Like just about every child born in the Nineties, I grew up on a standard diet of cartoons and video games. I loved to read as a tyke, and my parents spared no expense making sure I had every book that caught my fancy. But once I hit the magical age of six years old, I was officially designated a First Grader in the eyes of the state. From that point on, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts got to set my reading list for me.
I’m sure it goes without saying, the kinds of books they teach in public school don’t really capture a boy’s imagination. So, after a while, I lost interest in books. Besides the trifling “young adult” fiction assigned by my teachers, my cultural intake consisted mostly of D.C. Comics and The Simpsons. If I was feeling really highbrow, I might play a little Age of Empires—you know, something educational.
It’s odd hearing myself say it now, but I thought that was normal. I assumed most people liked to read—only there weren’t any good books out there. If you didn’t go in for The Outsiders, you were out of luck. All of that changed when I met my wife.
Mrs. Davis was homeschooled. Her parents are academics who teach at a small Catholic “Great Books” college. She was raised on The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—all good stuff. They didn’t have any screens in the house growing up.
And it shows. She and all of her siblings have incredible powers of imagination.
Even when when my friends and I played outside, we “played” movies: Star Wars, X-Men, whatever. My wife and her siblings invented their own worlds. They wrote their own stories. They built forts in the woods, used sticks as swords, and made costumes out of old clothes they found in the basement. That was probably the norm up until my parents’ generation—before TV, video games, and smartphones infected every home in America.
I want it to be the norm for our kids, too. So, when we got married, I set a goal for myself: I’d read all the great children’s literature that I never read as a child. Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Princess and the Goblin, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island—all of it. I’m 27, and I just bought two volumes of fairytales: one by Oscar Wilde, the other by W.B. Yeats. At this point, it’s a compulsion.
Truth be told, I’ve learned more about life by reading classic children’s books than I did studying literature and philosophy in college. These old stories taught boys to see life as an adventure, with strong and virtuous men as the heroes. I love those simple morals. After all, truth is very simple.
Yet, at least since Hemingway, writers act as though life were a series of complex moral dilemmas. Is it acceptable to murder defenseless people you’ve deemed to be “fascists”? Is it okay to also chop up the priest who hears their confessions? And if my wife and I are on our honeymoon, and we want to strike up a gender-bending ménage à trois with some Italian bird we met at a coffee shop, that’s… uh, that’s basically fine, right?
The answer, of course, is “Hell no.” We only invent that kind of ambiguity to excuse our own bad behavior.
And that’s the point of those old children’s books. Knowing right from wrong is easy, but doing the right thing is hard. These books taught boys not to make excuses. Now, the authors weren’t creating grand parables to articulate complex ethical philosophies. The moral might be as simple as, “Tis better to die alongside your ship’s captain than stage a mutiny with some homicidal buccaneers.” Just be honest, fair, kind, and brave—no matter the cost.
I don’t blame Hemingway & Co. for corrupting the morals of our Western youffs. That would be giving too much credit to novelists, who aren’t nearly as influential as they like to think. Those writers were more a product of their age than anything else—and it shows, in their own miserable private lives. But it’s interesting to see how our morally ambiguous literature mirrors our morally ambiguous society.
So, why are we talking about all of this? Well, I have a theory that politics has filled the void left by the decline of Christianity in the West. It gives us a sense of identity, and of community. It gives us a moral code by which we can order our lives. It even offers us a kind of immortality: if we give ourselves over completely to the Cause, we will never die, so long as the Cause lives on.
Granted, it’s not exactly unique. I call this “The Politicization of Everything,” which apparently isn’t an MWD Original, either. But it might be the single most important concept in America today.
Put it this way: When liberals cheer on BLM riots in Portland, but decry the Capitol Hill siege as an act of domestic terrorism, conservatives call them hypocrites. When conservatives cheer on the Capitol Hill siege, but then decry the BLM riots in Portland, liberals call them hypocrites. In fact, neither side is hypocritical. Huge swathes of both the Left and the Right believe that political violence is justified, though only if the cause itself is justified.
The liberal says, “I can’t necessarily condone all the violence in Portland, but I can understand it. The protests were an expressions of discontent with structural racism!” The conservative says, “I can’t necessarily condone the violence on Capitol Hill, but I can understand it. Congress was about to certify a stolen election!” After all, what matters more than advancing equality/protecting our democracy?
This isn’t how all conservatives and liberals think. But it’s how lots of them think, and mostly without even realizing it.
No, there’s no hypocrisy. There’s no whataboutism. There are no double standards. It’s a very basic form of consequentialism, where the (political) ends justify the means.
Lenin was a great consequentialist. “We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle,” he wrote. “Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.”
So was Robespierre: “If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a specific principle as a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our homeland’s most pressing needs.”
But this goes beyond morality. This kind of totalism—the worldview of those who embrace the Politicization of Everything—insist that all painting, architecture, literature, and music also be enlisted to aid the Cause. Their aesthetic totalism ranges from pure propaganda to “schools” of art like Socialist Realism. Or take a more recent example:
Where traditional societies celebrate fixity in morals and spontaneity in art, totalist societies celebrate spontaneity in morals and fixity in art. All morality is “creative morality”; it must be constantly melted down and refashioned to fit the most urgent needs of the Cause. Art, meanwhile, must be an unambiguous expression of ideology.
Now, back to children’s literature.
I’m sure you’ve heard that several Dr. Seuss books were recently canceled for having a whiff of racism about them. This is part of a larger saga of left-wing politics infecting the children’s literature market, which is now saturated with books like A Is for Activism and Antiracist Baby.
This subjects put a bee in the Right’s bonnet. They bewail the politicization of something as wholesome and innocent as children’s literature. Actually, they’re just mad that they didn’t think of it first—or that, when they try to copy the Left, their product is crappy.
I should’ve written about this months ago. As soon as this kerfuffle over children’s lit began, I thought to myself, “Eventually, the Right is going to start making their own propagandistic children’s literature, and nobody else on the Right is going to call them out. Also, it’s going to be terrible and not change anyone’s mind.” Alas, I held my peace.
Anyway, it’s happening. I was reading an article on my favorite news site, The Babylon Bee, about a family who’s trying to raise their children on libertarian principles: “According to sources, local mom Shirley Wood had a surprise when she picked up her three-year-old to tell him it was time for bed. ‘Am I being detained?’ shouted the toddler at the top of his lungs, greatly befuddling Mrs. Wood.” Ha ha!
Then I came to the end of the article and saw this ad:
Against my better judgment, I followed the link. Apparently, The Tuttle Twins are “an initiative of the Libertas Institute,” a libertarian think-tank based in Utah. They warn that, “Kids are not learning about the ideas of freedom or free markets in the classroom. Now they can learn at home!” The Tuttle Twins will teach your minarchist moppet about laissez-faire economics, the Non-Aggression Principle, and the social benefits of legalizing meth. Hurrah!
Dear reader, if you happen to be a mama or a papa, please don’t go in for this rubbish. Don’t raise your kids to be fanatics. If I’ve learned anything from those good ol’ children’s books, it’s that life isn’t a struggle for some Cause. It’s an adventure.
America doesn’t need any more partisans. We need heroes. We need folks who do what’s right, not what’s expedient. Who make no excuses for bad behavior. Who respect the dignity of every man, woman, and child. Who live by honor. Who’d die for a friend.
If you want your children to grow up with sound moral compass, don’t buy them The Tuttle Twins. There are more things in Treasure Island, dear reader, than are dreamt of in Hayek’s philosophy.