Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do you know what a duvet is?

My dog, Layla, I went for a long walk the other night, and I ended up thinking thoughts that became the previous post. But on the way home, I noticed something else that spun my mind off in another direction. Not too far from my house, I walked by an open garage in which sat two older men, leather jackets and handlebar mustaches, drinking beers while leaning on their Harleys. It was dark, and the garage was well lit, so I could see inside with detail. There was one of those red and black, 5ft. Black and Decker tool cases, with the two dozen drawers, both a US and Confederate flag, a beer fridge and Harley Davidson paraphernalia everywhere. There was also a sign that said, "Man Cave."

It was the sign that got me thinking. This garage, these men, this scene were a thing out of place on this quiet suburban street, the garage itself attached to a well-kept, off-white house with pretty shutters, a manicured lawn between my dog and I and them. But here, back-lit, was something a sign purchased at Home Depot declared a "Man Cave."

How is it that a man like that lives on a street like that in a home like that? How is it that everything is clearly most important to him is relegated to a garage warded with a store-bought sign? He probably even knows what a duvet is...


There are a lot of ways to look at history. Traditionally, history was looked at as being the tale of Great Men doing Great Things, which usually involved conquering and subjugating other peoples. Since most of what was written down concerned these individuals and events, even trying to read history for a broader sense of what life was like for the other 99.9999% of humans can be challenging. But a lot of work has been done and it is possible to get a sense of what life was like for a typical individual. 

But one narrative of history that is almost universally accepted is that throughout it, women have been subjugated by men. Certainly, some aspects of this complaint are legitimate and inarguable- women have, at various times and in various places, been unable to work outside the home, get an education or own property. They have been treated as property. There is no doubt that women and girls have gotten a raw deal throughout history. (What is often left unsaid, of course, is that for 49% of the population to subjugate 51% of the population, it takes a whole helluva lot of complicity, even taking physical size and propensity to violence into account. But that's for another day...)

However, there is another way to look at it. And what I am proposing is just that- another way to look at it- not a better, and not the right way, just another. 

In Second Samuel 11, we read, "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbath. But David remained in Jerusalem." (To seduce Bathsheba... you know the rest.)

"In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war..." We see similar ideas in First Kings 20:26 and other places in the Bible as well. The point is that for the Biblical authors, it was clearly self evident that their audience understood that, of course, in the spring, men went off to war. They don't even bother to give a reason or justification for the wholesale slaughter of the Ammonites, or the starvation of the Rabbathians. None is needed. It is spring, and in the spring, men make war. 

Now, of course, the line actually reads, "when kings go off to war," but the distinction is trivial. No king goes to war spring after spring after spring without the consent and will of his soldiers, which, at that time, was the majority of the able-bodied male population. 

We can see a similar pattern in ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War for 27 years, as well as many others. As in the Levant, wars in ancient Greece were fought by almost the entirety of the able-bodied male population. Even Socrates, one of the greatest minds of all time, was a hoplite in the Athenian army. 

China's worse. In what is known as the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, spanning 294 years, the Chinese principalities fought 1,211 wars. In that entire period, there were 38 years of peace. 

I could go on. And on. Getting into prehistorical eras, or looking at pre-state societies does get trickier, but there does seem to be quite a bit of evidence that among certain types of pre-state societies, i.e. those that claim territory, usually, as opposed to wandering foragers, warfare is as common a part of life as hunting and childbirth. It's just something that happens. All the time.

But the point is not that men used to go off to war just about every year. The point is that we don't anymore. What changed?

Another way of looking at history is to see it as the slow containment and redirection of natural, innate male impulses. (And no, just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's good. That's just how they trick you into paying $4 more for your shampoo.) Look around you. What do you see men doing?

I see my father, a varsity high school football coach. He spends, probably, 80% of his waking minutes thinking about his team, their strengths and weakness, his opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and how best to lead his team to victory on Friday night. 

I see myself, my brother and many of my friends (all but one of whom are male, and that one... idk ;-) obsessed with an online game that is essentially a large scale strategic arena battle. Many of us spend several hours a night playing, and some of us put in hours reading strategy and watching the pros on YouTube (yes, we're huge dorks). It's pretty much all we talk about when we get together. Last night's games, changes to the game, strategies to improve for next game...

What I see, largely, when I look around at what men enjoy spending their time doing, is that just about everything can be seen as a safer, tamer, less-deadly form of conflict than warfare, but all bearing a resemblance of some kind. (I mean, really enjoy, like get geeked up about. Yes, of course they love spending time with your mother... No, no, that's not what I meant...) Of course, it's not that there aren't exceptions, and it is certainly true that women enjoy many of the same things. But I think the generalization is fairly safe. 

In short, the history of civilization can be seen, additionally or alternatively, as the cordoning off of a large part of what makes men men, into safe, domesticated, docile little hobbies. Drinking beer in a "Man Cave" attached to a perfectly bourgeoisie little home. Practicing and planning for 60 (or 48) minutes of padded, rule-bound conflict. Talking pixelated strategy.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. I certainly don't have any interest in going to war every spring. I'd much rather spend that time watching my dad's games, or talking nerd-sports with my friends. That scratches my itch plenty, and it's a lot more comfortable than a spear in the chest. 

But there is a sad side to it. "Man Caves" are pathetic. Own your space. There is nothing wrong with enjoying sports, or beer, or darts, or pool, or videogames, or cards, or any other damn thing you please. But put it out there. Don't hide it in the basement or the garage. Our culture often denigrates these pursuits, and others like them, as "childish." How can they be "childish" if it's adults that want to do them? That's just code for, "I'm incapable of enjoying myself and thus you should be too."

And remind them: It's a hell of a lot better than getting raped, pillaged and murdered every spring...

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