Some men have always been wretched. It only took the internet to make it obvious.
Women — some women, at least — have always known. For all the sense that we are in a generation finding a new voice, it may be more accurate to say that we are in a generation where an old voice has finally found volume. But volume brought consequences. Organized intimidation is now fair game for anybody audible to the mob, and everyone is audible online.
The most public victims of last year's Gamergate rage — women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu — were not radicals. Very few of the women who have found themselves violently threatened on the internet are. To view Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency videos after reading accounts of her harassment is to be surprised chiefly by how uncontroversial her analysis feels. She points out that the video game industry caters to men; women, when included, are typically set dressing, as victims of violence or sexual reward. Is any of this truly in doubt? Is any of it more radical than a new voice reciting an old liturgy?
Yet she was harassed as if she'd proposed revolutionary insurrection, and so during the last week of August, Sarkeesian, an ordinary woman with a message so innocuous that a sane world might deem it obvious, was forced to flee from her home.
"Like, if I'm 'privileged,' I'm privileged to have had parents who encouraged me to think for myself"
As it happens I'd spent several nights in August with one of her antagonists. He claims he's not the kind to send explicit threats, and he wasn't involved in Gamergate. He's just a man who takes a dim view of Sarkeesian, he says, and hasn't been afraid to tweet her about it. He doesn't think much of feminism in general, or at least of what he says feminism became once the voting and the jobs and the abortion rights were sorted and the word became a dog whistle for "self-pity and sexism toward men." His name is Max — although it isn't, of course — and he is a men's rights activist. I found him because I wanted to know what these men were like, not on Reddit or on Twitter or on any other forum where they are actively engaged in their cause, but in ordinary life — relaxed, after having a few, and without a keyboard to take it out on.
"I'll make you a bet, hundred dollars," Max tells me the first night we hang out. "If both of us stood up on this table right now and started yelling what we think about feminism, somebody might tell you to shut the fuck up. But they would lynch me."
Men's rights activism has been in the undercurrent of American culture since at least the 1970s and has been largely explicit in its role as a backlash against feminism. The movement has neither a central platform nor any acclimated leaders, but the central themes are consistent: It is men, not women, who are oppressed. Men are required to enter the selective service; women are immune. Men typically lose their children in otherwise equal custody disputes. Men are expected to work dangerous and difficult jobs in construction and agriculture. Beyond these overt disadvantages, they claim more subtle systemic disrespect from a culture increasingly focused on what they take to be feminine values, from emotional expressiveness to total sexual and reproductive liberation. When they vary, it is in extremity, with some merely decrying the "anti-male" attitude of feminism and others seeking, for example, to reverse the criminalization of marital rape.
When I met him, Max lived in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. River North is — at 70 percent white in a city where the white population is 32 percent and declining — one of the few places one can live in the Chicago where it is still possible to avoid even a vague awareness of the city's racial and cultural dynamics. I found Max on Reddit, on a forum largely devoted to making fun of teenage leftists on Tumblr. It was only good luck that he lived in my city and was willing to talk.
I wanted to know what these men were like, not on Reddit or on Twitter, but in ordinary life
In the popular imagination, men's rights activists are "neckbeards": morbidly obese basement dwellers with a suspect affection for My Little Pony. But Max is remarkably unassuming in appearance, handsome enough and normally tall; equally imaginable in board shorts and a snapback as he is in the sort of graduation suit one wears to a first post-collegiate interview downtown. He was raised in St. Louis, one of two children. (He has a brother, younger: "He goes to school in Seattle. Kind of a hippie.") His parents are alive and married. Before Max was born, his father was a unionized carpenter in Newark, New Jersey, part of a long line of the same until the 1980s came around and Max Sr. followed the dawn of management consultancy into a white-collar job and the Midwest suburbs. When Max came to Chicago in 2006, it was for college ("not the first in my family to go to college but the first to go at the normal time" — that is, at age 18). Four years after graduating, he has a solid entry-level job at an area financial institution. "Plenty of women work there," he offers in the middle of a preliminary biographical rundown. "They're getting paid the same as me." We had not yet begun discussing politics.
Max fits in with the crowd at the faux-Mexican bar where we spend several nights in August. Eight-dollar tequila shots; polo shirts tucked in or dress shirts tucked out of pre-faded jeans; groups of guests emitting an oscillating screech from every booth. "This is just, like, my neighborhood place," he tells me the first time we walk in the door. Not the kind of spot he'd "hit up" on a Friday, or where he'd look for what he insists on calling "action."
"These girls here are a little ... eh," he said. "Could be fun. Definitely annoying." (Distinguishing them from the similarly well-highlighted, halter-topped women he shows me on Facebook as examples of what he's "into" requires some capacity for discernment I do not possess.)
