Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New Bond Song Swaps Virility for Vulnerability

As James Bond fans everywhere are keenly aware, the latest installment of the half-century-old film franchise, Spectre, opens in the United States this November 6. And that means the debut of a new Bond theme song as well – always an eagerly anticipated event in itself. But Spectre’s just-released song “Writing’s on the Wall” is leaving many fans more perplexed than thrilled – it swaps Bond’s legendary virility for vulnerability, causing some to wonder if it is heralding a hero who is beginning to reflect our cultural unease with traditional masculinity.
Performed by Grammy-winning English singer Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall” just made history by becoming the first Bond theme ever to hit number one on the charts, and yet it is receiving decidedly mixed reviews. Rolling Stone calls it “a grand accomplishment,” but one fan captured the opinion of many when he tweeted, “I hope #SPECTRE is far more exciting than that Sam Smith snorefest I just listened to.” The Atlantic had a more insightful gripe: it complained that the song is so “radically wimpy” it constitutes a heretical subversion of Bond’s masculinity.
Smith chose to depart radically from the bold, brassy, ballsy Bond themes sung by bold, brassy, ballsy vocalists such as Tom Jones (Thunderball), Tina Turner (Goldeneye), Shirley Manson of Garbage (The World is Not Enough), and of course, Shirley Bassey, the queen of Bond songs (Goldfinger, Moonraker, and Diamonds Are Forever).
By contrast, Smith falsettos his way through a yearning piano piece accompanied by swelling strings but almost devoid of the exciting horns, percussion, and Bond’s signature surf guitar riff. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber describes Smith’s vocals as “self-consciously pathetic and pining” at a “cartoonishly high register.” More disconcertingly, the song lacks the propulsive currents of sex and danger that animate most Bond themes. Instead, it wallows in emotional desperation.
“I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond,” Smith told NPR, “where you see into his heart a little bit.” That touch may have been too heavy-handed. When the lyric begs, “I want to feel love run through my blood,” it feels off-putting and needy from the agent who famously carries a license to spill someone else’s blood.
Presumably the Broccoli family, who owns the franchise, approved Smith’s more romantic take on Bond. If so, is the song indicative of the man we will see in the newest film? Is the fictional icon Kornhaber calls “arguably the most aggressively heterosexual hero that Western society has” going soft on us?
If so, perhaps it is because we have gone soft. We live in a time of cultural confusion over masculinity and gender roles. Last week, for example, the National Review decried the unmanliness of our “victim culture” in which people are encouraged to cultivate a sense of weakness and fragility. Also last week, the New York Times posted “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man,” a list that included such traditionally unmanly virtues as this: “The modern man cries. He cries often.” And this: “The modern man has no use for a gun. He doesn’t own one, and he never will.”
Where does that leave Bond? Is he becoming anachronistic as an icon of masculinity – a sexist dinosaur, as Judi Dench’s “M” once told him? Has the Bond we could always count on to risk it all for Queen and Country devolved into a man who, as Sam Smith sings, asks instead if he should risk it all for love?
If so, then Spectre will suffer for it. Audiences have always responded to James Bond’s unapologetic manliness, all the more so as traditional masculinity becomes an endangered species. Lose that, and the Bond films will be just another big-budget action franchise but lose their cultural power. If Sam Smith’s song portends a Bond more vulnerable than virile, then for the franchise as a whole, the writing is indeed on the wall.
Published in a different form here at Popzette, 10/6/15

Do Boys Need a New Kind of Hero?

