How About Returning to Modesty?

Young pop stars have figured out that the most extreme, bizarre behavior leads to stardom through notoriety.

Young men, finding their inflated self-images don’t match the way their peers and teachers see them, choose to go out in a blaze of glory, substituting personal infamy – and fame – for personal responsibility.

Another young man, indulged and taught to listen to himself instead of authority his whole life, betrays his oath and walks away from military responsibility, becoming a captive and pawn in an international game. Another man, indulged and praised for his entire life, trades dangerous terrorists purchased for more than fifty American lives for this single dishonorable prisoner.

Things are upside-down. American leaders and schoolchildren alike don’t seem to understand values or the importance of personal integrity. The public story becomes all about random individuals – lumping the non-starring individuals into a sort of Greek chorus, disposable and replaceable. Never mind that they could just as easily have been chosen in the lottery of public esteem.

We have gone from the “Me Generation” to the “Look At Me Generation.” A combination of factors from overly permissive parenting that regards those singleton children as “special snowflakes” to the rise of reality television, a phenomenon in which the most trite and ordinary and even unpleasant person can be a star, have driven a perfect storm of selfishness. While not every young person today regards the world as an audience for his or her special “me” show, far too many of them do.

The symptoms of the disease of selfishness are everywhere. Everyone wants to be the special one, the standout, even though the reality is that most people are ordinary inside, and this has led to an obsession with being extreme in appearance or action. Trying to be an iconoclast, unfortunately, results for most people in just being weird, not exceptional or admirable. Blend this drive with normal teenage impulsiveness, and you get a lot of young people engaging in risky behaviors or endangering others – the knockout game, dangerous selfies, sexual experimentation that goes overboard.

This has deeper consequences for the community as a whole. People who turn inward for meaning are less likely to be fully invested in their communities – selfishness becomes the norm. We end up without enough ordinary people, people with modest goals of having a home and children and love, quiet fulfilling lives. When everyone’s a special snowflake, there is no one left to keep the world running.

“Look at Me” kids make terrible soldiers, teachers, entrepreneurs, parents. They choose goals that are unattainable for their level of talent or expertise. When they aren’t successful right away, they break, self-medicating or finding other extreme ways of getting attention. They no longer understand that losing is part of the game too, that you learn more from mistakes than from doing things right. And they want far more from their communities than they are willing to give.

The odd contradiction in special-snowflakism is that, in making everything all about the self, the individual cedes power over his or her happiness to everyone else. Each snowflake must have an audience, and like a spoiled child, they’ll get that audience by being bad if they can’t get it by being good. Thuggishness becomes acceptable, pointless risk-taking becomes something to be strived for.

Instead of striving for true happiness in their lives, the Look-at-Mes are settling for a shallow sort of iconoclasm, being different on the surface from everyone else – just like everyone else. Like Fruity Pebbles, they all look different but taste exactly the same.

There’s not much we can do to redeem today’s world from special-snowflakization, other than hoping it is rejected because it has become ordinary and boring. But we can work to preventing this next generation from settling for that hollow, brittle self-satisfaction. We can tell stories featuring characters celebrating ordinariness, showing the strength and power in finding and being one’s authentic self instead of an artificial construct designed to get attention.

Look back at the classical heroes, for instance. One way of identifying the guy who’s going to kill the monster and become the kind is by the fact that he’s ordinary. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins drew from that powerful tradition. King Arthur was a fosterling of unknown parentage, and Lancelot was an orphan. Oedipus was abandoned, the million Jacks and Ivans of fairy tales were foolish or the youngest brother or weak. None were special – except through their choices and courage.

We can inoculate our children and audiences against special-snowflakism by giving them heroes like this to look up to, or heroes that go out, do special and brave things – then choose to return to an ordinary life. This once was the attraction of superheroes, the idea that Superman could be this ordinary Clark Kent guy on the outside but have the big red S underneath all his clothes. (Today’s snowflakes are the opposite, Superman on the outside but Kent on the inside.)

