During a hilarious 2018 performance in London, comedy musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords stop to chat about gender identity dynamics within their two-man band. “The band is very male-dominated. It’s systemic. It’s a systemic problem—it’s the f***ing patriarchy!” they declare to an audience roaring with laughter. McKenzie and Clement, both artists with burnished “woke” credentials, nevertheless have identified the increasing absurdity of contemporary gender politics. Yet by jokingly (or perhaps only half-jokingly) apologizing for being men they help expose a far more systemic crisis in our culture: a growing antipathy not just of patriarchy, but of all elements of society touched by male influence and fatherhood. It is an odium patrum—a hatred of the fathers that is both inimical to and cancerous for Western society.
One need not look far for other examples of patricide in American culture. A July 2019 Washington Post article blamed rising alcoholism among mothers on men, citing one mother who claimed, “the underlying issue is our patriarchal society that does not support parents, and especially moms.” The “patriarchy” is allegedly responsible for all manner of evils: the gender pay gap, abortion restrictions, and even men’s mortality rates and juice cleanses. This antipathy goes far beyond whatever residue remains of male-dominated social structures. It encompasses not only everything that smells of “old white men” and “toxic masculinity,” but tradition, conservatism, institutional religion, and even father figures—including priests and God Himself.
One need only peruse the opinion pieces of the WaPo or The New York Times to see near-daily manifestations of the odium patrum. WaPo columnist Monica Hesse, for example, covers the “gender and its impact on society” beat with provocative headlines like “Why do so many dads think it’s their duty to monitor their daughters’ virginity?” “We need to talk about why mass shooters are almost always men,” and “I walked ‘like a man’ for a week, and here’s what I realized.” Commercials and television programs, in turn, indict men for perpetuating toxic masculinity and portray them as bumbling incompetents worthy of our ridicule.
What is behind this dramatic abhorrence of approximately half of society? Mary Eberstadt, in her recent book Primal Screams, catalogues some of the answers. She cites the Combahee River Collective Statement of the 1970s as indicative of this paradigm of odium patrum in its adversarial perspective towards men. Males, we are told, are responsible for “habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing black women.” A generation later, this has become, in Eberstadt’s words,
The stuff of daily conversation and reality for all: a world in which men have become ever less trustworthy and reliable, in which relations between the sexes have become chronically estranged and consumerist, and in which marriage has become thin on the ground.
Since the 1970s, out-of-wedlock births among Americans, especially black Americans, have skyrocketed, leaving more than one generation defined by fatherlessness. “Broken homes put father figures at arm’s length, at times severing that parental bond for good,” says Eberstadt. More broadly, the family’s decline resulted in a reduction of men “offering affection and companionship of a nonsexual nature—fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and others” who in previous generations had protected women from aggressive, unwanted men.
Instead of being viewed as protectors and providers, men are now perceived as competitors, if not scoundrels. A new cultural paradigm has emerged where women are told they must compete with and perform like men. “Men are the standard by which women should be measured,” wryly observes Eberstadt. Moreover, per the statistics on broken homes cited above in which male parents are often absent, society has increasingly come to view men as unreliable, if not also aggressors and manipulators. Thus boys are raised in a “human habitat in which their very DNA is problematic from birth onward.”
More fundamentally, one may trace the odium patrum to man’s beginnings as described in the biblical creation narrative. In Genesis 3, the snake, representing Satan, offers the very first indictment of the patriarchal goodness of God. In order to tempt the woman into eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he tells her, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Thus, the Father of Lies, in a cruel twist, makes mankind’s Heavenly Father out to be a liar Who seeks to dominate and oppress His created children. This deception undermines man’s understanding of God as loving father. Writes the Psalmist: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). This benevolent father imagery reaches its climax in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, where the father (representing God), sees his wayward progeny from afar, runs to him, embraces him, and restores him to his place in the family (Luke 15).
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, men are to imitate this model of the wise, benevolent father. Elsewhere in Scripture God speaks of His relationship to the son of Israel’s King David: “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me. When he does wrong, I will discipline him in the usual ways, the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life. But I will never remove my gracious love from him” (2 Samuel 7:14-15). Such imagery has been at the heart of the Western tradition, from the spiritual fatherhood epitomized by the Church’s greatest saints to the Founding Fathers of our American nation. It is no wonder that our great works of literature either feature exemplary father figures (To Kill a Mockingbird) or cry out in their absence (Absalom, Absalom!).
Thus, the epidemic of odium patrum doesn’t just undermine Western Civilization by attacking her foundations, it undermines society’s relationship with God, by skeptically viewing Him as yet another example of the evil patriarchy to be resisted. It presumes, quite self-destructively, that God is not to be trusted and that He is an evil, selfish power-grabber and manipulator, Who seeks to preserve His own maniacal dominance over the oppressed. Alternatively, if God the Father cannot be trusted, what hope is there for the everyday father? The father figure by extension possesses the same evil traits.
Atomized individuals, severed from stable families and raised in communities impoverished of respected, honored male figures, are urged to wage war against “the fathers” to both preserve their autonomy and realize their self-actualization. Yet in working to destroy their patrimony through attacks on classical Western literature, Western history, and Western religion, they commit societal and even personal suicide by trashing the structures and scaffolding essential to understanding themselves and their world. They scoff and spit at the very men who bequeathed to them their intellectual tradition and the very categories of freedom, morality, and individualism that they now use as weapons against their fathers. Given that this is what the serpent had in mind in the Garden of Eden, we should perhaps not be surprised.
As much as our society wages war against our divine and human fathers, we cannot extinguish our very real and natural need for patriarchal connection. We are all children of fathers, be they good or evil. As even contemporary literature and cinema reminds us, we are all desperate to make sense of and be reconciled to our origin, both natural and spiritual. As social science has well demonstrated, we must have fathers to provide stability and security in the tumultuous years of our childhood and adolescence. We require the fathers of culture and society to teach us what is good and true and beautiful, lest we flail about indulging in things that will sicken or kill us. We require spiritual fathers to teach and guide us, and offer us the sacraments of life. And ultimately we need a relationship to a loving divine Father Who makes sense of a broken world and promises us redemption and eternal hope. Some may hate fathers, but none can escape them.
Image: The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux