This essay is adapted from No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men
(Regnery, 204 pages, $29.99).

The World Does Not Run on Magic

At a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, the CEO of Colonial Pipeline made an admission which illustrates quite well our negligence and improvidence. The company paid out nearly $5 million in blackmail money to an unknown hacker when the pipeline was shut down for several days. That, of course, was bad enough, and most of the man’s testimony had to do with the technicalities of which government agency was notified and when, and what the company’s computer experts did to remedy the situation. 

But there was another piece of his testimony, one that you had to look hard to find in the news reports. He testified that most of the men who could operate the controls on the pipeline have died or retired, so that the 5,500-mile line must rely almost wholly upon computerized systems for its operation. That means, of course, that we are vulnerable to attacks by people who do not have to take a guard at gunpoint, or dig a big hole somewhere that no one will notice. 

Practical necessity required the engineers and the men who constructed the Croton Aqueduct to ensure that the system had many points of effective control, not one, lest some random accident in one place leave 1 million people without drinking water. But our technology has progressed to the point where, for a time, we can get away with running things on the cheap—and the irresponsible. This fact merits some consideration. 

“Intersectionality” is the academic fad of our time asserting that various forms of prejudice against members of different groups inevitably intersect when someone belongs to more than one of the groups. The various “structures” of disadvantage overlap and intersect to the harm of certain designated minorities, including women, in whose case “minority” is a metaphorical term. It is a deterministic theory that reduces the immensely complex tangle and muddle of human relations to a formula, and it ignores the fact that human ingenuity is like intelligent water: If you try to dam it up here, it will spill out over there. If it is narrowed in scope, it will gain in force. The human mind is restless, and the human will is stubborn, and people will make a virtue of necessity. 

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a black lawyer and professor of law at UCLA. Crenshaw is a feminist, and though she maintains that black men are not better off than black women, she pursues policies that, for the working-class family, are like prescribing blood thinner to someone who is hemorrhaging. Those families are in desperate need of strong, well-remunerated men who can support them—with what are and what practically must remain masculine skills and regions of activity. And yet Crenshaw has fought against any particular focus upon the needs of boys, and she has championed the Equality Act, which, with its promotion of women and gay men, is a dagger aimed at the heart of the healthy masculine camaraderie that builds aqueducts and lays pipelines.

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Free Men and Free Labor

The Colonial Pipeline was invented, built, and maintained by men with the technical skill to do that work. Whatever we say about its invention and construction—though all of human history testifies to the boundlessly creative power of mechanically minded men—certainly the maintenance had to be that way. Women were not going to do it then. And with an occasional outlier here or there, women are not going to do it now. If you call a plumber to deal with a sewer pipe that has backed up into your basement, it is a practical certainty that it is going to be a man, because the sheer strength required to deal with the valve rusted shut, or with a section of pipe that has to be cut or muscled into place, is like a threshold. If you cannot reach the threshold (and if you are a teenage boy or an old man, you are likely to fail) you cannot do that job. You cannot, as our women soldiers apparently do, ask the man next to you to give you a hand. All kinds of tasks involve such thresholds. 

All right, then. Now suppose that you do not want to raise boys to be those men. How can you ensure that you fail at this basic task? 

First, you deny millions of boys a married father in the home; you pursue policies perversely designed to reward family breakdown. I am speaking of the preponderant case: boys are not going to learn how to wield a sledgehammer from their mothers. 

Second, you push college credentials, hugely expensive and of now dubious value as far as actual learning is concerned, so that most people who do not go to college must languish in low-paying and menial work. Instead of building the Brooklyn Bridge, they are wheeling carts of groceries at Walmart. 

Third, you divert resources away from high school boys who want to pursue the skilled trades. That has been a dreadful mistake. 

