Not related to Christmas in any way, but I read and loved this quote from Peggy Noonan. I don't always agree with Ms. Noonan, but find her always worth reading. She writes with such grace and clarity, and has such an interesting point-of-view. At any rate, she concludes her column with this:
"We are at a point in our culture when we actually have to pull for grown-up movies, when we must try to encourage them and laud them when they come by. David Lean wouldn't be allowed to make movies today. John Ford would be forced to turn John Wayne into a 30-something failure-to-launch hipster whose big moment is missing the toilet in the vomit scene in Hangover Ten. Our movie culture has descended into immaturity, deep and inhuman violence, a pervasive and flattened sexuality. It is an embarrassment "In Iraq this year I asked and Iraqi military officer doing joint training at an American base what was the big thing he'd come to believe about Americans in the years they'd been there. He thought. "You are a better people than your movies say." He had judged us by our exports. He had seen the low slag heap of our culture and assumed it was a true expression of who we are." Link here.
Well said. It seems to me that this is hard to argue with when you look at the lion's share of what is produced. It further seems that it's difficult to make a compelling argument that this is a good thing. One might say, "Well, I like it." But that doesn't mean it's good or right or desirable. The quote from the Iraqi officer is interesting to me. Noonan says he had assumed our movies accurately expressed who we are. How long can we produce and consume that kind of thing before it becomes who we are?
I recently read a tedious, tendentious essay about Harry Potter. The author is a writer for a liberal leaning web magazine and was new to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. She gushed about how the movie clearly portrayed liberal values and so forth.
To be fair, I read a similar blog post by a conservative writer outlining the conservative world view that exists in J.K. Rowling's books.
To be honest, both of these essays left me feeling a little queasy. They both overlooked clear pieces of data that argued against their points and pushed on, impressing Harry and Rowling to serve their cause like the British Navy dragging some poor guy in a waterfront tavern to the H.M.S. Bounty.
My friends and family know I have strong political views and there is a time and place to discuss those.
But does everything have to be political these days? I mean, Harry Potter, really?
Can we not just enjoy a good story about a brave kid with a scar without having to search for deeper political messages? Are we so bereft of arguments for our politics that we have to draft underage wizards (yes, they are underage by Muggle standards. Harry is only 17).
This distresses me for several reasons. First of all, as I have written before, I worry about the growing, deepening divisions in our country. There is precious little we have in common anymore. So when something comes along that we can all enjoy (or many of us at least) it would be nice not to find ways to disagree about it.
Second, good and great art speaks to our souls. It tells us about being human and it generally draws on universal themes. Harry Potter is about courage, loyalty, friendship, good and evil. These are big ideas, transcendent themes. To drag politics in cheapens it.
Politics is a necessary fact of life in a republic or democracy. It is to freedom what excrement is to life: a fundamental and necessary, if unpleasant, process everyone goes through. But in polite society, we don't focus on it beyond occasional jokes that we all acknowledge are juvenile and in bad taste.
Third, and most importantly, Harry Potter features an evil wizard who tortures and kills people. He wants to rule the world. Republicans or Democrats may really annoy you but come on! They are nowhere near Voldemort's level of evil. And if you think they are, then you are smug, delusional, and a big part of this country's problems. You need long self-reflection, less media, and possibly some counseling. You need to calm down and think clearly and logically. You also need to make some friends with people on the other side of the aisle. You might also read my blog posts on civility here, here, and here.
One of the things that bugs me most about these kind of comparisons is that it's a sort of narcissistic values inflation. The writer elevates his or her policy beliefs to being analogous to great heroes while simultaneously casting those who disagree as villains. That is an off-putting kind of arrogance and self-righteousness.
More than anything though, I think we are focusing far too much of our time on politics. We should vote and write our Congressional representatives. We should be informed and express our opinions. But if we let politics consume and inform everything then it's getting to be unhealthy and we risk becoming myopic. There's so much wonderful and good stuff in the world! If we focus exclusively on politics we are cheating ourselves. Not to mention contributing the polarization and extremism that are raging.
