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The Boys Who Surf Subways McCaffrey Blauner

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A subway surfer rides the 5 train on March 16, 2023, in the Bronx. (David Dee Delgado via Getty Images)

In early August, a riot broke out in New York City’s Union Square: thousands of kids, mostly from the outer boroughs, threw smoke bombs, lit fireworks, broke windows, stomped on cars, and climbed street poles. They were in full break-shit mode. 

When I saw it happening on my iPhone, their age struck me. Pubescent, with smooth faces, maybe a splash of acne, riding the massive testosterone high that is adolescence through the humid late-summer doldrums.

The powder keg of a hot New York City is rife with this sort of stuff—young people hungry to fight, make some noise, prove their cojones or courage or whatever. It’s just a question of who or what is going to set it off. 

In this case, it was Kai Carlo Cenat, the 21-year-old Twitch streamer-slash-YouTuber pledging to give away PlayStation 5s to anyone who showed up at the square. By 3 p.m., an hour before the giveaway was scheduled to start, it was teeming with loud, sweaty, excitable kids, and soon, the chaos gave way to pockets of violence—shoving, fighting, overturning police barricades, destroying other people’s property, disorder engulfing order. 

Cenat was ultimately charged with inciting a riot, and police arrested 65 people—30 of whom were under 18.

The respectable classes—the people, mostly white, who have money and live uptown or in the suburbs—tut-tutted about the whole thing on X, formerly Twitter, or Instagram, or wherever respectable people tut-tut about things now. They objected to the broken glass, the umbrellas of the hot dog stands that had been smashed or pummeled. The mess. 

That’s reasonable enough, but it’s not the real issue.

The real issue is harder to make out, and more insidious. It’s the breakdown of tribe and community, which has been happening in slow motion for several decades, as the old social fabric has steadily eroded. 

But maybe we can see the value in these young men. To stop regarding them as expendable. And meet them where they live. 

The Twitch riot in Union Square on August 4. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld via Getty Images)

The young men of Union Square have a lot in common with the young men who ride the rooftops of the subway cars that bisect my Queens neighborhood. 

I live in Sunnyside, a sleepy little warren filled with families, strollers, immigrants from Ireland and Mexico and Turkey and pretty much everywhere else. By New York standards, there’s not a lot of crime.

The No. 7 train runs through the center of the neighborhood on an elevated platform. In the late afternoon and early evening, the sun ducks behind the skyscrapers in Manhattan to the east, and the whole neighborhood is painted a golden-reddish hue. 

That’s when the platform becomes a field on which boys like to prove their mettle. As the subway passes above ground, they clamber up the doors between the cars onto the top of the train. They take in the view, walk up and down the stainless steel rooftops, take a selfie, get some video they can post to their social media feeds. They’re usually between 13 and 16, and they’re almost always black and Latino. Sometimes, they die.

I imagine the wind whistling past them. Their legs shaking. A tunnel approaching. The ballsiest of them lying flat with their backs against the roof as the ceiling of the tunnel, inches away, races past the tips of their noses.

Kids have been doing stupid, jackass things like this forever, but the numbers are going up.

Between 2021 to 2022, the number of subway surfers jumped 366 percent.

In June, two 14-year-old boys collided with the entrance of a tunnel as the train they were surfing dipped underground. One of them, Briyan Crespo, died. The other, Widinson Garcia, may never walk again. One of the boys was hit so hard, his shoes were knocked off. 

A month later, 14-year-old Jevon Fraser died while riding the No. 7 train that goes past my apartment. He apparently fell off the roof. 

The subway surfers, like the rioters who broke car windows and made a mess of Union Square, are largely drawn from the same cohort of directionless and bored young men. They are scared and unformed and often without male role models, and they are constantly prodded into doing, thinking, and saying idiotic things by the mobs of other young men. Everyone egging everyone else on, no one old enough or wise enough to state the obvious: this is not how you become a man.

