Myths of Strength and Weakness


This week the National Review published an article by David French (yes, the alternative candidate very briefly proposed by the #Never Trump folks) titled “Men Are Getting Weaker Because We Are Not Raising Men.”

These are the opening paragraphs of that article:

“Young American males are losing touch with a critical element of true masculinity. If you’re the average Millennial male, your dad is stronger than you are. In fact, you may not be stronger than the average Millennial female. You’re exactly the kind of person who in generations past had your milk money confiscated every day—who got swirlied in the middle-school bathroom. The very idea of manual labor is alien to you, and even if you were asked to help, say, build a back porch, the task would exhaust you to the point of uselessness. Welcome to the new, post-masculine reality.

“This morning, the Washington Post highlighted a study showing that the grip strength of a sample of college men had declined significantly between 1985 and 2016. Indeed, the grip strength of the sample of college men had declined so much—from 117 pounds of force to 98—that it now matched that of older Millennial women. In other words, the average college male had no more hand strength than a 30-year-old mom.

“Yes, I know it’s only one study. Yes, I know that grip strength is but one measure of overall physical fitness. But as the Post noted, these findings are consistent with other studies showing kids are less fit today. (For example, it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it did 30 years ago.) Simply put, we’re getting soft—and no cohort is getting softer faster than college men. . . .”

French then goes on to describe how even the nerds of his generation were more interested in sports and required to do some manual labor.

Now, almost no one would argue with French’s point that many of our children are less physically fit because their leisure activities are often more sedentary and more solitary. Likewise, almost no one would argue that this trend that should not be a cause for concern—because it clearly will have implications for those children’s physical and emotional health as adults.

But the whole way in which this argument is framed in nostalgia is problematic on several levels. (It is reminiscent of the television advertisement in which the computer programmer blanches when challenged by his father to lift the over-sized sledgehammer that was his grandfather’s.)

First, this argument glorifies manual labor at a time when manual labor is becoming a much less viable way to earn a living wage, while at the same time reinforcing the blue-collar work ethic. In essence, it presses a thumb into the open wound of working-class discontent, which is based most fundamentally on the notion that the erosion of good-paying industrial employment is in itself an erosion of American values. It vilifies advancements in technology, especially automation, and it ignores the complex issues of how comparable mass employment, with good wages and benefits, might be achieved in a post-industrial economy. Instead, it sources the discontent in references to the immediate post-World War II decades in which White American males could provide for their families while building the things that made America great.

Second, it connects strength and greatness to a social and cultural milieu that is not only long past but in retrospect was very problematic in many systemic ways, for it severely constrained the rights and opportunities of women and of racial groups other than Whites, and it devalued everything and everyone not distinctly “American.”

Third, those outdated social and cultural assumptions have, in effect, multiplied the impact of the changes that have now placed many working-class White men on the economic and cultural margins of our society. They are now where women and African-Americans and other “minorities” always used to be–and very often still are. But, since there were always other White men doing considerably better than them, their resentments are now especially focused on the women and racial “minorities” who are now, inexplicably, also doing better than them. The “system” must be “rigged” because those who never got ahead are now increasingly in positions of affluence and influence, while those who should be able to get ahead seem to be falling more and more hopelessly—and helplessly–behind.

So, how to explain it and how to express a response to it?

Well, the challenge in forming an explanation is very apparent in this election. For the main demographic support for Donald Trump’s candidacy is White working-class men: that is, White working-class men have embraced a self-proclaimed billionaire (his actual wealth is uncertain, and he not a self-made billionaire either) who has never previously demonstrated any concern whatsoever for the issues that working-class White men are have been confronting, and, even more tellingly (and even if one discounts the jokes about his tiny hands) it is very clear that his hands have not had any calluses on them from any manual labor for at least a half-century. But he is not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, and he has been very willing, unapologetically, to stereotype Obama as illegitimate by birth and every other imaginable measure and Clinton as physically and emotionally not up to the demands of what has always been a man’s job.

In short, even as corporate executives across the U.S. have made the decisions to close plants and to “ship American jobs overseas,” a figure who is the self-promoted embodiment of corporate ruthlessness and privileged wealth is being embraced as a savior, not because of who he very readily admits he is, but because of who he isn’t.

Moreover, in the American mythos, which has over the last century absorbed the corporate mythos, economic privilege is earned while political privilege is suspect unless it serves economic privilege. So, for certain voters, Trump’s status as a political outsider not only outweighs but actually legitimizes his self-glorification of his wealth and privilege.

It is, of course, more difficult to explain why Trump has been embraced than to describe how he has been embraced. He has allowed rage to be expressed inappropriately by redefining “normal” standards of behavior as “political correctness.” Working-class White men should be enraged that over the last half-century they have not been prepared better to succeed in a post-industrial economy, but it’s almost impossible to focus that rage without risking being called a “socialist” or a “communist”—or even a “liberal.” So, it is easier and more satisfying to listen to a xenophobic demagogue and to punch a protester, literally or figuratively, in the mouth. The rage is an expression of deeply ingrained hopelessness, and until someone actually brings other, good-paying jobs to the coalfields and the towns and small cities that have declined with deindustrialization, the incitement to throw the punch, or to channel the rage in much worse ways, is the only thing, the only part of the political “noise,” that will resonate on any visceral level.

We usually write and talk about values as if they are the solid, enduring things that underlie our everyday lives. And they usually are. But, it is also true that values reflect and are sustained a general contentment with our everyday lives. When discontent with our the conditions under which we are living becomes commonplace and entrenched, it is a relatively easy thing for a demagogue to re-present those values while ostensibly representing them–so that they become something very different from, and even antithetical to, what they had always seemed to be.
French’s complete article is available at:



2 thoughts on “Myths of Strength and Weakness

  1. Pingback: Why Aren’t Men More Outraged? | The Caveat Lector

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.