He has a different-colored polo on all three nights I see him.
Max was not a member of Gamergate proper. This isn't terribly uncommon: Men's rights activists exist who disdain that particular episode, if not for its virulence then for its celebration of men who prefer Dungeons and Dragons to Monday Night Football. Similarly, there are Gamergate activists who remain stubbornly committed to the idea that they are ethicists of video game journalism, wholly detached from "men" as a generalized political class. But these vagaries — the specific grievances of Gamergate, the sort of person who self-applies "MRA" versus the sort who prefers some other acronym — are merely symptoms of a broader male sense of victimhood. It is this victim complex I intend to tell you about, not the particular schisms between reactionaries. I am interested in the style of man who makes all such factions explicable. The kind who has in these last decades felt the theoretical foundation of his inherited supremacy begin to crumble and gone into defensive crouch, lashing out at every grain of sand that shifts beneath his feet.
Some section of men have always jealously guarded their privilege, but we are for the first time seeing what happens when that same section begins to lose the assumption of its divine right. It isn't that they're monsters. Max is this kind of man, and he is not some fountain of malevolence. He is the mildest kind. I spent August with a well-adjusted man in a polo shirt who would never think to hurt someone except in self-defense, but he comes from a pot where new anger is boiling. And at least one of the bubbles so far was named Elliott Oliver Rodger, the 22-year-old man who went on a shooting spree last year near the University of California Santa Barbara — an act he said was the result of being rejected by women.
"I'm not one of those guys who's obsessed," Max tells me on our first night together. "Like, yeah, I comment on articles. I'm on Reddit — which, by the way ... it's not, like, a hub for MRAs or anything. There are plenty of feminists on there — but I do that and I tweet and stuff. But only a few hours a week max, and most of it is just reading the news."
He says this, I think, to distinguish between himself and the common, not-altogether-inaccurate conception of men's rights activists as sexually frustrated loners with too much time on their hands. But the caveat comes with some regret, as though Max wishes he were more involved in fighting the good fight. "Like, I didn't go to that big men's rights conference earlier this summer, but ..." The thought is interrupted by the arrival of his enchiladas, a subsequent discussion of our waitress's outfit, and some thoughts on "the market forces" and "basic social realities" behind it that he thinks I might be interested in.
(She is wearing what I can only describe as a perfectly ordinary outfit for a waitress: white blouse, black jacket, black pants. Max has a more elaborate take: "It's like halfway between modest and revealing. Adjust for social morals and it's, like, Victorian. She wants dignity. She wants to be chased. Same time. And fine, that's how it's always been, but I bet she'd say, ‘I didn't wear this for you!' Like: yes you did. Not because she wants to sleep with me. It's to get tips. But when you go out later, it's to attract a guy. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know?")
The discussion is not terribly dissimilar from or any less agreeable than one between any two men at any bar like this bar, except that Max is a new kind of reactionary (and I know this) and I am a lefty feminist writer who takes a dim view of his politics (and Max knows this as well). I'm not surprised to learn that those politics took shape in high school.
"When I was, like, 10 or whatever I'm sure I would've said I was a feminist if I'd known the word," Max says. "My mom says she's a feminist. And I guess in the way my mom means it, I still am. But she doesn't know how it is now. For her, feminism means ‘everybody is equal,' but if you said that now, these social justice warriors on Tumblr would call you a sexist and garbage and tell you to die. But I didn't realize that at first. I thought feminist meant ‘women should be able to vote and have jobs,' which I'm obviously cool with."
Max says he wasn't terribly unpopular in high school, but read more than was socially viable — most of it on the computer. ("No girlfriend," he says. "What else are you going to do when you're 15?") Contemporary social media didn't exist in the way-back of 2002, so Max spent his time on forums dedicated to a single topic or else loading the full homepages of magazines in lieu of direct links to stories. "People our age are lucky we got that," he says. "I think it helped us learn to seek out information on our own and not just ‘like' what's popular." (Max is 28.)
Max became interested in the usual gateway drugs of men's issues: paternity rights, the selective service, requirements that mothers sue for child support before seeking state assistance. The term "men's rights activist" wasn't one he encountered in those days; he still says he prefers thinking of himself as a "humanist."
"Putting ‘men' right in the name is a deliberate response to feminism, I think. Because feminists claim to be about everybody, but really they're about women first. So [the MRA name] is kind of trolling them, I guess."
I ask him if it's such a bad thing for feminism to be primarily concerned with the interests of women. "Maybe a hundred years ago," he says, "But, like, in 2014? Women have all kinds of advantages that men don't."
"I just don't like this us versus them."
This, Max says, is why he has been a capital-letters MRA since at least 2010. But he is aware of the broad brush he's self-applying, and there are several things he's quick to say he isn't. He is not a Pick-Up Artist, he says. He is not a Red Piller. He is not a "Man Going His Own Way." These distinctions are important within the labyrinthine network of reactionary masculinity movements, and confusing one with another is as easy and potentially treacherous as similar conflations between factions of the left. I don't imagine tribalism pays much mind to politics. It's only that when Max closes his laptop he reenters the world heir to every privilege the nation can afford. The variously maligned social justice activists he makes fun of on /r/TumblrInAction have no such refuge.
There are some other things Max is proud to be. He is an outspoken atheist and an active libertarian. The contours are the same: a proactive anticlericalism and a distaste for regulatory apparatus couched in a vague sense that this distaste constitutes a moral stance.
This trinity is not uncommon. A survey taken last year of the Men's Rights subreddit found that 94 percent of their membership identified as "atheist" or "religiously indifferent." Another, broader study of the men's rights movement on Reddit found that 84 percent identified as "strongly conservative," with particular policy preferences along a libertarian, not traditional, bent. For those of us hailing from the nominal left, these associations have at times felt unnatural: right-wingers using the rhetoric of social justice to argue for the traditional status of men, all the while eschewing, in a way more typical of the left, the patriarchal religious institutions that have classically underpinned these values. When Max speaks about one ideology, he can hardly help bringing in the others; for him, they are all related, distinct expressions of the same worldview.
On our first night I ask him if there was ever a God in his life. We have ventured at last into a deliberate political conversation. "This is God right here," he says after slamming down a shot of Fireball.
He is surprised that I want to discuss religion and politics, but not disappointed. He seems eager to get into these subjects.
"I think religion is probably one of the biggest threats to society," Max says. "I think feminism and statism and all of that — it's not explicitly about God, but it's definitely the same religious impulse, you know?"
For Max, religion is something of a starter pack for a lifelong indoctrination into Big Lies. "I know it isn't realistic or anything, but I think if we got rid of religion, that whole kind of way of thinking about things, where you just subscribe to what you're told, where you believe these ridiculous statistics about women or in stuff like the wage gap." (Max has a very long explanation of the "wage gap myth," one that seems cobbled together from multiple readings of a few different blog posts.)
"I just think [the willingness to believe anything] starts when you're a kid with Jesus, and it sets you up to be that way your whole life about everything. When I was a kid I would have called it ‘conformist,' but that sounds kind of lame, right? But that idea."
He orders us another round and continues on with what has become a familiar line from men's rights activists (or "new atheists" or libertarians): the explicit claim that they are the last remaining purveyors of reason. "They just won't use logic"; "I'm just arguing logically"; "I'm only interested in evidence": You can't scroll down a comment section without flashing past a few of these, and they are tribal markers, not real claims. "I mean, it's ridiculous that these people go on about how I have so much power because I'm a white dude," Max continues. "Like, Americans would rather elect a gay Muslim philanderer president than an atheist. Libertarians are treated like a joke. If you think people are mean to feminists on Twitter, you should see the stuff people say about MRAs. Or just, like, you know, 'Die, white-cis-scum, die.'"
All of it breeds a certain paranoia, one I encountered in all the men I spoke to
He laughs, but it feels deliberate. Otherwise he might sound like he was getting worked up.
After a pause: "Like, if I'm 'privileged,' I'm privileged to have had parents who encouraged me to think for myself." Max says this in a tone more serious than his usual dorm-room bull session affect. But the smile comes back quickly: "I guess I'm oh-so-oppressed then, huh?"
For all his derision toward the "professional victimhood" of feminists, there's something a little less than sarcastic in Max's own sense of oppression. Hard-pressed as the social justice left is to admit any advantage, the West these last decades has seen the rhetorical value of victimized stance. The irresistible cudgel of "I am oppressed and this is my experience and you cannot speak to it because you do not know" is valid enough, of course, especially in those cases where ordinary enculturation does not provide natural empathy toward some suspect class. But it is a seductive cudgel, too, especially alluring when it can be claimed without any of the lived experience that makes marginalization a lonely-making sort of suffering. American Christians are "persecuted" now; men are the ones being "squelched" by feminism; white Americans are the victims of "reverse racism." The "victim card" is a child of the '70s, and 40 years out, who wouldn't use it, no matter how disconnected from reality? We are typically aghast when reactionaries accuse the maligned of perniciously employing this rhetorical immunity, but they are not wrong to see how the trick might be exploited. The irony is only that they know this possibility in virtue of their own projection.
