Entry from March 21, 2006

The sneering review in the New York Times Book Review by a novelist called Walter Kirn of Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness (see my own review under “Recent Articles” below) could have been anticipated, but its obtuseness — especially when viewed alongside the subtle and supple line of argument pursued by Professor Mansfield — is unusual even for the mainstream media culture which Mr Kirn represents. He compares the professor to Hans and Franz, the German body-builders portrayed by Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon on “Saturday Night Live” back in the 1990s. “Remember how unwittingly fey they seemed,” he writes, “partly because of their wagging little pinheads but mostly because of the way they loved the words ‘girly’ and ‘manly’ — a pair of usages that was poignantly out of date by then among even minimally hip Americans?”

So now are we to suppose that the prestigious New York Times regards it as a sufficient refutation of a serious work of political philosophy to say that it isn’t “hip”? There could hardly be a better illustration of the dumbing down of the culture. Thought and argument count for nothing with the truly pinheaded Mr Kirn, only fashion, “cool” and, perhaps, celebrity, which sets the tone of what is fashionable and cool. He doesn’t even know that calling an idea “out of date” is only a comment on its fashionability and not on its validity. Professor Mansfield, he says, “shows little awareness of much that’s happened recently — televisually and otherwise — in the allegedly feminized culture that he aims to shake up” — as if not knowing much about what’s on TV were some kind of disqualification for thinking seriously about our human and sexual nature.

This kind of mindless moral progressivism is particularly inappropriate in the circumstances because Manliness is (among other things) precisely a refutation of moral progressivism — which is essentially the view that morality can be determined by fashion. It’s like criticizing Mother Goose for being childish or Shakespeare for writing in poetry — which is to say that it is a way not just of missing the point but of missing it spectacularly. Surely, this is the last thing that any self-respecting reviewer would want to give anyone grounds to accuse him of, but Mr Kirn goes on and on, as if he were afraid that we might miss his point, demonstrating his own highly-prized “awareness” of televisual and pop cultural epiphenomena (though of course not of the book) by comparing Professor Mansfield to Mike Myers’s Austin Powers — like whom he “seems stuck in a semantic time warp.”

He goes on to accuse the professor of being professorial, of writing “in a fussy lecture-hall mode” while “taking the wordy, long way around to prove a few points about the male and female.” Yeah, and he uses some really big words too. Once again, you’d think Mr Kirn would be just the tiniest bit embarrassed to admit that he has such a hard time following anything not as snappy and easily assimilable as Austin Powers or “Saturday Night Live.” It’s true enough that philosophers of Professor Mansfield’s calibre quite often are driven by the difficulties of their material to write difficult prose, but if they’re doing the job right it isn’t “wordy” or the “long way around” but just as long as it needs to be. Could it be that the reviewer doesn’t know this? Certainly the only example he provides from the book of its author’s writing “at length” — his retelling of the famous anecdote about Mandy Rice-Davies’s response to being told that Lord Astor had denied there was any improper relationship between them by saying “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” — will not strike many readers, I think, with its prolixity.

As he finds the book so difficult to understand that he cannot address its substance but only make fun of the way it is dressed, perhaps he’s not the best person to be reviewing it?

Embarrassing as is this kind of twaddle masquerading as a book review, what lies behind it is of course politics — and not just politics in the larger senses either. For Professor M. also seems to have nailed his colors to the mast when it comes to party politics as well, at least if we are to believe Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post this morning. “I have a new theory about what”s behind everything that”s wrong with the Bush administration,” she writes on the op-ed page. Guess what it is? Manliness! Professor Mansfield tells us that “it is out of manliness that men do not like to ask for directions when lost,” and Ms Marcus is quick to spot the connection to the Bush White House. Why, they’re lost too, at least when it comes to knowing what to do about the mess in Iraq, and they won’t admit it either. Is that, she asks with a feminine assurance masked by a satirical show of diffidence, “really what you want in a government deciding whether to take a country to war?”

Well, yes, in a way it is. For there are no road-maps, no wise locals when it comes to the way to go in diplomatic and military affairs. You can’t check your progress against an infallible authority and make course corrections on the way. The kind of doubtfulness and admission of error that she so longs for among the excessively manly Bush men is regarded as weakness because it is weakness. In war there is no time for second-guessing and tergiversation. On any course short of the disastrous, the only thing you can do is keep pressing on and disregard the armchair critics. They, like Ms Marcus, may think things are already disastrous, and that we are on the point of having to retreat or be massacred, but they have been saying similar things since the war began — they were saying similar things in the first Gulf War — and their own credibility is not of the highest. It’s fair enough, perhaps, to say that manliness is what’s “wrong” with the Bush administration, but that’s just another way of saying that a lack of manliness is what’s “wrong” with her analysis of it. As Professor Mansfield might say, What else can you expect from a woman?

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