If you go to the Museum of Industry in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, you can see relics of what used to be—within living memory—a program of education in the trades, on wheels, that went from place to place throughout the province. Boys took great advantage of it. It no longer exists, even though we still need technicians. Perhaps the people who run our schools have so little experience themselves, so little memory of physical labor in their shoulders and their hands, that it never occurs to them that the world cannot run on courses in sociology, or on politically enlightened novels. They do not think, “Who is going to dig that well?” They trade not in fresh water, petroleum, electricity, uranium, titanium, and gold, but in words, and not well chosen and historically grounded words at that. Margaret Atwood is at leisure to write about her Republic of Gilead, a feminist dystopia in which women must submit their sexuality to their male masters, only because men carved Canada from the wild for her to write it in. 

How, at this juncture, can we redirect resources to those high school boys? That is hard to figure, because we have committed ourselves to “equality,” which in this case means that young men who do have the strength for skilled manual labor, and the tolerance for risk and filth, will be forced to be as useless as young women when it comes to maintaining something like the Colonial Pipeline. This “equality” comes at the expense of the common good. It is frankly absurd that we must rely upon a computer program—all things concentrated upon a single vulnerable point—and not upon a network of skilled men, to maintain a pipeline that delivers one hundred million gallons of gasoline, heating oil, and airplane fuel to Americans in the east every day. 

Every lack presents an opportunity, but only if you have people with the inclination and the power to take it. Imagine what a Booker T. Washington would have made of this state of affairs. He would have hired pipeline technicians in a heartbeat and set them to training his young men to do the much-needed work. They would have made themselves indispensable, and when you are indispensable it does not matter what people think of you. They need you, they pay you. And in any case, do good work, and they will change their minds about you, even if they were ill-disposed in the beginning.

Americans are now so tremendously incompetent that any generation of reasonably provident men, maneuvering themselves into work that only men such as they are can do, will enrich themselves in a generation, and seize the levers of power in the next.

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A Solution for Many Problems

For what I am saying about this pipeline is true generally in the United States. Our infrastructure is a mess. 

Drive along our major highways, and what do you see? Roads designed for much lighter traffic than they now bear; substandard entrances and exits; ponderously slow repairs; bad lighting; general ugliness; vandalism when you approach the big cities. The junction between Interstates 93 and 95 in Massachusetts, in the densely populated Boston metropolitan area, is notoriously bad, and has been so for at least 30 years. Imagine what happens every day when four lanes of traffic must be narrowed down to two, around a long bend. Why has this bottleneck not been remedied long since? Well, who would do that work? And where has the money gone that might have hired the men to do it? Ride on a train into Philadelphia or New York, and note every site at which skilled labor might be employed to develop, to repair, to beautify, or to clean, and consider how many thousands—millions—of young men might find such work if we were only raising young men capable of and willing to do it.

Making that a national priority would go a long way toward solving several problems at once. We would replace vulnerable nerve centers with a practically invulnerable net. We would gain the benefits of safety, cleanliness, efficiency, and beauty. We would raise the hopes, the incomes, and the aims of the working class. We would make it suddenly possible for working class men to marry young and with confidence. We would strengthen their families, and take a small but important step toward reversing America’s decline into single parenthood, with its results in loneliness, incapacity, and—for many a frustrated young man—crime. And those among us most likely to profit directly from it would be precisely the disadvantaged populations that those who preach about intersectionality say they want to help: think of African Americans. 

 So why don’t we do these things? 

 Let me answer that question with another question: Who benefits most from the entry into the workplace of many millions of women of child-bearing age? The rich. They can afford the best day care. If they own businesses, they get the benefit of depressed labor costs, as more applicants are chasing the same jobs. It would be against their interest for one good income per household to become the rule again, rather than the exception. They get to enjoy two prime salaries for a single household, and they spend most of the overage in isolating themselves as far as possible from the working and lower middle class. It is against their bent toward self-isolation to be rubbing elbows with well-remunerated plumbers, carpenters, masons, miners, earth-movers, and welders, with their rough hands and sometimes rough ways. The feminism that denies the strength of young men—or damns it as “toxic masculinity”—and that discourages the virtues that build family life intersects with the old-fashioned social and economic structures that keep the poor in their place.

