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.

Conservatism, Writing Programs, and Changing the Culture

Mark Goldblatt, in NRO, asks where all the conservative novelists are. It’s a great question, and a large part of his conclusion is that the heavy liberal skew of MFA programs has created a generation of liberal novelists, an atmosphere that is nearly poison to a young conservative writer.

Part of this is the gatekeeping issue: liberal professors are less likely to be friendly to conservative students, and those students are more likely to have trouble in MFA programs and drop out. But another part of it is the PR side: liberal writing professors are the recognized arbiters of what is great in literary fiction. They nearly always choose liberal works by liberal writers, people who reflect rather than challenge their worldview. Those lists of great works or promising writers are further spread by liberal journalists. Conservative writers are shut out and ignored by publishers looking for the next profitable book. Of conservatives, only genre writers are likely to get through this narrow gate.

I’m working here to alleviate some of this unfairness through a variety of means: this blog, a private writers list for networking, a planned annual writers retreat for conservatives only, the forum, and a developing writers workshop to help train up good writers who can go on to create wonderful books conservatives will love to read. You, dear reader, can help.

Go to my list of conservative writers and buy some of their books. If you have more writers you’d like to recommend, tell me about them in the comments here, or go to the forum and talk about them. Let’s all work together to support conservative writers and change our culture.

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.

Celebrating Tolkien’s Atavism

Fun fact: Tolkien’s opus Lord of the Rings was utterly rejected for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961, at least partly because the Swedish translation was abysmal.

In honor of Hobbit Day (September 22), I’m devoting this week’s posts to J.R.R. Tolkien and his worldview and philosophy. While his works have been embraced by a leftist society, the truth is both he and his close friend C.S. Lewis were conservative lions. This was largely due to the atavism shared by both.

Consider this, from Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien:

C. S. Lewis too was a conservative and called progressivism “the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune .

Progressivism is “chronological snobbery”, he wrote, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood (Surprised by Joy, pp. 207—8).”

Progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future: “We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?… A story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood until you have heard the whole of it” (Christian Reflections, p. 106).

In simpler terms, progressivism ignores the past in favor of moving forward. It is as if we have no anchor in the past, but rather one in the future that is inexorably drawing us forward. It is backward thinking, oddly enough, in that it gets it exactly wrong: we know what happened from the past and can learn from it in order to change the future. Progressivism seeks to eradicate the past from our future by claiming that we can know the future but we cannot truly know the past.

Progressivism permeates the liberal movement today, from literature to politics and everything between. Political progressivism generally rejects the ways of the past as something that was created by old white men who owned slaves or ruled countries or in some other way dominated other people. Progressive religion rejects the hierarchy that has developed over decades or centuries or millenia in favor of promoting things that address the evils its proponents see before their eyes. The literary brother of progressivism, deconstructionism, rejects history and seeks reality in experience alone (which is silly, I think, since history is just collective experience.) Progressives, in short, tend to reject the idea that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Instead, they try to encompass the whole of wisdom inside themselves.

Now, the giants weren’t always right. But history proves – over and over – that listening to her lessons is a valuable way to prevent missteps in the future. While repairing the evil of poverty by giving people money may address this moment’s issue, it does not prevent poverty in the future; only by teaching people self-motivation and self-respect through denying more than the bare basics can you help them overcome poverty themselves.

There is another reason Tolkien looked to history and had little but scorn for the progressive movement. Like many men his age, he’d had a difficult time during World War I; he stated himself that only one of his close friends was still alive in 1918. He saw firsthand the horrors of war exacerbated by technology and inhumanity. After such an experience, it is perhaps reasonable that he rejected the progressive’s hopes that technology and progress would eliminate all human problems in the future, looking instead to the past, a time that was perhaps difficult but that he’d survived, for his inspiration.

(It is particularly interesting to me to note that of the early 20th century speculative fiction writers, those who wrote science fiction tended to be progressives and believed that the future could be shaped into a perfect utopia, whereas those who wrote fantasy and horror looked to the past for their inspiration. Today’s science fiction is largely dominated by military science fiction, which is libertarian in tone, and fantasy is dominated by environmentalism, progressive in tone.  The story can be changed.)