Once upon a time, these boys would have been absorbed by other things: a boxing gym; a basketball court; a church; a job; a classroom; their apartments overflowing with siblings, cousins, friends, their mother in a cramped kitchen making dinner. Young men in search of themselves had a degree of freedom to try out different groups or tribes or personalities within the relatively safe confines of their community. It was hardly free of violence or danger. But there was a way things were done. There were guardrails. 

Those who don’t grow up like these young men have no idea what it’s like to live in a world stripped of its guardrails. Their lives are structured, organized. There are guardrails everywhere—rules and regulations meant to protect their children from the vagaries of city life. Or just life.

They send their kids to climbing gyms or Muay Thai classes, or maybe they kayak the Colorado River or a Norwegian fjord, or ski some uncharted mountain. The violence or quasi-violence they take part in is a compartmentalized and sanctioned violence. We call it sport, and they will probably mention that sport on their college applications.

Let’s be clear: wealthy young men have the same need to demonstrate their manliness, but the society from which they come insists that they do so in a way that is relatively safe and edifying and even marketable. They are doing the same thing the young men of Union Square and the No. 7 train are doing. They are proving their worth, but at a vastly reduced cost.

Two subway surfers captured by an onlooker in April this year. (Photo via X)

I know something about the young, dumb men prowling the streets of New York because I used to be one. I had a MetroCard and a desire to fuck shit up, and I am lucky I never had the chance to do anything dumber than scrawl my name on the facade of a local RadioShack. 

Many of my friends were not so lucky. I see their faces in the pictures of the rioters, the subway surfers—all of them young men trying to define themselves in a world that has made it harder than ever to do just that.

I’m in my early thirties, and the way boys in the city showed our courage fifteen or twenty years ago was by tagging. Graffiti.

A lot has been made of the artistic qualities of graffiti, but we weren’t in it for that. It was all about climbing somewhere dangerous to do something you shouldn’t do. Defying order. Proving we were tough and strong and worthy of a desirable mate. 

Armed with paint pens and cans of spray paint, young men ran wild across the city in the nighttime hours, scrawling their pseudonyms (“Funky Fresh,” “Knave,” “Breezy”) across buildings and signs and walls, down in the tunnels, up on the rooftops of buildings. The truly brave sneaked into buildings and scaled the billboards on top of them so drivers on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway could see their tags. I never made it off the sidewalk.

A boy who scrawled his name somewhere really spectacular could become the subject of local legend. His classmates would point out a tag at the top of a building that seemed impossible to scale. “That was Chris,” they’d murmur, as you scratched your head wondering how the hell Chris managed to get up there. We just wanted adventure, camaraderie, maybe a little glory.  

But boys—men—constantly push boundaries. If we don’t, then what’s the point? It’s really dangerous only if it’s never been done before—if no one can be sure you’ll get out of this okay. 

So, for other boys, tagging was never going to be enough. Nor was shoplifting. Nor was shooting heroin (think The Basketball Diaries). Nor was having unprotected sex (à la Kids). 

You have to keep pushing. Doing dumber and dumber and more destructive and dangerous stuff. Like TikToking on the roof of a subway car going 55 over the Williamsburg Bridge. 

The pushing is never going to stop, and officials wagging their fingers won’t do much good. That’s just grown-ups telling young people not to be stupid. It’s not telling them how not to be stupid—how to be grown-ups themselves. It’s not giving them a boxing gym, or church, or army, or cause, or sense of purpose.

A lot of people are going to ask why we should indulge these boys’ desire to show physical courage. 

But along with being a reformed knucklehead, I’m a big fan of history, and here’s what I know. The stupid courage of young men—to ride on top of the subway or go toe-to-toe with the NYPD at Union Square—has historically been a virtue. The same idiots causing your train delay are descended from men who faced down saber-toothed tigers when we lived in caves. At Flanders, they were the ones to go over the trench when the whistle blew.

