If you think of mainstream conservatism as the proverbial guy hanging from a cliff for dear life, a recent study published by The Journal of Hand Therapy may seem a lot more relevant—because these pundits are about to lose their grip.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post related the results of a study that seems to show that young men today have less strength in their grip than men of just 30 years ago. This revelation sparked reactionary articles about the “wilted lettuce leaf” handshakes of the American male.
Spying the opportunity to pronounce how much greater their generation of real men was than the targets of their current midlife angst—dreaded “Millennials”—some conservative writers seized the moment (with the strength of a Vulcan death-grip, you can be sure) to remind us once again of the good ol’ days before the war on boys destroyed the last vestiges of chest hair and gumption.
National Review’s David French, for example, had a grand old walk down memory lane to tell us how much manlier he was back in the day, and how he’s raising his own son to be a hulkin’ beast-man in comparison (when they’re not playing World of Warcraft together, of course). And he tells us why all this has come to pass:
In the age of instant oil change (why entrust your car’s health to your 16-year-old?), ubiquitous lawn services, and on-demand handymen, privileged kids simply don’t have the same, naturally occurring opportunities to learn to work with their hands and to develop physical strength. In the age of zero-tolerance school-disciplinary policies — where any kind of physical confrontation is treated like a human-rights violation — they have less opportunity to develop toughness. Today’s young males don’t have common touchstones for what it’s like to grow up to be a man.
While this may seem intuitive to us given the “emasculation of the American male” rhetoric in our circles for a decade now, it’s hard to comprehend how poorly short-sighted French’s comments really are. I’ll limit myself to two point here: first, playing fast and loose with facts in order to score a red-meat rhetorical point, and second, the real reason American conservatism has consistently failed.
A loose grip on the facts
First, all the headlines pouncing on this study have not paid too much actual attention to the details. French, for example, makes this out to be an indicator of the loss of manhood among male youth. But the details of the study (and others like it) are actually opposite such a conclusion. USA Today relates two separate facts that make this clear:
Grip strength is not consistently linked with overall strength in studies of athletes and fit young people, says Peter Ronai, a clinical associate professor of exercise science at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. . . .
And one large study found that men with weak grips at midlife, ages 45 to 68, were more likely than men with strong grips to be disabled 25 years later [my emphasis—JM].
Since the present study included men under 30, its results actually mean very little if anything in regard to their overall strength or its development, as French laments. Instead, the correlation in play actually pertains to men later in life—French’s demographic, actually—that is, men who may have a weaker grip in midlife.
Further, the study does not even necessarily compare apples and apples. It pits a small group of college student in North Carolina to a more general group of men in Milwaukee. While the older sample is said to have included college students, it almost certainly included factory workers, brewery workers, truckers, and much more from the general population. It should not take a rocket scientist to figure out that a sample including blue-collar workers will usually out grip a gaggle of sociologists in-training.
What’s worst about this rush to judgment is that conservatives pride themselves as the bastion of honesty and integrity in a media dominated by liberal lies, half-truths, and rushes to judgment. Just this week, Ann Coulter blasted the liberal press for just such behavior. But dangle one little sliver of apparent red meat proving the influence of feminism on “our boys,” and conservative Piranha fly into a blood-frenzy like liberals on a Trump quote. They didn’t even have time to say “facts be damned,” they just pounce without thinking the problem through.
A lost grip on reality
This lack of thought is indicative of the greater problem, my second point. Conservatism has been as badly beset by humanism and rationalism as the left virtually from its inception. This is why it always loses, and this process is as clear here in this issue as it is anywhere.
If the Bible is to be the foundational guide—as it ought to be—where, oh where, in the Bible is “physical strength” the sine qua non of what it means “to grow up to be a man.”
It is arguable that most influential man in western history aside from Jesus himself was a man whose nickname—by which we know him most—translates into English as “little guy.” That man was Saul, also known as Paul the Apostle. (Contrary to popular belief, “Paul” was not a name change given at his conversion, but merely a Roman counterpart to his actual Hebrew name.)
Paul’s name as most likely derived from his form: he was so diminutive that his readers were shocked when he actually showed up in their presence. His letters seemed so bold! Yet in person, “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10).
I’ll bet his grip strength didn’t compare much even to the average American college student.
