A World of Small Men

The diminishment of men—every age, race, and nationality—is now another thing to worry about. Or at least the New York Times thinks so. In a recent column, David Brooks looked at a new book by Richard Reeves looking at “the male crisis”—boys and men struggling in the United States and across the globe.

Brooks notes that “Reeves talked to men in Kalamazoo about why women were leaping ahead. The men said that women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better. Yet this is not a matter of individual responsibility. There is something in modern culture that is producing an aspiration gap.”

How do you even approach a problem of this scope? Around the same time as the Brooks piece, I read some other guy in the Times on why, on the occasion of the new Beavis and Butt-Head movie, that pair’s humor will never get stale (spoiler: because they never mature). White male adolescent humor from the 1990s is something I find pretty hilarious. But philosophically we must ask: What if your face freezes that way forever? You wonder if everything in American culture from, say, 1990, has been pushing us toward this crisis point.

The more immediate problem for New Yorkers is that these struggling men are still running things, still winning “executive” leadership. New York Times columnist Gina Belafonte recently splashed vinegar on our wounds by comparing the quality of Eric Adams to that of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

First of all: Unfair! The last time I got off the train at South Station, I was overwhelmed by the number of white people in North Face jackets. Boston uses the phrase “metro area,” but there is no metro area, just towns that you enter via rotaries. The population difference nullifies any legitimate comparison.

But New York City has a serious problem with Adams, whose only qualification to run things is having been a cop who worked the New York City government patronage system to get increasingly higher-paying jobs—and this system-working got him high enough (Brooklyn Borough President) that his Tito’s pals said he’d be stupid not to go for the gold.

Blame the infliction of Adams on those New Yorkers who actually voted to have failed to vote for Kathryn Garcia or Scott Stringer. Adams has no plan for our city’s lack of affordable housing and underfunded public schools, for the trash and rats, for the menacing mentally ill people on the streets and in the subway, for the flagrant, dangerous traffic abuses by cars, motorbikes, and e-bikes. He has no plan for the retail storefronts in all parts of the city left to idle decay.

What had to happen after COVID was not returning to normal but going to someplace new—not the Shangri-La sense of new but the those-stores-ain’t-ever-coming-back reality.

Adams is a disaster, but he is also a Small Man. I do not mean height or size. Donald Trump slammed Michael Bloomberg about his height, but Trump is a Small Man and Bloomberg is not (although he wasn’t a great mayor). In lieu of defining “Small Man,” let me say that there’s a broad sliding scale of Small Man morality, and the king of Small Men is at the toxic extreme. Vladimir Putin’s veniality is like the layers of an onion: you’re expecting something operatic deeper down, but you never get to it. This is also true of Trump.

Putin seemed especially small in denying Mikhail Gorbachev a state funeral. The thing I remember from Werner Herzog’s 2018 documentary on Gorbachev is Chopin’s Funeral March playing at all those state funerals after Brezhnev kicked the bucket. They went one after another like bulbs on a dud string of Christmas lights. And here comes Gorbachev with his 1960s fedora and Jacques Tati raincoat—showing the world that Russia had at least one decent man. He loved his wife dearly and was the antithesis of Putin, the McDonald’s drive-through version of Stalin.

In Putin’s shadow, men who are already Small shrink colossally. That’s what Trump did the more he prostrated himself before Putin. Emmanuel Macron’s misguided meeting with Trump’s favorite Russian did nothing to deescalate fighting in Ukraine, while for Macron it knocked off a critical few centimètres.

In Trump’s wake, we have Small Men lackeys aplenty. Like Mike Pompeo defending Putin on Ukraine: “He was a KGB agent, for goodness’ sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that.” Small Man Ron DeSantis sent Venezuelan immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard to own the libs and is now asking for immigrants to come to Florida to clean up after Ian. Lindsey Graham maintains human functions in the Small Man plantation of his mind.

I would even venture that being a Small Man is possible when you’re a woman. Boris Johnson was a strapping specimen of Small Manhood, but within a couple weeks of taking office, Liz Truss tried to out-Small-Man him.

In defense of New York’s local Small Man, I point to Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of a new Rudy Giuliani biography, suggesting that running New York City “is famously a dead-end job.” Even John Lindsay, praised in textbooks for his normalcy, went nowhere as a politician, had health problems and bad business sense, and as an old guy “was given two essentially ceremonial appointments in city government just so he could have health insurance.”

Rudy is an enigma for the ages—obviously a Small Man but one with an asterisk. So if you come into the mayoralty as a Small Man (like both Adams and the un-asterisked Bill De Blasio), you’re already underwater.

Adams’s tenure will be like a fairy tale—specifically, Sleeping Beauty, when an entire city government goes to sleep for four years. And in this version, we have Rumpelstiltskin running amok, looking for spinners of crypto gold (but with swagger). §