Crissi and Ed Boland decided they weren’t happy with the toys and comics available for their two young sons. They were tired of the cynical merchandising of decades-old superheroes, the dark and violent comic books, and the “narcissism and a win-at-all-cost approach” that they feel pervade our culture. They want their sons to have meaningful toys that promote the classic values Ed had learned as a boy: honesty, humility, loyalty, compassion, and diligence.
So Crissi and Ed created HeroBoys, a line of action figures and accompanying comic books, “meant to celebrate the adventure, imagination, and limitless potential inherent in boys, while reinforcing positive values.” The HeroBoys are a seemingly ordinary group – a hothead struggling with his emotions, a physically disabled thinker, an insecure boy who has to awaken his ability to lead, and a painfully shy boy trying to access his inner strength – who come together to do good and whose adventures are teachable moments. “We want our boys to know it’s OK to be themselves,” the Bolands declare. “Just like our HeroBoys – they don’t have to be perfect.”
It’s telling that the Bolands even felt that such a project to inculcate old-fashioned values in their boys is necessary. It speaks to the concerns of many parents who may see limited choices for their children’s moral guidance in a pop culture that sends too many questionable and mixed messages to kids. Contemporary comic books, for example, too often depict superheroes not so much as role models for conveying traditional moral values, but as morally muddled vehicles for pushing a politically correct racial and gender agenda.
But in fact there is a wide range of choices for finding positive values and moral instruction in children’s literature (classic and modern, from Aesop to Harry Potter), in tales of real-life heroes and role models (both ancient and contemporary), and in Bible stories, among other options. Children’s television, for example, abounds with shows that address virtues like compassion and honesty (the same goes for kids’ movies), and that’s not just a recent development. Fred Rogers’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood guided whole generations of children through the kinds of fears and insecurities that the HeroBoys wrestle with (and Rogers’ legacy lives on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a favorite of my kids).
Granted, Ed and Crissi Boland are focusing on superheroes because they are such compelling ideals for boys. Superheroes do indeed serve an important function for developing a moral imagination in boys. They are valuable personae for preparing boys, through play and fantasy, to choose good over evil and to one day stand courageously against evil in the real world. The Bolands clearly understand this – but do boys really need a new kind of superhero? The Bolands claim that so far (their business is still getting off the ground), kids love the flawed and relatable HeroBoys, but my suspicion is that boys under the age of ten, like the Bolands’, prefer heavily-muscled, magically-powered supermen precisely because they are not so grounded in reality.
This is not to dismiss Ed and Crissi’s admirable desire to give their kids the right kinds of role models, and more power to them for their creative efforts. But whatever choices parents make to supplement their own moral guidance, the critical point to remember is that a boy’s first hero and role model is, or should be, his dad. That’s where a son witnesses courage and values in action: from the everyday, real world examples set by his father. Ed Boland even acknowledges that he got his own values from his dad.
True, Ed has a very valid point when he says that as a working dad he’s lucky to get two hours a day with his boys; he and countless fathers like him can’t be there all the time to counteract the subversive messages of a decadent culture and to steer their sons straight. But dads are the foundation. The values the Bolands are so keen to pass down to their boys – honesty, courage, humility, loyalty, compassion, diligence, and more – are most influential when they are rooted at home. The HeroBoys tagline – “There is a hero inside every boy” – is a very empowering insight, but that spark first takes hold when the boy sees that there is a hero inside his own father.
From Acculturated, 10/2/15

Friday, October 2, 2015

Hollywood Turns on PC?

After recent complaints from Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Stephen Merchant that political correctness has infected college audiences and turned them into humorless prudes, Sarah Silverman replied that such comedians need to get with the times or risk becoming irrelevant. But if a couple of recent Hollywood examples of anti-PC backlash are any indication, it may be Silverman who is on the way to becoming irrelevant.
First, the fearless, equal-opportunity offenders at South Park set their sights on the PC “language police” in their season opener last weekend. Then, this Friday is the premiere of The Green Inferno, the latest from torture porn auteur Eli Roth, in which a planeload of naïve Social Justice Warriors ventures into the rainforest to save an endangered tribe, only to become victims of cannibalism and their own self-righteousness – or as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “kids who head into the jungle to do good, and end up good eats.”
Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) are progressive crusaders hellbent on eradicating racial and economic injustice, real or imaginary, through bullying and “a fixation on identity and privilege,” as Cathy Young wrote in The Observer. “SJW” is actually a pejorative label, but SJWs themselves proudly embrace it. As a Columbia student and former SJW wrote in July in the New York Post, the first time someone hurled the term at her as an insult, “I was elated. I considered myself a superhero, fighting one stigma at a time until the United States became a land of truly equal opportunity.”
But in South Park’s season premiere, SJWs are portrayed not as superheroes but as a bullying, intolerant fraternity, one of whom – “PC Principal” – takes over the South Park kids’ school and sets out to abolish sexist microaggressions and gender bigotry. One character utters the forbidden opinion, “I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner is a hero,” and PC Principal decries it as “transphobic and bigoted hate speech.”
Real-world SJWs were not amused. As the New York Post points out, culture site Bustle complained the episode made it “seem like a bad thing to strive for correct language around transgender issues,” and film critic Bob Chipman sniffed that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have “morphed into the Trump of TV comedy.”
Admittedly, Stone and Parker don’t represent mainstream Hollywood – they’re much too fair and balanced and edgy for that – but they’re not alone in declaring open season on SJWs. Eli Roth recently told the Los Angeles Times that the smug hashtag activists who share handwritten slogans on Twitter were his inspiration for The Green Inferno. “I wanted to write a movie,” he said,
that was about modern activism. I see that a lot of people want to care and want to help, but in general I feel like people don’t really want to inconvenience their own lives. And I saw a lot of people just reacting to things on social media. These social justice warriors. ‘This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.’ And they’re just tweeting and retweeting. They’re not actually doing anything.
“The SJW culture has gotten so out of control,” he continued, and Inferno is his way of addressing it. Like the South Park episode, the movie has already struck a nerve with actual SJWs such as the tribal rights attorney at Huffington Post who finds it an “incredibly offensive depiction of indigenous people.”
The more self-congratulatory and self-serious SJWs become, the more they become parodies of themselves – holier-than-thou, irrational, and ragingly uptight – and the more tempting it becomes to poke fun at them. Political correctness still reigns on campuses across America, and in Hollywood as well, but no totalitarian ideology can long withstand ridicule.
From Popzette, 9/28/15

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Donald Trump Should Eat Some Humble Pie

