Whatever happened to the men's movement?

Below is an older article with some valid points that speak about the importance of the men's movment.

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Old-faithful Wolf

Whatever happened to the men's movement?

Staff Photo By Corey Lowenstein
Members of the leadership council of the Men's Center of Raleigh and Wake County, from left: Gregory Blaine, Patrick Knox, Martin Brossman, Doug Lester, Doug Jenette and Dave Davenport.

Though critics dismiss and lampoon it, activists say they are making progress -- one man at a time.

By SARAH AVERY, Staff Writer

For a warrior such as Doug Lester, battling in the trenches of the men's movement, progress comes in increments that are difficult to plot on a map with red pushpins, as in here is where we started and here is where we are now.

Certainly, there has been some headway. In the 13 years Lester has been working to advance a movement that isn't so much about injustice as inertia, the Raleigh financial planner has seen the creation of a men's center in Raleigh, the establishment of a series of annual retreats, the rise of movement heroes such as Robert Bly, who will address a men's workshop this weekend.

And yet, for every win, there's a setback -- or at least a failure of progress. For all its promise, the men's movement remains, largely, a private, therapeutic phenomenon.

Despite a run in the national spotlight at the start of the decade, the men's movement is now largely in the shadows. Its members meet for candid discussions that are much along the lines of encounter sessions, where privacy is carefully guarded; their leaders note a skittishness among some participants over the prospect of being "outed."

It's odd language for heterosexual men, and yet it's not without reason. For one thing, the movement has been the butt of jokes about men beating drums and running naked through the woods, prompting some men to avoid the movement. Also, the men consider their work deeply personal, not political. What they hope to accomplish, in the end, is a level of intimacy with other men based on trust, not competition.

It's an uphill campaign: "There are one million people in the Triangle," said Lester, a founding member and part of the leadership council of the Men's Center of Raleigh and Wake County, "and we're touching, like, maybe 100."

A movement is born

By most counts, the men's movement began in 1982, during a conference of men in Mendocino, Calif., that had originally been part of a men's and women's retreat. But the men spun off on their own, acknowledging that they had separate and compelling issues to consider.

Before that epiphany of that conference, there had been a few books lamenting the state of manhood, prompted in part by the feminist movement's successes. After the conference, there were more books and more conferences.

But it remained a largely fringe movement until Bly came along in 1990 with his best selling book, "Iron John." Bly, who will be in Raleigh for a fund-raiser at the Men's Center today and Saturday, used the Grimms' fairy tale of Iron Hans to outline the problem facing men in the late 20th century.

That problem, he argued, is a profound disconnect between old expectations of manhood -- men as stoic hunter-protectors -- and modern ones that demand a greater emotional arsenal. As women have made strides toward equality, men have had to learn to share: Share the workplace, share power, share more family responsibilities -- share, even, their emotions. The silent tough-guy role suddenly fit like a pair of shrunken knickers. But what could fit?

"It's a terrible thing that has happened to men, and most don't even notice it," Bly said in a recent interview at the Men's Center. "There's an old joke about a man walking along and his guts are hanging out and someone asks him if he's OK, and he says he's fine. That comes from a long history. Men endure. That's the way it is."

For Bly and others, the better course of action is to acknowledge the emotional wounds, even study them, to learn how they got there.

To do that, Bly's particular branch of the men's movement, called the mythopoetic, relies on poetry and myths, fathers and heritage. By contemplating mythic, historic roles, men can better understand the true essence of what it is that makes them uniquely men -- even as they shed outdated models.

The message and method caught on, particularly among middle-aged white men who -- often moved by a personal crisis such as divorce or job layoff -- questioned the meaning of their lives and the emotional isolation they imposed on themselves.

Droves of them attended retreats and conferences and workshops, many of which called upon men to shed, literally and figuratively, their worldly clothes and get in touch with their bare souls.

Through 1991 and 1992, the men's movement was the rage. In the Triangle, 80 to 100 men each spring made the annual weekend retreats to commune with each other around campfires. And while the Men's Center had been in existence in Raleigh since 1986, it enjoyed record membership -- 160-some men in various discussion groups and workshops -- during the early 1990s.

