Remember Dr. Seuss' story, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? Whenever Bartholomew took off one hat, another appeared beneath it. Well, the fictional Cubbins has nothing on the real-life Monica Hesse. She covered the two-day International Conference on Men’s Issues near Detroit for the Washington Post. And in her writeup, she constantly switched hats: sometimes narrator, sometimes editorial writer, sometimes judge and jury.
Although this is supposed to be straight coverage -- it's not marked as commentary or opinion -- attitude glares from the very headline: "Men’s rights activists, gathering to discuss all the ways society has done them wrong." At least it's accurate for an article that veers from scornful to sympathetic to clinically detached to argumentative.
Hesse paints the 200 men at the conference as self-absorbed, playing victim while ignoring actual violence against women. She mentions the current discussion at the White House on sexual assault, plus the shootings in California by the young man who felt spurned by women. Meanwhile, at the men's conference:
... there was a parallel discussion of gender issues: Men, attendees believed, were the ones under threat of attack. This conference was their response, their rallying call to action.
“Men are second-class citizens,” said Gary Costanza, a pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island. He was particularly interested in divorce issues, saying that custody should always be split and financial child support should not exist. He just wanted the same rights as everyone else.
That’s all any of them said they wanted. The same rights as the “privileged women,” as various attendees described the female gender. The entitled, increasingly “narcissistic women.” That’s all.
She flirts with the usual stereotypes of meetings about which liberals disapprove. She describes the early arrivers as "a wispy trail of men — mostly white, college-through-retirement-age." Another interviewee is a "pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island." Interestingly, the two women she quotes are spared any physical descriptions.
Hesse quotes Paul Elam, the head of A Voice for Men -- sponsor for the conference -- as a "tall, polite, drawling figure -- he's from Houston." Then she reports on his violent, woman-bashing rhetoric that caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center two years ago, though he apparently doesn't repeat any of it at the conference.
Some of her coverage is almost sympathetic, though she doesn't withhold judgment:
They’re not unsympathetic issues. In fact, when men are talking about wanting shared custody of their children, when they are talking about wanting to reshape the culture to make it acceptable for men to be primary caregivers instead of just primary breadwinners, when they want to raise awareness about the military industrial complex that sends mostly boys to die in wars — then, they don’t sound like angry white misogynists. They sound like they could be feminists.
There’s a kernel of something in this tiny, peripheral movement that might speak to larger questions: regarding our expectations of modern masculinity, regarding how to truly measure equality. But the kernel gets rhetorically buried in paranoia and anger, which, at this conference, created a wounded echo chamber of nebulous statistics.
But for a piece of 2,100+ words, the article is surprisingly short on named sources. Besides Elam, they include a NOW expatriate, a psychologist and a columnist -- a conservative columnist, Hesse feels the need to specify -- for the National Post in Canada.
Hesse also picks out two conferees: a Long Islander who complains about custody and child support, and a real estate broker from Toronto who says his ex turned their children against him. She also quotes a few people without giving names.
That leaves the last third of her article without a named source. Hesse wants space to argue with the conferees, using stuff she's dug up:
Presenters used historical laws as “proof” that women have always had special privileges — access to their husband’s bank accounts, for example — but didn’t mention that during the aforementioned time period, women didn’t legally have the right to vote.
Discussion centered on the fact that men are financially destroyed by divorce while their exes live lives of luxury, but never pointed out that according to a recent census population report, the poverty rate of custodial mothers is 31.8 percent, compared with 16.2 percent of custodial fathers.
Participants lambasted the media for deliberately ignoring the high percentage of male rape victims — 38 percent — and also lambasted Slate journalist Hanna Rosin for writing a “misandric” book about the “end of men” — but didn’t note that Rosin recently wrote a lengthy article about the high percentage of male rape victims.
One presenter, a military veteran speaking on the treatment of veterans returning from war, put up a PowerPoint slide alleging that 70 percent of men returning from war get divorced, and 90 percent do so within five years. When asked about the source of this statistic, he said, “That particular statistic is from my personal observations. I’m just speaking here as a dude.”
OK, she got 'em on the stats, except for the first one: Women, of course, for decades have had the vote and access to their husbands' bank accounts. But shouldn't all that have been put in a sidebar? Or should the whole story have been rebranded "commentary"? Is "news" coverage the correct forum to trade a press badge for a judge's gavel?
And if Hesse wants to raise past issues about Paul Elam, it's fair to ask about hers as well. In 2009, some Post readers accused her of a "homophobic agenda" for her profile of an opponent of same-sex marriage. In reply, Hesse offered a novel defense: that she herself was married with a woman for two years, before choosing her current male partner.
So she beat that rap, as they say in old crime movies. Then she covers 2,000 men who complain of discrimination and second-class citizenship. Could she just possibly be harboring attitudes that affect her story -- a story with liberal dashes of criticism?
Oh, maybe, maybe not. It's a judgment call. Just like the judgment she handed down on the conference.