Our de-aspirational society; or, a society aiming for victimization and tawdriness

More than a hundred years ago, writing in a deeply religious era, Robert Browning observed “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Perhaps it’s no surprise that today, in a society with a pop and media culture dominated by secularists who have abandoned entirely the notion of heaven, our young people are encouraged, not to reach for the stars, but to engage in base behavior, bounded by the lowest possible common denominator of victim identification.

Any0ne over thirty (or, maybe, forty) will no doubt agree with me that our popular culture has changed dramatically in terms of the goals it sets for young people. Certainly there is nothing today that compares to The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conservation, a guidebook written by Jesuit scholars back in the late 16th century that George Washington studied with regularity and reverence. Fast forward approximately one and a half centuries, and you have Harry Truman, reading over and over again a book entitled Great Men and Famous Women. These were aspirational books that had as their purpose teaching young people to abide by moral principles and to think big, whether in personal interactions or in lifetime goals.

Literature generally, right up until my childhood, aimed high. Every American child, myself included, must have read Parson Weems’ highly fictionalized The Life of Washington. If you read that, you knew that you too could be president if you were incredibly hard-working, brave and honest.

In the 19th Century, young boys were nourished on a steady diet of Horatio Alger books. While Horatio Alger’s private predilections may have been unsavory (there were strong indications that he was a little too fond of young boys), none of that came through in his popular works. Instead, in book after book after book, young boys were told that if they were honest, hard-working, good-natured, and brave, they could slowly, but surely, ascend America’s social and economic ladder. Girls got exactly the same message from Louisa May Alcott’s delightful works.

Whether in works by these iconic authors, both of whom dominated American popular culture for decades, or in books by all the other writers targeting American children, for the better part of a century the goal was always the same: children should aspire, not necessarily to fame or fortune, but to a rock-solid middle class lifestyle, marked by a high moral tone. The message was remarkably egalitarian: all who embraced America’s moral and work ethics could achieve this goal.

These works were by no means great literature. Indeed, Horatio Alger is a dreadful writer, but there’s something charmingly earnest and inspiring about his plots. In the 20th century, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, for example, were churned out by the dozens using a factory scheme, but the message never varied: diligence, bravery, good cheer and honesty were the tickets to success.

Books nowadays are another story entirely. Every week, after a trip to the library, I sort through the books my 13 year old daughter wants to check out, and am horrified by what our nice suburban library has on the teen shelf. The most innocuous books merely give the teenage protagonists permission to be whiny, self-absorbed and manipulative. No matter the issue, the answer is “feelings, nothing more than feelings….” The more troubling books seek to inform the children’s sexuality, whether by encouraging early sexual behavior or by messing with gender constructs. And while there are a few uplifting books hidden amongst this pile of dreck, the vast majority of offerings are remarkably self-involved and devoid of any antiquated notions such as generosity of spirit, self-sacrifice, bravery, or core moral absolutes.

One sees precisely the same pattern with non-print media. When it came to early and mid-twentieth century movies and TV shows, there was certainly a lot of stuff that had no moral message at all, but the available family fare didn’t carry a bad message either. Children who watched I Love Lucy may not have been thinking in terms of diligence or self-sacrifice, but they also weren’t mastering the arts of snark and disrespect. Those shows aimed specifically at children during the thirty year period from the 1950s through the 1970s, while admittedly bland or foolish, were innocuous or tried in an entertaining way to enforce core societal values. Watching the Brady Bunch or Leave It To Beaver taught me about honesty, reliability, and respect for my elders. The tone towards adults was always respectful.

As with the books, the values in these shows were also egalitarian. No matter who you were, if you behaved the Brady way, or the Beaver Cleaver way, you’d do okay. (And if you behaved the Gilligan way, i.e. foolishly, you end up wet and pummeled by coconuts.) It was all very clear.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we get a remarkably different pop culture vision for children’s moral and social development. Whether one thinks of books or television shows or movies, the message is always the same: being disrespectful to your peers and to adults is attractive; adults are buffoons; men are useless; clever manipulation often trumps honesty; and, at the end of the day, what really counts is your feelings. If any given episode of Miley Cyrus or I Carly or Suite Life of Zack and Cody actually carries a so-called moral, that moral isn’t that a specific behavior is wrong, but that the bad behavior might hurt someone else’s feelings. In other words, in the world our media hands to our children, all ethical questions are resolved by a quick glance at ones own navel.