For all Max's talk of equal opportunity ("It isn't the same as equality of outcome!" he quotes), for all his dismissal of those who blame institutional inhibitors of happiness ("Structural oppression might as well be Jesus. He's there! You just can't see it! But trust me! I'm a priest of Tumblr and we can see it, you stupid heathens!"), for all his casual derision toward the very notion of groups who might be justified in feeling that the world was not made for them, he is entirely possessed by the idea that it is men like him who bear the true brunt of society's hatred and that it is they, not the feminists or the statists or the faithful, who see the true extent of this structural injustice.
For Max, it is all a crusade. The struggle against the church, the state, the women. It is a battle about genuine issues: issues maligned by a majority too easily beholden to the prevailing taste consensus. The stakes are high and immediate, persuasion by comment section possible and, moreover, important because the trouble with most people is that they "haven't really thought about it for two seconds." The whole trinity flows from this sense of displacement. Libertarianism follows from recognizing of a colluding party system within a power-hungry state too quick to shut down big questions. Men's rights activism follows from the bizarre misapprehension (fueled by a disconnect between the opinions of visible intellectuals and the average populace) that feminism has reached suffocating heights of power. He is a rebel with one cause in three bodies, and the pushback — from friends, from me, from the nation's opinion apparatus itself — only therefore fuels his indignation toward a society too willing to neglect inconvenient truths about the world.
In activist circles of any kind, it is common to hear that injustice is a kind of sight that cannot be unseen. All of it seemed so hyperbolic until I started noticing it. Now I notice it in everything. The "it" is typically some kind of institutional bias: the ways in which women are routinely encouraged to defer to male judgment; the way in which race, without overt malice, permeates even simple American interactions. Before, we were post-gender and post-racial, without need of an Equal Rights Amendment, on track toward total marriage equality. Then you hear something, or live it, or read it, or see. The world today is now more like history, and the motives of the people in it are more suspect than before.
Reviewing my notes from my first night speaking with Max, I become more confident that his life is some strange inversion of the same epiphany. One day, he is comfortable as a man and comfortable with what masculinity means in the world. The next, he can see behind the veil, and all that goes away. Social justice through a mirror, darkly: Men are the ones subject to genuine oppression, the ones whose issues are taken as uninteresting and unimportant. They are the ones taking terrible jobs and being drafted; committing suicide at incredible rates; losing their children, their spouses, and their homes while nobody else seems to care; shouting in the wilderness while a feminist majority squelches their dissent.
I am not the first to notice this. Last year, John Herrman noticed the same inversion in the Awl. "A great number of men, online and off, understand feminism as aggression," he said, "They feel as though the perception of their actions as threats is itself a threat. In other words, they too believe that unsolicited public attention is inherently aggressive, but only when that attention takes the form of criticism, and only when it comes from women. They live this belief on the streets, where they are nearly unaccountable, and argue it online, where they are totally accountable."
Looking at my notebook, one observation, underlined at the time, stands out: "Max says he needs online MRA communities because on normal internet, he gets shouted down and talked over." A different kind of activist might call that a safe space.
If men's rights activism has a Gloria Steinem, a kind of central activist figurehead, it is Paul Elam, the founder and publisher of A Voice for Men. The website is one of the oldest and, if there is such a thing, most respected hubs for MRA activity. Elam and his staff do, at the very least, engage in genuine advocacy on behalf of men. Moreover, they don't typically stray past boorishness and into outright campaigns of harassment, although I cannot help feeling myopic in citing this fact as some kind of high water mark amongst the MRA set. I send him an email, and he writes back quickly. We arrange a call.
Like Max, Elam sees his issues as a crusade, his atheism as important, his politics as moral in their antisocialism. He was a substance abuse counselor by trade. It was in this context that he began to see. He remembers the first time, working for a men's treatment facility in Houston, waiting in the hall with an invited speaker, a woman about to go in and address the clientele.
"I was standing outside the group room and we were waiting for her to go in, just chatting for a moment about our work," he says, "And just before going into the group, which she was being paid quite a bit of money to do, she says, 'One of my favorite things in the world is to take men's macho bullshit and shove it down their throats.' I saw a lot of this in the treatment field," Elam says, "It's just she said it in such a particularly stark and direct way. At that point I thought, Something needs to be done about this."
I am a heterosexual white man. To MRAs I am a heretic, but I am not an infidel. I can still be saved.
The trouble continued. "I went to the administration about that particular incident," Elam explains. "And everyone who worked at that facility looked at me like I was nuts and said, 'What's the problem?' That's how pervasive this issue is."
Elam could see the truth. Nobody else could see. While the issues of paternity rights and the destruction of the family would come later, Elam's transition from counselor to pseudo-civil rights hero grew naturally out of his prior life.
He recites a litany of charges against modern psychotherapy, its anti-masculine focus on effusively articulated feelings. If one dismisses for a moment the bizarre unreality of men subject to brutal gendered discrimination, it doesn't sound terribly different, in sense or scope of conspiracy, than the complaints of feminist academics so often mocked by men of Elam's kind.
