In thinking about how I’ve come to look at Masculinity, I recognize one important location in myself. Looking back over nearly seven decades, I reflect on what it’s been like to be a boy who became a man. This essential perspective has been encouraged by spending half of those years as a psychotherapist. In my field, values are important, and I have spent much time with others, many of them men, actively engaged in figuring out what is the right thing to do. My mother (a country school teacher during the depression) always maintained that “children learn what they live.” Following this precept, I begin my reflection on personal values in the period immediately following the Second World War. A time of great portent in the country of my birth: America.

I can't really remember events in 1950 clearly, at least not in a narrative sense.  I was four. But the scenarios of everyday life, the frames that account for my feeling of being me, that aspect of self is, and always has been there in particular images. I do remember what it’s like to be four. Two fundamental experiences that stand out for that year in particular are: “Daddy’s home!” and “Hi-Yo Silver, Away!”

My wonderfully naive belief in “good guys” who are there to protect us and serve justice to all, was all about the convergence of those boyhood memories.  Goodness, particularly expressed as fairness, was my earliest boyhood sense of what it means to grow up to be a man. My Dad saw to that. He knew what was right, and what was wrong, and how we should treat other people, particularly each other, our mother, and especially our little sister. When I was four, my brother was almost six, and my sister not yet two. There were plenty of opportunities for my brother and I (like Mom who clearly needed some help) to be excited about Dad getting home, which usually took place just after we’d listened to “The Lone Ranger” on the RCA Console in the living room of our recently purchased suburban home.

In my young mind, what it meant to grow up, to become big enough to make your own choices and do what you want, had everything to do with other people who all had “rights” too. While I learned the pragmatics of those lessons on my father’s lap as he helped me to recognize my relative strengths and weaknesses in the relationships I had with my sibs and the myriad other boomer kids rambling around my little hood, it was “The Lone Ranger,” who captured my fantasy life and committed me to being a “good guy:” the kind with the white hat.

The story of the Lone Ranger, a tale of the “old west,” is that he was the lone survivor of an ambush in which a division of Texas Rangers had been betrayed by their civilian guide to outlaws they’d been pursuing. Discovered near death by the Indian, Tonto, who nurses him back to health (because he loves him like a brother?) this survivor relinquishes his former identity to emerge as a masked avenger, defending the poor from bandits, bank robbers, and other bad guys who threatened the lives of everyday people. Whatever his motivation, Tonto, the noble red man, goes along to be the faithful servant, just like a little brother to a big brother. For the historical record, this story originated as a Radio play in 1933, when economic conditions for most Americans were grim. Without understanding what it meant in terms of economic policy, I did think it was neat that the Lone Ranger only fired silver bullets, the kind you would use on a Werewolf.

To put that in a slightly larger context, I was raised in a triumphal world where the Big guys had all done the “right” thing. They had beat the “Nazis” and the “Japs,” who obviously were bad guys. I think that added a profound contemporary meaning to the narrative, because, for example, my friend Andy’s dad had done this same thing on Iwo Jima, where he had survived horrible combat and in the project, made alliances with whomever had stood with him. Overt racism was not popular among the men I admired, and many of them had the courage of their convictions, at least as young men.

I bring this up as a way to comment on the contemporary problem described as “too big to fail,” and what it says about masculinity as an identity.

Two recent books bear on this in an important way. Michael Lewis, in Flash Boys, tells the story of Wall Street traders who discover that the technology of the internet, which gave rise to the practice of high frequency trading (HFT), created a remarkable opportunity to cheat by creating “dark pools” in which knowledge of the emerging market for any transaction on an exchange, could be manipulated through processes occurring in time frames impossible for the human mind to attend to, but easily managed by computers. Traders who had the advantage of those pools (basically most of the “too big to fail” banks) saw an opportunity to win big in a game where they did not expect to be caught.

How that situation came about is the subject of the other new book, Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. In it, Taibbi invokes the term “Dystopia” to describe a country in which the corollary of “too big too fail,” is “small enough to prosecute.” Good and Bad are no longer moral practices, they have become aspects of identity conferred by wealth. To the victor go the spoils, while the loser pays the consequences. In chapter after chapter of gonzo derived journalism, Taibbi, tells the stories of those who are vulnerable, and those who are not. Of how getting rolled up by cops who are just making a quota for the sergeant, can lead to a life exiled to the gulags of the drug war, while the bank HSBC can admit to laundering millions in money for the Mexican drug cartels and NOBODY is even indicted, let alone prosecuted. In this dystopia, financial crime is “victimless”, but smoking a joint, or just talking back to a cop, are threats so great that they deserve incarceration in institutions that rival the Inquisition in delight over the virtues of excoriating the flesh.

