Men behaving badly have drained America of the male role models it desperately needs

David Usborne
Nikolas Cruz admitted to the shooting at the Parkland high school: Getty

You knew that CPAC, the annual shindig for conservatives that wants liberalism dead, wouldn’t go a day without dissolving into a certain chant. It was pundit and author Ben Shapiro who started it, hailing Donald Trump for ensuring that Hillary Clinton, “will never be President of the United States”. Oh, how they roared. “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Trump later dropped by the conference, conveniently near the White House just across the state line in Maryland, and provoked the chant one more time. “We have a very crooked media. We had a crooked candidate, by the way,” he said, knowing full well what was coming next.

I offer, with limited seriousness, a defence of their knee-jerk boorishness. It’s this: men in America are subconsciously compelled to latch on to any female villain they can – and at events like CPAC that will be Hillary every time – because there are just so few of them around. Male villains, on the other hand, are two a penny. Too many Punches and not enough Judys.

Few media narratives in this country have dominated more in recent weeks and months than these two: sexual harassment and the resulting #metoo movement; and gun violence. It doesn’t exactly shock that the male gender does not come out of either terribly well. I’d venture, in fact, that there hasn’t been a time in recent history when we chaps in America have been in such obvious and unrelenting disgrace.

In case you are not with me: of all the mass shootings in the US between 1982 and 2017, only two involved female shooters, most recently when 14 people lost their lives at an office party in San Bernardino in 2015. All the others who took the path to maximum slaughter of the innocent – 92 of them – were men. The Pulse night club in Orlando. The country music concert in Las Vegas. The Sandy Hook elementary school. And, of course, just now, Parkland’s high school in Florida, where Nikolas Cruz, just 19 years old, confessed to police upon his capture.

The tragedy in Parkland has now thrown up a second male villain. The police officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resigned last week under investigation for failing to enter the school when the shooting started. The local sheriff went on TV to shame him. “There are no words. I mean these families lost their children,” Sheriff Scott Israel said.

Meanwhile, barely a day passes without news of another prominent man being abruptly felled by allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety in the workplace or elsewhere. Those most recently exposed include the head of US operations at Ford, Raj Nair, fired for behaviour “inconsistent with the company’s code of conduct” and the Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, ousted by his own board after decades of alleged sexual harassment and abuse of his employees.

Matt Lauer was sacked by NBC in November after being confronted by allegations of sexual misconduct

The list will grow. But note that many of those already accused of misbehaviour – of varying degrees of gravity, it should be said – were until that moment widely admired and often public role models. Fired by NBC in November, Matt Lauer, anchor of the Today Show, was among the most beloved public figures in America. Add to that category Garrison Keillor, Senator Al Franken, Congressman John Conyers, TV host Charlie Rose, comedy’s Louis CK. Movie-goers (and Democrats needful of his largesse) were once dazzled by Harvey Weinstein.

Men being held to account for abusing women, notably women over whom they had some kind of workplace power advantage, is clearly welcome and a watershed moment, not just in America. The kinds of behaviours now being exposed were often in plain view but invisible because of a “men will be men” mindset. That it took until 2018 for behaviour at the all-male Presidents Club charity dinners in London to become a scandal is itself a scandal.

But are men starting to feel under siege and, if so, is that going to be helpful? What does “men will be men” even mean nowadays? We want it to mean men who don’t figure that the only way to establish their footing in the world is to demonstrate superior power – their manliness – either with a loaded AR-15 semiautomatic or through uninvited sexual aggression.

“Men feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their natures,” the comedian Michael Ian Black argued in The New York Times last week. “Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them – their strength, aggression and competitiveness – are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.” He was writing about gun violence, but it could have been in the context of #metoo also. He wrote: “America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.”

We do have persuasive male role models. Elon Musk, doing what Nasa once did expanding frontiers into space, for example, and Barack Obama, who appears in his newly unveiled official portrait against a backdrop of greenery and blooms: nothing macho or power-projecting there. And we have the football coach who shielded his students in Parkland only to lose his own life.

Last week, I went to an excellent, deeply moving off-Broadway play about redemption. Called America is Hard to See, it took us into Miracle Village in the sugar cane fields of South Florida where half the 200-odd residents are sex offenders released from prison. They are there because state law bars them from residing within a certain distance of where children gather, which means almost everywhere except out in the country. I went there myself in 2013 to write a report for this newspaper. The main characters in the show are the same people I interviewed. A friend who came with me had an idea: why not create a colony for every man in America accused of sexual harassment?

As a means of maximum humiliation, intriguing, but surely neither constructive nor practical. Some may face prosecution and actual prison. But those who remain free have a different option. Instead of retreating into a foxhole, come forward and speak honestly about what you did. Instead of hoping for rehabilitation in whatever career you used to have – Lauer in TV, Wynn in gambling – volunteer to educate and enlighten young men about how to be and how not to be as they grow up. How to live as responsible, respectful and non-violent men. Even these men have the chance, in fact, to move from pariah to role model.