Could there be two more stylistically disparate presidential candidates on the same side of the political aisle (at least nominally) than soft-spoken surgeon Ben Carson and swaggering showman Donald Trump? When asked recently what sets him apart from his rival, Carson cited a personal favorite verse from his daily reading of Proverbs: “A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.” Admirable sentiment, but in a media-driven culture that encourages cults of personality, is it even possible today for “a man of lowly spirit” to become President?
The Federalist recently posted a reverential profile of Carson and declared that his faith, humility, and quiet strength trump Trump’s arrogance. In that article, again in response to how he differs from Trump, Carson quoted another verse from Proverbs: “‘By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life,’ and that’s a very big part of who I am. I don’t get that impression with [Trump]. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that.”
He’s not wrong. Whatever you may think of Trump – and he provokes extreme opinions – humility is not a quality that leaps to mind, and that’s just fine with his fans. To them he radiates a winning confidence that, falsely or not, suggests power, while Carson’s reserved demeanor, falsely or not, suggests deference, and Americans don’t want a deferential leader. After two terms of a President often criticized for his “apology tours,” Americans are looking forward to a leader who will kick ass and take names.
The Federalist asserted that Carson’s humility is “not weakness, but a strength that is sorely lacking in our world today.” That echoes the theme of a 2013 book I reviewed for The New Criterion titled Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, by David J. Bobb, who believes not only that ‘American humility’ is not an oxymoron,” but that it is actually our country’s greatest virtue. He argues that as a nation today we have lost touch with both our humility and our greatness, and that we suffer from a toxicity of arrogance that hinders a revival of that greatness.
We tend to admire humility in our Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, who happens to be one of Bobb’s examples of Americans who prove that “humility and magnanimity can coexist in the same soul.” When Washington was offered the opportunity to be crowned king in the early days of our fledgling Republic, he humbly and wisely rejected the temptation. I can envision Ben Carson doing the same, but Donald Trump? Hard to picture him turning down a shot at king, and that’s a dangerous arrogance, the kind that brings emperors and their empires down.
In fact, Bobb warns in his book that “our fame-addled and power-hungry” culture, in which arrogance is rewarded and humility ignored, is beginning to mirror Rome’s just before its fall. We are desperately in need, Bobb writes, of political and cultural leaders who manifest St. Thomas Aquinas’ notion of a balance of magnanimity and humility.
St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote of “the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace.” But the 5th century Augustine was not writing for an audience immersed in a culture whose media shove aside the humble to praise the arrogant. Today, self-promoting gets you noticed; self-effacing gets you erased from the picture altogether. Trump knows this full well; he talks as much about the ratings he brings to the presidential race as he does the ideas and solutions he has to offer the country.
Despite their polar opposite characters, the two political outsiders Trump and Carson hold wide polling leads over the rest of the crowded field of Republican hopefuls, suggesting that many Americans do greatly respect Carson’s quiet strength of character; at the same time others can’t help being drawn to Trump’s unapologetic, bull-in-a-china-shop cockiness. Indeed, Trump’s lead over Carson is almost as great as Carson’s lead over the next most popular candidate. As things stand now, he would defeat Carson handily.
Americans have to get past the hype and think about the character of the person we want to be our next President. We need a leader with the right balance of humility and strength, charisma and gravitas, especially in this age of the pop culture Presidency. We need a leader who, like Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is wary of the unchecked ambition that could lead to the creation of an American tyrant. We need a leader who takes a healthy pride – not arrogance – in our exceptionalism, and who recognizes there is wisdom in humility. What we don’t need is yet another presidential cult of personality.
From Acculturated, 9/18/15 

Friday, September 18, 2015

How Have our Heroes Changed?

The fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this past Friday was a somber reminder to Americans of the first responders and their heroic sacrifice on that terrible morning. Three hundred and forty-three firefighters perished that day, as well as sixty police officers and eight paramedics, all rushing to the aid of others with a disregard for their own safety. That selfless service, says author Tod Lindberg, that willingness to put their own lives on the line for the lives of complete strangers, is precisely the quality that defines the modern hero – and distinguishes him or her from heroes past.
In his short but deeply considered new book The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern, Lindberg examines greatness from its most distant origins in human prehistory to the present. Through character studies of heroes both real and literary, he explains the conception of heroism in the ancient world, how it differs in our time, and the ways in which these heroic types have shaped the political realm and vice versa.
Whether ancient or modern, the distinctive characteristic of the heroic figure, Lindberg begins, “is the willingness to risk death.” A hero overcomes what Thomas Hobbes called our “continual fear of violent death” and is willing to embrace his fate “in accordance with an inner sense of greatness or exceptional virtue.”
The model hero in ancient times was of the conquering, killing sort, a warrior earning renown by slaying piles of enemies on the battlefield. Think of Homer’s Achilles, whom Lindberg examines at length: a self-centered, petulant demigod, perhaps, but a warrior of superhuman caliber. Or Julius Caesar, a man so determined to be the greatest man in Rome that he would destroy the Republic in a civil war rather than rein in his ambition.
But over the centuries, the slaying hero gradually fell out of fashion, thanks in large measure to the horrors of World War I and Vietnam, not to mention the rise of the literary antihero such as The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. Our ideal of the hero morphed instead into a courageous soul who is no less afraid of death but more focused on saving lives than taking them. Achilles’ modern counterpart acts not to kill and conquer, but to serve and save others. “From slaying to saving,” writes Lindberg, “from the highest, riskiest expression of self-regard to the highest, riskiest expression of generosity and the caring will.”
Lindberg uses the history of the Congressional Medal of Honor – the U.S. military’s highest decoration – to demonstrate this evolution of heroism. He reviewed the award from its creation during the Civil War to the present, and concluded that “the percentage of citations that include a saving narrative [as opposed to a killing narrative] has increased markedly” over time. The significance of this shift?
If the military itself… now designates its highest heroes not on the basis of their infliction of violent death on an enemy but on the saving of lives, then we have perhaps reached the point in the development of the modern world at which the modern, saving form of heroism has eclipsed the vestigial forms of classical heroism and their slaying ways for good.
The hero as slayer versus the hero as lifesaver: That is the crux of the difference between the classical and the modern form of heroism. Greatness versus equality. Ego versus generosity. “I am someone” versus “I can do something for someone.”
The modern hero sacrifices, as Lindberg puts it, “in service to a greater purpose. Their purpose has not been the classical hero’s purpose, namely, the actualization of their sense of inner greatness.” Instead, “the modern meaning of greatness is service to others.” [his emphasis]
Curiously, though, Lindberg points out that the spirit of modern heroism, the antithesis of the conquering hero, is most grandly embodied in the ancient figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the “Savior” God who died on the cross to redeem the human race. Today that spirit is personified in such heroes as the World Trade Center responders on 9/11, the medical personnel from Médecins sans Frontières, the three unarmed Americans who recently took down a heavily-armed jihadist aboard a French train. They and others like them constitute “the modern face of heroism.”
For Tod Lindberg, this evolution is a positive development – but we cannot be complacent. There is no guarantee that the more destructive form of hero – the conquering, slaying sort – won’t return, unless we prevent him. His chilling example of a modern slaying hero
Osama bin Laden.
From Acculturated, 9/17/15

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Every Child Should Read ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’

Even as far back as when I was in high school, in the Mesozoic Era, schools were fiddling with their reading lists, adding “relevant” contemporary titles to the old standards in order to pique student interest. These days schools are moving toward a Common Core emphasis on reading “informational texts” like nonfiction and memoirs. It would be tragic if some great works of fiction became casualties of that shift; in fact, I can think of two classic works that should never be stricken from school reading lists: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Not only do the novels still hold up as literary storytelling, but their complementary cautionary messages are just as relevant – if not more so – than when both were published.
Orwell’s dystopian tale, published in 1949, centers on Winston Smith’s doomed rebellion against a Kafkaesque, all-knowing, all-seeing totalitarian state that stamps out all individualism and independent thought. In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four – sometimes published as 1984 – the brainwashed masses live and work under omnipresent government surveillance, public mind control, and the glowering image of the mysterious Party leader, Big Brother.
Smith works for the ironically-named Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. His job is to rewrite past newspaper articles, or eliminate some entirely, so that the historical record always aligns with the current party line. He privately dreams of rebelling against Big Brother, but by the novel’s bleak end he comes to love his oppressor.
Orwell had an astute grasp of the ways in which totalitarians twist language in the service of their power-hungry agenda. His novel introduced into our lexicon some brilliant and chilling terminology such as “thought police,” “newspeak,” “doublethink,” “memory hole,” and most familiarly, “Orwellian,” the adjective for official deception, ubiquitous surveillance, historical revisionism, and the manipulation of language by a ruthlessly authoritarian state.
In fact, “Orwellian” was being used so often by the media in June of 2013 that sales of 1984 spiked nearly 10,000%. Why? Because at that time the news was brimming with revelations about secret, overreaching surveillance on the part of the National Security Agency. The ominous label was an indication of the extent to which Americans feel that the government has come to wield too much illicit, intrusive power. The surveillance state is even more deeply entrenched in Orwell’s England today.
In 1932, Orwell’s former teacher at Eton, Aldous Huxley, had released Brave New World, a very different dystopian viewpoint. Huxley’s ominous vision of the future was less overtly totalitarian than Orwell’s: the citizens of his World State live in perfect health and communal prosperity; they’re happily brainwashed by social conditioning and hallucinogenic drug;, free of emotional attachments and spiritual needs; kept distracted by intellectually unchallenging pastimes and recreational sex. Where Orwell’s characters were kept in line by fear and brutal coercion, Huxley’s willingly embraced their own subjugation through the apathy induced by petty diversions.
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman nailed the differences between the two:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
These two books are spring-loaded with imaginative insights about language and power, humanity and nature, the individual and society, freedom and enslavement, love and hate. No “informational texts” could ever compare.
For high school readers who might think that Orwell’s vision could never come to pass in America, it’s important to note that Orwell set 1984 not in Stalinist Russia but in his native England to warn readers that no country, however civilized and democratic, however much it purports to celebrate freedom and individual rights, is free from the threat of totalitarianism. For those readers who dismiss Huxley’s vision as mere science fiction, it’s important to point out that to a large extent we already inhabit it.
From Acculturated, 9/8/15

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Josh Duggar, Christian Marriage, and Hypocrisy