"If you want to bet that this woman identified as a feminist, I can tell you for a fact that she did, and she wasn't the only one who talked that way in that field.
"I do think that is abusive," he tells me, "when you send the message to your clients that they are either failing or succeeding based on your expectations of a stereotype." Through a mirror darkly: Elam says it is his group, not organized feminism, that is earnestly engaged in destroying traditional gender roles. It reminds me of a Pascal aphorism from the Pensées: "How is it that a lame man does not annoy us while a lame mind does? Because a lame man recognizes that we are walking straight, while a lame mind says that it is we who are limping."
Elam isn't without his objectivity. Unlike Max, he knows, for example, that his position is a rare one. Elam is not convinced that most people (normal people; the women in his office, if there were women in his office) take his crusades as common sense and only don't say so out of fear. His manner gives rise to a suspicion that he has been lonely a long time, not in the literal way, but self-consciously stranded in a shrinking section of the world. He is committed in part to his work because if more ground is lost, he will be lonelier still. If more ground is lost, there may not be room at all. Men are suffering, he says. He is suffering, but he doesn't say that outright.
All of it breeds a certain paranoia, one I encountered in all the men I spoke to. A feeling likely justified by the ordinary reaction to men's rights activism, that outsiders, especially outsiders writing for mainstream publications, are not to be trusted. That they agreed to speak to me at all remains surprising, especially in Max's case: He is friendly, willing to sit down, but insistent that his identity be protected. He seems, like so many zealots, to believe at once that he is righteous and vital and also that speaking out under his own name will bring unsavory consequences beyond his willingness to suffer.
At one point during our conversation, Elam says: "I'm just going to be frank with you, I've been through countless interviews with the media." As a result, he says, he understands why I need to ask him questions from a "mainstream" (read: feminist) sensibility, but "in a society that when we even try to talk about the issues, people are screaming bloody hell, trying to shut us down, calling us hatemongers and everything else, trying to silence us — that seems to me to be a very skewed point of view from which to be questioned." Despite this, he is nothing but polite. Indeed, none of the men I spoke to about these issues are anything but friendly, almost eager to persuade. I suspect that this is because I am, despite everything, a straight white man. To Elam, and to Max, I am a heretic, but I am not an infidel. I can still be saved.
I see Max again a few nights after our first meeting. I relate some of my conversation with Elam, and Max is quick to echo his bafflement. "I mean, people keep saying we're full of hate. We're just these angry, hateful dudes, you know? Like, we can't get laid, we hate women, all of that. And we come back with statistics, like rational argument, like an actual debate and are like, ‘No, listen, here's this and this and this with men' and here's, like, the logical fallacy in your argument, and they just call you, like, a cis-het shitlord and move on."
There's a temptation, brought on by the claustrophobia of extended conversation, a bit by empathy, and a bit by drink, to be taken in by the spirit of the argument. Men face certain social difficulties idiosyncratic to our sex, and while they are not systemic in the way that women's issues are, nor half so severe, I find it easy to sympathize with Max's frustration. In the bar, insulated as we are, when he begins talking about "just wanting human rights," I can only see his face, hear the exasperation in his voice, connect, instinctively, to that face and voice in part because they are well-mannered and in part because they are like my own. In that moment I can, if I like, forget that these issues, legitimate enough on their face, are carried out from a place of one-upmanship, that their expressions, except in rare cases, are solely as debating points, hurled between invective and harassment and the oldest hack tropes about women's bodies and choices. I can forget those things, if I like. I'm only a heretic.
"I know this is like, almost a Fox News cliché way of saying it, but feminism and a lot of this stuff has been, like, a fundamental transformation of American society. We can't even see how far it's gone yet," he says. "I just think it's important to be wary of that and point out when you think things are getting too far from the truth."
He is almost starry-eyed while saying it, his voice quieter, slightly higher. Sincerity isn't quite the word so much as it's performance. Max knows how to tone the romantic's innermost profundity. Perhaps he doesn't do it consciously, but he's stealing from the movies all the same. At once ideological, forceful to the point of edgy outsider charm, and eminently reasonable, asking only for a consensus over what any fool can see. It isn't surprising that this seduces so many young men.
It's all terribly reasonable, until it isn't. This night corresponds with a particularly bad episode of police misconduct in Ferguson, and at some point we stop talking about the plight of men to watch a news live stream on my phone. Max's reaction is immediate: "This is crazy," he says a few times. "It's police brutality. I know people who say this isn't about race, but I don't get it. Like, this is obvious racism." A promising sign, but then, after a minute, "Man, feminists wish the cops treated them like this. Then they'd actually be oppressed." There's always another shoe with Max.
