Josh Hawley, best known for fleeing a mob he helped incite, has written a book on manhood. In Hawley’s defense, he began writing the book before everyone found out about the running-away situation. But it was, unfortunately, after he did the running.
In Manhood, the Missouri senator argues that men are failing, that American masculinity is under siege by “the left” (he rarely gets more specific), and that the solution to this crisis is Bible study and a resurrected appreciation for bygone masculine virtues like courage and strength, while leaving the caregiving professions to the ladies.
I want to begin by acknowledging the value of asking, “Are men treated unfairly?” It’s too easy to dismiss the question. Men are as much a part of society as anyone else, and if there are reasons to believe that recent cultural and political changes are offering them a raw deal, we should probably investigate. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Hawley’s book isn’t misogynistic (there’s a whole chapter on how all men can be kings), I’ll admit that, on the whole, Hawley isn’t completely blaming women for men’s circumstances. Hawley and I have a lot in common, too: Our grandfathers were both Midwestern farmers named Harold, our fathers were both bankers, we both went to Catholic high schools, and to be completely honest, I too would have run away from the January 6 rioters. So it’s not surprising that we can find some common ground.
While Hawley isn’t wrong when he recognizes that something’s up with men, he wildly misses the mark on exactly what that something is. Specifically, he advocates a return to ancient values. He thinks all men need to get married, as a man’s job is to take a “vow” and then “endure” (which feels unnecessarily rude to his own wife). He mocks men who live with their parents, critiques unemployed men (especially those hooked on painkillers), and shames a former student for admitting that he didn’t feel ready to have kids. To be honest, I’m not sure I can imagine a less productive message than encouraging men to become fathers before they’re ready. Hawley is only interested in helping men live the exact same life that he himself leads, even if that life isn’t available (or even desirable) to them. According to recent studies, it turns out that a slight majority of Americans did not attend Yale Law School or receive campaign donations from Peter Thiel.
No one, myself included, should read this book. I was prepared for all the God-talk; I was less ready for the dangling modifiers. Hawley is awfully repetitive and dull. For much of the book, he leans on familiar right-wing canards, such as that “the left” denies the existence of “men” and “women.” We all know this to be a straw man; nothing about acknowledging the existence and humanity of a transgender person suggests a denial of the same for a cisgender man or woman.
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Hawley complains about “the left’s” fight to end masculinity, but he ultimately puts the onus on the male reader to fight back and reclaim his own. The bulk of the book is an analysis of six male imperative identities: Husband, Father, Warrior, Builder, Priest, and King—just like the Meredith Brooks song. These aren’t suggested archetypes; it appears men are expected to be all six.
The structure of each chapter is, loosely: personal anecdote, biblical analysis, critique of “the left,” unrelated fact about Teddy Roosevelt. The biblical parts are largely worthless. While he’s not without criticism for his biblical pals (Adam in particular), Hawley’s general claim is that if men copied the male protagonists of the Bible, they’d be OK. For example, as long as they acted more like David and built a whole city from scratch, they might be able to thrive. Yet he conveniently skips the part of David’s story where he sent one of his generals to die because he had the hots for the man’s wife. In fact, Hawley skips over everything “unmanly” (according to him) about the biblical men. For example, most people in the Bible lived with their parents—it was, in fact, a huge deal when an adult Jacob ran away from home.
Amid the biblical lessons, Hawley gets into what’s likely to be the most headline-grabbing section of the book: “Cheap Sex.” Here, Hawley goes after the porn industry. Again, I don’t wholly disagree—there are certainly problems with porn. Hawley, however, believes porn’s only victims are its viewers. He inundates the reader with statistics on porn’s popularity; the place densest with hard facts is the place they’re least necessary (we all know porn is popular). His rundown of stats, to me, screams, “I’m not the only one, OK?” We believe you, Josh. And if your “manhood” has been affected by pornography, modern medicine is here to help.
We can and should mock Hawley, but we’re taking a risk if we don’t read between the lines. The most notable parts of the book aren’t about the Bible or sex or porn or even masculinity. If you’re going to read any chapter of Manhood, skim the one on “Builders.”
