Professor of psychology Roy F. Baumeister, enters the "gender war" in a brash manner. Is There Anything Good About Men? announces itself as "a third explanation" for "why men have dominated culture and ruled the world." It promises to be a revolutionary replacement for the two current and conflicting answers - "men are smarter than women" and "men are wicked conspirators against women."
Baumeister's main thesis: Women excel at close-knit relationships, men are better at broad networking. Thus, men create the broader culture in which women live. Although women have been oppressed in the past, what is now called anti-woman bias is actually a reflection of the fact that men make fundamentally different "trade-offs" than women.
Working longer hours for more money is one such trade-off. If these men make more money, therefore, it is an expression of a natural difference and not of gender oppression.
The promised revolution does not arrive. The idea of "trade-offs" is nothing new. In a series of books including The Myth of Male Power (1993) and Why Men Earn More (2005), psychologist Warren Farrell already did an admirable job of documenting the phenomenon. Nor is it radical to present genetic or evolutionary differences as leading to social ones.
Moreover, the differences on which Baumeister's thesis hinges often devolve into stereotypes, like women are more lovable than men.
Baumeister does offer the original twist that men create culture. Leaving aside whether this is true (I dispute it), I want to focus on a few of the book's methodological flaws, which ultimately render it incapable of establishing anything.
Baumeister concludes, "This book was intended as an essay, not a scholarly work." He then launches into nearly 200 scholarly references that range from the Crusades to Zulu culture, from U.S. tax data to a study of the shortage of sex in lesbian couples.
Cherry-picked references from medical studies, history, news accounts, anthropology, "pop" and feminist literature highlight one of the book's main problems.
This is a book of speculation that tries to become fact by carefully selecting supportive evidence, anecdotes, other theories and Baumeister's own personal experience; then he appears to give all categories of "data" equal weight. Baumeister seems to want both the advantages of a speculative work (e.g. being judged by looser standards) and that of scholarship (e.g. the delivery of solid conclusions). He also ignores counter-evidence. In arguing for men as the "networkers," for example, he ignores the many broad networks established by women; for example, most churches are de facto run by women, who organize everything from fund-raisers to petitions to bingo.
Another egregious flaw is the attribution of human characteristics, or "agency," to concepts like "society" and "culture." Baumeister admits in passing that a culture is not separable from the individuals comprising it, but the admission is lost in an ensuing flood of claims that "culture uses men in some ways and women in others," and that culture literally acts to expand itself. The definitions of such key concepts are murky, shifting and sometimes self-contradictory.
I am in sympathy with much of what Baumeister champions. The section Schoolboys Today: Raising Boys Like Girls addresses how the current educational system neglects and seriously short-changes boys.
I benefited from several insights. Baumeister plausibly explains why there are more "men at the top." As a class, men display what is statistically called a "long tail": There tend to be more men at the top and at the bottom of distributions; women dominate the middle.
Since the distribution holds firm for physical characteristics, such as genius and retardation, there is reasonable to assume it has some natural basis.
Some questions raised were fascinating. Why did no musical geniuses arise from the ranks of 19th-century women, for whom musical accomplishment was a common "grace"? The standard answer is because they were oppressed. And, yet, black men freshly freed from slavery innovated the blues, jazz, and ragtime. Was their oppression less than that of middle-class white women?
Nevertheless, the book fails. It argues poorly, its basic claims are unsubstantiated, its methodology almost insults the reader.
In fairness, the book is well intended. Baumeister seems to sincerely believe men and women are two parts of what should be a co-operating whole, and he does not take cheap shots.
Perhaps the book's main problem is captured by the tension between the flash and substance in its full title: Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men. The book works at being sensational while frequently pulling back to sound more reasonable, more scholarly. It claims to advance "a somewhat radical theory," but there is no such thing. In trying to be both, the book fails twice.
Wendy McElroy is the author of several books, including The Reasonable Woman. She maintains the websites ifeminists.com and wendymcelroy.com.