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