At the same time, we need to express that there is nothing WRONG with being unique – if it is authentic. Specialness isn’t a virtue – it is only a trait, one of many that makes a person who they are. When you settle for being different just like everyone else, you are not being courageous – you are cheating yourself of learning who you are, of seeking out and using the qualities and achievements that make you unique and ordinary at the same time.

Humility, modesty, ordinariness – these quaint old virtues have become special by dint of being rejected. It is time to rediscover and embrace them.

Tolkien’s Heroes: Conservative to the Core

Sam Gamgee, the most ordinary of Tolkien’s major characters – and the most heroic, in the end.

One of the clearest differences between conservatives and liberals is how we envision our heroes. Conservatives love tough, enigmatic, good-upholding heroes, heroes that do not dither or worry about whether they are doing the right thing. They have internalized ethics. They are prepared for disaster, and whether they are ordinary guys like Todd Beamer or trained military men like Glen Doherty, they do not quail in the face of death.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to take Everyman or even victims and elevate them to hero status regardless of real accomplishments, the main criteria being that they fit a certain story. Their heroes are literary characters like Garp or Randle McMurphy, or real people like Sandra Fluke or Ted Kennedy. One cannot imagine any of these figures “taking arms against a sea of troubles,” but it’s certainly conceivable for any one of them to stand at a podium and give a good speech.

This particular vision of heroism has led to cases like MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes stating he’s uncomfortable with calling American soldiers heroes. Why? Because soldiers take action, instead of talking action? Because soldiers act heroically as individuals, rather than standing at the front of a mob yelling, “Let’s get ’em!”? Because soldiers rise up out of complete anonymity, make a difference, and then disappear back into obscurity (unless they die)?

Conservatives believe heroes make a difference. Liberals see them as victims of fate, icons of an entire class of people just like them – symbols, not people.

Tolkien’s heroes are definitely in the conservative mold, as most popular literary heroes are. Some are traditional action heroes.  Thorin Oakenshield is a mighty king in his own right and a well-known warrior and leader. Gandalf roamed Middle-Earth for a couple of thousand years doing good and working toward the ends of the White Council. Strider/Aragorn has devoted his entire adult life to quietly keeping men and hobbits safe, even though they regard him with suspicion and distrust. (Doesn’t that remind you of the liberal attitude toward our men in uniform?)

The more interesting heroes, however, are those who were ordinary men and hobbits who rose to meet deadly challenges. The hobbits, of course, are first on that list, especially Frodo and Sam. All were raised in comfort, in a safe homeland protected from danger and evil by the Rangers, yet bravely persevered even when all seemed lost to do what needed doing. There were, however, many lesser characters throughout Tolkien’s works that fit this mold. Bard the Bowman of Esgaroth slew Smaug, then refused to rule over his fellow citizens when they asked him in favor of upholding the government as it stood. Eowyn, the niece of Theoden King of Rohan, refused to stay behind and instead traveled seemingly to her death, where she fulfilled a destiny she was not even aware of. Treebeard and his people are roused into a passion when they realize everything they love is threatened by Saruman, and they march into fire to stop him, some of them dying terribly.

In each case, Tolkien’s Everyman heroes follow a pattern: they are more or less ordinary people of great character; they face death or worse, and succeed; they refuse honors and accolades and instead pass back into ordinary life. These, it would seem, are the sorts of people Tolkien admires most. We need more heroes in real life like these.

Honoring Our Heroes

Please bear with me as I step away from literature for a moment, this one day.

It is, once again, 9/11. We have routed the Taliban, who helped evil men plan and perpetrate the murder of 3,000 innocents. Al Qaeda has been dispersed, though like any infection each living cell has become the center of a new cancer. We have seen the death of Osama bin Laden, the sick and twisted man who masterminded Al Qaeda. We are winning this war, though others may follow behind.