The recent hacking of the Ashley Madison adultery website exposed names and information from its approximately 37 million members – among them, a couple of prominent, family values patriarchs. One critic pounced on that hypocrisy to try to paint traditional Christian marriage itself as sexist and hypocritical.
The most famous name to emerge from the hacking is family values promoter and reality TV star Josh Duggar, fresh off the disturbing revelations of his teenage sexual molestation of his sisters. Duggar released a statement in which he judged himself “the biggest hypocrite ever”:
While espousing faith and family values, I… became unfaithful to my wife. I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him. 
He went on to admit that for years he had been “publicly stating I was fighting against immorality in our country while hiding my own personal failings… I deeply regret all the hurt I have caused so many by being such a bad example. I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
Also exposed in the hacking was one half of the popular Christian husband-and-wife vlogging team, Sam and Nia Rader. Sam had opened an Ashley Madison account in 2013, before the couple’s YouTube fame. They recently released a video in which Sam clears the air about it, claiming that he and his wife had already worked through the issue together and she had forgiven him. Unlike Duggar, Sam Rader attests that he never met anyone through the cheating site or had an affair.
Skeptics might say that both of their statements are insincere and a cynical PR spin, and perhaps they are. The hypocrite “deceives others by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice,” as Christopher O. Tollefsen puts it, so we don’t know if they can be believed. Certainly Duggar’s wife, family, friends, and supporters may find it difficult if not impossible to trust and forgive him his betrayal. “The only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy,” declared essayist William Hazlitt two hundred years ago. “The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
Being Christian doesn’t necessarily make us better than anyone else; it means that we strive to hold ourselves accountable to our values. Sometimes we fall short – perhaps even more often than not. That doesn’t invalidate the values themselves; nor does it mean that all who fall short are hypocrites. But preaching a code of behavior that we sometimes don’t live up to makes us targets for scorn. Had Charlie Sheen’s name popped up among the Ashley Madison accounts, no one would have leapt to condemn him because Sheen has no standards in this regard to fall short of. But let someone with religious standards do so, and some critics are quick to pounce.
Enter Slate’s Amanda Marcotte. She took the hacking as an opportunity to claim that the Ashley Madison episode provides a “peephole into ‘traditional’ Christian marriage,” which emphasizes the wife’s submission to the husband’s moral leadership. Marcotte claims that the scandal reveals what “this call to male responsibility and protection can look like in practice.” As examples, she zeroed in on Duggar’s and Rader’s moral failure. 
Here’s why Marcotte is wrong to single them out and use them to smear Christian marriage:
First, the 37 million Ashley Madison accounts range across 53 countries and everywhere across America, with the exception of only three sparsely populated zip codes. Surely among that legion of cheaters there were husbands of all faiths and political stripes. But Marcotte focused on two notable Christian-right figures, because they are easy, politically correct targets in our culture, because they espouse a moral code she doesn’t ascribe to, and because she has contempt for their belief in the complementary roles of husband and wife.
Second, Duggar and Rader are not examples of what that relationship looks like “in practice” – they are examples of the failure of it. They are not representative of faithful Christian husbands – they are representative of those who succumbed to temptation.
Third, I don’t know what is in Sam Rader’s heart or what transpired between him and his wife when he confessed his transgression – and neither does Marcotte, who seems to assume, a là Hazlitt, that his repentance is fake. Regardless, Rader was correct when said in his video message that we are all broken, even Christians. All of us are fallen, all of us are weak, all of us are hypocritical sometime about something. All of us need forgiveness.
And unlike what many including Marcotte seem to think, Christians do not consider forgiveness a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card. “It's so easy!” Marcotte sneered about Rader’s announcement that “I have sought forgiveness from God, and he has forgiven me, so I have been completely cleansed of this sin.” Again, I cannot speak for his sincerity, but true contrition is not an easy, rubber-stamped absolution. It is a humbling and sometimes painful process of acknowledging guilt to oneself, to the ones we have wronged, and to God. It means empathizing with the pain we have caused others, sincerely asking their forgiveness, and then earning that forgiveness and their trust all over again through a conscious commitment.
To err is human, as Pope famously wrote, to forgive divine. Josh Duggar and Sam Rader may be hypocrites, but that is a human failing, not only a Christian one.
From Acculturated, 8/31/15

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Curse of the Participation Trophy

