I’ve always found the song “Men” by Loudon Wainwright III strangely moving, ever since I first heard it on his “So Damn Happy” album. Although the concept of manhood it talks about is somewhat outdated (it was written before women were allowed to serve in combat positions in the the U.S. military), it forces me to ask some profound questions about ultimate value, as well as questions about some of the ways in which masculinity has traditionally been conceived and the conflicts and contradictions that come along with those ways of thinking. I wonder how often “women and children first,” has actually been put into practice?
Sometimes it has been (the Titanic’s 1912 sinking is certainly the most famous example, but I have little doubt there were others, some probably never noted in the historical record), and men have sacrificed their lives for others either because these others were seen as more valuable, or at least having more potential value. The song, however, is hardly a celebration of male heroism, although it acknowledges its possibility; instead, it notes how the world can be a place of horror, and that it men bear a considerable burden of responsibility for it. Man’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of circumstances is merely a subset of powerlessness of all human beings coming to terms with the final truths of existence, because of course everyone—man, woman, child, emperor, and serf—eventually dies.