Daniel J. Flynn is taking heavy fire over at The American Spectator for his editorial post on the Martin-Zimmerman case, “Two Males, No Men.” Flynn’s thesis is that neither George Zimmerman nor Trayvon Martin exhibited the traits of responsible manhood in their deadly nighttime scuffle. Martin, in his personal life, knew no better than to try to establish himself as masculine through delinquency and street fighting. Zimmerman, for his part, was seeking a masculinity his passive father never modeled, struggling with cage-fighting classes and an aspiration to enter law enforcement. Flynn summarizes it this way (my interjections):
Civilizing men out of existence has come at great cost to civilization. Instead of men, we get feminine imitations lacking beauty. [Zimmerman] We get lost boys compensating by becoming barbarians. [Martin] We get Sanford, Florida, February 26, 2012.
Pace his critics – most of whom are off doing battle with red herrings – Flynn has got something here. That said, what he’s got is incomplete. It starts with the statement of his premise: that we are “civilizing men out of existence.” We’re not. Civilization depends as much on men as it does on women. Men are an indispensable part of civilization. What we do by denigrating the masculine and perverting the feminine is destroy civilization altogether.
The masculine and feminine both matter equally to healthy civilization, but today I am concerned with a particular aspect of masculinity. It’s a concept we have carelessly trampled in the project of neutralizing men, and it was glaringly obvious, from the Martin-Zimmerman confrontation, that we lack it now. That aspect of masculinity is the authority of the individual, and, in general, the idea of authority as a positive good in human life, which we each become eligible for through self-discipline and proven character.
The 20th century gave authority a really bad name. It changed the way we reflexively define it, and changed our perspective on it. One big culprit was collectivism of various kinds (including Western progressivism), which proposed to invest all authority in a totalitarian state. Another was the rejection of God, who in Judeo-Christian philosophy is the ultimate model of uncorrupted authority.
But the proponents of collectivism actually made their political inroads – with young people especially – through decrying authority, all the while having in mind a future of absolute state authority. In short, they lied about it all, and still do to this day.
What we expect of authority became quite perverted. Western culture as a whole lost the habit of defining authority for social purposes, and training its children to both respect and administer it. The proper point of authority is not that it is always held over us; it is that one day we will hold it, and ought to hold it responsibly and well, whether as Scout leaders or parents or bosses or teachers, ministers or priests or peace officers or property owners, or simply as the older people in a given situation.
Authority is properly a moral project of the individual character first, before it is a project of collective action or the state. It is tied up inextricably with responsibility. What we have responsibility for, we must have authority over. Having authority over nothing more than what time we get ourselves home on Friday night may seem like a small thing, but it’s how teenagers establish a pattern of self-discipline and trustworthiness. As you know if you’ve tried it, being responsible with a little authority quickly gets a teenager a good reputation – and more authority – just as it does an adult.
There is no question in my mind that the passion for proving oneself worthy of authority is a masculine trait. The urge to define authority and set the wickets for access to it is a pattern of men. Men are wired to see themselves as being somewhere on a landscape of authority, in a way most women aren’t. This doesn’t mean no women are wired in this way, but it does mean that if it were up to women, the visceral urge to establish for society a mode of individual authority would not be a catalyst for civilization.
And in that case, there would be no civilization. There would be only short-lived serfs under the control of non-accountable despots. Sustainable civilization is bound up with a certain minimum level of self-government, and being eligible for self-government is inseparable from being eligible for authority: moral authority, authority before God, authority that commands respect, authority that wins obedience and trust. Unless a society naturally and voluntarily enforces, from one generation to the next, this concept of individual authority, the society can’t foster self-government or any of the good things that flow from it: wealth creation, compassion, cooperation, invention, heroism, art.
In America today, our culture has all but abandoned the concept of individual, non-governmental authority. Sixty years ago, there would have been no question in anyone’s mind who was the authority figure in the Martin-Zimmerman confrontation: who should have been respected and obeyed, even before it came down to who had the right to defend himself.
But in most of America, long before such a confrontation arose, the teenager in the case, whatever his race, would have spent his youth learning from his father, grandfather, and/or uncles how to behave in the authority structure in which all of them had their masculine identity. He would have learned not to hang out on the streets of “other people’s” neighborhoods at night, just as my brothers learned, absorbing the lesson more by osmosis than by precept. He would have learned it not from fear but from discipline, self-respect, and good judgment. A man has better things to do.
Respecting a social authority structure eliminates many of the problems we now expect the police to referee. It doesn’t matter if you have the “right” to lurk on the streets at night, if your father has raised you not to. But if he hasn’t – if the only authority you have experience with is that of the state – you have no reason to see authority or self-restraint as something positive and enabling. You see whatever thwarts you as an attack on your “rights.” Authority comes in a uniform and carries a gun (or, by contrast, it comes in a skirt and merely frustrates you); it is not something you are aligned with and will one day wield yourself, but rather something you get brief satisfaction from striking blows against.
If you are “George Zimmerman,” meanwhile, your demeanor as a neighborhood watch captain is likely to be different, if you have walked in authority as an adult, as your father did, and know that society is ranged behind you. Who knows how many situations could be defused, even if they were not averted entirely, by the masculine confidence that is fostered in a social authority structure?
It takes cultivating gentlemen – and doing it unapologetically – to make men who can be polite and forceful at the same time. No one is born to it without intensive intervention. Women are important to that process, but there must be something for men to be, if they are to turn into it. For men, a place in a code and an authority structure ordained by men is a key source of moral shape and purpose.
None of this is to suggest that women don’t or can’t participate in authority. Most women are capable of self-discipline and of wielding authority in an authority structure. But it is manifest today, given the last 40 years in Western culture, that in a society where men and their qualities are denigrated, no one will fill the societal vacuum of individual authority. There comes to be only governmental authority; and the very concept of authority changes. It no longer means a natural social institution in which individuals are tested, enabled, promoted, and protected; it comes to mean only the armed force of the state.
Is that not the situation we have arrived at today? Older people might see a level of governmental as well as social authority in the “George Zimmerman” figure, because he is a responsible adult, a citizen, a voter and taxpayer. We see the law and the operation of the police as ultimately under his supervision – and we are satisfied with that, if not necessarily with the performance of Zimmerman himself on 26 February 2012, because he is one of a host of us participating in the responsibilities as well as the privileges of authority. We – and he – have moral authority; therefore, we constitute and supervise the government that judges us.
But the two generations which have now come after mine have been reared largely without any concept of individual authority. To their eyes, the ultimate authority in the Martin-Zimmerman case is the government’s law-enforcement apparatus: the courts and police. Whatever is done outside their immediate control is done without authority, and can only beg the indulgence of the state. This idea stands self-government and unalienable rights on their heads, and cuts out from under it the premise of self-defense. But the generation of men who model the alternative idea of authority and where it comes from is getting smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror.
Neither men nor women live happily under this post-civilizational construct, but it is men whose character and purpose suffer most immediately. Even feminists haven’t been able to prove that a social authority structure is as innately a project of women as it is of men; they long ago shifted to insisting that since it isn’t as innate to women, society should somehow organize itself differently.
But, of course, society can’t do that, because authority is essential, for a number of irreducible reasons. If individuals are not defining and exercising authority over themselves – through family, faith, and work – something else is going to.
The idea of individual authority, meanwhile, which women appreciate but men cannot live purposefully without, is essential to self-government and civilization. Requiring society to do without it – requiring men not to define it or live by it – is signing a death-warrant for civilization. Of that terrible prospect, the Martin-Zimmerman case, with all its grinding pathologies and its torturing of the rule of law, is nothing if not a harbinger.