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Man Troubles; In her new book 'Stiffed,' feminist author Susan Faludi portrays the crisis in which American men find themselves. Or does she?; Cover Story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seems there's been a misunderstanding.

One minute Susan Faludi is starting a tour promoting her new book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," the next thing you know she's saying her critics have it wrong, she's actually not making a big generalization about "the American man."

How do these things happen?

Of course, says Faludi, there can be no "the" in "American man." There are so many, after all, living all over the place. Who could cover that territory? As it is, she spent six years talking with hundreds of men, then published hundreds of pages -- 608, not including footnotes, index and acknowledgments (in which she allows -- lo and behold -- that men can communicate!). All that, yet you probably can name an American man or two Faludi did not mention, maybe even another who would pick up her book, read the inside flap where it says "America is having a masculinity crisis," and say, "Who, me?"

Faludi says she wasn't about dissecting every Tom, Dick and Harry. She looked at places on the American manhood map where economic and social distress seemed particularly apparent. Like any respectable seismologist, she examined fault lines. The question is what, if anything, the earthquake hot spots reveal about the rest of the landscape.

Much, says Faludi, which is not to uphold the good journalistic tradition of conveying the wrong idea.

"This is not an attempt to diagnose an entire life, a hidden inner life of the American man," says Faludi, who made the cover of Newsweek with the headline: "A Feminist's Surprising Take on the New Male Dilemma."

Hype and hoopla aside, Faludi says the book is "not about what all men are feeling or even what the majority of men are feeling. It's about a cultural change that has caused a lot of pain," says Faludi. "It's not trying to make some sweeping statement about the state of men today."

What, then, is the reader to make of the passages establishing the premise of the book, evoking a moment when a torch passed to a postwar generation of boys in the form of a wondrous new light orbiting Earth? There's a reference to the American satellite Echo becoming "a remote point of triangulation connecting one generation of men to the next, and a visual marker of vaulting technological power and progress to be claimed in the future by every baby-boom boy."

And what's this a few pages later?: "It is as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch their rocket -- containing all their hopes and dreams -- burn up on the launch pad."

Sounds vaguely like the prose equivalent of the Richard Strauss music opening "2001: A Space Odyssey." A rather grand overture for a book making no grand statement.

Going on tour

Perhaps it's not what Faludi had in mind. It's worth noting that when she spoke at the Baltimore Book Festival last weekend, she made minor changes to remarks she delivered two days before at the National Press Club in Washington. She answered the criticism that "I'm picking marginal men and using them to represent the whole" by saying the men she has written about may be seen as "canaries in the mine. What they experience as catastrophe, others see as pressure."

She spoke and signed books for a mostly female crowd of about 200, stopping in Baltimore on a tour that takes her to 16 cities in eight weeks. She'll hit the TV networks, National Public Radio, bookstores, libraries and points between. It's what happens when your profile rises in the media, even when your new book says the most destructive toxic plume in American culture today oozes from the very celebrity marketing machine that makes such tours happen.

Faludi, 40, who won a Pulitzer Prize for labor reporting at the Wall Street Journal in 1991, came to national media attention the same year by publishing "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." She challenged a cultural assault on feminism, blasting, among others, the media for failing to scrutinize the evidence before concocting all those trendy stories about overwrought, overworked and underloved women. The book became a best-seller and won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

If you bump into her on the book tour, you're apt to wonder if she's hasn't pulled an Andy Warhol stunt and sent someone else to take her place and use her name. This is Susan Faludi? This petite woman with the big smile and the little voice? This person who approaches a live microphone as most folks approach a live snake?

You need a good ear to hear Faludi, even across a table in a corner of Baltimore's Penn Station on a sleepy Saturday afternoon. She's sitting over coffee, waiting for a train to New York, apparently tolerating the presence of one more reporter, yet more skepticism about the American masculinity crisis. She's putting up with it gracefully, as one might acquiesce to dental work.

An idea takes form

"Stiffed" appeared as a glimmer of an idea in 1993, as Faludi studied under a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. After the success of "Backlash" came the inevitable question: What now? Having looked at the media, political and cultural response to feminism, Faludi thought about tightening the focus. She thought she'd examine the heart of men's resistance to the women's movement.

"As I started reporting it was obvious that that was just kind of the outermost layer of the onion," says Faludi. "I realized I was sort of falling into the trap of talking to women about men, instead of going places where I was hearing directly from men. So I sort of shifted gears at that point. More and more it became a book not so much about men vs. women but about men grappling with social and economic change. The less visible opposition. It doesn't have a face or a name."

Men's trouble, Faludi says, wasn't feminism but cultural and economic forces that have bedeviled both men and women. She saw men burdened with a self- defeating, outmoded concept of masculinity. The book ultimately embraces human values over "masculine" or "feminine" ones.

Faludi talked to workers in the last days of a Navy shipyard and men losing their jobs by the thousands in post-Cold War layoffs at aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas. She talked with boys of the Spur Posse, a group of California teens notoriously competing for sexual conquests. She hung out with Promise Keepers and Los Angeles gang members. She plumbed the Citadel's resistance to women cadets, talked with militia men seeking to avenge Waco and lingered in the Cleveland Browns' "Dawg Pound" after the team announced its move to Baltimore. She talked to Vietnam veterans bereft of glory and ventured into the pornography industry, where men were finding the going tough even in the age of Viagra.

