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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Patrick Wyman

I appreciate this piece immensely. I’ve had similar nagging feelings during the pandemic. The “aversion to self reflection” line is so spot on. I did every manual labor job under the sun to pay for college. I have a white collar job now and I worry about the disconnect I feel growing with friends who still have blue collar jobs or are cops. The emphasis is always on tough talk and often entails diminishing the accomplishments of people who aren’t straight white dudes because they’re protected or uplifted. Joking about the kicker for Vanderbilt who played in a D-1 college game for instance. The older I get the more I think true masculinity is just doing your job and trying to be the most honorable and compassionate version of yourself.

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Patrick Wyman

This piece makes me feel seen! I've spent 20 years on MMA mats, back when it was called Vale Tudo and we all wore sweat pants, and if I look at the masculine heroes I've had through my youth, it has always been some version of the "Warrior Scholar," from my first MMA coach to Bruce Lee to Henry Rollins. I've always appreciated the discipline and self-mastery; it's something I've aspired to.

These guys have always been outsiders, but something has changed. The paranoia, the conspiracies, this tactical readiness silliness... I remember sitting on a mat with Eddie Bravo and a bunch of high-level fighters talking about some deep-state, absurd conspiracy and I'm like, "What am I doing here?" It's sad to me, because so many of these guys are so solid, help-you-move-with-their-truck solid, and it's refreshing to have conversations not reflexively filtered through the woke-identarian lens as happens so much in my life. Maybe I'm just getting more sensitive to it, but it's not as fun to shadowbox alone in the park, as I do these days...

I'm a bit older than the normal cohort, but I sense this frustration in them, as if they're aching for some life test, some Rubicon to pass, but the only thing there is to do is roll, cash the unemployment check, and wear a mask to the grocery store.

Thanks for writing this.

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Patrick Wyman

Loved this article! I was having a convo about this yesterday, and as someone who has transitioned genders but still loves fights, lifting, BBQ and a lot of stereotypical 'Bro' stuff - the way that Bro culture offers a sense of meaning really can't be underestimated especially in a where even being a successful member of the professional-managerial class can feel like a dehumanizing slog.

I just wish there was SOMETHING non-toxic we could offer young boys as a way to live honorably and honestly - a way to attain self-worth that wasn't wrapped up in consuming the right product or being conservative politically, but rather being emotionally honest, accepting, and striving.

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Something to consider: the prickly sense of honor and emphasis on physical combat - prowess - to preserve it, as seen in the stereotypical 19th century American South, in 17th century Scotland, etc. I'd like to suggest that while the particular channels of transmission of Bro Culture may be new, the core message and the larger social consequences are themselves very old, and pretty well-understood.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this essay and have reflected on this topic myself for a long time. Being a child of immigrants (Egyptian), I take a different perspective specifically on American masculinity but arrive around the same conclusions. The two strains that I see largely unaddressed around American masculinity are gun culture and anti-intellectualism. Both are uniquely American and I would love to hear people’s thoughts around these two issues.



The first area is gun culture. Prior to guns, the primary weapons used were bladed weapons aka swords and the bow and arrow. Archers rarely captured the public’s imagination (the only exception I can think of being Robin Hood), while swordsmen were widely respected. Entire warrior classes sprung up around the idea of mastering the sword, notably the samurai in Japan and the knights of medieval Rome. While Americans hold the idea of nobility as men who were effete or feminine, other nations see them as otherwise due to the sword (and its subsequent mastery) as entirely the province of nobles since they were the only ones with the means and the time to dedicate to it. Naturally this meant they held the higher positions in any military hierarchy because they would be trained from birth to master first and foremost the arts of war. I’ll explore this further in the discussion about anti-intellectualism so please bear with me. With swords, men respected the idea of someone being better/superior/stronger/etc. when faced in a one-on one situation. There was no more important idea in competition as a sword fight was for the ultimate stakes, a life-or-death struggle.

This continued unabated for thousands of years until the development of guns beginning with the musket. But muskets were inaccurate weapons with complicated reloading mechanisms. At first they were largely a sidearm to the infinitely more useful sword since swords could not run out of ammunition nor need to be reloaded. In The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, the classic tome about swordsmanship, he dedicates only a few lines to muskets and spends the rest of the book speaking of the way of the sword. As technology advanced, the musket evolved into the repeating rifle, when the world received a rude shock in World War I that swords and horses have been displaced by guns, automobiles, and artillery.

One has to consider the fact that the United States, as founded in 1776, did not have this long tradition of battling with only swords or any sort of established nobility. The Revolutionary War was fought with muskets which had a significantly lower barrier to mastery than the sword and more effective at defeating (ie killing) enemies. This was enshrined in the 2nd Amendment as the right to bear arms. A citizenry with muskets would assumedly outnumber any standing army or at least be able to put up a punishing resistance that would at least make any government fearful of exerting tyranny (or at least this is what the Founders had expected).

