It is not very fashionable to be a man these days, especially a white one. After the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s record of alleged sexual assault and harassment, The New York Times ran a piece entitled “The unexamined brutality of the male libido” by the Canadian writer Stephen Marche.
“The masculine libido and its accompanying forces and pathologies drive so much of culture and politics and the economy,” wrote Marche, adding that “the point of Freud was not that boys will be boys. Rather the opposite . . . If you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers.” Right.
“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post. This was a review of a book by a sociologist named Michael Kimmel, whose theory is that masculinity is both “the psychological inspiration” that leads young men to join Islamist and neo-Nazi groups “and the social glue that keeps them involved”. Got it.
I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organised a small, invitation-only conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.
Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male”, The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest”.
So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work. Other Stanford institutions had embraced diversity, but Hoover had “proved impervious to the demographic changes transpiring in the academy.” It was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense”. The most literal sense?
Now let’s be clear. As I recently and rather vehemently explained to the novelist Will Self, I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed or any other difference. That the human past was characterised by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behaviour that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists? Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but in the pages of male-chauvinist comics such as Viz.
What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this Through the Looking Glass world, diversity means homogeneity. I was struck by the objection of professors Hobbs and Satia that, whereas Stanford has the “high-minded purpose” of “fostering education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity”, the Hoover Institution’s values are “very different . . . economic freedom, private enterprise, and commitment to facts and reason”. Good grief, not those discredited tenets of white patriarchy!
“The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. The historian’s role, she explained, was not to help improve policy but to be a “critic of government . . . to speak to the public, so that people may exert pressure on their elected representatives”. Her exemplar in this regard? Step forward the very white, very male British social historian EP Thompson.
Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.
Speaking up against this kind of thing is a risky business. Questioning the new orthodoxy on the identity of the sexes can get you fired — ask James Damore, who lost his job as an engineer at Google for doing just that. Asserting that there may actually be scientifically identifiable differences between the sexes will get you “no-platformed” — ask Christina Hoff Sommers, whose book The War Against Boys (2000) pointed out the growing discrimination against male students in American education, and whose lectures are regularly disrupted by radical feminists.
The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied. This is America in 2018. The point, as I tried to explain to him, is rather different. Quite a lot of people of all skin colours are bad, but probably not a majority. Most people of all skin colours want to be good, but they are in various ways weak. And a few people of all skin colours are brave.
Courage is not gender-specific, either. My son’s mother, a true feminist, is the bravest person I know. But it is worth pondering why, for most of history, men were encouraged to show physical courage. As the Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield has pointed out, the ideal of manliness is perhaps best described as “confidence in a situation of risk”. He argues that the feminist campaign against manliness is misguided. “We are in the process,” Mansfield writes, of making manliness “the essence of the . . . evil we are eradicating”.
Yet manliness has its uses. Just over a week ago, a 44-year-old French policeman named Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame confronted an Islamist who burst into a supermarket in southern France, where he killed two people and took a 40-year-old checkout woman hostage. Beltrame offered to take her place. He gave up his weapon and put himself in the murderer’s power. After a standoff, the terrorist shot him several times, whereupon police stormed the store. Although Beltrame was flown to hospital, he died a few hours later, his wife at his side.
A graduate of the elite military school St Cyr and a special forces gendarme who served with distinction in Iraq, Beltrame was a product of just the kind of education we are supposed now to disdain. But as his wife said after his death: “He was motivated by very high moral values, the values of service, generosity, giving oneself, abnegation.”
Beltrame died that another might live. His sacrifice was not at the level of Christ’s — who “died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15) — but it was and is the essence of heroism. This Easter, let us turn away from all discrimination — the new kind as well as the old — and remember that true courage is remarkable not for its colour, or its sex, but for its rarity.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford