BOOK REVIEW / Now, who started it? She did]: Not guilty: In Defence of the Modern Man by David Thomas - Weidenfeld pounds 8.99

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The Independent Culture
IT'S HARD to know what to say about this book. Despite its ostensibly chatty tone, I felt harangued by it, and moaned at. Its polemical language and lack of intellectual rigour make for thin, weak ideas. I've learned far more about men from looking at their paintings or reading their poems, which, unlike this book, can investigate layered, subtle truths and doubts, and which do not need to preach or affect matey common-sensicalness.

David Thomas sets out to tell us that although men appear to enjoy greater wealth and power than women do, in fact they suffer oppression in their private lives. They may be abused by their mothers, abandoned or beaten by their fathers, battered by their wives, thrown out of their homes and separated from their children after humiliating divorces. They may have their physical and psychological health neglected, be forced to work longer and pay more into pension funds than do women, be encouraged by public opinion to act macho, be prevented from wearing skirts or frocks, be exploited by sexily dressed women in the workplace, be provoked by neurotic women into committing date-rape and physical assault. David Thomas is saying: it's hard to be a man today; men get blamed for everything that goes wrong; men are not evil; men must stick up for their positive qualities and stop hating themselves.

Who makes men's lives such a misery? Who blames them for everything that goes wrong? Why, feminists, of course. Feminism denies women's collusion in their own oppression. Women must learn to admit their nasty bits and take responsibility for their participation in situations that lead to rape and other forms of violence. Women must stop blaming men.

This does sound rather like being back in the primary school playground. He started it; no, she did. It's his fault; no, she was asking for it. The very title of Thomas's book shows how he's fallen into the adversarial trap, pitting man against woman all over again. His conclusions, by contrast, are all about cooperation and collaboration. His final chapter, the least irritating in the book, records his love for his children, his admiration for Quentin Crisp, his idealistic vision of a world in which there's less quarrelling. It would be churlish to argue with this. It's en route to this unexceptionable ending that he trips himself up.

The them-and-us, either-or mode of thinking defines feminism as a monolith of enormous power, as everything that normal, sane people are not - feminism as the Other. But feminism today is not united or single and shouldn't be talked of as though it were: it is a complicated political movement containing many different positions and alliances. One strand of feminist enquiry Thomas ignores completely is the psychoanalytical. He writes as though 'male' automatically equals 'masculine', as though differences between the sexes are God-given and natural, not socially constructed. Differences between women don't get a look in. Nor do differences to do with class and race.

After criticising women for not fancying men who want to wear frocks (well, it took a while for men to come round to the idea of women wearing trousers - a few hundred years or so), and after suggesting that masculinity is culturally imposed on men, Thomas urges us not to forget the positive values associated with masculinity: 'It is possible to be strong without being oppressive. It is possible to be assertive without being domineering. And it is possible to possess energy, determination and even aggression without being violent or bullying.' Yes, but the qualities spoken of here can be associated with women just as much as with men.

If liberation means anything, it means allowing one's imagination (intelligence) to become larger, more bisexual, to contain both 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities. Whereas Thomas gets wonderfully bogged down in phallic musings: 'Few women possess the single-minded, almost manic energy that is characteristic of those men who build up great fortunes or conjure up towering academic theories . . . the more reticent approach of a woman may lead her, in the longer run, to knowledge that is more secure. (In this context, the development of feminist theory may turn out to be the exception that proves the rule.)' I'd say that's having your cake and eating it.

Because Thomas is ignorant of most active modern currents of feminist theory, he can't even insult women's brains properly. For some years now, feminists have been thinking about and trying to deal with questions of violent behaviour by and between women, including self-mutilation, child abuse and assault, the abandoning of children, lesbian sado-masochism and the killing of violent husbands. There is plenty of passionate disagreement about their causes and effects, about whether they occur in the 'free' and 'equal' world David Thomas believes we already live in or whether they are bound up with inequality and oppressive power relations. We can't and shouldn't try to duck these issues.