Lecture Hopping: Manliness

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Harvey Mansfield, government professor at Harvard, stopped by to speak about his latest book
Manliness. Virile Bwog correspondent Andrew Flynn was there to report from the frontlines of the War on Girly-men…

“Be yourself… but don’t expect to be as respected.”

This was the advice that Harvey Mansfield gave to those of us who don’t fit his definition of “manliness.” As an oboist and a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure that Mansfield would not call me “manly.” But I’m not sure that I would want him to.

Harvey Mansfield is, by all accounts, a formidable scholar of political philosophy, a professor at Harvard for nearly half a century who has published important work on Burke, Machiavelli, and Tocqueville. He is also, as one questioner ventured, “sexy.” (And another: “You’ve even got man in your name.”) A spry but austere seventysomething, Mansfield looks like a straight man pulled from a 1930s slapstick comedy, complete with hat and overcoat. As a conservative, a follower of Leo Strauss, Mansfield is the academic that conservatives grumble about there not being more of – someone with intellectual rigor who is not afraid to defend unpopular ideas against his mostly liberal colleagues.

More after the jump…

A defense of manliness as a virtue, then, is certainly apt. The problem is that Mansfield’s ideas on manliness do not seem to have much intellectual weight – at least not in the casual lecture setting. I must preface this by saying that I have not read Manliness, so I have no means to attack the strength of Mansfield’s scholarship other than the impressions I got while listening to him speak. To do so here, moreover, would be pointless preaching to the converted; I refer you only to Martha Nussbaum’s biting intellectual critique, published in the New Republic (subscription required).

During the lecture, Mansfield spoke to a group made up primarily of the converted, and his remarks came off like a string of facile assertions. They included the statement that “manliness is confidence in the face of risk,” which he made assuming that it was essentially intuitive, granting us no explanation of where this definition comes from or what group of men he is making generalizations about.

He also stated that this manly virtue is necessary for our society, but that it is being quickly proscribed by gender neutrality. By means of support, Mansfield listed off a slew of complementary gender proclivities. (“Men are aggressive, women are caring, men are promiscuous, women are faithful…”). These, he seemed to assume, are biologically determined. Or, sort of biologically determined. Or, maybe an inextricable mix between biological determination and social conditioning. Or, maybe a normative account of how sex differences should be. Or, maybe supported by the data of some socio-biologists. Or, maybe just very broad generalizations… Anyways, Mansfield said they exist. Asking “why” after everything Harvey Mansfield says is a good rule of thumb. He may have a point, but it’s full of holes.

Likewise, some of Mansfield’s replies to questions were also far from the sort one would expect from a person of his tenure. Saying that “rape is a permanent part of the human condition” and that we should be “surprised that there isn’t more” is quite an untactful way of capping off a response on the connection of manliness with domestic violence. When asked about the manliness of gay sex – implied by his veneration of Achilles in the Iliad – Mansfield responded: “Yes. Of course it depends on which role you play… There are people who are bottoms and there are people who are tops.” This is a gentleman? You can do better, man.

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  1. rjt  

    This is bullshit, and this guy is an insult to straight men everywhere. I hope he's happy that the necessity of feminism is the result of assholes like him.

  2. moph  

    Really, really good lecture hopping, Andrew. Thanks.

  3. I stopped  

    reading after "As an oboist and a vegetarian."

    Better question: did you read his book Andrew?

    • As both  

      an oboist and a vegetarian, Mr. Flynn surely lacks the intellectual rigor to dissect a talk by a real man like Mansfield.
      Flynn is just a sissy, and just like women, is intellectually inferior to real men.

    • Anonymous  

      I clearly stated that I did not read the book, but as you are biased against the high woodwinds, you did not read that far. The point however is not whether I read the book; Mr. Mansfield's book may be a dense, rigorous treatise on virtue ethics which highlights the neglected importance of manliness. Martha Nussbaum doesn't think so but I am in no position to judge. I SAID this. The point of the lecture hop is to point out that Mansfield's LECTURE was a string of assertions lacking any scholarly depth.

  4. Henry Manrocket  

    Just because something is "offensive" doesn't mean it's not true. What's really pathetic is that the language of debate is so steeped in feminist and pc bullshit that Mansfield can't say what he wants to say without getting run out of town. He comes off as amibiguous because spelling things out causes people to, oh, I don't know, storm out of the room.

