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U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on May 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)

Wagie wagie get in cagie. All day long you sweat and ragie. NEET is comfy. NEET is cool. NEET is free from work and school. Wagie trapped and wagie dies. NEET eats tendies, sauce, and fries.

This, by some internet wit whose identity was surely deliberately obscured from the first and is now lost to the waves of the world wide web, encapsulates the spirit of idleness that has stricken America’s men. NEET, in case you’ve forgotten, is demographer speak for “not engaged in education, employment, or training.” The NEETs of the internet, and the fakeNEETs of the internet—there are many who only pretend to the nobility of leisure—are of the opinion that wagework today is no deal worth taking. Why race to run the wheel of the post-industrial economy when you can be a free sewer rat? Look at a screen all day in some greige cubicle? We have screens at home. 

There were some 16 million men between the ages of 20 and 64 who qualified as NEETs in 2015. That number has surely risen over the last two years of forced business closures, increased unemployment benefits, and general chaos of Covid-19 policies. Work-age men not working has always been understood as something of a social problem; they are volatile, the stuff of pre-revolutionary conditions. “Military age male” is another descriptor sometimes used, when one wants to make a point. 

Josh Hawley, the Republican junior senator from Missouri, has caused a bit of a stir since he pointed out the problem America faces here in a speech to the National Conservatism Conference last week. Hawley described a leftist attack on masculinity that has left the American man eager to check out from public life. In the line that has prompted the most scrutiny and sad libertine reaction, he asked, “Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games?” It seems that in the liberal media, not just among the NEET aristocrats of Reddit, there are many defenders of, if not actually idleness as such (think of the GDP!?), at least pornography and video games. 

In a follow up editorial written for National Review online, Hawley wrote: “These habits embody the spiritual emptiness that plagues many men in America today. They fill the void left as men have withdrawn from work, family, community, and the task of self-mastery that it was liberalism’s project to discredit and displace.” The senator has succinctly described the atomization and anomie of mass society in a mass democracy, the appeal of, when there’s little else offered, filling the search for meaning with a personal relationship with mass media. 

Work is a drudgery for declining real wages, and school is increasingly by women for women, so why bother? Hawley writes:

But many men have more to offer than test scores can measure, and America needs those virtues: courage, strength, risk-taking, and commitment. These are the virtues that sustain an entrepreneurial and independent republic. But for decades, the Left has been engaged in a social project even more destructive than its economic one. It has pathologized these virtues to suppress the independence they foster. Liberals long ago recognized that independence was a bulwark against tyranny. So they chipped away at it, year after year, by attacking manhood itself.

Virtue, if you’ll bear with the dictionary reminder, is derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man.” Virtus was the Roman word for the specifically manly excellences, those of valor, physical courage, and moral merit. Virtue comes to us through the centuries as an extension of men’s strength to all, and Stanford and Yale Law educated Hawley surely used the word with purpose. He wants to call the country’s men back to being what they as men are supposed to be, fully themselves. He writes, “American men are and can be an unrivaled force for good in the world — if we can strengthen them, if we can empower them, if we can unleash them to be who they are made to be.”

When asked to clarify what he thinks being a man means in an interview with Axios, Hawley replied, “Well, a man is a father. A man is a husband. A man is somebody who takes responsibility.” That’s right, in that a man who is a husband should take responsibility for his marriage, and a man who is a husband should be a father, and a man who is a father should take responsibility for his kids. There are certain virtues required in those roles. But those are roles, and they require certain virtues before they can be assumed and they usually come after employment, education, and training. 

If Hawley and conservative leaders want men to grow up, to stop being NEETs, then America’s men need space to develop their virtues. We must understand that there is a circular, organic process at work, for man is an animal. The boy who will master himself, and assume responsibility, must be given the chance to discipline the world around him, to explore the environment he finds himself in, to take dominion of the matter at hand in ways all his own. In this freedom he can fulfill his potential and bring forth his natural capacities as a human being, and, yes, as a man. Only, as the NEET anthem suggests, uncaged, untrapped, can with time and in response to the particulars of his own circumstances the boy be “an unrivaled force for good in the world” and the man he was made to be. 

Countering what Christina Hoff Sommers calls “The War Against Boys” in rhetoric only will not be enough to effect this. Boys cannot be cajoled or encouraged into men, for liberalism did not send 16 million men into internal exile simply by henpecking and shrewishness. Rather, it closed all the frontiers, both physical and spiritual. Men, and women too of course, do not need just any work, but meaningful work, fit to them—challenging in a way that summons what is best in them. They do not need or want an education designed to make them ready to conform to an order that finds them fungible, indistinct, and discardable. They are right to buckle at and abandon training that distorts or ignores their essential character—no, not everyone can or should “learn to code.” 

Hawley says that the male virtues are vital for a self-governing republic, and this is true. But this is where the organic and circular nature of growth manifests itself again. Those disciplines needed for citizens to rule and be ruled in turn are only called forth when required. Republican virtues spring up and flourish in healthy republics, because that is where space has been made for them, where a frontier has been set forth in which the ambitions of able men can find play for their abilities. We, in this enormous managerial machine we call America today, do not even have that arena, which Abraham Lincoln—no doubt thinking of his own vaunting desires for greatness—worried in his Lyceum Address was still a domain insufficient to satisfy men of “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle,” a human type which “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

What is the alternative? What happens if there are no efforts to make an America where men can train and learn and work in ways that honor all that they were created to be? As in many cases, we can look to China. That ancient civilization has, in its recent rush for modern financial prosperity, created a human detritus not unlike our own. The “lying flat” movement has given name to the urge to give up in a game that seems impossible to win. And some equally anonymous Chinese wit, a new Protagoras, has given this mode of life an almost inspiring kind of manifesto, writing: 

I haven’t been working for two years, I have just been hanging around and I don’t see anything wrong with this. Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your peers and the values of the older generation. These pressures keep popping up…But, we don’t have to abide by these (norms). I can live like Diogenes and sleep inside a wooden bucket, enjoying sunshine. I can live like Heraclitus in a cave, thinking about the “logos.” Since this land has never had a school of thought that upholds human subjectivity, I can develop one on my own. Lying down is my philosophical movement. Only through lying flat can humans become the measure of all things.

America can do better. It must.

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