Yet this unimpressive, little guy turned the entire Mediterranean world upside down with character traits: persistence, fortitude, and unbending faithfulness. Then followed the whole western world.
David, likewise, who was indeed a man of war, nevertheless did not fell the giant through feats of strength. In fact, it was the symbols of power and national greatness who were all standing sidelined, despite their highly developed size and strength, despite their military experience. Saul, who has been chosen precisely because of his physical prowess, was standing idle due to one thing: fear. Precisely because they judged their manliness by outward measures, they had forgotten God.
Young David walked among them with something far more potent: the law of God and a conviction to stand for it. His words were, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him.” This was a direct application of God’s laws for warfare: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 20:1).
Granted, David had plenty of opportunity in his youth to develop physical strength, and he did; but this is not what was needed at this crucial moment. What was needed was mindfulness of God’s law, and faithfulness to be courageous in following it. He needed only enough grip strength to grasp a sling.
Please tell me where, in all the lists of fruits of the Spirit, is there any praise given to physical strength or the development of it? I read about developing “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:23), but only a passing warning against the fleeting and limited usefulness of developing great physical strength: “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Manliness in Scripture is rarely spoken of in terms of development of physical strength (certainly not as a focus or directive), but of the courage to remain faithful to the convictions of God’s truth through whatever trial may come. In fact, the word for “be a man” in Biblical Greek is used as a synonym for “be courageous” and is used to highlight how one should “stand firm in the faith” (1 Cor. 16:13).
The biblical lessons are augmented by historical lessons. Never forget that arguably the most influential male force in American history—who dominated the Constitutional Convention, authored most of the Constitution, and intellectually and politically manhandled his competition for a lifetime—was the 5’-4” 90-lb weakling James Madison. Grip strength? Barely enough to hold a feather.
But that was all it took when paired with ceaseless effort and unwavering conviction.
Why do conservatives so often neglect their Bible so? It is because of what they have always done: they take their cues from pagan sources of “conservatism”—often classical Rome and Greece. Whether French is doing this consciously or not, I don’t know, but it is often a malady among conservatives.
Indeed, the overweening focus on physical strength as a measure of what it means to be a man is much more reflective of classical Greece and Rome than anything Christian, and it is actually quite more liberal than anything. The origins of physical prowess as a standard for youth lies in the Greek Gymnasia, and along with this developed the ancient Greek legacy of homosexuality. Such relationships developed as older men sat around reminiscing about their own younger days as they coveted the grip strength of naked young athletes performing in front of them.
This idealism, obsessing about “physical fitness,” was later resurrected by Rousseau, Prussian apostates, and their American counterparts beginning in the 1830s or so. Dewey was later eaten up with it.
American conservatives cannot see past the socially-engineered box in which they have been placed by their liberal educators, or the humanistic presuppositions of the curriculum taught to them by every liberal-in-nationalistic-garb from Homer and Plato to Bill Bennett and Victor Davis Hanson.
I’ll make French a deal: I’ll work out for six months and give him the firmest handshake he’s had in a long time, if he’ll tell his National Review audience how much their public schools are insperably founded upon the humanism of Plato and Rousseau (via Mann and Dewey), and that a true conservative ought to want to see them abolished.
Classicism is pagan, not Christian. It is not worth conserving. It is, in fact, destructive of liberty and character. And the view of greater physical strength as what it means to “be a man” is a vestige of classical paganism.
This is why so many Christians and conservatives today are obsessed with ever-increasing police and military power as answers to our social ills. Standing firm for civil rights is, by them, associated with weakness, criminality, the fringe left, hippies, idleness, and the shadiness of those who have something to hide. Never mind the origins of these principles in the Bible.
Folks, we’ve gotten things backwards.
Nothing here is to say that physical strength in itself is bad, or that young men ought not to be fit and apt to work. But the moment you make it strength the measure of manhood, you leave Christian faith and step into paganism.
When you rush to hasty generalizations based upon incomplete facts in order to pronounce such, it speaks of the very perverted type of media of the very leftists and feminists you decry.
When the lust to decry your enemies’ wickedness drives you to act just like them, something’s gone wrong somewhere. It would be good to back up and study the little Hannahs, Davids, and Pauls of divine strength. The obsession with grip strength will make you lose your grip on God’s reality.