Aside from a moral vacuum, today’s media also offers an aspirational vacuum. The heroes it sells to our children are athletes or movie stars. While I may appreciate an athlete’s skills or a movie star’s pleasant screen persona, neither has distinguished himself (or herself) by willingly making a huge sacrifice, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, on behalf of someone else. A-Rod may show superb self-discipline when it comes to honing his skills, but he’s doing it to be rich and famous (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), not for the betterment of mankind. This is not a hero by any traditional standard.

Sleazy behavior is also normative. As any parent of a little girl can tell you, Miley Cyrus morphed from snarkily wholesome to unutterably sleazy. That’s bad enough, but what’s even worse is the excuse pop culture offers her: she’s just growing up. In this moral vacuum, growing up doesn’t mean taking on responsibility or displaying elan, class and sophistication. Instead, the only thing growing up means is to engage in tawdry acts of public sexuality. As a mother, it’s a great challenge to explain to ones children that becoming a sleaze-monger is not the normative external sign of maturity.

Worse, when the media is confronted by real heroes — by people who willingly put their safety and even their own lives at stake to advance a cause greater than themselves — it assiduously ignores those people. I’m speaking, of course, of our troops. As often as not, when the media pays attention to a service person, it is someone who, in an almost passive way, suffered horrific injuries. I don’t mean to denigrate these men. Merely by enlisting, they showed a rare moral courage, and their bravery in coping with terrible injuries is always inspiring. Still, they are only one side of the warrior equation.

The other side, the side the media ignores, is the men who actively leap into the breach. Outside of the military press and the conservative blogosphere, you’ll be hard pressed to find stories celebrating the truly heroic exploits of such men as Sal Giunta, Bradley Kasal, Marco Martinez, Michael Murphy, Michael Mansoor or Marcus Luttrell. If the media notes them at all, these stores are forced upon them by the fact that some of those men, whether dead or alive, have had the Medal of Honor bestowed upon them. As a parent and a patriot, I resent that the media ignores people who triumph over their enemies and focuses only on those who triumph only over their own injuries. Both should be celebrated, not just the latter.

If the materials made available to American children do tell stories of people actively triumphing over circumstances, those triumphs are very identity specific, and are tightly tied to someone’s victim status. Thus, in contrast to the egalitarian message of old, that saw all hard working, brave, moral people rise up in the world, my white children are exposed to an endless stream of stories that, with few extremes, trumpet the triumphs only of those people who fall within PC victim parameters.

The problem with these stories is that the emphasis isn’t on virtuous behavior, but on victim status. Whether in textbooks, required reading, “news” magazines, or movies shown in classrooms, the “value” being advanced is is being black, or being gay, or being Hispanic, or being female. These presentations then go on to say, almost coincidentally, that if one digs deep into the life story of these carefully classified people, one will find some abstract, overarching virtues as well. “He’s gay and – wow! – he’s brave, too.” “She’s black and – this is so cool – she’s compassionate.”

Well, I’m sorry, but being black is not a value. Being Hispanic is not a virtue. Being gay is not an ethic. Each of these is simply a label to help classify a person, because classification seems to be an innate human — and certainly and innate Leftist — need. None of these labels, however, touch upon conduct, morals, goals, bravery or any of the other abstract virtues that can reside in all people.

I’m happy to hear about heroic, brilliant, compassionate, important blacks, gays, women, Hispanics, etc., and I want my children to hear about them too. The focus, though, should be on the “heroic, brilliant, compassionate” parts, which are universal values we want to see all children learn. Only then should we go to the subset idea, which is that, no matter the label you give yourself (or that is given to you), you can aspire to these over-arching values, virtues and ethics.

The ne plus ultra of our de-aspirational society is our President, of course. Although he’s almost exactly my age, because he grew up as a child of the Left, while I had a steady diet of virtue, he had an equally steady diet of cultural denigration. Small wonder than that he travels the world, rigorously applying often imaginary virtues to cultures based upon their otherness, with no regard whatsoever for the abstract values that should define all moral societies. And small wonder, too, that, to the extent he can periodically rouse himself to say something nice about America, that niceness is always tied to the elevation of some victim group.

Our youth can succeed only if they are taught that there is something beyond self-involvement, victim identity, and sex. Because our popular culture refuses to recognize the abstract virtues of honor, bravery, patriotism, respect, honesty, etc., it is up to us to celebrate those virtues and to tell our children the tales of those who embody them.

Cross-posted in Bookworm Room

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