Tying this in to modern American masculinity, the gun represents a significant issue when determining male superiority. For example, think about all the great mano-e-mano fights ever shown in Hollywood or on tv, how many of them involve guns? Martial arts movies show hand to hand combat. Even Star Wars, a futuristic sci-fi series, uses lightsabers. Gun fights simply do not provide the same answer to the shift modern American masculinity has gone from “protector” to “predator”. That is because we generally believe that anyone can be lucky with a gun. Even children can wield guns with enough effectiveness to kill someone. We know this to be true from African child soldiers to modern day high schools. They don’t even need to be well-trained in any sense of the word to accomplish the killing of another. How can we determine if a man is the apex predator if he cannot challenge a man to life-or-death combat, kill him, and confidently claim his superiority?

The solution presented is precisely the one you mention in your essay as “tactical” training. This is performed largely at the elite level of the military (the pinnacle of “bro” masculinity like the Navy SEALs). Fast reloads, fast draws, oakley sunglasses, and the whole getup have largely caught fire as distinguishing these people who wish to classify themselves as “warriors”. We also know that even though special operators can perform physical feats that 99.9% of the population can only dream of, they are still vulnerable to errant bullet as anyone else. An idiot with a gun has a fool’s chance of felling a Navy SEAL in combat. We know this because special forces operators have died in combat (whether through a bullet fired by an enemy combatant or other means). Yet no one would ever claim that the reason that operator died was that he was in some way inferior to that specific enemy combatant. All of us are aware of the intense training and filtering at these elite levels. So then the gun and gun culture cannot be the arbiter of male superiority, no matter how hard anyone tries. But this incongruence is a problem, so people will work harder and harder to prove superiority by dedication to gun culture and ever more outlandish feats regardless of its relevance to actual battlefield use.



This was a lot longer than I had intended it to be so I’ll address the anti-intellectualism portion in another post if this one garners a thoughtful discussion.

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Here's something I wrote years ago that seems pertinent.

“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.” Those were the words of Edgar Maddison Welch after his arrest in Washington DC for assault with a dangerous weapon at a local pizza parlor. Mr. Welch was there to rescue children that Hillary Clinton was keeping in the basement of the pizza parlor for purposes of sex trafficking. But, as Mr. Welch discovered, the “intel” was off. There were no children. There was no basement. And so, Mr. Welch, whose motivations were sterling, was not the hero he imagined himself to be but just another goofy warrior.

Mr. Welch is not alone. Members of the scary fringes of right wing politics, from the Bundys to the Oathkeepers have assumed, with appropriate gravitas, the role of protector. Protector of what? The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the imaginary children in the basement. In a grotesque parody of the benevolent but world-weary father figure, these men have fashioned a role for themselves that the real world has denied them. They will save the children. They will be the good fathers.

Another would-be protector, Jon Eric Ritzheimer, made a youtube splash with his heartfelt address to his family about the oath he took to defend the Constitution. Widely parodied, Mr. Ritzheimer’s address cannot be faulted for its lack of sincerity. Tearfully, he tells his family that he must assume the heavy burden that others have shirked. He does so with great reluctance but a man has to do what a man has to do.

And herein lies the problem. Working class American men have seen their roles as breadwinners, caretakers, protectors of their families diminished by market forces beyond their control. For some these roles were at the heart of their identity. They provided a positive expression of masculinity. A positive expression of masculinity seems like an odd phrase these days. Oxymoronic for some. But I would argue that unless we recognize this deficit, the marketplace itself will fill this void with decidedly negative expressions of masculinity.

Take SWAT magazine for example. Available at your local newsstand, SWAT and its counterparts in the masculinity marketplace are charting a course for these heroes. It’s a course that includes, guns, ammo and plenty of “tactical” gear. In other words, the trappings of masculinity, the costume that goes along with the role of protector. To be clear, the articles in SWAT are not about hunting. They are about armed combat, mano a mano. Written in the no-nonsense humorless prose of the weary but aware warrior the articles cover things like “Tactical Sleep,” “Protecting your Stash,” and plenty of product reviews of weaponry. Reading between the lines, one can see the fears that are being stoked here are not unique. The apocalyptic landscape they limn is the stuff of our current Hollywood obsession with civilization’s crack up. 

What’s new in this mix is the role that is being fashioned from the shards of masculinity that more mundane and invisible enemies have left behind. The marketplace has broken up the old roles but it’s also happy to provide a new role, a role that warped young men like Mr. Welch can cleave to: Saving the children in the basement of the pizza parlor. 

