Summary: Films, TV, and the daily news show that America’s wells of inspiration have run dry. We dream of reform but lack the will to act. Where can we find new ideas?
The burdens of self-government have become too great for many Americans to bear. Responsibility is so rare that “It’s not my fault” should replace E Pluribus Unum on the dollar bill. This is the ethos of a nation in decline. Where can be look for new inspiration?
Not in our history. Children are taught that most of our past heroes are not fit models because they did not have our values. (How could they? We’re standing “on their shoulders.”) They are white male racists and sexists, which makes them illegitimate – no matter how great their deeds, no matter how much we owe them.
We can turn to myths for inspiration. But most of our modern myths reflect the spiritual weakness that is a cause of our crisis. Most of them tell about people who find a magic dingus, have powers bestowed on them by a Great MacGuffin, or are just awesome as they are. James Bowman calls them Hollywood’s “slacker heroes” – fun for dreams, useless for inspiration.
In XXX, for instance, the charm of the scenario lies in the idea that lazy, undisciplined slackers like, well, moi, can wander in off the street and instantly outperform the highly trained secret agents that were the role models of yesteryear (or a) similar imposture: that enough of the right technology can render skill and discipline unnecessary. …Discipline, practice, sobriety, hard work, training, all of this counts for nothing. I could do that all that stuff – being the kind of “street-smart” character that I am.
Fortunately, we have other myths that can work for us. We have myths that provide stronger fuel for our spirit and imagination.
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne watched the murder of his parents, and resolved to reform Gotham City so that does not happen to other children. He spent years studying and training to become Batman, one of the most formidable heroes of history.
As a boy, James T. Kirk wanted to become a great starship Captain. He studied for years before entering Star Fleet Academy. As an instructor at the Academy his students saw him as “a stack of books with legs.” He was familiar with both ancient philosophy (e.g., Spinoza, as mentioned in “Where No Man Has Gone Before“) and the major naval battles of history (per The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar. He often wins due to his deep knowledge about his craft, as in “The Naked Time” or extreme preparation “The Tholian Web.”
But those 20th century myths no longer work for us. Batman has been re-imagined into a bitter middle-aged man, his life a failed quest. At the end of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Wayne abandons a ruined Gotham. The Wayne fortune gone, his life wasted, he goes to Paris to frolic with Catwoman. In the new Star Trek films, Kirk is played by a whiny impulsive slacker who tends to win due to luck and plot armor.
Unfortunately, Hollywood’s creative energies have run dry, as seen in recent films and TV. Good acting and lavish CGI, little originality. The exception is in providing mythical heroes of previously neglected gender and races. Only time will tell, but I doubt that films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have real effect on people’s lives. Gold and silver age comics have achieved box office success as their underlying ideas have lost their hold on our imaginations and souls.
Perhaps we need to move beyond using heroes to inspire us.
Looking to other nations for inspiration
“The world revolves around the creators of new ideas, revolves silently.”
— Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
We can do what the West has done so often in the past: borrow from other societies. For generations Japan has evolved myths told using manga and anime, stories with distinctive themes drawing on their history combined with what Japan has learned from the West. This vast investment of imaginative energy has produced new ideas.
One of the most successful and original products of these new media is “Fullmetal Alchemist” (see Wikipedia for details). This saga teaches something America should take to heart. Something that can change how we see the world, and respond to it.
Humanity cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To gain anything, something of equal value must be given. That is life’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange, and applies to thing tangible and intangible – matter, energy, and spirit.
We are manipulated by politicians and parties offering free things. Vote for me and I’ll shower you with free benefits. Buy this thing and your life will be better. The promise is almost always bogus, but we still believe the next one. Obama promises “Hope and Change” but expands and institutionalizes Bush’s foreign wars and domestic surveillance programs. Trump promises a populist revolution but implements policies that make America’s plutocrats richer and more powerful.
“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.”
— Jean V. Dubois (Lt. Colonel, Mobile Infantry, retired), teaching History and Moral Philosophy to high school students in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
Embracing the Law of Equivalent Exchange would make us immune to such follies. We would look not for saviors, but for people to lead us to build a better future for America.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
— Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister, 13 May 1940.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. ”
— JFK’s inaugural address, 20 January 1961,
Today discussions about reform focus on the actions needed — a new law or constitutional amendment, a super policy, a new agency, etc. Seldom mentioned is the real question: how do we make it happen? What organization and collective effort can bring about the needed changes? In a decade of discussions in scores of forums, physical and virtual, I have found it almost impossible to change the subject from dreaming to considering actions. The context of our thinking is self-defeating.
Adopting the Law of Equivalent Exchange would change this context from dreaming to what are we willing to pay to achieve a reform. Past generations knew this. They paid a heavy price to build a better world.
- Samuel Adams and his fellow activists in 1764 Boston organized the first of the Committees of Correspondence. They formed the nucleus of shadow governments, which later formed the basis of revolutionary governments, and then the USA.
- In 1787 William Wilberforce began his crusade in Parliament against slavery in the UK. Full victory came in 1833.
- Benjamin Franklin helped organize America’s first Abolitionist Society at Pennsylvania in 1785. These spread across the nation. Partial victory came in 1865. Full victory came in 1964.
- The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The first National Women’s Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, MA in October 1850. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920.
“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. …Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful Arabian Nights.
Reform, whether political or social, is not a technocratic process. It requires motivating people to divert effort from their daily lives to change the future. It requires inspiration and new ideas. America appears tapped out on both of these. But the world is large. We can look abroad, as we and other people have done for millennia, to find what we need.
For more information
Other posts about anime: Can love end the gender wars? and “Avengers: Infinity War” is boring. Watch some anime instead.
Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- The philosophy behind the legend of Batman.
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
- An America without heroes. We’ll miss them.
- We need better heroes. They are there, in our past.