Ireland has experienced many chances since I first visited in 1991. Its entry into the European Union in 1973 unleashed a high tech prosperity that has given the country its 41st shade of green. It has not been without cost. Over the years, Irish youth have discarded the bottle of their ancestors for the needle of their contemporaries.
No medium has done a better job in depicting the new Irish subculture than the eponymous film, the true story of journalist, Veronica Guerin, in 2003. Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, convincingly portrays a 38-year old investigative reporter who summoned all of her skills and outrage against the nation’s drug lords. For her troubles she was brutally murdered, leaving behind her husband and child. Her murder so angered the Dubliners that they drove the dealers, like so many snakes, out of Ireland, at least temporarily.
Guerin’s husband, Graham Turley, disturbed me with his inert response to her gruesome murder. Though a good and decent husband, he stood idly by while Veronica was verbally abused, shot in the leg, savagely beaten and finally viciously murdered on the Naas Road in broad daylight. He was a sad, passive and docile man, who lacked any real man virtues.
The cinema has come a long way from the fighting Irishmen, popularized by John Wayne in John Ford’s epic, The Quiet Man. Wayne was quiet in his words but direct and physical in his actions. He would never have let his wife endanger herself the way Guerin did. As brawny as Wayne was, he met his match in the fiery tempered Maureen O’Hara, who shed nothing of her feminine dignity as his wife.
Turley’s passivity in the face of bloody violence is reminiscent of 18th century Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie’s book, Men of Feeling, which depicted several men who were passive observers of several scenes of human pain and misery. Modern men of feeling, better known as Beta Males of the Michael Dukakis and Al Gore variety, have instinctively defaulted on the troublesome questions of life. They no longer seem to heed the natural instinct to defend their women from violence.
The erstwhile soldier Jessica Lynch’s story rivals that of Veronica Guerin. Something is wrong with a culture that puts its daughters, like Lynch in the harm’s way of mortal combat. The feminist agitprop of Lynch’s fictitious heroic response to her ambush would have been risible if the situation had not been so deadly. Like Guerin’s husband, few real men stepped up to protest this gross violation of the strictest code of America’s respect for its women. Men have inexplicably forfeited their role as the protector of their women, or what renowned public servant, Elihu Root, once called the birthright of man. On a side note, since my name William, from the German Helmut, means protector. So I find this modern attitude offensive and dangerous to women.
On an intellectual plane this disturbing trend suggests that liberals value the good and warm feelings of their emotions over the lasting truth of reason, morality, and good order. This has turned many American men into what prolife advocate Ellen Wilson has called a nation of benevolent fence sitters. Their dependency on their own inner feelings paralyze them from recognizing the more universal responses demanded of the big questions of life on female safety, abortion, euthanasia, and marital discord.
The late Christian philosopher, C. S. Lewis, recognized this growing problem that had an even broader application than the historic battle between the sexes. In his perceptive booklet, The Abolition of Man, Lewis lamented that we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. As in Plato’s Republic, the king governs by his executive. So it must follow Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the spiritual element. As Lewis so eloquently put it, The head rules the belly through the chest. A man’s chest is where virtuous training takes place. It is the seat of character, a figurative connection between the cerebral and the visceral. Modern society is overburdened with men without chests, because it slavishly favors the belly over the chest.
Lewis was writing about the need for more virtue in public life. During the second Clinton administration when the president was found to have been a habitual philanderer and a perjurer, his apologists decried the necessity of moral character as a job requirement. It did not matter what Clinton did in his private life. As long as he was good on abortion and women’s rights, he was a great president in their eyes.
Lewis wrote about the same time that existentialists like Ernest Hemingway were sneering at the virtues of loyalty, honor, and other abstract notions, generally associated with warfare. While no one could question Hemingway’s virility, he emerged from a generation of writers who had lost their faith in the patriotic and religious virtues that had given sustenance and value to their fathers’ lives. Their writings gave birth to subsequent generations whose literature was void of spiritual meaning. Hemingway’s code heroes lived by existential rules. Their own personal rules always trumped God’s rules.
Hemingway was an introspective forerunner to the more recent pulp fiction of such moderns as Robert Ludlum. While Hemingway’s heroes had some rudimentary semblance of integrity, Ludlum’s heroes had a purely shallow grasp of their own alienation in a fierce and meaningless world. While Hemingway’s characters projected a loss of faith and a rejection of God, Ludlum’s heroes lived singularly by the laws of survival with a perceivable absence of God. Both heroes have a literary kinship with T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Unlike Graham Turley or Al Gore, they were veritable action heroes, who could only focus on survival and sensual pleasure.
This same presence permeates three of the most highly acclaimed films of a few years ago. Mystic River, 21 Grams, and The House of Sand and Fog dramatize the absolute frailty of human nature, beset by a litany of moral problems that resulted in murder, drug addiction, suicide, and adultery. None of the movies’ protagonists saw the need for God’s saving grace. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once quipped that an atheist was a man with no invisible means of support. The French existentialist, John Paul Sartre, defined Hell as other people. The atmosphere created by existential writers and film producers creates a modern vision of Hell, or simply put life without God.
Western culture has many examples of men who have chests who should be emulated. Heroic men, such as St. Thomas More provide a stark contrast to calculating cowards, like Pontius Pilate who willingly shed the blood of an innocent man for his own political viability. Real Men abound in the military, in sports arenas and in the pulpits of many churches. They have served admirably and even heroically in all the wars of the past and present centuries.
Many remember the legionary heroics of the late actor Audie Murphy, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II. Mel Gibson lionized the Vietnam War heroics of devout Catholic, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore, in his movie We Were Soldiers. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 produced countless examples of Christian character shining through the blinding clouds of smoke and fire. Hundreds of firemen and police laid down their lives in hope of saving the lives of their fellow human beings. The daily newspapers glitter with countless examples of uncelebrated people who have gladly risked their lives for their neighbors. Others have stood tall and walked long in the moral fight against abortion, euthanasia, and a culture that is adrift in a sea of disorder and self-destruction.
Pee Wee Reese and Cal Ripken, Jr. may have just been baseball players but over the years I had witnessed in them a dedicated character that could have illuminated the entire playing field during a night game. Their quiet moral presence reached beyond the human limitations of hits and errors. Like Simon of Cyrene, Reese helped carry the cross of racial persecution that afflicted Jackie Robinson in the late 1940s. As a player, Ripken provided the stature of a real man with a moral chest that served as a bright beacon in a sport that has been rife with racism, drugs, promiscuity and gambling.
Men of great intellectual prowess have always impressed me. Bishop Sheen was a warm friendly man of normal proportions. When he spoke of God, the Catholic Church and in opposition to atheistic communism, he stood ten feet tall and had a chest the size of Manhattan. The burning presence of God’s love exuded from his words like hot lava from an active volcano. In his classic manifesto, The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk wrote volumes of truth that launched an overwhelming torrent of ideas against the liberal monopoly on American thinking.
A nation that can produce men like these will always have hope. But there is still a critical need for everyday real men. Nowhere is the need greater for these ordinary men of character than the American family. Pope John Paul II recognized this pressing concern in his encyclical on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio. As he wrote: Where social and cultural conditions so easily encourage a father to be less concerned with his family…efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance. This is the supreme challenge of real men everywhere.