Finally, there have been times and places when all art had political overtones. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and North Korea, for example. Art was (is) subverted to be elegant propaganda for a political message. And it wasn't pretty. It's not something I think we want to emulate. Let's not voluntarily go to this kind of system.
Harry Potter was something enjoyed by adults and children, liberals and conservatives, readers and non-readers. Let's celebrate that and just leave the politics at the bookstore's edge.
The other day, the principal at my school sent me this article. It broke my heart. It's about a girl who took a nude picture of herself and texted it to her boyfriend. From there it got into the hands of her former best-friend who made it go viral. The boyfriend and former best friend were arraigned on child pornography charges. The poor girl who took the picture lived through hell and basically had her life destroyed. If you have a teen or are a teen, you need to read this article. This story has haunted me because it seems so preventable.
You see, the child in question came from a broken home and was used to having all the time she wanted alone with her electronics. At no point in this article--until after the tragedy--does it seem to have occurred to any parent to monitor their child's texts, to ask questions, or simply to be present.
This article notes something that mature adults should already know--and tell the children (including teens) under their care: sex, and anything related to it, is not something to be taken lightly. It is a fire--warming, life-giving and wonderful. But it can also burn and leave a young life in emotional ashes. I'm not even talking about right and wrong or religious concepts of sin--just mental health and social well-being.
When I was a teen, we did stupid things, too. But we didn't have the internet to make permanent our every gaffe or goof. And, we also had a variety of social barriers to protect us from doing things that were stupid to a potentially life-altering degree. I think of the cultural norms of my day like guard rails.
These guard rails protected us from unwittingly ruining our lives. Yes, you could break through the rails if you wanted to, but you had to try. It was hard to do accidentally. There was a culture that would have discouraged us from doing this kind of thing even if we'd had the technology. Parents, teachers, schools, and the larger culture in general.
These guard rails were community standards, traditional values, parents who were parents, not buddies and who didn't mind making us mad and weren't afraid to butt in where they were not wanted (but were very needed).
I suppose you could look at my upbringing and say it was restrictive and that it inhibited my wilder inclinations. To that I say, "Yep. It was. Thank heaven." Now that I'm almost 40, I regret nothing about my strict upbringing. In fact, I'm grateful for it.
The culture we live in today is nearly opposite. It encourages kids to do stuff like this. They are bombarded with sexual images and content everywhere. Media, including that aimed at teens, gives them the idea that this sort of thing is edgy and exciting and fun. And we're surprised when they act on all they absorb?
We have collectively pushed the age of sexual awareness to such an early age that they are initiated before they are mature enough to handle it. Here's exhibit A. Abercrombie and Fitch has been catching well-deserved flack for marketing push-up, padded bikini tops to children--like second graders.
This article from the Wall Street Journal is by a mother of daughters in which she laments the current proclivity of parents to allow and encourage their daughters dress provocatively. She makes a good point I agree with: I don't think many people, upon maturity think, "Boy, you know what would have made my childhood better? I should have started having sex sooner."
In spite of this, though, we're creating a culture where children are going to naturally see themselves as sexual beings very early. They'll experiment and then reap the consequences. It's hard to stop the train once they are on it.
Culturally, in terms of sex, we've lowered the driving age, increased the speed limit, given everyone cars, and then taken away the guard rails.
This is tragic because kids, like the kids in that article, do something stupid--and it ends up being a permanent scar.
As a teacher, I'm around kids all day. I hear them talk, I see what they write on Facebook. I'm not naive. I know teens think about sex and many of them think they want it. Well, they want to skip school, too. They don't want to do their homework or eat their broccoli. But we, their teachers and parents push back on those things.
We can't control adolescents and make every decision for them. At the same time, our job as adults is not to facilitate the every whim and wish and desire of kids. The fact they want something does not make it good or wise or healthy.