Now, the book is explicitly directed to Christian, cisgender straight men, as Hawley barely believes in any other kind of dude. But he does very little to explain why either our contemporary malaise or virtues such as courage are unique to these fellows. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll play ball and acknowledge the suffering of the Christian, cisgender straight guy. I’ll admit he’s no longer valued for the things he once prided himself on and that the new economy doesn’t feel built for him. I’ll admit that ridiculing men isn’t the answer. I’d like to help but what does Josh think is the answer?
Hawley’s entry point to decrying the left throughout the book is Epicurus, the Greek philosopher and Hawley’s longtime obsession: In a 2010 essay for National Review, he argued that “the left” upholds the Epicurean ideal of individual hedonism over the best interests of the herd. Hawley’s update to this is that “the left’s” Epicurean solution to the problem of manhood is to try to change men’s character (which is, incidentally, the opposite of individualism). As he writes, those mean leftists are trying to change what it means to be a man:
[Get] men to think differently, to reject outmoded stereotypes for more modern, enlightened notions. Adjust the ideology, in other words. Teach boys that aggressiveness is not linked to biology, and that the notion of masculine assertiveness is just another—and dangerous—social construct. Help men find a different set of masculine ideals that don’t lionize the warrior virtues.
It took me a beat to see Hawley’s exact problem with this approach, but after reading the entire book and returning to it, I now see which words he wants the reader to disparage. “Teach.” “Help.” “Adjust.” The idea that men would need any kind of aid. Because, contrary to the book’s title, Hawley isn’t telling men to be more “masculine.” He’s telling men—specifically, the working class—to solve their own problems. Because Josh Hawley sure as shit isn’t going to.
A consistent through line in Manhood is Hawley’s unsettling obsession with restraint. He clearly takes pride in his own body, evidenced by the inclusion of a gratuitous story about strangers asking him if he were an athlete. The only thing he apologizes for—in the entire book—is letting his kids eat doughnuts once a week. In villainizing the Epicurean left, he argues that self-control is the solution. As he writes, “Every man can be a man of liberty. He can know the freedom of self-control and the agency it brings…. Put another way, a man can know what it means to rule.” And then, more explicitly: “[Blue-collar] jobs have disappeared overseas or been simply eliminated. In their stead, our political leaders offer government benefits—welfare, dependency. Dependence is in fact a temptation to every man, in every age.”
Right after this passage, he ridicules a friend’s son for getting fired from his job at a fast-food restaurant.
Maybe Hawley thinks it’s the responsibility of the fast-food employee to keep his job. But let’s say he does—where does that get the fast-food employee? The minimum wage in Missouri is $12 an hour—almost $4 below a livable wage in the state (for someone with no children; the gap is even wider if they have kids, which Hawley believes they must). Whose responsibility is that? What has Hawley done to help men who are struggling? What has he—a United States senator—ever done to empower the working class? Hawley doesn’t care about the working people of Missouri; he doesn’t even live there.
Rather than working across the aisle to boost the minimum wage, Hawley proposed his own convoluted bill with no chance of passing. In the chapter on the diminishing value of blue-collar work, Hawley doesn’t mention unions even once. He’s talked a big pro-union game, like when he lambasted President Biden for selling out rail workers. But his actions? Hawley opposed efforts to roll back Missouri’s anti-union “right to work” laws; his lifetime AFL-CIO score is 4 percent—and where is his support for the pro-worker PRO Act?
While others suggest retraining men for careers that have shortages—such as teaching—Hawley argues that we should stop trying to push men into jobs that don’t appeal to their masculinity. And despite his criticism of Big Tech, his very political career as we know it exists because of early support from Peter Thiel. And may we never forget that in his most iconic moment, he voted against upholding the results of the 2020 election and, in so doing, tried to deny all of us—of all genders, classes, and races—our most basic tool for holding the powerful to account and improving our circumstances: our vote.
I started this review by making fun of Hawley for running away from the January 6 insurrectionists. And we should never stop making fun of that. But we can’t let it be the only thing people know about him. Running from danger isn’t the worst thing he’s ever done, and I’m not sure who would have benefited if Hawley had stood his ground and started swinging fists at the rioters at the Capitol.
It’s what he did before and after that. There are many different ways to be a man, but the type we need is someone who takes responsibility for his actions. Here are Hawley’s actions: All he’s done, for his entire career, is pin the blame on anyone but himself. By that standard of manhood alone, I feel comfortable saying Hawley’s not one.