We like to think we are past the need for dumb physical courage, but when I go on YouTube and watch the endless streams of frontline combat videos taken by young men fighting the Russian invasion in Ukraine, it hits me how young their voices sound. No matter how far the No. 7 train seems from the Ukrainian battlefields I see on my screen, no society sails in peaceful waters forever. One day we may need to break the glass on our knucklehead boys again.

The crisis we face is not really about children being dumb. In fact, it’s not really about children. It’s about adults not knowing how to be adults. Not knowing, or forgetting, how to steer our angry young men out of the pitfalls of adolescence and toward something better.

McCaffrey Blauner is a writer living in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Nation and The Daily Beast. This is his first piece for The Free Press. A version of this essay first appeared on his Substack; follow him on Twitter here.

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June 15, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Nero’s Guests Chris Hedges

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I gave this talk in Blackburn, England during a campaign event for my friend Craig Murray who is running for parliament. Like George Galloway, who was recently elected to parliament, Craig’s central campaign issue is the genocide in Gaza. He calls for a permanent ceasefire, the establishment of a full and independent Palestinian state and backs the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the apartheid state of Israel.

Transcript

Craig Murray: Good evening. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming along. I’m Craig Murray. I’m here in Blackburn, as you may know, as a candidate in the general election and one thing I’ve made absolutely plain is that I’m standing here because of the genocide in Gaza. That’s what has brought me here to raise the issue and fight the election here and we’re having a meeting here today which is not like your normal election meeting in that it’s very much focused on that subject and which I hope will give you a lot of information and food for thought and I am extremely proud to have two of the best speakers on the subject in the world, two world leading authorities on the subject who’ve come here to Blackburn.

I had difficulty persuading people today that they are actually here and that it’s not a Zoom meeting or something along those lines. And they’ve both come large distances to be here. And without further ado, because I’m going to be here, as comedians used to say, I’m here all week. I’m here for the next month so you’ll have lots and lots of chances to hear me talk but this is a man who you probably very seldom get to hear talk.

He is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a man of enormous experience, who’s just flown in from Egypt, where he won the Arab World’s Top Prize for Journalism — and we look very much forward to hearing Chris Hedges.

Chris Hedges: Thank you.

Israel has been poisoned by the psychosis of permanent war. It has been morally bankrupted by the sanctification of victimhood, which it uses to justify an occupation that is even more savage than that of apartheid South Africa. Its ‘democracy’ — which was always exclusively for Jews — has been hijacked by extremists who are pushing the country towards fascism. Human rights campaigners, intellectuals and journalistsIsraeli and Palestinian — are subject to constant state surveillance, arbitrary arrests and government-run smear campaigns. Its educational system, starting in primary school, is an indoctrination machine for the military. And the greed and corruption of its venal political and economic elite have created vast income disparities, a mirror of the decay within America’s democracy, along with a culture of anti-Arab and anti-Black racism.

By the time Israel achieves its decimation of Gaza — Israel is talking about months of warfare that will continue at least until the end of this year — it will have signed its own death sentence. Its facade of civility, its supposed vaunted respect for the rule of law and democracy, its mythical story of the courageous Israeli military and miraculous birth of the Jewish nation – which it successfully sold to its western audiences – will lie in ash heaps. Israel’s social capital will be spent. It will be revealed as the ugly, repressive, hate-filled apartheid regime it always has been, alienating younger generations of American Jews. Its patron, the United States, as new generations come into power, will distance itself from Israel. Its popular support will come from reactionary Zionists and America’s Christianized fascists who see Israel’s domination of ancient Biblical land as a harbinger of the Second Coming and in its subjugation of Arabs a kindred racism and celebration of white supremacy. 

Israel will become synonymous with its victims the way Turks are synonymous with the Armenians, Germans are with the Namibians and later the Jews, and Serbs are with the Bosniaks. Israel’s cultural, artistic, journalistic and intellectual life will be exterminated. Israel will be a stagnant nation where the religious fanatics, bigots and Jewish extremists who have seized power will dominate public discourse. It will join the club of the globe’s most despotic regimes. 

