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If Conservatives Want To Defend Manliness, They Better Know What It Means

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There has been far too much talk on the right of manliness, and not enough of what it means to be a man.

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There is a growing eagerness on the right to talk frankly about the crisis of masculinity in America, and to defend traditional manliness against an ascendant left that wants to destroy it. A robust defense of manliness is salutary, and long overdue. But it requires defining what manliness is, and what it is for, because not everyone on the right seems to know.

For some conservatives, the conversation about masculinity has gone completely off the rails. It has devolved into a mere tough-guy pose. You see it in the tendency of certain high-profile conservative thinkers to deride all classical liberals and libertarians as effete and unmasculine. You see it in the growing penchant among some very-online conservatives to mock the physical appearances of their ideological opponents, and especially in the compulsive tweeting about “physiognomy,” mostly from anonymous trolls on the right but sometimes from young conservatives who ought to know better.

All of this is profoundly unmanly, and it gives ammunition to those on the left who would brand traditional masculinity as toxic and dangerous. If we’re going to defend manliness as good and virtuous and necessary for a healthy republic, then we need to be clear about what it is and what it is not.

Yes, men should be physically strong. They should also exemplify traditional masculine virtues like courage, independence, and assertiveness. But why? Not so they can sh-tpost about how ripped or good-looking they are compared to libs, but so they can protect and defend those who are weak.

That is the organizing principle behind the entire concept of manliness: it is not a style or a pose or an adornment. It is a way of being, of living according to the principle that you are responsible for the welfare of others, and should sacrifice yourself for their sake.

What does that mean in practice? It means stepping in to help those in need, whether it’s a woman being harassed or a stranger whose car has broken down. It means risking your own safety to protect someone being attacked, instead of just filming the attack on your phone and posting it online like a beta.

It also means marrying and remaining faithful to the same woman your entire life, and raising a family with her. It means working whatever hours and at whatever job in order to provide for that family. It means going to church every Sunday, whether you feel like it or not, to pass your faith on to your kids. It means getting up in the middle of the night to feed a colicky baby. It means taking your two-year-old daughter to swim class and singing all the songs — your own sense of dignity be damned.

That is, being a man means laying down your life for others. There is an apocryphal story about Robert E. Lee near the end of Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography that illustrates what we should mean when we invoke manliness. After the war, a young mother brings her baby to Lee to be blessed. He takes the infant in his arms, looks at him and then at the mother, and then says slowly, “Teach him he must deny himself.”

George Washington’s 110 rules for civility also reflect a similar high principle. Although they concern mostly mundane matters about how to behave at the dinner table or how to comport oneself in public, the unifying theme is consideration and respect for others, even to the point of not showing yourself “glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.” (The tough guys who like to tweet about physiognomy should consider Washington’s rule 21: “Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.”)

Without the animating ethos that a true man serves and cares for and defends others, especially the weak and vulnerable, the archetypical attributes of manliness — physical strength, independence, assertiveness — have no real purpose. They are empty gestures that amount to so much vanity. There’s a reason Léon Gautier’s Ten Commandments of chivalry included, “Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.”

This is why someone like David French, for example, is unmanly. It has nothing to do with his appearance or demeanor. He is unmanly because he attacks the weak. He targets, repeatedly and viciously, those who are most hated and reviled by our ruling elite: Christians, the working class, conservative families who object to their children being taught critical race theory in school, or do not want their kids exposed to Drag Queen Story Hour at the local library.

These are the people French should be fighting to protect, even at great cost to himself. But instead he denigrates and scorns them for accolades and rewards from the powerful, who have rewarded him indeed. French, then, exemplifies an ancient species of unmanliness better recognized by its common name, cowardice.

I single out French because he has lately weighed in on this matter, intentionally misrepresenting the right’s defense of manliness as a “dangerous cult of toughness” focused on Donald Trump and the most shallow stereotypes of manliness imaginable. He takes particular aim at a piece by Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad, who wrote in 2018 that Trump might not be manly in the way a soldier who charges into battle is manly, but “Trump’s manliness is that of a man who is not afraid to say out loud what others only whisper and to incur the wrath of the ruling class for doing so.”

Azerrad is of course correct. Trump might not be a paragon of manly virtue, but his willingness to stand up to the powerful on behalf of the weak is indeed manly, and deserving of praise.

So is Sen. Josh Hawley’s willingness to speak candidly about the need for American men to stop playing video games and watching porn, and embrace responsibility and family life. For his trouble, the corporate press has held him up as an avatar of toxic masculinity. No wonder: real manliness of the kind Hawley promotes is everything the left stands against, which is why they want to destroy it.

So let’s have no more asinine talk of physiognomy, no more accusations that those who don’t agree with our policy preferences are effete or unmasculine. This is not a small thing. If, at this late hour, conservatives can’t define manliness and live according to its dictates, then we won’t have to worry about owning the libs anymore, because the republic is finished.