What’s cool about the team of bankers described by Lewis is the wearing of the White Hat. Lewis, who wrote Moneyball about the upstart Oakland A’s ability to take on Big Money in professional baseball, openly admires the fair play values of the team of traders put together by a young Canadian who is an outsider in the world of Wall Street, placed there by the Royal Bank of Canada in what seems like an effort to play with the big boys. The book is all about ingenuity and a disdain for “assholes.” It is replete with stories of traders who have learned to make money by forcing risk on others, while at the same time being clueless about how that actually happens. It is about being stupid, and still winning. The heroes of the book are smart guys who figure it out because they can, and are motivated to do it by there own personal stories of learning what it means to support each other rather than sell out for potentially enormous personal gain. In effect, they figure out how to set up their own stock exchange, which can’t be manipulated by HFT. A win for the white hats. Yeah!

Like I said at the beginning, I was born to wear the white hat. The Flash Boys are my kind of boys, yet I fear for them as men, and wonder how they will fare as the financial world continues to loom over us like an ambush in a boxed canyon.

The triumph of the market is no different than the triumph of any victor. Winners create losers, and the losers are disappeared in the sense that they lose value as persons to be cared for or about. If white hats were all it takes to create social justice, they would be here all the time, not just when the darkness is worst.

Winston Churchill reportedly said: “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”  What happens to our hearts as we grow?

One answer is that we really begin to understand risk and reward. Overvaluing the moment, being swept away by passion, not knowing consequences is familiar territory to 20 year olds.

By the summer that I was 20, the summer of 1966, I had already discerned that this was true about women and alcohol, but I had my fraternity brothers around me (one of whom was my actual big brother) to find my way through that. On the other hand, my activity for that summer, my second class Midshipman cruise, (I was attending school on a Navy ROTC scholarship, which had looked like a cool thing) put me on notice that my looming War, the conflict in Viet Nam, was not about white hats and good guys. At best, it was about winning and pride, and career advancement. I remember being addressed on the deck of an assault ship by a Marine  Corps Major with a riding crop who exhorted my detachment of midshipmen about the glory of  our  being prepared to go serve with our brothers in arms who were already defending America from global forces that threatened our way of life. We would be Glorious! But we were being prepared as killers, and for the first time, I realized what that could mean. The Major was one thing, but the Corporal who was leading my patrol in our little war game, who was my age and back from a tour in country, was something else. He was just spooky. It was obvious that something had happened to him. If he’d ever worn a white hat, he’d gone over to the Dark side. He was a killer and there was nothing remotely “white hat” about him.

It was four years later that I actually arrived in the war zone, reporting aboard USS Tioga County in the spring of 1970. By then, I had done what I was willing to do to distance myself from becoming what I was expected to be. I understood that if I’d done what seemed like the really cool other thing that my detachment had been introduced to that summer of 66, if I’d opted for Naval Air (if you’ve never been at the controls of a Navy Jet, let me just say it’s a pure rush,) I’d have to be willing to kill. Although I had killed many things by the time I was 20 (my people were farm folk, I learned to shoot when I was seven) the idea that I would have to kill a human being was much more problematic than it appeared to be to the men around me. The event that pushed me over my own little ledge, that made me realize I was not proud of my dress whites (as Naval Officers, we had the whole thing, not just the hat,) was Kent State.

After my ship returned from an operation that was a classic military moment of hurry up and go someplace with a huge force (in this case a battalion landing team of Marines) that then does nothing but return to base, I saw that someone had cut out and posted in officer’s country an article that described the shooting of college kids by national guardsmen. It wasn’t like the world turned suddenly upside down, but in that moment, I reached my tipping point. It’s a classic story of my generation, depicted over and over in film and literature. We were a force desperately divided, with no consensus on our purpose. A true dystopia. At the end of that day, I went to the Officer’s Club at Cubi Point to meet a fraternity brother, who had also been in my NROTC unit.  We’d been together through four years of school but hadn’t seen each other since our commissioning in 1968. The first thing we talked about was how we saw the war, and what had just happened. We didn’t see eye to eye. He was glad the Guard had opened fire. We never spoke again.

The deep challenge of masculinity as a developmental arc that unfolds in each of our lives is to understand who we serve, and how we are rewarded for our service. At one level, it is the answer to the common cocktail party question: “So what do you do?” but the implications for our own well being go beyond that. In order to feel and be healthy, we need to know what is the right thing to do, and I would argue that we need to be able to explain it to our comrades. It is more the value system that we are committed to, than our ability to retaliate for past injustice that is the important integrative project in masculinity. It’s about playing fair, and telling the truth.