Last weekend Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison posted an Instagram photo of a pair of “participation trophies” that were awarded to his two sons – and apparently to everyone else on the team as well – by their sports league. Harrison announced firmly that he is returning the trophies because they weren’t earned.
“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do,” he wrote, “and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy”:
I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best...cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.#harrisonfamilyvalues
James Harrison has lived his own lesson about earning success. The youngest of 14 children, Harrison was a walk-on at the Kent State University football team, went undrafted by the NFL in 2002, and was cut four times by pro teams before going on to become a five-time Pro Bowl selection. “James is the type of person who will say: ‘I will prove you wrong. I deserve to be here,’” said Harrison’s best friend. Harrison, now 37, seems determined to instill that perseverance and fortitude in his boys, who are 8 and 6 years old.
The photo subsequently went viral and Harrison’s “family values” met with approval from every corner of the internet. The very fact that his principled position was so applauded indicates not only to what degree our culture has become infected with an entitlement mentality, but also to what degree many Americans have had enough of it. They recognize what should be obvious: that if everyone gets a trophy, then the trophy is meaningless; if simply showing up is praiseworthy, then the praise is worthless.
There is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which the Dodo Bird is asked to declare the winner of a running competition, and without considering how far each participant had run or for how long, he announces that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes!” While reasonable people may find this nonsensical and patently unfair, it unfortunately describes an attitude toward children that has become prevalent among many educators, coaches, and child development experts.
Their theory that shoring up a child’s self-esteem is of primary educational importance has led to an obsession with protecting young people’s feelings at the expense of actual education, even in institutions of higher learning. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other politically correct shelters encourage insularity and infantilism rather than the broadening and maturation that should be the point of education.
In her book All Must Have Prizes, the brilliant columnist Melanie Phillips addressed the intellectual failure and moral relativism at the heart of such an educational doctrine. A Rousseau-influenced, “child-centered” approach meant that education was no longer seen as “the transmission of knowledge but as a therapeutic exercise in self-realization,” as Phillips put it. The result has been neither better-educated kids nor kids with better self-esteem.
Gill Robins, a British educator and author of Praise, Motivation and the Child, complains that handing out prizes for all is “very patronizing” and “simply doesn’t work” in terms of molding children’s behavior or laying the groundwork for their ability to understand the world. “How can the self-esteem of a person possibly be nurtured by telling them that they are as good at something as everyone else, even when they know that it’s not true?” And yet “our thinking is still weighted down by an outmoded belief that we can shape a person with daily bribes.”
No decent parents want their children to feel like losers. But attempting to prop up a child’s self-esteem with hollow participation trophies ensures not healthy confidence but narcissism. Jean M. Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, writes that “[T]he ‘everybody gets a trophy’ mentality basically… builds this empty sense of ‘I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything but just because I’m here.’”
Of course, it’s important to encourage very young children to attempt new things, and to reward them with praise for the effort, regardless of how successful the attempt. You don’t want them to be afraid to try. You want them to know they have your unfailing support. But gradually they must be challenged and allowed to fail. At some point the training wheels must come off, and they must experience falling down and learn to get up and try again. They must develop – the hard way – a realistic sense of their own talents and of the sometimes boundary-pushing mental and physical effort required to actually accomplish something. Authentic self-esteem comes from striving and achieving, not from empty praise and condescending trophies.
Perhaps the widespread, approving response to James Harrison’s stand is an encouraging indication that parents are once again embracing common sense, and that failed educational theories are headed the way of the Dodo.

From Acculturated, 8/20/15

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is Frugality the New Living Large?

The news that rap mogul Fifty Cent filed for bankruptcy not long ago surely raised a few eyebrows. After all, he seemed the very epitome of living large – but then, living large is something of a fickle illusion. Recent history is littered with examples of entertainers who rocketed to fame and fortune, only to come crashing to earth ignominiously, stunned when the seemingly endless good life abruptly fizzled out: Fifty’s fellow bankrupted celebs include MC Hammer, TLC, and Toni Braxton (twice), to name just three well-known examples.
Athletes too can suffer the same financial fate: boxer Mike Tyson, basketball’s Scottie Pippen, baseball’s Jack Clark, and many more. While players are active the money faucet seems like it will never stop flowing, but in a few years it can dry up – and for shortsighted athletes, who often have no other job skills, their savings dry up just as quickly. In 2008, the NBA Players’ Association claimed that 60 percent of pro basketball players go broke within five years of retirement. That is a sobering statistic.
Or it should be, anyway. But athletes in their prime are living in the eternal now of youth, and feeling invincible. Even when they do have one eye toward the future, most have no conception of how to manage the bucks they rake in.
Vin Baker, for example, spent 13 years in the NBA, playing in four All-Star Games. But alcoholism and a string of bad financial choices such as a failed restaurant combined to wipe out nearly $100 million in earnings.
“When you make choices and decisions and think that it will never end, and then you get into spending and addiction and more spending, it’s a definite formula for losing,” Baker said. Asked what advice he would give other players, he said, “I’d want guys to not take the money for granted. It can be here today and gone tomorrow… As quickly as that contract can be signed, there are a hundred things that can also ruin it.”
When Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie first came into the NFL, he had an addiction also – to spending money. “I was out of control,” he said. Cromartie blew all the guaranteed money from his rookie contract – about $5 million – in his first two years in the league, on luxuries like nine cars, two homes, jewelry, and hangers-on.
Cromartie now shares his hard-earned financial experience with teammates: “I want to help others learn from what I did wrong,” he said. “I tell the young guys, ‘Don't spend any money the first year and a half of your career. You don't know what will happen after that.”
Baltimore Ravens guard John Urschel reportedly lives on $25,000 a year and even had a roommate last year to keep expenses down. Urschel made $564,000 in salary and bonuses as a rookie in 2014. His deal is worth $2.3 million, but only the $144,000 signing bonus was guaranteed. If he gets cut, the team owes him nothing, so Urschel is keenly aware that he needs to make the money last.
Toward that end, he drives a used 2013 Nissan Versa which he bought for $9,000. His modest ride looks rather hilarious in this tweeted photo of it between the massive, expensive vehicles of a pair of fellow players, but I don’t think anyone will dare ridicule the 308 lb. Urschel about it.
Another example is Detroit Lions wide receiver Ryan Broyles, who was drafted in 2012. His contract was worth over $3.6 million, more than $1.4 million of which was guaranteed. But Broyles had seen other athletes blow through their stash, and he was determined to avoid that. He met with a financial adviser who urged Broyles to figure out his means, set a budget, live within it, and invest the rest.

