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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: All the young dudes

by Philip Martin | November 9, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Some of you think Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero.

He's not; he's more of a victim.

Not as much of a victim as the people he shot, who can't be referred to as victims in the courtroom where Rittenhouse is being tried for homicide and recklessly endangering people's lives, but he's still a victim. He bought into the cynically proffered myth of the good guy with a gun; he thought he was Dirty Harry or, more likely, John Wick. He showed up as an untrained vigilante with an AR-15 and panicked when things got wild in the streets.

We can feel bad for him without excusing his actions. In photos he looks like a second-string junior varsity linebacker. He's a kid, malleable. His skull full of mush hasn't quite congealed; he hasn't lived enough to understand how the world works. He's not equipped to make great decisions. He's at a vulnerable time of his life.

I'd hold he isn't fully responsible for his actions. When you're a young man, all your decisions seem big, your amygdala is overactive, constantly releasing stress hormones to prepare you to fight or run away.

Get a little older and you realize that nothing matters as much as it seems to in the moment. But when you're a young man, it sure doesn't seem that way. Young men are all drama queens.

There are studies purporting to show that a lot of men don't even begin to acquire emotional maturity until they're old enough to qualify for a mid-life crisis. (The same study says women begin to acquire emotional maturity about a decade earlier, when they're about 32 years old.)

I don't put too much stock in that sort of soft science. It's obvious that experience has more to do with how a person matures; back before there were teenagers, which is to say the first half of the 20th century, before the post-war American economy created a class of high school students with disposable income which marketers might target, I imagine a lot of people really were adults by the time they turned 21.

But young men have always been any society's most dangerous cohort. In the U.S., men make up about 90 percent of the prison and local jail population; they have an imprisonment rate about 14 times higher than women. Incarceration rates are highest for those in their 20s and early 30s.

The reasons why might seem obvious. Testosterone and an underdeveloped cerebral cortex make for a volatile combination. That's why we populate our armies with them. It doesn't take much to fire them up, to get them to march into blizzards of metal. Young men are stupid and impulsive, and governments have always exploited that.

Kyle Rittenhouse got recruited; he heard the rhetoric and went off on some dumb mission, and people got hurt. There are influencers out there who share some culpability for his actions. Rittenhouse is on trial, but you can't honestly sort this out without taking notice of the effect of social media and cynical talking heads/would-be leaders. Plus there were a lot of idiots misbehaving on the streets that evening who weren't Rittenhouse, and most were young men.

The best thing for a young man is to be attached--to a good job or a good family or a good love interest. The worst thing is to be alone and disaffected, like Travis Bickle. (Who, like Kyle Rittenhouse, is not a hero, despite what some people may believe.)

A good girlfriend or boyfriend could have saved Timothy McVeigh and a lot of grief in Oklahoma City. Maybe I'm a reductionist, but I don't think you fly an airplane into a building if you're vested in a loving relationship. I've often said that women are all that keep us from turning the world into a bonfire.

I don't know if Kyle Rittenhouse has ever had a girlfriend, but I saw someone who looks a lot like him and shares his taste in footware sucker- punch a young lady on YouTube.

I heard Scott Galloway, the entrepreneur turned New York University business professor, on sports guy Ryen Russillo's podcast recently, and he made the point that it was pretty hard on young men these days. While it's pretty hard on all young people (nearly half of all Americans ages 25 to 34 live below the poverty level, and almost 60 percent of parents are providing money to their grown children--an average of $38,340 per child between the ages of 18 and 34), women are doing significantly better than men. Only 40.5 percent of college students are male.

According to The Wall Street Journal, within a few years, experts expect women to be earning two of every three college degrees awarded.

Women tend not to put up with men who aren't achieving at the same levels they are. Galloway says straight men tend to choose their partners from women who make less money than they do, while women tend to mate horizontally or up. The result is a country where 28 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 30 report having not had sex in the previous 12 months. That's up from 10 percent in 2008. (Celibacy increased among similarly aged women too during this period, from 8 percent to 18 percent.)

The relative scarcity of college-educated men, Galloway contends, is contributing to what he calls a "mating crisis." Yet uneducated men are more likely to end up alone, single and without stable jobs and incomes, a situation which could lead them to becoming what Galloway says is "the most dangerous person in the world"--a young man with no purchase in society. This "dangerous cohort" of uneducated, unattached men, he says, is an "existential threat to society."

It's easy to make fun of the stereotype of the aging adolescent male, sleeping in his parents' basement and playing video games while remaining under- or unemployed. But we're breeding an army of punks, thwarted men with no future and no hope, waiting to receive their marching orders.

And it's not all on them.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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