Despotisms can exist long after their past due date. But they are terminal. You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to see that Israel’s lust for rivers of blood is antithetical to the core values of Judaism. The cynical weaponization of the Holocaust, including branding Palestinians as Nazis, has little efficacy when you carry out a live streamed genocide against 2.3 million people trapped in a concentration camp.

Nations need more than force to survive. They need a mystique. This mystique provides purpose, civility and even nobility to inspire citizens to sacrifice for the nation. The mystique offers hope for the future. It provides meaning. It provides national identity. 

When mystiques implode, when they are exposed as lies, a central foundation of state power collapses. I reported on the death of the communist mystiques in 1989 during the revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The police and the military decided there was nothing left to defend. Israel’s decay will engender the same lassitude and apathy. It will not be able to recruit Indigenous collaborators, such as Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority — reviled by most Palestinians — to do the bidding of the colonizers. 

All Israel has left is escalating savagery, including torture and lethal violence against unarmed civilians, which accelerates the decline. This wholesale violence works in the short term, as it did in the war waged by the French in Algeria, the Dirty War waged by Argentina’s military dictatorship, the British occupation of India, Egypt, Kenya and Northern Ireland and the American occupations of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the long term, it is suicidal.

The genocide in Gaza has turned Hamas’ resistance fighters into heroes in the Global South. Israel may wipe out the Hamas leadership. But the past — and current — assassinations of scores of Palestinian leaders has done little to blunt resistance. The genocide in Gaza has produced a new generation of deeply traumatized and enraged young men and women whose families have been killed and whose communities have been obliterated. They are prepared to take the place of martyred leaders. 

Israel was at war with itself before Oct. 7. Israelis were protesting to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s abolition of judicial independence. Its religious bigots and fanatics, currently in power, had mounted a determined attack on Israeli secularism. Israel’s unity is a negative unity. It is held together by hatred. And even this hatred is not enough to keep protestors from decrying the government’s abandonment of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Hatred is a dangerous political commodity. The Palestinian “human animals,” when eradicated or subdued, will be replaced by Jewish apostates and traitors. A politics of hatred creates a permanent instability, exploited by those seeking the destruction of civil society.

Israel was far down this road on Oct. 7 when it promulgated a series of discriminatory laws against non-Jews that resemble the racist Nuremberg Laws that disenfranchised Jews in Nazi Germany. The Communities Acceptance Law permits exclusively Jewish settlements to bar applicants for residency on the basis of “suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook.” 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whom Isaiah Berlin called “the conscience of Israel,” warned that if Israel did not separate church and state and end the occupation, it would give rise to a corrupt rabbinate that would warp Judaism into a fascistic cult.

“Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism was to socialism,” wrote Leibowitz, who died in 1994. He understood that the blind veneration of the military, especially after the 1967 war that captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was dangerous. “Our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war in constant escalation without prospect of ultimate resolution,” he warned.

He foresaw that, “the Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police — mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 million to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.” 

“Israel,” he wrote, “would not deserve to exist, and it will not be worthwhile to preserve it.”

Settler colonial states that endure, including the United States, exterminate the native population through genocide and the spread of new infectious diseases such as smallpox. By 1600 less than a tenth of the indigenous population remained in South, Central and North America. Israel cannot kill on this scale, with nearly 5.5 million Palestinians living under occupation and another nine million in the diaspora. They cannot, as many Israelis wish, wipe them all out. 

Israel’s scorched earth campaign in Gaza means there will be no two-state solution. Apartheid and genocide will define existence for the Palestinians. This presages a long conflict, but one that the Jewish State cannot ultimately win.