"Okay," I say about halfway through our second night. "Let's pretend for a minute that I take all of your issues seriously." ("How good an actor are you?" he interrupts, laughing.) "Let's say I believe men are maligned, women are taking advantage of them and profiting from it. And I believe all of this and I come to you, a men's rights activist, and say I want to get involved and help. Shouldn't I be concerned that a lot of people on your side don't seem to be doing legal or political work so much as sending death threats?"
No, Max says. The extreme behavior is mainstream in feminism these days, not in the men's rights movement. Elam claims much the same thing. Speaking about the men's rights conference he organized last summer, he explains, "Feminist activists have come out and pulled fire alarms, harassed attendees, interrupted and protested. When we had a conference on men's issues in Detroit, there was a demonstration, pressure on the hotel to shut us down. We eventually had to change venues. How much of what is really going on are you paying attention to, sir?"
Max never asks me that question outright, but I can hear it, minus the "sir," beneath a lot of what he says. I ask about the harassment of feminists — of women in general, on the street, in their homes, by classmates and strangers. How much is he paying attention to, for that matter? He shrugs it off. "I don't really see any of that stuff," he says. "I mean, I'm sure it happens? But it's not, like, organized, anyway. Guys catcalling don't have meetings to plan it."
(Years ago I was standing on a metro platform with a woman I knew. It was around 3 in the morning; we'd walked a mile to our train. She says it's the first time she's gone that stretch of road without being catcalled. I ask why. The answer is obvious. She says most men won't do it if the woman looks like she's with her owner.)
"You see women who are addicted to their phones. ... Do they feel happy? Do they seem happy?"
Other headlines coincide with our time together. James Foley is beheaded by ISIS; the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas breaks down. Max blames both on religious extremism and says he can't understand why "the good Muslims" don't denounce terrorism.
Extreme behavior is a sore spot for any movement, and nobody is more forgivable than one's own. Max concedes that some MRAs and associated activists go too far. "Some people doxx feminists and call their houses," he tells me. "That isn't cool. You can criticize these people, you can try to debate them, but threats are way out there."
So does he denounce the violent elements on any of his forums? He has tweeted unkind things to feminists. Does that encourage the ones who cross the line?
"What's the point?" Max asks. "I mean, it's only a couple guys, really. It's super fringe. They're not going to stop just because I say so." He fiddles with his burger. "You just have to develop a thick skin and try to ignore it. The feminists. Me. All of us. You know? Just ignore the crazy shit."
Near the end of our call, Elam had this to say: "Of course there's anger out there. I've never seen a social movement, including women's liberation, the black civil rights movement, gay rights, that did not involve some anger. So this whole idea that oh my god they're angry is rooted in the very misandry and the very bigotry that we're trying to address."
Perhaps Elam is simply more self-aware than Max is, but it is difficult to hear them talk this way and maintain credulity. It all sounds a little I'm maligned, and I'm oppressed, and society is too backward for the revolution I'm bringing, but I don't say so.
I ask Max if he has a girlfriend. Yes, he says, that they've been seeing each other a few months.
A couple of weeks go by. Vague plans had kept Max busy on the weekends; I've traveled out of town to report another story. It is September now, and we are sitting in Max's apartment.
His having a girlfriend is curious. Earlier in the evening, Max had told me (or rather had paraphrased, perhaps unconsciously, from a dozen articles and frat house bull sessions) that the base tragedy of feminism was the transformation of American women. Their entitlement. Their schizophrenic affect toward the dominance of men. Even the ones who are not feminists have been spoiled by the culture. Like "male allies" in the eyes of internet feminists, ostensibly uncorrupted women are valuable but often suspect.
At any rate, he likes this girl. She might be "marriage material," he says.
"Are you surprised?" he asks.
"That I have a girlfriend."
"No." I look out the window and consider that the view of the skyline alone might be worth a night in bed with a proverbial can of paint.
"Yes you are. Come on. You don't think women could possibly respect themselves and want to be with some evil sexist pig like me."
He is teasing me. Joviality is one of Max's preferred diffusion tactics. Taking on a deliberately inflated voice when directly addressing our differences is designed to produce an effect whereby we might wink at one another: We are both metacognizant, we both know the clichés about the other side. It isn't entirely ineffective. Max is naturally charismatic, and I am not surprised he has a girlfriend, only that he wants one. He looks down at his phone and smiles. Something on Twitter. He types. I wonder what kind of charisma he's employing there.
"I thought American women were all ruined," I say.
"Not all of them. You know what I mean. Just a lot. And you can never know. So it's hard to trust or invest in anybody long enough to find out."
"This girl isn't a feminist, though, I assume?"
