In his third Start the World podcast, Jack Donovan and Paul Carter discuss a whole range of topics loosely tied to the concept(s) of masculinity in the contemporary Western world*. Summarizing very generally, the conclusions are mostly of the variety the manosphere is known for arriving at–the modern world, especially WEIRD societies, are not conducive to the mental (or physical) health of men. The more masculine the man, the worse the situation. Donovan’s message resonates with me, though when I detect an eagerness for the shit to hit the fan, as the expression goes, I immediately hear Hobbes whispering in my other ear and begin thinking one should be careful what he wishes for.
Anyway, my point isn’t to offer novel insight into the ongoing debate since I have none to offer. Instead, it is to lay a couple of critiques on Carter.
First, on the question of living an adventurous life, Carter points to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) as a self-evident illustration of modern men wasting away, vicariously trying to do what they should be doing in first person. The intention is to call to mind something akin to this–nerds spending a Friday night giggling and snorting as they move little pieces around a board while imagining they’re partaking in a life-or-death adventure. As a polemical device, that’s fine. But then, apparently to make his argument more contemporarily relevant since D&D hearkens back a generation or two, Carter then swaps Magic: The Gathering (MTG) as a stand-in for D&D and proceeds to refer to it for the duration of the conversation (the two talk about it enough to merit the inclusion of “magic the gathering” as one of the six tags to a nearly 90-minute podcast).
It’s clear that neither guy is anything more than superficially aware of at least MTG. The point is to allude to an archetype of an under-achieving, aspergery, high IQ waste-away. I get that. But Donovan is too serious a thinker to be so intellectually lazy (in fairness to him, Carter is the one who drives the discussion towards the games and their presumed connotations). D&D is low-tech fantasy role-playing. The reason it dates Carter and Donovan is because it has largely been supplanted by MMOs like World of Warcraft, which meet the same demands, albeit on a much larger, more aesthetically-engrossing scale.
MTG is a conducted exclusively through the use of playing cards^. It is a rigidly structured, competitive game, no more or less arbitrary than any iteration of poker. In fact, a useful analogy for understanding what MTG is: Chess is to checkers as MTG is to poker. Jon Finkel and David Williams aren’t aberrations–a large contingent of top flight poker players are also professional MTG players. Playing both makes it obvious why this is the case. There is no dungeon master coming up with obstacles and interpreting how those are dealt with in MTG. The Tolkienesque themes (or, in the most recent set, Greco-Roman themes) in MTG are entirely flavorful; they have no bearing on actual game play.
That something like MTG attracts competitive people who are both good at and enjoy thinking statistically–like poker, at its most essential, MTG is about managing probabilities–means it is going to disproportionately bring in Ice men who tend to lack a similar comparative advantage in more physically-oriented activities (though there are plenty who enjoy both), but that’s a process of identifying a demographic profile, not creating one.
What makes Carter’s pummeling of MTG the more grating is that he launches into it right after talking about his time in the IT field. In summary: “IT guys are existential wastrels. They’re the same guys who play MTG, and MTG players are wastrels.” However, Carter was in IT but he isn’t a wastrel today, nor was he a wastrel when he worked in IT. But if you play MTG, well, he doesn’t need to hear anything from the likes of you, wastrel! Uh huh.
Parenthetically, players of the relatively new EDH-variant of MTG probably better approximate the D&D stereotype of thirty years ago.
The other critique of Carter (and Donovan) comes in their prescribing that men find something they enjoy doing and make a living out of doing it. They proffer this relatively conventional advice through the prism of masculinity, and as such, it’s unobjectionable as an aspiration–getting paid to do something you’d gladly do for free is a heck of a gig. The problem comes in the insinuation that this is an experience that has somehow been lost over time, and that in modern society men are forced to spend all their time running on the consumerist treadmill unlike our ancestors did.
This might be conceivable if the putative golden age occurred prior to the onset of agriculture, but over the last 10,000 years or so, there is probably no time like the present–or at least no time like the last half-century, though it may have peaked a couple of decades ago–in which people are able to (and are doing) just that. For the vast majority of human history, most men barely had the capacity to travel to the next town over or ever do much of anything beyond attaining mere subsistence provisions and mundane household upkeep. Over the course of history, very few men have had the possibility of living the life of a Henry Bolingbroke. Today, if they so choose to do so, all people in the developed world who aren’t stuck in underclass can craft such an existence for themselves. Most elect not to (although some do)–and that’s really what Donovan and Carter are getting at.
* Donovan distills the definition down to four essential qualities: Strength, courage, honor, and competency (or skill, as in maintaining and developing one’s own skill set). When I first heard him speak, I instantly became better able to articulate why Gladiator is my favorite movie. Strength and honor, strength and honor.
^ With the exception of the use of a random number generator to determine who goes first, and, very rarely, in certain game state conditions.