Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's a Man's Man's Man's World

On February 16, 1966, James Brown recorded the greatest R&B ballad of all time. The Godfather of Soul's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" has subsequently been covered by several major popular singers such as Cher, Celine Dion, and Seal. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it #123 in the magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time. And though the magazine says it was Brown's "abject singing" that made the song's "almost biblically chauvinistic" lyrics sound "genuinely humane," I'd have to say Brown sung the way he did because he believed what he was singing about:

This is a man's world
This is a man's world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing
Without a woman or a girl

You see man made the cars
To take us over the road
Man made the train
To carry the heavy load

Man made the electric lights
To take us out of the dark
Man made the boat for the water
Like Noah made the ark

This is a man's, man's, man's world
But it wouldn’t be nothing
Nothing without a woman or a girl

Man thinks of our little baby girls
And our baby boys
Man makes them happy
'Cause man makes them toys

And after man makes everything,
Everything he can
You know that man makes money
To buy from other man

This is a man's world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing
Not one little thing
Without a woman or a girl

He's lost in the wilderness
He's lost in bitterness
He's lost,
He's lost….

Right now, I'm reading George Gilder's Men and Marriage. The book is an absolute masterpiece; I can't put it down. Here's an extended quotation:

"In the man's desire, conscious or unconscious, to identify and keep his progeny is the beginning of love. In a civilized society, he will not normally be able to claim his children if they are born to several mothers. He must choose a particular woman and submit to her sexual rhythms and social demands if he is to have offspring of his own. His love defines his choice. His need to choose evokes his love. His sexual drive lends energy to his love and his love gives shape, meaning, and continuity to his sexuality. When he selects a specific woman, he in essence defines himself both to himself and to society. Every sex act thereafter celebrates that definition and social engagement.

"Without a durable relationship with a woman, a man's sexual life is a series of brief and temporary exchanges, impelled by a desire to affirm his most rudimentary masculinity. But with love sex becomes refined by selectivity, and other dimensions of personality are exchanged and developed. The man himself is refined, and his sexuality becomes not a mere impulse but a commitment in society, possibly to be fulfilled in the birth of specific children legally and recognizably his. His sex life then can be conceived and experienced as having specific long-term importance like a woman's [i.e., woman naturally bear children while men do not].

"Obviously, the most enduring way to make this commitment is through marriage. Yet, because sexual liberals deny the differences between the sexes, their explanations of why there are marriages and why marriage is needed and desired ignore the central truth of marriage: that it is built on sex roles...

"As a social institution, marriage transcends all individuals. The health of a society, its collective vitality, ultimately resides in its concern for the future, its sense of a connection with generations to come. There is perhaps no more important index of the social condition. It is the very temperature of a community. A community preoccupied with the present, obsessed with an immediate threat or pleasure, is enfevered. A social body, like the human body, can run a very high fever for short periods in order to repel a specific threat or to meet an emergency, a war or domestic crisis. But if it finds itself perpetually enfevered, it begins to run down and can no longer provide for the future. Its social programs can fail to work, its businesses can fail to produce, its laws can become unenforceable. The will and morale and community of its people can founder. A society, apparently working well, can stand impotent before its most important domestic and external threats and opportunities.

"The sense of social vitality and balance does not 'just happen.' In civilized conditions it is love, marriage, and the nurture of children that project a society into the future and make it responsible for posterity... [I]n general it is only through love for specific children that a society evokes long-term commitments from its members.

"That is why the social temperature of single men is so high--why they end up so often being sent to war or jail or other institutions, and why they burn out so young. A society does not run into real trouble, however, until its culture begins to adopt the unmarried male pattern, until the long-term commitments on which any enduring community is based are undermined by an opportunistic public philosophy. The public philosophy of the unmarried male focuses on immediate gratification: 'What did posterity ever do for me?' A society that widely adopts this attitude is in trouble.

"The power of woman springs from her role in overcoming these socially and personally self-defeating ways of men...

"The ideology of the sexual liberationists sees society as a male-dominated construct that exploits women for the convenience of men. In evidence, they cite men's greater earning power, as if economic productivity were a measure of social control rather than of social service. But it is female power, organic and consitutional, that is real--holding sway over the deepest levels of consciousness, sources of happiness, and processes of social survival. Male dominance in the marketplace, on the other hand, is a social artifice maintained not for the dubious benefits it confers on men but for the indispensible benefits it offers the society: inducing men to support rather than disrupt it...

"Any consideration of equality focusing on employment and income, therefore, will miss the real sources of equilibrium between the sexes. These deeper female strengths and male weaknesses are more important than any superficial male dominance because they control the ultimate motives and rewards of our existence. In childbearing, every woman is capable of a feat of creativity and durable accomplishment--permanently and uniquely changing the face of the earth--that only the most extraordinary man can even pretend to duplicate in external activity.