"No. That you can see a mile away."
"So she's more traditional?"
"No. I'm not, like, looking for a housewife."
That Max is not seeking a 1950s fantasy is important to him. He asks me to say so explicitly.
"She's just cool," he tells me. "She doesn't have time for that social justice warrior stuff. She's in law school."
He shows me a picture. I'm not much for intuiting whole personalities from photographs, but I agree she has a look, an irrepressible appearance of sincerity without the usual attendant inexperience. She's capable. It's in her brow line, somehow.
Before meeting with Max for the third time, I'd placed another call to a more public face of men's empowerment. This time it was to Daryush Valizadeh, a writer popularly known as "Roosh V." He made his name as a Pick-Up Artist, one of the professional sort, a peddler of the best underhanded "one weird trick"s for seducing any woman. He is the author of more than a dozen self-published books, each of which offers tips for picking up the women in a country he has visited (the best way to exploit the insecurities of Poles evidently diverges at a book's length from the ideal manipulation of Norwegians).
Roosh is the owner of a website as well: Return of Kings, with the tagline "For Masculine Men." What dignity Elam's A Voice for Men retained does not interest Kings; this is a site that revels in its aggression. Looking late last year, without venturing past the first page, I found the following headlines: "Street Harassment Is a Myth Invented by Socially Retarded White Women"; "Twitter is Partnering with SJWs to Prevent Women from Facing Consequences"; "5 Lines That Potential Wives Cannot Cross." (I am particularly haunted by number five: You have left your old family and joined mine.) This is not a men's rights magazine but something more pure: an expression of rage, admittedly proudly, against the prevailing tide of feminism.
"I think there are two problems going on right now," Roosh told me. "First: If you're a man, society has no role for you except ‘listen to what women want.' Second, related, is that culture is telling men to hate themselves."
Of the three men I talk to, Roosh is by far the most charming. He has none of Elam's middle-aged weariness, nor the irregular intensity of cadence that makes one think of sandwich board prophets. What Max possesses in natural charisma, Roosh has given a practiced sophistication. He is funny and acutely aware that this goes much further in building rapport with a potentially hostile journalist than Elam's bitter complaining about "countless interviews" gone wrong ever could.
Roosh's story is typical for the movement. He sees a culture laid to waste by contemporary values, by feminism and the left. The decline is existential, robbing not only men but women of purpose and therefore happiness.
"There was a study. It said that women are less happy now than at any other time," he says. (He's referring to "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," an influential 2009 paper published in the American Economic Journal.)
"This was based on surveys; I don't know how accurate it is. But you see women who are addicted to their phones. They're having to work in a job that, let's be honest, is a glorified way to push paper. Do they feel happy? Do they seem happy?"
I suggest that happiness is fungible and that paper pushing may be a genderless misery.
"Are you telling me that a woman now is actually happier working for a boss in a corporate office who can fire her just because the quarterly report was bad, more so than serving her husband in a comfortable home?" he says. "I don't buy it. I just don't buy that women or anyone is amazingly happy because they can buy a new iPhone every year. If we define happiness by being a consumer zombie, then yes, maybe that's right. But anyone who has chased that knows there's no gold at the end of that rainbow."
"It's all so quick. You see something and it bothers you and you just, like, lash out a bit."
He doesn't make a bad sophomore-year Marxist, Roosh.
I repeat this sentiment to Max at his apartment. He says it sounds a little "lefty," but he gets the drift. "Yeah, sure," he tells me, "but, like, people are adults. They can make their own choices about what to buy." (Max and I have this conversation while playing his new Xbox. He points out after about an hour that he has only put out games specifically criticized by Anita Sarkeesian).
"I thought Roosh V. was more of a pick-up, screw-the-family, get-laid sort of dude," Max says.
As did I.
For all his writing about how to sleep with multiple women, Roosh says it would be better the old way. The way where men had one partner and women had one partner. But, he adds, "It's easy to look back into the past and extract the best things that they did, and hope and wish that we had that. Of course, as humankind marches on, we can never pick and choose. So I'm thinking, what is the best deal that a man can do where he doesn't get screwed, where he doesn't have his life ruined, where he doesn't get imprisoned for something like a false rape accusation?"
In Roosh V.'s ideal world, there would be no need for men like Roosh. He claims no deep biological imperative beneath his seduction tactics. Only a culture falling apart in the West, marriages dying as women are no longer beholden to the pillars of its stability. Hooking up, going out, getting laid: These are just distractions, perhaps the best distractions still available, and Roosh fancies himself pragmatic.
I hang up the phone thinking this is all a bit more fatalistic than I'd thought.
Relating this all to Max in his apartment, I wonder what his girlfriend thinks of all of this.
"Do you talk to her about your views?" I ask.