Storytelling and the Empty Chair

Commenters at all levels of sophistication have criticized Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech. I confess to being confused at their confusion, if in fact that confusion is legitimate and not feigned. Eastwood was drawing on a long history of stage symbolism; the empty chair is quite common on stage and in ceremony as a symbol of something that is absent.

In Jewish tradition, for instance, an empty chair is used to represent loss or sorrow, the guest who is not present at the table. When the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” is staged, directors often use empty chairs to represent those who should be present but who are absent, or to represent Godot, who of course never shows up. Detective dramas use empty chairs to symbolize the murder victim, and television and movie dramas of all sorts use them to symbolize absent loved ones: children, spouses, and others. Clint Eastwood is a master of dramatic art; certainly he was not ignorant of the history of this piece of stagecraft.

Of course, as an actor, Mr. Eastwood may have had a different empty chair in mind: the theater seat that should be filled by a listening and engaged person but is instead conspicuously empty. What better metaphor is there for Obama’s complete disengagement with most voters? At least this way, Eastwood gained an audience (I use the term intentionally) with the President.

(For that matter, Obama may be a bit concerned about empty chairs in theatrical settings himself – the ones that loom in his nightmares at his DNC acceptance speech, haunting him with the cricket-chirp of an empty stadium. An empty chair talking to empty seats – I like the image!)

Symbols have power. It is easy to make fun of them,, particularly the simplest ones, as the liberal left is furiously doing. But symbols are more than “just words,” and they are more powerful than any thousand words Obama has ever spoken. A symbol used properly is a conduit directly to the human soul. The best symbols are universal, easily interpreted within a story by just about anyone even when the audience is not intending to interpret at all. Judging by the empty-chair meme he seems to have initiated, I think Mr. Eastwood’s symbol may have touched quite a few people right where it counts.

Now a writing note: writers, consider how powerful Eastwood’s thirteen or so minutes of addressing an empty chair has been to the story surrounding the election. He used simple words, simple ideas, a shtick that has been around since before Vaudeville reigned – and he created what may be an immortal moment, a point upon which the future of our country may hinge. (For I think Eastwood’s empty-chair speech may be identified as that moment when Obama most clearly began losing this election.) The power of clear communication, drama, and a storyline, all displayed for us in a brief free-form performance by a master of the storytelling art: this is a gift on many levels we should appreciate, examine, and learn from.

Liberty Island Magazine

If you want to see more conservative fiction outlets, consider checking this out and maybe even pledging them a little money. Liberty Island Magazine will eventually be publishing conservative- and liberty-leaning fiction. I like their philosophy.

You can read more about them at their crowdfunding pitch page. Spread it around; they only have a couple more days in their campaign, and a few bucks from a few people could make all the difference.

 

Update: The Liberty Island guys have started a second phase of crowdfunding, so if you’re interested, they still need assistance. By the way, I have no association with Liberty Island outside of a single email exchange. I just love the idea and want to support it however I can.

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?

Andrew Klavan and the Search for Truth

I stumbled across this fantastic presentation by Andrew Klavan today. Klavan is perhaps one of the most prominent voices in conservative fiction today, though it is hard to tell since such voices are largely ignored by the media. Anyway, he makes a number of points defining the difference between American fiction and European fiction. At about 17 minutes, he gets to the core of the right/left matter: leftist literature, he says, is about ceasing the search for truth (because, you know, the debate is over and all that), while conservative fiction recognizes that the search for truth is never, ever over. Right now, he goes on to say, is the first time being both conservative and a writer really sets one apart from the rest of the literary world.

Anyway, watch the video. It’s long but enlightening.

Andrew Klavan – Conservative Fiction in American Literary Culture

What Is Conservative Fiction?

This is a difficult question to answer. Conservative fiction hails back to when quality fiction told stories with admirable heroes and identifiable villains. It reinforces traditional moral values, instead of trying to define a new morality. It values tradition, religion, and history. Its readers are varied, from all races and creeds and ethnicities, and men are as likely to read it as women.

Once upon a time, all fiction was like this. It did not try to create new forms, or jam identity politics into a story’s theme. It simply told good stories.

This form of fiction slipped from us like melting ice from a riverbank, softly and quickly. We did not notice until we suddenly could not find it.

I aim to get some of it back. Look forward to the introduction of a new fiction magazine here in the future, as well as regular book reviews and eventually a small-press publisher.