Run, the Israelis demand of the Palestinians, run for your lives. Run from Rafah the way you ran from Gaza City, the way you ran from Jabalia, the way you ran from Deir al-Balah, the way you ran from Beit Hanoun, the way you ran from Bani Suheila, the way you ran from Khan Yunis. Run or we will kill you. We will drop GBU-39 bombs on your tent encampments and set them ablaze. We will spray you with bullets from our machine-gun-equipped drones. We will pound you with artillery and tank shells. We will shoot you down with snipers. We will decimate your tents, your refugee camps, your cities and towns, your homes, your schools, your hospitals and your water purification plants. We will rain death from the sky.

Run for your lives. Again and again and again. Pack up the few belongings you have left. Blankets. A couple of pots. Some clothes. We don’t care how exhausted you are, how hungry you are, how terrified you are, how sick you are, how old, or how young you are. Run. Run. Run. And when you run in terror to one part of Gaza, we will make you turn around and run to another. Trapped in a labyrinth of death. Back and forth. Up and down. Side to side. Six. Seven. Eight times. We toy with you like mice in a trap. Then we deport you so you can never return. Or we kill you.

Let the world denounce our genocide. What do we care? The billions in military aid flows unchecked from our American ally. The fighter jets. The artillery shells. The tanks. The bombs. An endless supply. We kill children by the thousands. We kill women and the elderly by the thousands. The sick and injured, without medicine and hospitals die. We poison the water. We cut off the food. We make you starve. We created this hell. We are the masters. Law. Duty. A code of conduct. They do not exist for us.

But first we toy with you. We humiliate you. We terrorize you. We revel in your fear. We are amused by your pathetic attempts to survive. You are not human. You are creatures. Untermensch. We feed our lust for domination. Look at our posts on social media. They have gone viral. One shows soldiers grinning in a Palestinian home with the owners tied up and blindfolded in the background. We loot. Rugs. Cosmetics. Motorbikes. Jewelry. Watches. Cash. Gold. Antiquities. We mock your misery. We cheer your death. We celebrate our religion, our nation, our identity, our superiority, by negating and erasing yours. 

Depravity is moral. Atrocity is heroism. Genocide is redemption.

This is the game of terror played by Israel in Gaza. It was the game played during the Dirty War in Argentina when the military junta “disappeared” 30,000 of its own citizens. The “disappeared” were subjected to torture — who cannot call what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza torture? — and humiliated before they were murdered. It was the game played in the clandestine torture centers and prisons in El Salvador and Iraq. It is what characterized the war in Bosnia in the Serbian concentration camps.

Israeli journalist Yinon Magal on the show “Hapatriotim” on Israel’s Channel 14, joked that Joe Biden’s red line was the killing of 30,000 Palestinians. The singer Kobi Peretz asked if that was the number of dead for a day. The audience erupted in applause and laughter.

We know Israel’s intent. Annihilate the Palestinians the same way the United States annihilated Native Americans, the Australians annihilated the First Nations peoples, the Germans annihilated the Herero in Namibia, the Turks annihilated Armenians and the Nazis annihilated the Jews. The specifics are different. The goal is the same. Erasure. 

We cannot plead ignorance. 

But it is easier to pretend. Pretend Israel will allow humanitarian aid. Pretend there will be a permanent ceasefire. Pretend Palestinians will return to their destroyed homes in Gaza. Pretend Gaza will be rebuilt — the hospitals, the universities, the mosques, the housing. Pretend the Palestinian Authority will administer Gaza. Pretend there will be a two-state solution. Pretend there is no genocide.

The vaunted democratic values, morality and respect for human rights, claimed by Israel and the United States, has always been a lie. The real credo is this – we have everything and if you try and take it away from us we will kill you. People of color, especially when they are poor and vulnerable, do not count. The hopes, dreams, dignity and aspirations for freedom of those outside the empire are worthless. Global domination will be sustained through racialized violence

This lie — that the American empire is predicated on democracy and liberty — is one the Palestinians, and those in the Global South, as well as Native Americans and Black and Brown Americans, not to mention those who live in the Middle East, have known for decades. But it is a lie that still has currency in the United States and Israel, a lie used to justify the unjustifiable.

