IT IS not necessary to join the chorus of wailing women, whic seems to dominate the airwaves and printed pages these days, in order to be mystified and disturbed about the behavior of American men.
Yes, only a few men approve of the behavior of the Spur Posse in California, the officers-but-not-gentlemen of the Tailhook Association or the clods recently convicted of brutalizing a retarded girl in New Jersey. Fewer yet would seek to emulate it.
But if this kind of behavior is an aberration, it does seem to be getting less aberrant, as are the tasteless anti-women slogans displayed on the sweatshirts and bumper stickers of students at some prestigious universities.
Which is a departure. It is important to recognize that it is a departure because of the claim that it is not, that brutality is traditional male behavior.
A small but vocal contingent of academics and social critics claims that American men, weaned on football and Western movies, are unable to forge relationships that are not based on power, rendering all men potential wife-beaters who participate in a "rape culture."
This mind set (it's no organized conspiracy) exposed itself last January at a press conference warning that more women would be battered on Super Bowl Sunday. There was no evidence for the prediction, but it put to rest any doubt that some people want to blame sexual brutality on traditional male pastimes.
To the extent that their argument means anything at all (and "rape culture" does not), it is nonsense. Most of us managed to grow up, playing ball and idolizing John Wayne, without ever lifting a hand against girl or woman, perhaps because we knew that both the Duke and our coaches would not simply disapprove, but might whup us upside the head just for being discourteous to a lady.
No, things have changed. There is more crude and violent behavior against women than there used to be. Because nothing changes without reason, there are reasons for this change, and they ought to be examined.
One reason is that life in general is cruder than it was a generation or so ago. Perhaps inspired by the movies, obscene speech is now respectable. In some circles, it's more respectable than objection to it. No reasonable person wants to revive censorship.
But with more freedom and honesty has come more coarseness.
Another reason is that the very success of feminism has made misogyny disreputable. Young people have to be disreputable somehow, so a few young men do it by insulting women. If a sweatshirt proclaiming an obscenity will no longer shock adults, perhaps one shouting "Women Are Property" will do the job.
Then there are feminism's excesses. A grown-up hearing the Chicago professor's "Marxist critique of the Miss Universe Contest" as an example of the "child molester's school of femininity" can laugh and remember never to take college professors seriously. An adolescent might respond less temperately, concluding that he and his fellows are being put upon, requiring a counteroffensive.
Wherein lies the biggest change of all. Americans increasingly see themselves as part of some grouplet beset by all the other grouplets. By race, sex, religion, ethnicity, region, profession (just listen to the doctors and lawyers whine) or some less specific demarcation, it's us against everyone else.
This is a legacy of both conservatives and liberals. The essence of Ronald Reagan's philosophy was revealed by its political strategy of using "wedge issues" to pit groups against one another. And one school of liberalism, ironically the school to which feminism belongs, calls itself "multicultural" but is actually separatist. It views people as members of tribes, not citizens of a commonwealth.
Exacerbating this sentiment among some young men is the all-volunteer armed force. Combat pilots such as those in the Tailhook group always developed an esprit de corps. Back when every young man might be called to serve, those who were called were less likely to consider themselves a breed apart. Conversation in the barracks was hardly fit for ladies, or gentlemen for that matter, but for all our vulgarity, none of us would have called women "property," because we never thought of them that way. We were too insecure about our girlfriends and too loyal to our mothers.
Reasons are not excuses, and this partial list of reasons does not explain everything. But it does seem likely that more young men are vile toward women because both men and women increasingly see each other as members of competing constituencies, not as companions.
Besides, even a partial effort at understanding is better than more whining, which will never remind young men that, as both a good coach and John Wayne would have told them, crudeness and coercion are downright unmanly.
Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.