One man after another used the word "betrayal," Faludi says. You think of marital infidelity and all manner of treason, although the word applies across a range of situations, from mere disappointment to treachery.

So it goes in "Stiffed." Betrayals abound, and in their wake streams of men of the post World War II generation wounded by employers, wives, government and, most of all, their fathers. They have been "betrayed" by football teams, movies, TV shows and -- imagine this -- by a men's magazine. In sundry ways were these men "promised" one bill of goods or another and then burned.

From a world of meaningful work and cooperation, Faludi argues, postwar men were cast into a harsher universe where the masculine values of loyalty, camaraderie and providing for the family did not obtain. Somewhere along the line, masculinity became a dried husk of a thing, a matter of looking good in a Calvin Klein underwear advertisement, a matter of amassing the biggest score, measured variously in dollars, Vietnamese corpses, sexual experiences.

Golden era?

"All the pillars of the male paradigm had fallen," Faludi writes, "except the search for the enemy."

It's a vain search, says "Stiffed." If there's any villain, it seems to be the unbridled global free market, having its way with men's jobs, families, image, even something so sacred as the home team's loyalty to the hometown fans.

"Ideally, the free market is sort of harnessed and channeled by a caring society," says Faludi. "And that's what's fallen away. The problem isn't so much capitalism as the absence of any counterweights of social responsibility, community, public engagement and a vision of what society should be."

So when, if ever in American history, did such a thing happen?

"There was no golden era," Faludi allows. However, she says, the prospect of such an ideal was raised during and immediately after World War II, then dashed when the country shifted into the Cold War, the space program, Vietnam. How much better, she says, if the government had "guided us toward a mission that was about the well-being of citizens instead of creating pretend missions to go on. It was just a massive failure of imagination."

The specifics of the failure, of how jobs might have been saved, are not addressed. Instead, there's a broad psycho/socio- hypothesis about paternal abandonment. As a result, it's hard to read "Stiffed" without hearing the creak of a thesis stretched thin, a strain to make one thing represent another.

Many reviewers have praised Faludi for vividly reported scenes, for nuanced portrayals of discrete male subcultures. The book has been called "thoughtful," a "tour de force of reportage" and "heroic."

Faludi says many men she's met along the tour have thanked her for expressing their anguish.

Several reviewers, though, have faulted Faludi for giving little convincing evidence to support her thesis of a generation's "betrayal," for failing to demonstrate that fathers inflicted on the postwar generation of sons a historically unprecedented injury.

One of the more thorough critiques was written by Susie Linfield, who teaches cultural reporting and criticism at New York University. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Linfield says Faludi offers the men's emotions as proof of a historical phenomenon, a lapse that "replicates the consumer culture that Faludi so passionately criticizes."

Answering the critics

Some of the criticism apparently has been exasperating for Faludi, who takes particular exception to male reporters saying, essentially, "Masculinity crisis? Moi?"

The writer dismisses much of this as a matter of economic class, a disconnect between the "privileged elite class" of media types and the mostly blue-collar workers she wrote about. Some of it is due to a misunderstanding of what she set out to do.

"There's a little bit of this wanting the book to be something that it isn't," says Faludi. "Somebody else can go out and write a book about man as everyman and do a longitudinal, statistical study of what every man is feeling, but that's not the book I wrote. I wish the book would be judged on what it was attempting to achieve."

In "Backlash," Faludi did impressive research, statistical and otherwise, showing the fallacies of various media stories on the hazards of feminism. One wonders what such rigorous analysis might show about sundry statements Faludi makes to buttress the overarching thesis in "Stiffed."

We are told, for example, that President Clinton's defeat of U.S. Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 was "a rejection of the foot soldier as a serviceable model of American manhood." Without providing evidence, Faludi supports her notion that space was no real frontier at all by asserting that "the astronaut returned from space unchanged by the experience, because there was no experience."

If the book argues that the American marketing machine is now degrading masculinity much as it has always degraded women, you wonder how its influence shaped the book itself. Faludi acknowledges that the subtitle, "The Betrayal of the American Man," was not her idea.

"If I had chosen the subtitle I might have chosen something else," she says. She offered something with the word "scenes," suggesting glimpses of a landscape, not the entire landscape, but lost that argument with the publisher, William Morrow and Company Inc.

"I'm sure it was a marketing decision like all the marketing decisions that are made," says Faludi. "As you know, the author is really lucky to have any control over any aspect of the book."

The author would not control the publicity department, whose materials may help explain why many reporters are getting the impression that the book claims to cover the entirety of the American male experience: "Faludi examines the crisis in masculinity ... Faludi found that the male crisis was not caused by raging hormones ... Faludi listens to individual men whose personal stories expose the heart of the male dilemma."

It's a hyperbolic version of Faludi's own thesis, which may or may not be standing in the way of her fundamental point: hear these men.

"They're the men I wrote this book for," says Faludi. "I really cared about these guys and I really think they have something to say and I wish people would just listen to what they have to say."

Big Ideas

Susan Faludi says "Stiffed" is "not trying to make some sweeping statement about the state of men today." Perhaps, but in the book she does say:

The very paradigm of modern masculinity -- that it is all about being the master of your universe -- prevents men from thinking their way out of their dilemma, from taking active political steps to resolve their crisis.

Where we once lived in a society in which men in particular participated by being useful in public life, we now are surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional public roles, only decorative or consumer ones.

In an age of celebrity, the father has no body of knowledge or authority to transmit to the son. Each son must father his own image, create his own Adam.

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