We do not halt Israel’s genocide because we, as Americans, are Israel, infected with the same white supremacy, and intoxicated by our domination of the globe’s wealth and the power to obliterate others with our advanced weaponry. 

The world outside of the industrialized fortresses in the Global North is acutely aware that the fate of the Palestinians is their fate. As climate change imperils survival, as natural resources, including access to water, diminish, as mass migration becomes an imperative for millions, as agricultural yields decline, as coastal areas are flooded, as droughts and wildfires proliferate, as states fail, as militias and armed resistance movements rise to battle their oppressors along with their proxies, genocide will not be an anomaly. It will be the norm. The earth’s vulnerable and poor, those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” will be the next Palestinians. 

“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths,” the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of those the emperor Nero singled out for torture and death. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

Sadism by the powerful is the curse of the human condition. It was as prevalent in ancient Rome as it is, 200 miles to the north from us, in Gaza. 

We know the modern face of Nero, who illuminated his opulent garden parties by burning to death captives tied to stakes. That is not in dispute.

But who were Nero’s guests1? Who wandered through the emperor’s grounds as human beings, as in Rafah, were burned alive? How could these guests see, and no doubt hear, such horrendous suffering and witness such appalling torture and be indifferent, even content?

There is nothing hidden about this genocide. Over 147 courageous Palestinian journalists have been murdered by the Israelis because they have conveyed the images and stories of this slaughter to the world, martyred for their people, for us.

We are Nero’s guests. 

The Palestinians have long been betrayed, not only by us in the global north, but by most of the governments in the Muslim world. We stand passive in the face of the crime of crimes. History will judge Israel for this genocide. But it will also judge us. It will ask why we did not do more, why we did not sever all agreements, all trade deals, all accords, all cooperation with the apartheid state, why we did not halt weapons shipments to Israel, why we did not recall our ambassadors, why when the maritime trade in the Red Sea was disrupted by Yemen an alternative overland route into Israel was set up by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, why we did not do everything in our power to end the slaughter. It will condemn us for not heeding the fundamental lesson of the Holocaust, which is not that Jews are eternal victims, but that when you have the capacity to stop genocide and you do not, you are culpable.

“The opposite of good is not evil,” Samuel Johnson wrote. “The opposite of good is indifference.”

The Palestinian resistance is our resistance. The Palestinian struggle for dignity, freedom and independence is our struggle. The Palestinian cause is our cause. For, as history has also shown, those who were once Nero’s guests soon became Nero’s victims. 

Thank you.

The Chris Hedges Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

1

The title and concept of Nero’s Guests comes from a lecture by P. Sainath about the suicides of Indian farmers.

 

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Things Worth Remembering: The Indispensability of Men Douglas Murray

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Camille Paglia in a men’s room. (Photo by Mario Ruiz via Getty Images)

Welcome to Douglas Murray’s column Things Worth Remembering, in which he presents great speeches from famous orators we should commit to heart. To listen to a portion of Camilla Paglia’s speech at the Munk Debate in Canada in 2013, scroll to the end of this piece.

Happy Father’s Day in the United States! I thought that, to celebrate, I would do the obvious thing and highlight a speech by the feminist Camille Paglia.

One of the strangest things that has happened in my lifetime is the emergence of the man as a pathetic figure, or a figure of fun. For the last fifteen years or so, you could see it in every walk of life—nowhere more so than in advertising. 

There are two things you can always predict with 100 percent certainty if a family, any family, is featured in an advertisement. The first is that the family will be biracial. The second is that the man (especially if he is white) will be portrayed as an incompetent or a loser. If the problem is wrestling with the remote control, the children and wife will patiently have to show poor old dad how to work the darn thing. It is a small but significant example of a wider trend, because this is a time in which male role models have been stripped away from the culture. 

We may have the culture of the “strong woman,” which I referred to in my Mother’s Day column. But “strong man” is a phrase now used to denote fear and even loathing. 


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