  5. Anonymous  

    Dear Henry Manrocket,
    This misses the point. Before what Mansfield says can even get to the level of being offensive but true, he has to get to the level of making arguments. But he doesn't do that. He simply names intuitive differences between men and women, asserts that these are biological, and concludes that society would be better if it were structured accordingly. I'm not critical of Mansfield for being some threat to "feminist and pc bullshit"; I'm critical of Mansfield because he asserts the opposite of what of feminists say without actually arguing for it. And, he doesn't come off as ambiguous at all. He comes of as having lots of unwarrented beliefs. So, as far as I'm concerned Mansfield hasn't entered any debate at all.

  6. a note

    Nicely written and argued "lecture hopping" piece, Andrew. I'd direct everyone also to his review of an intellectual history book on Leo Strauss in the latest issue of *The Current*.

    (Perhaps the Straussian Mansfield was taking a page out of his master's (delusional, ridiculous) handbook and merely speaking on two levels -- an outward one that may seem simplistic and a deeper one for the chosen initiates that reveals the profundities of manhood!)

  7. Ms. Woolf  

    I must say, I would rest easier if Mr. Flynn had the background reading to truly speak on this topic. As a feminist, I would like to know to what extent this "manliness" has to do with the female sex, for it seems to me that a woman can hold a high degree of the quality "manliness" while a man can be "feminine" depending on the definition of these terms. A Nietzschean notion of the ubermensch however, does not neccessarily exclude females. What is Mansfield's position on Nietzsche? What is really being said here? I appreciate Andrew's good faith, but we are missing a lot of pieces, and that's frustrating.

  8. Ms. Woolf  

    I assume Henry Manrocket is referring to the woman who stormed out of Larry Summers misconceived and poorly supported remarks on female aptitude. Nice move, clever Henry, but why don't you come right out with your unjustified views on a huge category of people's so-called innate aptitude for a vague set of abilities?

  9. Judith Butler  

    great write-up

  10. Manrocket Returns  

    Ms. Woolf, unjustified? I'll admit to subscribing to some "generalizations." But, you see, the thing about "generalizations" is that they are generally true. Oh, and, Ms. Woolf, your novels are a little...boring. Pick up some D.H. Lawrence.

  11. re: manrocket

    a generalization that generalization are generally true.

    infinite loop. head explode.

  12. Ms. Woolf  

    I will pick up Lady Chatterly's Lover...but no James Joyce. I hate that poop scene.

    and yes, we've all heard the old "all generalizations are false" thing. but what i'm saying is manliness and femininity need not be sex-attached.

  13. you're joking  

    Ms. Woolf, call it whatever you like, dominant and submissive, agressive and passive. In any case, men, throughout history, have been the conquering party, and women have been the subjects. You might like to imagine that this is "societally constructed." But, doesn't that seem like a bit of a coincidence? Really, just use your head. The answer isn't so damning to your gender. Only a little.

    • Anonymous

      By this logic, i.e., that since women have been subjugated during specific points of history by men, they should continue to be so since it is ostensibly biologically driven -- one could also make the parallel argument that since African and Indigenous American groups have been subjugated at specific points in history, it must also be the case that these groups are inferior to the white male.

      I reject that out of hand and here's why:
      1) The argument that women have always been conquered (or subjugated) is not really true. Look at european cultures prior to Christianization and you will notice that a couple things 1) women were land owners (shock!) 2) women had a voice in local gov't (dismay!) 3) In some cultures, the woman's last name was the one passed onto subsequent generations. Please see 'Celts' for more evidence.

      2) By the parallel logic, subjugation of indigenous peoples should continue because we've done it before is simply a preservation of the status quo on the basis of its 'naturalness' -- the quality of a relationship being natural is not defined by any single ontological property -- it's just a label we use without really spelling out its semantic value.

      That being said, I agree with Mansfield a good deal in the sense that while I enjoy diversity (e.g., emo, gay, flamboyantly gay, mommas boys, and self-absorbed computer gamers), in my own experience my generation, i.e. all men born in the '80s, are unbelievably self-absorbed, codependent with their parents, unresponsible, and apathetic. And that's just not sexy. And Mansfield is. And that's why women of his generation probably put up with his philandering, but also why women of this generation will never tolerate the philandering of our generation's men. They just aren't competent and capable enough to merit that sort of sacrifice.

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