"Women control not the economy of the marketplace but the economy of eros: the life force in our society and our lives. What happens in the inner realm of women finally shapes what happens on our social surfaces, determining the level of happiness, energy, creativity, morality, and solidarity in the nation" (pp. 14-18).

As James Brown sang,

This is a man's world
This is a man's world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing
Without a woman or a girl!

Brown, himself, must have known very well the futility of the pleasure-seeking male life. After all, he made a career out of distilling male lust into music for the dance hall. Perhaps the pathos of Brown's performance arose out of an internal conflict between love and lust, between faith and temptation. But I'm no psychologist, and I know next to nothing about James Brown's life except that he was married four times and probably had several illegitimate children.

The point is not to crap on James Brown, it's to highlight a perennial human problem. You see, when temptation enters Eden and the serpent dangles (no pun intended!) the promise of divinity before her, woman is given a choice. She has a choice to take the fruit or refuse it until she may legitimately possess it. If she is not deceived by the promise of instant godhood (remember, there is a link between sex and spirituality--e.g., marriage is a "mystery" of Christ and the Church) and witholds herself until the proper time, eternal life (i.e., the perpetuation of the human race) is assured. But if she takes the fruit prematurely, disaster is inevitable. What she thinks will be pleasure enjoyed with her man turns instead to her undoing. Man will begin to care more for the fruit than for her. The fruit is actually a distraction from the real thing, for Woman is the authentic meaning of Man's natural life. Woman shall be saved through childbearing, as the apostle says, and man is saved through woman.


charles said...

This was a great post. Love your blog! I live in CA too, and am close in age, born 1970. We should talk sometime. I am cleaning my grammar on a blog here:

I was meditating on Eve's exclamation, "With the help of the Lord I have given birth to a man!". I thought this was pretty ironic given Eve came from Man's side and was wondering if there was a hint of hubris to it. But your post really help me understand it's not a matter of contest but reveals the sacred unity and reciprocity of man and woman. Woman is sanctified by the birth of man. Meanwhile, man is saved through the Woman. Mutual blessings and fullness of our gender roles are poured upon the us by the union of husband and wife? Interesting.

My email is Pro-Orthodox, Anglican, evangelical, and pro-royals.

Anonymous said...

Brother Andy - You are a right salty dog. One of the few men blogging among the fearless "Reformed" worth reading.

"It's Man's Man's Man's World" - masterpiece. I thought you were da man with citing the great Anglican Browne but this takes the cake.

Soon-to-be-retired, ELDER HOSS

Andrew Matthews said...

It's terrific to hear from you, Charles. Anglican Rose looks like a great site: a wrestling with our Catholic and Protestant heritage, without throwing out the baby, as they say. Truly, it's the predicament we face as Anglicans.

Certainly, the Fall introduced disharmony into the relations between man and woman. However, human disobedience could not thwart God's plan for the race, which is to cultivate God's good earth and thrive for his glory.

I'll be in touch.

Andrew Matthews said...

As always, Hoss, I love to hear from you. Would you mind writing me an email? I want to find out what you're up to. My address is covenant dot catholick at gmail dot com.


Andrew Matthews said...

For readers of this post:

I just finished Gilder's book last night. It's a wonderful read and highly worthwhile. My man Prager recommended it to a woman who wanted a recommendation for her niece who was contemplating marriage. IMHO, it's mandatory reading for young men and women in this day and age.

Gilder, a defender of free market capitalism, propounds a novel definition of capitalism in the last chapter of his book. I'll be posting next on this, since I've just started Mark Skousen's Making of Modern Economics. I'm sympathetic to free markets on the microeconomic level, but less than enthusiastic on the macro level. Any book recommendations on this subject are welcome.

Finally, a note about my take on Genesis 3. I do not propose that the "fruit" of the tree of knowledge was pre-marital sexual intercourse. I have no idea if anything beyond actual fruit is intended in the account.

Yet, I follow commentators who understand that God would eventually offer the fruit to the first couple once they reached a certain stage of maturity. The Fall is certainly (in my view) the archetypal pattern for every subsequent case of human beings grasping prematurely for some blessing, some privilege. All such premature grasping works to our detriment. He who waits on the Lord will be exalted at the proper time.

Jack said...

I had trouble with Gilder's first paragraph so I probably didn't read the rest as thoroughly as I should have.

Here's the issue: when he says, "In a civilized society, he will not normally be able to claim his children if they are born to several mothers," I immediately start wondering what his definition of "civilized" is. Many civilizations (maybe even most) practice polygamy precisely for the purpose of controlling the ownership of the offspring. In other words, a man marries multiple women for the express purpose of gaining exclusive rights to father their children which are henceforth counted as his. This is arguably an immoral practice, but it is undeniably a civilized one.

Now, if Gilder wants to argue on the moral basis, I think he has a right to the other conclusions he draws. But that raises the question of why he chose to ground his argument in terms of civilization. On the other hand, if -- as I suspect -- he does not feel confident that the moral argument can be made or that a moral basis will not sit well with his argument, it does not strike me as likely that any of his conclusions will have much force either.

I am left, when reading the rest of his prose, with the vague feeling that, though I like what I hear, he hasn't really given me adequate reason to believe that it is true. And from this uneasiness it is a small step to wondering if it even is true. I have come to similar conclusions independently so I am in no real danger of making that second step, but I imagine someone encountering these issues for the first time might be ill-prepared to answer objections once they have put down the book and tried to live out these ideas in the real world.

Maybe Gilder makes the case elsewhere in the book that there is a truly moral basis for what he here calls "civilized", in which case I withdraw my objection. But I still wonder why, in that case, he would choose to make his point based on the secondary ground of civilization rather than the primary moral ground. It seems a bit like stacking two ladders on top of each other when one would be long enough to reach the hight you want.

Andrew Matthews said...


The first paragragraph of the first chapter of Gilder's book reads:

"The crucial process of civilization is the subordination of male sexual impulses and biology to the long-term horizons of female sexuality. The overall sexual behavior of women in the modern world differs relatively little from the sexual life of women in primitive societies. It is male behavior that must be changed to create a civilized order."

I think Gilder would argue that even in polygamous societies, irresponsible male sexual behavior must be curbed. He discusses polygamy in the book, but I need to go back and look at exactly what he says.

Gilder's argument is basically that society does not prosper when a male sexual "ethic" reigns. He marshalls impressive data to show that this is the case in modern society since the sexual revolution.

Since I largely accept Gilder's presuppositions I'm willing to grant him a pass on this one.

Maybe we should dialogue more on the subject since it's important.

Andrew Matthews said...


I'm trying to efectively address your challenge. Gilder purses an empirical approach. He argues, not deductively from moral norms, but inductively from the voluminous research of others (with certain moral presuppositions, of course).

For him, it is empirically demonstrable that "civilization happens" when men subordinate their sexual nature (we would say fallen nature) to the long-term horizon of female seuality (that terminates in the birth and nurture of children).

One of Gilder's book's main targets is "serial monogamy" or polygny, which is a serious malady affecting "modern" developed countries.

Gilder would argue (as I would), that even in polygamous societies, male sexuality is controlled to asignificant extent by the institution of marriage. However, Gilder explicitly argues that in societies where large numbers of women are commanded by a relatively few number of rich, powerful, and/or sexually attractive men, a great amount of misery ensues. Two groups are created in such a regime: a large population of disaffected single men, a source of social disorder; and, a large population of discarded older women. Gilder argues that this kind of society is "the most intolerable hierarchy of all."

He writes,

"Monogamy is egalitarianism in the realm of love. It is a mode f rationing. It means--to put it crudely--one to a customer. Competition is intense enough even so, because of the sexual inequality of human beings. But under a regime of monogamy there are limits. One may covet a neighbor's wife or husband, one may harbor fantasies of teenyboppers, but one generally does not act on one's lusts. One does not abandon one's wife when she grows older, to take a woman who would otherwise go to a younger man. One does not raid the marriages of others. Thus a balance is maintained and each generation gets it only true sexual rights: the right to a wife or husband and the possibility of participating in the future of the race through children" (p. 58).

Russ, I hope I have adequately addressed your concern and demonstrated the value of Gilder's work.

Jack said...

Fair enough. I suspected that some such definition of "civilization" was working here. Goodness knows I am not one to object to an empirical approach.

However, precisely because it is empirecal, I remain uncomfortable with his use of the term "civilized". It may well be that polygamous societies are "the most intolerable hierarchy of all", but I don't think we can deny that such societies still merit the name "civilization". Bad civilizations, to be sure, but civilizations none the less.

To me the word means, at root, a way of ordering groups of people that are too large to be managed as individuals. A family or a village, even some moderately sized towns can be administered on inidvidual bases because there is always some degree of homogeneity that can be assumed. But when you get to the levels of cities (the root word of "civilization") that homogeneity can no longer be assumed because cities are, by definition, places where disparate interests exist. The social order of cities, therefore, must be more general and, to a degree, impersonal. Thus the term "civiliztion" is a description of a particular type of order.

The reason this is significant for the present discussion is that this view of civilization demands that the term be value-neutral. All civiliztions will have this characteristic of impersonality and can therefore be treated as in some sense the same type of thing. But, since the matter of civilizations are people with inherent value, this impersonalization is very dangerous and must be evaluated. It is crucial that the standard of evaluation be external to the civilization in question and objective. The problem with using the term "civilized" in both a descriptive and evaluative sense is that it blurs that distinction between what all civilizations must share and the particulars that set them apart from each other.

To summarize: "civilized" is properly a category of order, where what Gilder wants is a category of justice. Hope that clarifies my concern.

None of this means that I am dismissive of the value of Gilder's work. I very much appreciate his attempt to rebut the conflict-theoretical critique of marriage by providing a funtionalist explanation.