Looking around America these days, if you can stand it, the sense of what it means to be a man has become a very shaky business. I was studying one particular tattooed moron, twenty-something, in the gym Saturday. He had on display a full sleeve-job of “tribal” skin décor in that curvy blade-like motif that invokes a general idea of ninja swordplay. Perhaps he really was a dangerous dude, a Navy Seal just back from slitting Taliban throats in Nangarhar. More likely, he was a fork-lift operator in the local Ace Hardware distribution center. He seemed to resent my attention — but then why had he taken so many pains to adorn himself?
Is it not interesting that so many males in America affect to be warriors? What does this tell us about the psychological dimensions of manhood in this country? If I have to guess, I’d venture that many people of the male persuasion hereabouts can’t imagine any other way of being a man — other than as a fine-tuned bringer-of-death, preferably some species of cyborg, with “techno” bells and whistles. This is obvious fodder from the many Transformer and Robocopmovies, the dream of becoming a most excellent killing machine.
This ethos was on hyperwarp display in Sunday’s NFL football playoffs, football being, after all, mock warfare with mock warriors. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kapernick’s arm tattoos were hard to decipher even on a large high-def flatscreen. At first I thought they were maps of suburban Milwaukee, or perhaps the full text of Jude the Obscure but it turns out (I looked it up) they record his ongoing life “narrative,” his triumphs and distinctions, his mom’s heart transplant, and his dealings with the fugitive deity known as Jesus Christ. Between scoring drives, Colin vamped on the sidelines in a red Cholo hat, one of those ball caps featuring an exquisitely flattened brim designed to make the wearer look like a homicidal clown — which is the favored motif of aspiring criminals abroad in the land nowadays. As Lon Chaney, the master of horror, once remarked apropos of his character creation technique, “There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” The objective: to look as ridiculous as possible and yet give off a vibe of unpredictable danger and violence.
Colin was hardly the sole creature on the field adorned with ink. At times, the scrimmage looked like the recreation yard at the Washington State Penitentiary. But that brings us to another theme of contemporary American manhood having to do with the grand initiation rite of serving time in prison. There is a meme on the loose, especially among the hopeless idealists, that American jails are filled with “political prisoners.” This is just not so. Though our drug laws are certainly idiotic, cruel, and pointless, I believe sincerely that the prison system is filled with psychopathic monsters. They may be creations of our monster-making culture, in all its depravity and pernicious falsity, but they are monsters nonetheless.
But the romance of monsterdom is yet another theme in the current caboodle of American manhood. Boys are in love with monsters, and want to be them, or like them, or with them, and nowadays many succeed at that. The indulgence in all these juvenile enthusiasms presents in the absence of any better models of a way to be. The time is not distant when a lot of things are going to shake loose in this land, and when that happens, there will be monsters amongst us everywhere: tattooed clowns in baby clothes with large muscles and weapons. Really, what are the chances that such people reared on dreams of triumphal violence will operate on the basis of kindness, generosity, and consideration of any future beyond the next fifteen minutes.
Let’s face it, the reason we do the things we do, and act the way we act, is because American manhood is in full failure mode, in full retreat from what used to be known as virtue. We wouldn’t know what this is anymore if it jumped up and bit us on the lips. I’m afraid it will take very stern leadership to reform all these current trends. When it comes around, it will look like Dolly Parton meets Hitler.