Our job is to be guard rails and say, "No. I know you think you want this, but no. Someday you'll thank me." We need to be the guard rails. We can't prevent them from making big mistakes--but we can at least try to make it so they don't unwittingly lumber into pitfalls.
Incidentally, there's a great blog post about this. This blog post is an extended, thoughtful discussion by a young adult about sex in young adult (YA) novels. I highly recommend it. She thinks there is too much and she specifically argues with several of the rationales I have heard over the years. One of her best points is this: why do adults feel the need to push sex on kids so soon?
Why don't we push back the other way a bit? Let's be the guard rails instead of just saying, "Start your engines," or not doing anything and letting the kids be carried away on the cultural tides.
If an adult exposes an adolescent to pornography, or behaves in other lewd ways, that adult will go to jail and face being shunned for the rest of their lives. That is right and just. But, why do we let our culture and corporations sexualize our children in ways we would never allow an individual to do?
For example, young girls dressing provocative ways is not precocious, sassy, or cute. It's sick, sick, sick! Why do we let corporations and pop culture do what we would never allow an individual to do and sexualize children--and that includes teenagers. It's an ugly trend and it's getting worse.
I know parents who would be horrified if their child were to have sexual encounters, but they don't bat an eye at their children dressing in revealing clothing or imitating adult styles and manners. They don't bat an eye at their child consuming media with sexual innuendoes and images. If kids are surrounded by--and participate in the rituals of--a sex-soaked culture, guess what they're going to do at ever earlier ages?
We've taken the guard rails away and replaced them with a few lame orange cones.
This is not about sex per se. It's about maturity. Sex is powerful stuff. In the right circumstances, it can be powerfully wonderful. But in the wrong circumstances--specifically, when it is not in a stable, mature relationship--it's powerfully damaging. It's like fire.
I don't want to argue right now about the right time for consenting adults. For the moment, I just wish we could all agree that anyone under 18 is really not ready. Failing that, could we at least say 16? And if they're not ready for the act, then they're not ready for all the ancillary stuff--watching it endlessly in media, dressing in provocative ways, etc.
I wish we could draw a boundary around children--CHILDREN, for crying out loud!!!!!--and say, "No!" No sexually suggestive advertising, movies, music, clothing. I'm not talking about the government or censorship. I'm talking about parents saying, "You're not going to smoke. You're not going to talk drugs. You're not going to eat all the ice cream you want. And you're not wearing, watching, texting, or doing sexual stuff. Period."
I wish more adults could be gutsy and grown-up enough to say, "There's plenty of time for that. A whole lifetime. For now, figure out who you are. What you like. What you don't like. Get to know people. Make friends--boys and girls. Be a kid. Try new activities." Or, to borrow from Stephen Sondheim, "Stay a child while you can stay a child."
Let's be the guardrails.
I am convinced that our generation lives in a culturally deprived era and it makes me sad. American pop culture used to be a treasure trove of incredible riches. I'll not say more because I inevitably sound like a curmudgeonly crank when I go too far down this road.
Here at bradenbell.com, we are getting incredibly excited for the Christmas season because, to someone interested in the arts, Christmas offers a wealth of delights and joys. So, in our effort to fight cultural mediocrity and lameness, and, because it is the season of giving and sharing, we at bradenbell.com are going to be highlighting some of our favorite Christmas cultural treasures. Recommendations on books and movies and music that have become part of our traditions over the years. This is our gift to you.
First recommendation: get the old version of Miracle on 34th Street, the black and white one with Maureen O'Hara. The newer version is ok, but it's sort of a sanitized, fairly vanilla remake. No, go to the original article. In my opinion, it has a lot more heart and it as an interesting look into a fascinating world that is long gone. It's available on Netflix here.
This is the perfect film for this part of the year because it opens with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, so it's the perfect transition piece between holidays.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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