Steve Nelson: Let Me Rant About the Trouble With Men

A lot of grim news this week. Every week, it seems. Unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo,, a suburb of St. Louis. He was confronted by the police while walking in the street with a friend. Moments later he was dead on the pavement. Police claim he was “fighting” and reaching for the officer’s weapon. Eyewitnesses contradict the police story.

Also of late: A New York City policeman choked a black man to death while arresting him for selling cigarettes. Another young black man was shot and killed by police in an Ohio Wal-Mart. Some witnesses say he was handling a toy gun in the toy department. Police say he had an air rifle. Either way, he’s dead. A Detroit man, Theodore Wafer, was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting an unarmed black woman who was knocking on his door, seeking assistance after a car accident.

Race is surely a relevant factor. Supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who aimed loaded assault weapons at federal agents, were evidently not considered as dangerous as an unarmed black 18-year-old in suburban St. Louis, a black man selling illegal cigarettes, or a black woman whose crime was, allegedly, being drunk. No one shoots any of the smug white men who parade around Target stores with assault weapons to demonstrate their right to carry. Imagine a group of young black men carrying assault weapons into the same Target store. Would Theodore Wafer have pulled the trigger if the girl on his porch had been white?

But race is not the only variable. The New York Times continued its reports on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. The unstable 22- year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Southern California because girls resisted his sexual advances. Somehow, in his deranged brain, he deserved what he wanted. His behavior may be a severe and sensational example, but comes from the same sense of male entitlement that leaves young women raped and alone on fraternity room floors.

What do all these things have in common? Men. All of these killers and assaulters are men.

It is urgently necessary to begin a national conversation about boys and men in America. The gruesome events I’ve described and rampant sexual assault are due to unchallenged male entitlement and aggression. It overlaps with racism and other complex variables, but it is past time we address the problem of men in our society. Excuse me while I go off on a rant.

Just before I began this column I watched an ad for Levi jeans. In the ad a young man turns on his heel and follows several girls wearing tight jeans. The message is unambiguous and not cute. Last night I repeatedly viewed a photo of a demonstration in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown. A young, unarmed black man with his hands in the air, signaling surrender or “I’m not a threat,” is facing a small squad of policemen in full riot gear. Camouflage uniforms, assault weapons pointed at the young man, gas masks in place; goodness knows what other military paraphernalia hanging from their combat belts. The camouflage was, perhaps, to allow the police to blend in with the suburban shrubbery.

It is absurd that police officials and elected leaders are providing clothing and equipment that invites officers to view themselves as occupying forces in enemy territory. Give them the wardrobe and they play the part.

Another television image last night showed a huge military vehicle, designed to protect soldiers from land mines, pulling up in front of a suburban home in Idaho, perhaps to arrest the occupants for selling cigarettes?

This is America today.

I’m fed up with men insisting on their gun rights, strutting in public places with killing machines slung over their shoulders. I’m fed up with advertisers objectifying women, producing ads that offer up teenage girls as fodder for leering men. I’m fed up with immoral businesses that hide behind the Constitution as they sell inexcusably violent video games as “entertainment” and deny that it has any relation to violence in society. I’m tired of entitled men who think the solution to date rape is to keep young women away from alcohol and make them dress like Mennonites. These are the same men who laugh at Bud Lite commercials and love the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.

Too many police officers in riot gear believe they have the right to subdue, or kill, anyone who questions their authority, especially if that “anyone” is black. Young men sexually assault young women because women are portrayed as sexual objects to which they are entitled.

Some men do these things because they think they can. The rest of us must say, “No you can’t.” We have to speak up when hearing a sexist, offensive joke. We need to tell our elected and appointed officials to stop dressing up local police like Navy SEALs to give parking tickets. We have to stop dressing our boys like little soldiers and encouraging them to even the score on the playground. We need to publicly shame those who exploit women and children by using sex and violence to sell products.

Our boys are watching us.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.