The Sacred Assembly of Men, organised recently in Washington by the Christian evangelist 'Promise Keepers', sent a shudder through American feminist networks. Women's groups were horrified that the rally of 700 000 men to 'build strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values' was applauded by a president keen to show support for men 'willing to reassume their responsibilities'.
The Promise Keepers are about men coming together to rediscover their trad-itional role, and that of religion, in a society that has spun out of control. They are for men taking back their authority, and feminists are rattled, perhaps understandably, because the movement has attracted such phenomenal support. The National Organisation of Women (NOW), seeing the demonstration of male solidarity through different eyes to Clinton, denounced it as 'a feel-good form of male supremacy with dangerous political potential'. Conservative Christian Women countered that NOW was behaving like a bunch of paranoid victims. 'Strong women', declared a spokeswoman from the lobby group, Focus on the Family, 'don't fear strong men'.
The debate about whether women should fear or embrace strong men is surreal because these are not strong men - rather they seem to be sad and pathetic men in search of some meaning for their lives.
Men who need to look to somebody else to guide them in their family relations, men who need others to direct them on how to confront their weaknesses, men who need a confessor to help them get over their mistakes, are not strong men. The enormous gathering in front of the White House was not a sign of its participants' strengths but of their weakness, confusion, sense of rolelessness and failure. One rather imagines that those men who are managing to build 'strong families, through love, protection and biblical values' were at home being loving, protecting and God-fearing. Those at the assembly were simply Charlton Heston wanabees. But then I have always felt that godliness is a bit like sex - those who have least, talk about it most.
One Washington Post commentator, William Raspberry, pinpointed the real meaning of the Sacred Assembly. 'Men and boys', he said, 'are losing the certainty of their place in things'. The new politically correct America has done away with the traditional sense of what it is to be a white male and left many men thrashing around for a sense of what they should be. With little else to aspire to, it is no surprise that the men at the assembly are clutching in desperation at an apple- pie vision of how they like to imagine the family used to be. Their solidarity is in effect a collective whine of despair because they do not know where to go.
The representatives of NOW might be behaving like a bunch of paranoid victims, but these men are behaving like victims too - needing to lean on others to fire themselves up for what they cannot carry off alone. The underlying sense of hopelessness is even captured in some of the rhetoric of the leading Promise Keepers who claim that they do not come together to press for their rights, but to repent their wrongs: 'We are called to be worms. When you step on a worm, what happens? You don't hear a sound. Not a peep of protest.'
The image of man as worm does not seem to fit with Promise Keeper Tony Evans' insistence that men should reclaim their position at the head of the family. Evans suggests a script to supporters. Sit down with your wife, he advises, and say something like this, 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim my role'. He insists a man must, 'Treat the lady gently and lovingly, But lead!'.
You can see the scene now: Wayne returning from Promise Keepers' rally: 'Honey, I must reclaim my role. I am leading this family.' Mary-Beth looking up from the ironing: 'Not a peep more out of you, you worm.'
Evans seems to have lost the plot. Does he not realise that a strong man does not need to get in a huddle with 700 000 other men to be told he is strong - he just acts strong. And when somebody has to be told to lead, they become not a leader, but a follower.
Some commentators have compared the single-sex solidarity of the Promise Keepers to the women-only gatherings of the women's liberation movement. There is, however, one big difference. At least the WLM's girlie gatherings aspired to transform society into a place where men and women could relate to each other as equals. These guys want a return to the crippling, stultifying banality of traditional family life. The movement's critics are con- cerned with the hidden right-wing religious, anti-abortion, anti-gay, racist agenda which they believe is hidden behind the touchy-feely let-me-be-a-good-husband-and-father stuff. For me their overt agenda is as worrying as their covert one.
Clinton may believe these men set a good example. I think it is appalling. They preach a philosophy of depressingly low expectations - where the best a man can be is boss in his own home and the best a woman can be is his wife. They define themselves by what they are - men - rather than what they do. They have taken the worst feature of feminism - the belief that there are such things as women's natural values which should be celebrated - and applied the principle to men.
People do not construct their values and aspirations according to their chromosomes, their hormones or what they have between their legs. Men and women are capable of progressive or reactionary views, of high aspirations or low expectations. The choice is not between masculine values or feminist values - but between values that will take society forward and allow humanity to progress, and those that hold back the potential of men and women.
Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997