Broyles says that he and his wife have lived on about $60,000 a year throughout his career so far. Everything else has gone toward ensuring that his post-football monetary future is set. He drives a Ford Focus rental car during training camp and he still has his 2005 Chevrolet Trailblazer from college. “Whatever comes, it's just a blessing,” he says. “But I got the mindset of a businessman off the field, I'll tell you that.”
Broyles now coaches others on finances. Earlier this year he traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to students about financial planning. He is working with VISA and the NFL on promoting financial security and planning.
Players like these are becoming the new role models for up-and-coming athletic superstars. HBO has even centered a new show, Ballers, on a former-athlete-turned-investment-counselor (played by Dwayne Johnson) who tries to knock financial sense into athlete clients before their dream jobs turn into nightmare unemployment.
My friend Eric Matthews, a wealth advisor and associate vice president at the Beverly Hills investment firm LourdMurray, represents entertainers and athletes. I asked him if he is seeing a trend of budget-consciousness among his clients, or if the temptation to live large is still too great.
“I think the lure will always be there,” he answered:
I have a rookie wide receiver I am working with now. He got back from rookie camp and already wants to own a big tricked-out SUV in addition to the sports car he wants to buy. He's living on the minimum and isn’t even guaranteed a spot on the roster yet. He wasn't talking like this before rookie camp. Now that he's back I saw the twinkle in his eye for stuff. I have to remind him that he didn't work this hard in high school and college to get to this level in his career to blow it all on cars and trucks. We have to think bigger picture. It is starting to resonate deeper the more time I spend with him, but it takes time and education. There is a whole world for these guys to discover still.
But Matthews does see a greater financial awareness, especially among younger clients:
Millennials and the iGeneration want more transparency. Many want to know where others went wrong. I always tell them that we need to focus on what we can control, and the hard part that a client can control is their behavior. A lack of money discipline is what really hurts guys.

The good news is that many young players are wising up to the foolish and illusory nature of living large and embracing the advantages and stability of frugality. As Eric Matthews told me, “What these young players are realizing is that they don’t need to be the next example of a broke athlete.”
From Acculturated, 8/17/15

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ronda Rousey Proves ‘Strong is the New Sexy’