We have also seen the deaths of over 6,500 American servicemen and women, more than half of whom were in their 20s – young adults leaving behind families and the unfulfilled potential of a good life. One of those young men was under my brother’s command in Afghanistan, killed by an IED when an inexperienced officer took their vehicle through the wrong area. Another was a friend’s brother, a young officer shot by an Iraqi sniper when he stepped outside the safety of his tank. My husband and my oldest son have both been deployed to the Middle East multiple times in the last ten years. Millions of Americans have good reason to remember 9/11, as they have been directly and indirectly affected by that day and its lengthy aftermath.

You will hear media talking heads try to define these young warriors as victims: victims of failed policies, mistaken choices, terrorists. They are not victims. Not a single one is a victim. They are all heroes, the people in our country who stepped forward to say NO! Not another American will be involuntarily lost to savagery.

Take a moment today to remember the innocent victims lost on 9/11. Their fates were not their choice, and the monsters who stole their futures are surely being punished by a fair God.

Then take a second, separate moment to celebrate the courage and sacrifice made by our heroes, the 6,500 and more who gave their lives for our freedom, the millions who served and were prepared to make that sacrifice, and the supportive families these millions left behind. Our soldiers are heroes, not victims.

Let’s never, never forget that.

Romance Novels as Conservative Fiction

Romance novels are commonly dismissed as trash, housewife porn, formula fiction, or bodice rippers. They are accused of committing purple prose, engendering female dissatisfaction, debasing literary values, and forcing men to live up to an impossible ideal. I, however, see most modern romance as positive conservative fiction.

Consider this: most modern romance novels feature a strong female protagonist and an equally strong male protagonist. They generally end in marriage or a commitment to marry; in most cases, the characters plan to have children within the confines of that marriage. I don’t think I’ve seen a single romance novel talk about abortion, let alone promote it as a reasonable alternative; in fact, a common plot device is the “secret baby,” in which the heroine gives birth to the hero’s child despite financial and social penalties, only to have her secret revealed to him later.

Let’s take social conservatism out of the bedroom and into the world at large: workers’ rights, women’s rights, and other large social movements are rarely topics in romance fiction, and in most cases where they are topics, they’re found in historicals. For the most part, though, while romance novels frequently have protagonists who express concern about groups in trouble (orphans, farmers, prostitutes, etc.), most of their solutions are not finding ways for the government to help but rather to find positive, creative ways for those people to move themselves forward (education, lowered taxes, work as seamstresses, etc.) Only a few lean on government solutions, possibly because that is less than heroic.

How about financial conservatism? Well, I’ve never seen a female protagonist on welfare, at least not as an adult. They nearly always fulfill Christopher Vogler’s heroic imperative of being good at their jobs. Common plot devices include saving the ranch or the family business, while others struggle with the problems of paying inheritance taxes. While you’re not going to see rants about paying taxes in romances, neither will you see rants about the proles deserving power over the evil landlords – well, not in most romances.

War. Lots of soldiers fill out romance novels, and you find quite a number of romance novels with wars as their backdrop (most prominently, Gone with the Wind). Most of these soldier-protagonists were heroic on the battlefield as well as off; none were cowards or draft-dodgers. They are nearly always patriotic, and even if they bear visible or emotional scars, they rarely rant about how wicked their countries were to make them fight.

Religion is rarely prominent in romance fiction except as a central element of the Christian romance – but it’s never discounted or bashed either. Even in paranormal romance using witches as protagonists, you won’t see a lot of criticism of Christians.

There are, of course, some problems with the wholesale classification of romance novels as conservative fiction. There’s the victim-as-female-protagonist problem, for instance. Conservative ideology is never about the victim, but rather about the hero, the person who rises above everything; there is a distressing amount of rape fiction still in romance, possibly because modern Western society has a tendency to fetishize victims, mistaking them for martyrs and raising them up as heroes. There’s a lot of sex in the steamier romances, which many conservatives (not me!) are uncomfortable with. Still, from the strong masculine hero to the committed relationship goals to the subtexts about saving the ranch and keeping the baby, there may be more conservatism in romance novels than either liberals or conservatives would like to admit.

Now, I don’t know if I’m right or wrong; I do know this is a question I’d like to see discussed. What do you folks think?