"Uh. Not as such," he says. This is a peculiar construction for anyone, especially for someone with Max's instinct for putting others at ease.
"Are you afraid to?"
"No," he says, "No, of course not."
In the elevator a moment later: "I mean, don't get me wrong, she knows where I stand."
In June of last year, Time's Jessica Roy attended the first annual men's rights conference outside Detroit, a conference Elam was central in organizing. Among the litany of predictable observations — the destructive politics, the hostility and rage, the incomprehensible self-pity — Roy reported encountering a feeling she did not anticipate.
"What I didn't expect," she writes, "was how it would make me feel: sad and angry and helpless and determined, all at the same time. Moreover, I didn't expect to talk to so many men in genuine need of a movement that supports them, a movement that looks completely different from the one that had fomented online and was stoked by many who spoke at this three-day conference."
When Max and I were children, we would have looked the same. Middle-class, semi-suburban, precocious, with stable families and access to college-prep education. We might have had similar opinions too. Max comes from a family of nominal Democrats; he was one himself to the extent a child can be, and still is to the extent that he voted for President Obama in 2008 before switching to Gary Johnson in 2012. We aren't so different now, really — except in our work, our politics, our culture, and our fundamental outlook. This occurs to me on our first night together. When did the divergence begin? It is a question I have asked before, of high school classmates now married, of old friends, of a teenage drug dealer I knew who by 19 had been declared technically dead on three separate occasions.
What kind of movement will support kings reduced suddenly to paupers?
So what happened? Social media came, perhaps. Max sees our age cohort as the last without all its information curated by Facebook or Twitter. This is true, but because of this we were also the last insulated, without conscious effort, from the inevitable exposure to marginalized voices brought by social media. Talk to high school students now: they've heard critical theory about gender and society and race that many of us even slightly older did not hear until the world made us. They accept it as obvious, not revolutionary. The difference between Max and me is whether we take this to be a bad thing. We were different: Max and I were both adults or nearly so before it became clear that we were living in a time when no matter how we felt about it, the theoretical foundation of our privilege was, if not nearly crumbling, at least suspect even to the mainstream.
Normative male dominance is a legacy best disposed of, but that does not mean it is not the norm, or that its loss, especially to those raised to expect its constant comfort, is not a precious and frightening possibility. For some, even little tremors are enough to set you on uncertain footing. Some stumbling men get angry, even when they've got a girlfriend, a finance job, and a million-dollar view of River North. They turn to the crusade. They cast themselves the victims. This should not surprise us. Some men, some small but loud and dangerous number, will become violent by instinct, threatened by any rustling in the trees.
Out with the bad, but Roy puts a finger on the absence: What good will come in after it? What kind of movement will support kings reduced suddenly to paupers? This is not our first concern, of course. It's not something that lends itself to sympathy or pity, but it should provoke some empathy.
At one point in our conversation, Roosh pauses for a minute, then says this: "When you teach men to hate themselves without giving them a role model, without giving them a masculine idea of who to be ... how can we be surprised that men are just lost? They are completely lost right now, and no one is doing anything to solve this problem."
Months after my last encounter with Max, I was in a bar in Chicago explaining this story to a friend. Gamergate had escalated. Sarkeesian had just appeared on the Colbert Report. "So is this guy Max one of these people making bomb threats?" my friend asks. I don't think so, I say, but I don't know. He was nice to me, but...
I decided to call. I walk outside and reach him; by the sound from the other line, he, too, is at a bar somewhere. He says hold on to somebody beside him, and a moment later is outside, too, on some other street in some similar part of the city.
He says no, he's cut it out with tweeting angrily at feminists. It's gone too far, he says. He likes debate, and maybe when things calm down he'll get back into it. Are you afraid of how this is all making your movement look? I ask. He says no: These guys are weird video game nerds anyway, they're just upset, they aren't fighting for a real cause beyond their own hurt feelings.
I ask if he feels bad about acting out in the past. If he regrets anything he said to anyone online, if he thinks he is part of the reason that ordinary women have been fleeing from their homes.
"I don't know," he tells me. "I don't feel great about it. Seriously, dude, I was thinking about when we were hanging out, and I don't think it's the best way to persuade people, on social media and stuff, you know?"
Sure. Then why did he do it at all?
"I don't know, man. You know. It's all so quick. You see something and it bothers you and you feel annoyed and, like, without thinking about it, you just, like, lash out a bit. Shitty Facebook comment or tweet or whatever. We've all been there. You're, like, right then, pissed or whatever. It's just an in-the-moment thing. You feel bad about it the next day."
"Do you apologize?"
"For being critical? No, I mean, they were still wrong."
Emmett Rensin is the deputy editor of Vox First Person.