education, in which he deftly cuts through the pretension and sophistry that passes for sophistication these days. He rightly derides the gimmicky degrees peddled by “prestigious universities” and provides a beautifully succinct summary of a liberal education, which would create “men of the right character and outlook, with rounded educations and the self-confidence to acquire more as needed.” These men learned job skills on the job, but learned how to think, live, and behave at the university.
Acknowledging that most universities have forgotten this original purpose, Baskerville follows this with a quick guide on being properly educated in literature, history, philosophy, music, art, science and math, and foreign language—basically a DIY liberal education. Unlike similar “must read” lists of education essentials, Baskerville’s is surprisingly feasible. An average man with a normal full-time job could comfortably make his way through all of it in a few years’ worth of leisure time.
Unfortunately, following the book’s strongest chapter is perhaps the weakest chapter on “women and family life,” where Baskerville launches into his indictment of feminism and its effects on the home. To be fair, he is tasked with resolving a difficult dilemma: Most women want a strong man who can provide for her and potential children, but most women also want to be empowered and independent.
The best response that Baskerville can muster is to seek out a “lady” who observes the rules of courtship and does not seek to emasculate potential suitors. Unfortunately, such ladies are far and few between, leading Baskerville to suggest seeking far and wide, even if it requires looking at women in other parts of the world. Unlike Baskerville’s educational recommendations, his advice on meeting and relating with the other sex seems rather out-of-touch and facile.
On the topic of marriage and sex, Baskerville’s advice is a little better. He’s aware of the cheap view people today now hold of marriage, particularly hedonistic young men, and argues that, on the contrary, marriage is all about conserving masculinity in the culture: “to protect the bond between fathers and their children and, with it, the intact family.” Furthermore, for the gentleman, marriage and children simply come with the territory: “The best training for ruling the world is by starting with those you love.”
Nevertheless, despite the attempt to remain constructive, Baskerville can’t seem to hold back his resentment and paranoia towards feminist indoctrination: “It is women, especially politically radicalized women … who will get the upper hand, many of whom do not like men like you.” Whether one agrees with this claim or not, it’s difficult to see how this does anything constructive. If Baskerville means to encourage caution, he could just say so instead of giving the impression that the majority of women today hate gentlemen. Rather, this claim mainly serves as a moral escape hatch for men who have fallen short.
In truth, and Baskerville conveniently omits this detail. All too many men have suffered through their own mistakes, not because of some feminist boogeywoman. Nowhere in his book does he address the common addictions (pornography, alcohol, drugs, video games) that hold the majority of modern men down, especially young men. Although one might argue that ending these habits and assuming the role of masculine leadership is implied, more must be said in the interest of relevance and practicality.
Only too late does Baskerville seems to take up the problem of mediocre masculinity, as he urges men in his conclusion to take charge and “stop adopting the stance the world is unfair and that it is your job to take every opportunity to tell the world why it is so unfair.” Thus, after a promising beginning, and a well developed middle, the conclusion of Baskerville’s argument about masculinity falls somewhat flat.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable to read. True to his subject matter, Baskerville writes like a gentleman: he is witty, concise, and accessible without being needlessly crass or blunt. His research of other gentleman’s guides throughout history also helps distinguish his effort from the others and provides useful context for the ongoing conversations on masculinity.
Altogether, Baskerville’s case for men becoming gentlemen is mostly strong, if a little flawed. He revives the case for gentlemanliness that has diminished in recent years and advances the right positions. But, it will fall to his gentlemen readers to continue this momentum and apply his wisdom to young men today.
Yes, men are struggling to adapt to more a feminized world, and they could certainly use a little more sympathy and support, but they also have the power to assert themselves and be the leaders, fathers, and husbands they were meant to be. As Baskerville successfully establishes, being a gentleman is not a matter of social status, but of perception and initiative.