Bly himself was featured on the cover of Newsweek and in a lengthy interview with television journalist Bill Moyers. And other factions sprang up, notably the Promise Keepers, a religious movement that called on men to regain control of their lives by keeping their promises -- those they had made themselves and those that are simply implied by birthright -- as sons, husbands and fathers.

Fodder for parody

But the men's movement's limitations, and its own excesses, began to draw criticism.

As attendance to the retreats soared here and across the country, the sessions suddenly became fodder for parody, particularly in their liberal use of drums. It's still a touchy subject.

Lou Lipsitz, a Chapel Hill therapist who has been involved in the area's men's movement for 10 years, says the cartoon images severely damaged the movement: "That's a way of trivializing what is actually deep and meaningful work," he said.

For Bly, who used drums in his poetry readings and mythic presentations long before he became associated with the men's movement, the stereotype became a personal affront.

Some time ago, he said, he was in New York and noticed an advertisement for Dewar's Scotch whiskey painted on a public bus. It said, "You don't have to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man."

"What does that mean?" Bly asked. "Does that mean the measure of being a man is by being an alcoholic like all the others in the past? That is hostile."

Bly said such ad campaigns scared men away from the movement. Participation dropped, seemingly overnight: "Men are very sensitive to being shamed."

Many of the men who weren't driven away became less open about their participation. The problem lingers today, said Martin Brossman, who has been leading a men's inquiry group from his Raleigh home for three years. "Absolutely there's a stigma."

The movement that wasn't?

Critics, however, contend that issues beyond image worked to slow the movement's momentum.

Strictly speaking, a movement, to be a movement, needs a political agenda -- a clarion call for some change in the collective cultural dynamic that soldiers in the trenches can fight for.

The feminist movement sought, among other things, economic parity for women; the civil rights movement sought, among other things, social parity for African-Americans.

Critics of the men's movement say it isn't a movement at all, because it lacks that key political element -- despite the successes it has had in getting many men to take their emotions seriously.

"As long as they think of these things as individual problems, instead of looking at who has power in our society and how the power is used, it isn't a movement, it's a therapeutic endeavor," said Michael Schwalbe, a sociologist at N.C. State University who spent three years attending men's movement sessions for his book, "Unlocking the Iron Cage."

If white middle-class men feel powerless, Schwalbe said, it's incumbent upon them to figure out who, then, is in power and how that power is perpetuated and what cultural forces need to be changed to balance the power.

"That would be the most empowering thing the mythopoetic men could do," Schwalbe said. "But they'll never do it."

Instead, he said, they are content to keep discussions focused on personal feelings of emotional isolation, whether at small groups sessions or at the larger communal retreats, and they make no larger call to arms.

But to men such as Lester, that criticism ignores the grass-roots effect of change, one man at a time -- the very kind of progress that is difficult to notch with pushpins.

"We believe that as a result of being more whole men, we will change society," Lester said. "It's not a big cause, but if we can be better people individually, we will make a difference."

Bly said that the movement has had significant impact, and he pointed to progress among the baby boom generation of fathers who are more active and emotionally involved with their children than the fathers before them.

"The men's movement has had a powerful effect -- not on all men -- maybe 10 to 15 percent," Bly said. "But they, in turn, interact with others."

Men involved in the movement say they are proud of the work they've done and believe that their lives are significantly different as a result of their activism. Each meeting, they say, is a fulfilling experience in which they probe emotional depths that otherwise go unexplored.

"I experience a type of connection that I had only known in relationships with women, but it has nothing to do with sex," Brossman says. "It's a sense of intimacy and satisfaction."

Progress, Brossman says, is an incremental process, although there are hopes to expand the movement's presence in the Triangle. Lester says the Men's Center wants to hire a part-time administrator and begin more community programs for men in crisis -- if they can raise enough money at this weekend's fund-raiser. The Men's Center's new push for a higher profile comes at a good time: This fall the movement was again in the national spotlight with the publication of feminist author Susan Faludi's book "Stiffed," which takes a sympathetic look at some of the issues the movement is grappling with.

"The door has been open to where enough men have started to get in touch with what's missing in their lives," Brossman says. "It's still in a very infant stage. and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Making major cultural changes doesn't happen overnight, and it shouldn't happen overnight."

Staff writer Sarah Avery can be reached at 829-4882 or savery@nando.com

1 comment:

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