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Magical Thinking

 There is still another reason why we do not form those working men: because we believe the world can run by magic. We believe in good magic, and in bad magic. The bad magic is easy to see. We are awash in words, and that means we are awash in cant. We use labels to manage what might be a devilishly difficult thing to study—let us say, the relations between men and women. Instead of facing the great, mysterious, and many-featured universe of customs and laws adapted to different people’s climate, agricultural opportunity, technological development, and religious faith, not to mention the innumerable physical distinctions between the sexes, we explain it all away with one word: “sexism.” We then take the word for an existent thing, like bauxite, except that bauxite can be identified precisely and analyzed, whereas “sexism” is simply a form into which we press everything we see. 

It is not that men have always been impelled to work both by their nature and by the need to support women and free them up to care for children and maintain households, especially before modern technology rendered cooking, cleaning, and laundry a less than full time job. “Sexism” kept women from having careers. It is not that men, at the highest grade, are better chess players than women. “Sexism” somehow causes all the chess champions to be men. Why it would bother to do so pointless a thing, and by what precise mechanism, no one explains. Indeed, if you ask for an explanation, you will be condemned as a tool of the sexist system. This is not to play with conic sections. It is just to argue in a circle—a magic circle.

We also believe in good magic. It seems that we assume the world can run in a magical way. We need only wish a thing, and it will happen, because somebody will take care of it, or rather something, a mysterious agent in a black box. To save the world from climate change, we should use electricity instead of burning fossil fuels. But where do we get the electricity? It must simply happen, like lightning from the sky. I daresay we have all read hundreds of articles on the need to provide power in a clean, efficient, and sustainable way. But how many address the fundamental problem posed: that is, that all electricity is generated by the brute physical fact of making a great shaft of magnetic metal turn? And once you face that fact, you confront other facts having to do with the quantity of force available, its reliability, the metals and plastics you must use to house the enormous—and by no means simple—turbine, the type of conductive wire wherein the electricity will be produced, the amount of the electricity, the pressure it exerts, the resistance it meets to its flow, the distance it must traverse, and more. You face the same kinds of problems as beset the builders of the Croton Aqueduct. What happens when the flow is interrupted at one point? Will everyone downstream from the interruption necessarily be without power? Are there “valves,” so to speak, to control the flow? Are there conduits to siphon away any excess?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The 10,000 men who worked on the Croton Aqueduct at any one time had a broad array of practical and scientific skills. Where did they get them? Not mostly from school—only the few chief engineers would have gone (might have gone) to school to learn about hydraulics and geology. The vast majority of the men learned by work. Women did not teach them that work, because—to mention another brute fact—women did not do that work, and could not do it, any more than pre-pubescent boys could do it. But because no one can do such work now, we must hand our safety and our welfare over to a computer program—at precisely a time, when more than ever, it would require the well-directed strength of young men to make our cities healthy once more, and to raise strong families of responsible citizens.

Many a boy languishes in school because he finds no arrow there. Things are staid, routine. Perhaps there are arrows to pick up now and again, if you are the sort of boy who will look for them and not be too discouraged, and if the arrows available are fit for the kind of shooting you want to do. But the failure of boys in school—not this boy or that boy, but boys by the millions, despite the fact, attested by empirical investigation and the evidence of history, that they are at least the equals of their sisters in intelligence—suggests that the schools are quite simply bad for them. They stunt their growth. Intellectually and practically, the boys are like pale and spindly plants that have been kept indoors all the days of their lives.

And yet, obviously, we need these boys; it is criminally negligent to deny it. Consider how many young black men, in particular, are languishing, because their schools are—at their best—no great shakes, and because they lack the fathers in the home who would train them up in skill and strength. 

Everywhere you turn your eye in the United States, you will find ugliness, disrepair, vandalism, buildings left to rot—and unemployed or underemployed young men, disheartened, not worth marrying, and ready to cause trouble, since they can cause so little else.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Students work on a house model during Building Industry Technology Academy class at Valencia High School in Placentia, CA on March 25, 2019. The class aims to train a workforce ready for the building industry. Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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