For women frustrated by our culture’s intimidating standards of beauty and sexiness epitomized by say, the Victoria’s Secret Angels, the good news is that there is a new feminine body image ideal in town – and it belongs to Ronda Rousey.
It’s been a big summer for the mixed martial arts champ Rousey. In June she appeared in a romantic role playing herself in the Entourage movie. That wasn’t her first film – Rousey had previously appeared on the big screen alongside heavyweight action stars in The Expendables 3 and Furious 7, and is now apparently slated to star in a movie version of her autobiography, My Fight/Your Fight.
Fresh off that Entourage appearance, in July she scored ESPY awards for Best Female Athlete and Best Fighter (in a category that included four male nominees). A few days after that, she put down her trash-talking UFC opponent Bethe Correia in a mere 34 seconds to retain her women’s bantamweight title. That’s par for the course (if I may mix my sports metaphors) for the undefeated Rousey, who routinely forces her opponents into submission in less than the first minute of the first round, and who owns the record for the shortest match (14 seconds) in UFC championship history.
But the most significant and unexpected development came this Tuesday when it was announced that she would be the next model to spice up a Carl’s Jr. burger commercial. The fast-food chain is known for its sexed-up ads featuring barely-clad supermodels dripping hot sauce as they indulge orgasmically in a burger. Previous models have included Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Emily Ratajkowski of “Blurred Lines” infamy, Kate Upton, and Charlotte “the new Kate Upton” McKinney – all sex symbols in the traditional vein.
The choice of Rousey signals not only an interesting change of direction for Carl’s Jr., but also an acknowledgement of a new standard for female sexiness. The kickass Rousey is no mere sex kitten. Her intimidating physical power and animal intensity, combined with a disarming grin and wavy blonde mane, are making her the face (and body) of a new kind of sex symbol.
They earned her, for example, the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s The Body Issue 2012, in which she posed discreetly nude, as well as an appearance in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. For the latter, the 5’7”, 135-lb. Rousey actually gained weight intentionally – no doubt a first for an SI model – because “at 150 pounds, I feel like I'm at my healthiest and my strongest and my most beautiful.”
She may carry herself with a pantherish confidence now, but in a Cosmopolitan interview last month, Rousey revealed that she once had her own body image issues:
I grew up thinking that because my body type was uncommon [i.e., athletic], it was a bad thing. Now that I'm older, I've really begun to realize that I'm really proud that my body has developed for a purpose and not just to be looked at.
Rousey elaborated on this a little more explicitly when she countered critics recently who called her too “masculine”:
I have this one term for the kind of woman my mother raised me to not be, and I call it a do-nothing b*tch. A DNB. The kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by someone else. That’s why I think it’s hilarious if [someone thinks] my body looks masculine or something like that.
Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than f*cking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine. I think it’s femininely badass as f*ck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose, because I’m not a do-nothing b*tch. It’s not very eloquently said but it’s to the point and maybe that’s just what I am. I’m not that eloquent, but I’m to the point.
Yahoo! Beauty editor Bobbi Brown was bowled over enough by Rousey to call her “the new face of beauty.” In an interview with Rousey, Brown gushed,
I saw this beautiful picture of you and it stopped me because you were in a bathing suit and you have the most beautiful strong body. Before I even knew who you were I said, “Oh my god this is the new face of beauty.”
“We are trying to push strong as the new sexy as much as possible,” Rousey replied.
Indeed, and it’s working. Ronda Rousey and other star athletes like Serena Williams and skier Lindsey Vonn (both of whom Rousey beat out for the ESPY this year) are proving that strength is sexy in men and women. They’re helping to free women from the media’s expectation (demand, really) that their bodies are merely to be looked at. They’re inspiring women to aim for a healthy new ideal. Most women can’t strive to meet the body standard of a genetic lottery winner and professional mannequin like Gisele Bundchen, but they can strive to be strong and purposeful and to adopt a winner’s perseverance. In other words, they can strive, like Ronda Rousey, to be “femininely badass.”
From Acculturated, 8/7/15 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Why We Love ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Two weeks ago NBC’s American Ninja Warrior bested The Bachelorette in the coveted 18–49 ratings demo, after the two raced neck-and-neck all summer. Last Monday night the finale episode pushed The Bachelorette to victory again, but ANW has proven to be the summer’s surprising hit. Its popularity has confounded Slate’s television critic, who asked, “What’s the source of the show’s hypnotic appeal?”
Good question, but Slate offered no answer, except the fascination of “watching dozens of men and women fall off obstacles that could only be dreamed up by a borderline sadistic ringmaster very familiar with the interactions of muscle groups.” But that explanation doesn’t do the show justice.
American Ninja Warrior, now in its seventh season, is the big-budget American version of the Japanese original in which contestants run an insanely demanding obstacle course (even the original version has produced only three winners in 31 seasons.) Currently hosted by commentators Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, ANW features amateur (and occasionally professional) athletes taking on a torturous array of physical challenges.
The contestants try to survive increasingly difficult stages of obstacle courses to earn a trip to the finals at “Mount Midoriyama” in Las Vegas where, as Slate pointed out, no competitor has successfully completed even the third of four possible levels.
Some of the extraordinarily demanding challenges require contestants to use only a crossbar to haul themselves up a tall “salmon ladder”; to swing from nunchuks suspended over water; to use only their fingertips to cross a lengthy narrow ledge; to run up a daunting, 14-foot “warped wall”; and to overcome other obstacles that all require superhuman levels of agility, flexibility, grip strength, and most importantly, mental discipline.
But its popularity can be attributed to more than just the expectation of watching people dunked ignominiously in the water underneath each obstacle. First, rather than the staged melodrama and backstabbing of many reality TV competitions, ANW instead emphasizes skill, sportsmanship, and the drive for personal excellence. There are plenty of “guilty pleasure” programs (like The Bachelorette), and an abundance of reality shows that seem to reward bad behavior, but too few that touch viewers in an inspirational, uplifting way. ANW presents mostly ordinary (but extraordinarily disciplined) men and women striving for extraordinary achievements, which compels viewers not only to cheer them on but also to want to give it a go themselves (the number of applicants is up almost ten times from the previous season). Even I was tempted to try out for the show, until I came to my senses.
Second, apart from the astounding physical demands, it features a variety of competitors from all walks of life, from the young (you must be over 21) to the old (the oldest contestant was 72) – whose personal stories and motivations, presented in short profiles, are often very touching. Some, for example, compete in order to serve as good role models for their children, or to honor the memory of a lost loved one. Yes, a one million dollar cash prize awaits the winner, but it is clear that most if not all of the contestants are motivated not primarily by money but by more personal reasons, and by the ambition to earn the Holy Grail title of the first American Ninja Warrior.
Third, the show is devoid of the ugly arrogance evident in too many other reality TV competitions. Instead, the community of ANW athletes exhibits a camaraderie, mutual support, and good sportsmanship that are too often lacking even in professional sports.
Fourth, the show teaches perseverance and how to fail gracefully. Surely it would crush one’s spirit to train hard all year and come so far only to fall short. And yet the contestants rarely react with anything less than momentary disappointment and a smile. They often tell the interviewer immediately afterward that they intend to get back to training and try again next year.
Fifth, ANW is a welcome, family entertainment alternative. I watch the show with my five-year-old and two-year-old daughters; we all find it fun and exciting and even inspirational. Maybe one of them will be the first American Ninja Warrior.
In short, to answer Slate’s question: we love American Ninja Warrior because it ignites in us the desire to be and do our best, to reach higher and achieve more. And that beats a guilty pleasure like The Bachelorette any day.
From Acculturated, 7/30/15