It’s a role that stands to make some people a lot of money even as it unravels the fraying fabric of our Republic. And this is the real problem: Capitalism cannot resist opportunities to make money even in enterprises that are corrosive to the spirit of democracy itself.

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Jan 5, 2021Liked by Patrick Wyman

Patrick -- thank you so much for this essay! It inspired my friend and I (who have been in and out of MMA and lifting gyms) to do a podcast: https://anchor.fm/wwdtm

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This wonderful, world-expanding essay has stuck with me for several days. So has the video itself of Echo and Jocko's conversation. The conversation surprised me actually, in ways that didn't entirely mesh with the direction your essay took. As a skinny, progressive, feminist guy, I've never identified with the warrior ethos, the macho camaraderie, or the bulging physique of these two men. When I pressed play, I was fully ready to recoil from a couple repressed totems of toxic masculinity. Instead I found them disarming and sweet. I thought they were kind of tender with each other! They were vulnerable. They poked fun but it was within a zone of trust. In conventional gender language, these two extraordinarily powerful and imposing men were actually kind of... feminine with each other.

Granted, I could have been reading everything wrong; I don't actually speak the code; so maybe, if I walked into that room, with my willowy frame, they would grimace, roar, and rip my head off. But I don't think so.

So: the video had the opposite effect on me from your essay. The essay confirmed a rising fear about a kind of desperately insecure, dominationist masculinity that threatens to blow up the country. But these two guys? I felt reassured. I felt like I could sit down and talk with them. In fact, if macho culture could look like this, I would be a little more hopeful. And in that hope, lies a question: is there any chance that gym culture, or bro culture more generally, contains within it more tender possibilities for the future, than the toxic violent strains your essay describes?

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The poem used to exemplify chivalry seems to be written of an observer of the battle, not a participant. Were the knights terrified, killing their foes out of desperation, kept in line by their commander? Were they drunk, having had to steel themselves before the battle? If they had to choose between saving themselves and their fellow knight that day, what did they choose? In a mass - to an observer - sure the knights ahorse look heroic. Chivalrous. But it is simply a romanticization of battle to induct future knights.

That's what modern "bro culture" is -- young men who listen to these podcasters/marketers who define their own "battle" narratives (whether they served or are just training for ultra-marathons) in the same broad strokes as the poet did. Do these podcasters/marketers actually embody "manhood"? Were they war criminals? Do they run their ultra-marathons cleanly, fairly? I'd argue that it's impossible to know as audiences are simply being served a narrative. Yet their listeners are being indoctrinated the same was as the poet's audience was. Sometimes it might be good. Some listeners might be inspired to join a gym and get healthy. But other times it's less beneficial. (And I'm not just talking about the rubes who spend 35 bucks to buy a podcast t-shirt.)

Take what's happening right now. People are dying by the thousands in America. A New York Times article a few months back said, “Some experts who study masculinity and public health say the perception that wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines are unmanly has carried a destructive coast. The virus has infected more men than women and killed far more of them.”

So, I think, if we have to measure "masculinity" by strength, then it's time to measure "strength" by flexibility, not rigidness. And these men seem to be working against that.

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Agreed on all of this, and I think an additional factor not mentioned here is the greater recognition and acceptance of LGBTQ+ Americans over the last 10-20 years, and manly hetero Bro Culture "rising to oppose it". That's not to say that everyone who lifts weights or does MMA is homophobic, but there are certainly Bro Culture advocates who feel their ideas of gender norms and identity being threatened and who feel a need to reassert how they think manliness "should" be defined.

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Also, a day or two after reading this article I walked by a gym in my neighborhood that rebranded. Their new slogan is "Fit Or Die" and their new logo is a skull and crossbones, with barbells as the "crossbones". I think this article willed that rebrand into existence, heh.

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Just men who never grew up. So bizarre. Great piece.

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The explanation of chivalry made me think of 1800's honor duels. Again you have a system of organized violence that men, mostly white, participated in at all levels of society. Especially in the South, where the plantation class set up their own version of feudal Europe with slaves at the very bottom... and class-anxious poor whites seeking to affirm their place in the middle.

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I've thankfully found that the endurance athletics community is much more tolerant and more open minded. This probably has to do with the fact that we're all a bunch of weirdos anyway.

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High school football all-state in the midwest followed by undergraduate at a near-Ivy school. Avid crossfitter. "Bro" culture is pretty much my only remaining link to my blue collar upbringing. And I'm deeply, deeply ambivalent about it. Thanks for articulating this so well.

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"That’s Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man who shot three protesters with an AR-15 in Kenosha last August, following his release on bail."

I am pretty sure Mr. Rittenhouse did not shoot anyone after he was released on bail.

Trying to do too much in single sentence oiften causes problems.

BTW: don't be very sure about his guilt in the matter for which he was arrested. He may have plausible defenses.

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