• Helen Smith, Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream — And Why It Matters, Encounter Books, 2013, 176 pages, $23.99.
RALEIGH — Perhaps the most inane refrain of the 2012 presidential campaign was the Republican Party’s alleged war on women. The following year, in 2013, psychologist Helen Smith has published a book declaring that men, in fact, are the target du jour.
In Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream — And Why It Matters, Smith attempts to answer the question that hounds so many social scientists: why men are checking out of marriage, family, work, and culture in general.
The politically correct response is that men are scumbags stuck in perpetual boyhood. But Smith has a different answer: Men simply are responding logically to an array of disincentives in society that discourage responsible manly behavior.
“Most men are not acting irresponsibly because they are immature or because they want to harm women; they are acting rationally in response to the lack of incentives today’s society offers them to be responsible fathers, husbands, and providers,” Smith writes.
In another chapter, Smith puts it even more bluntly: “Men have been listening to what society has been saying about them for more than forty years; they are perverts, wimps, cowards, assholes, jerks, good-for-nothing, bumbling deadbeats and expendable. Men got the message; now they are acting accordingly.”
Even as female power has risen over the last few decades, Smith argues that men’s power has declined to the point that males are the persecuted gender — with society’s stamp of approval.
One example is a double standard in media. Advertisers routinely portray men as inept goof-offs and as the brunt of the joke, while women are characterized as savvy and mature. Were the roles reversed, the outcry would be significant. As it stands, few have the courage to object.
Smith also points to fairness issues in divorce cases adjudicated by family courts, which tend to favor women heavily, in addition to numerous other instances of married status serving women above men. Frequently, higher education is hostile territory for men as well.
Smith makes a compelling argument. Her diagnoses of the problem is accurate, perhaps best summarized by her statement that feminism, initially at least, “was presented as being about equal rights between the sexes. Now it is often about revenge and special privileges for women and girls.”
Her solid premise notwithstanding, Smith’s solutions, while well intentioned, more often miss the mark. A recurring theme in the book encourages men to “go Galt” — a reference to Ayn Rand’s main character in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, who withdrew his talents and abilities from society and turned inward to keep from being exploited.
Toward that end, Smith suggests the single, non-attached life as a viable alternative for men to a steady job, marriage, kids, and involvement in society.
“I have noticed a number of men in my hometown who get joy out of driving around, drinking beer, and working on their own hobbies in peace and tranquility in their own homes or in homes they share with other guys,” she writes.
Well, yes. What person wouldn’t get a kick out of a predominantly self-focused life, with essentially no attachments or responsibilities? But a healthy society can’t function if men are encouraged to check out of responsible adult life and check in to self-indulgence.
At some points in her book, Smith extols the importance of male participation in society. At other points, she proffers “going Galt” as a wise alternative. The two concepts, obviously, are at odds. Indeed, if Smith’s premise is accurate — that men are losing out in culture and family life — then withdrawing entirely is a short-term bandage, not a long-term solution.
Books like Men on Strike are tricky because they easily can become soapboxes for disgruntled men burned by women. Smith quotes many of these vexed men. I was disappointed, though, at how often she portrayed men as victims, seeming to play off the liberal victimhood meme applied to women, minorities, the poor, and a swathe of other demographics.
Ultimately, men choose the women they marry and the women they have sex with. Some of us have a more challenging path to walk than others through no fault of our own, but the end result of our life is a product of our choices. Although difficult to find in our hyper-feminist culture, women do exist who appreciate traditional masculine virtues — strength, protection, and self-sacrifice, among others — and who want men who display them.
All told, Men on Strike doesn’t encourage men to cultivate these strengths of masculinity and find a woman who respects that; instead, the book is more about going inward for self-protection and selfishness.
Not all of Smith’s suggestions are negative. Her recommendation that men speak out more when manhood is criticized or belittled is needed, as is her suggestion that men not shy away from requesting — and expecting — basic respect from the women in their lives.
She also recommends looking for new ways to incentivize young men to pursue marriage — a worthy goal.
“Instead of spending our time trying to figure out how to get men to commit to marriage in its current state,” she writes, “we should be asking more questions like how can we make marriage more appealing to young men so that they want to get married?”
Don’t “go Galt.” Instead, as Smith writes, work to rouse society to “what we are doing to men before it is too late and we live in a world that has left male potential in a wasteland.”
David N. Bass is a contributor to Carolina Journal.