From the Federalist
By Hans Fiene 20, 2016
Until recently, if an Indian musician felt that the works of Mozart didn’t reflect his culture, he didn’t start a ‘Give the Symphony a Sitar’ hashtag campaign.
“The brown-headed cowbird is an obligate brood parasite.” That’s the one thing I remember from “The Biology of Birds,” a class I selected to meet my undergraduate science requirement because it sounded easy and didn’t have a lab or require group work.
For those of you who may have been too busy taking actual science courses to learn what that phrase means, obligate brood parasites are the kind of birds that, because they can’t build nests of their own, lay their eggs in nests other birds have built, birds whose offspring are generally smaller and take longer to incubate. The parasitic bird hatches first, causing the host mother to cease incubating her actual offspring to tend to the imposter. Other times, the parasitic mother will destroy the host eggs after she lays her own, ending any competition from the get-go. Either way, the result is the same: an organism that can’t create something itself coopts another organism’s creation to further its own survival.
Culturally speaking, I worry that my generation of westerners has become a collection of obligate brood parasites. Like every generation before us, we want to see our values survive. Like our ancestors, we want to influence the world and leave our imprint on society. But unlike those earlier generations, we seem to have lost the ability to accomplish those goals by creating, building, inventing, and imagining. Rather, to better the world as we see fit, we employ the far more parasitic approach of seizing the nest someone else built and refashioning it to our liking.
Listen to the Internet cowbirds crowing for the nest builders to give them what they desire instead of just producing it themselves. Feminists in the James Bond nest are insisting that they be given a female 007 while those who have infested the Ghostbusters nest scream “Misogynists!” and push the host hatchlings out of the tree the second they complain that the all-lady reboot with lazy jokes and “Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed”-looking ghosts sullies the beloved film of their youth.
Likewise, among LGBT advocates who want to see media for adolescents and children manifest acceptance of gay characters, we see something similar. Recently, some Twitter users plopped into Disney’s nest and demanded that the creators of “Frozen’s” first non-romantically entangled princess be given a girlfriend, while others parachuted into the Marvel nest and demanded that Captain America be liberated from his shackles of heteronormativity and be given a boyfriend.
Leftism Doesn’t Build Things
On the surface, all of this is rather confusing. After all, until recently, if an Indian musician thought the works of Mozart didn’t reflect his culture, he didn’t start a “Give the Symphony a Sitar” hashtag campaign. Rather, he created his own compositions so that those who shared his culture, experiences, tastes, and values wouldn’t be left out. So if feminists want a super spy or a fighter of phantasmal forces to call their own, why don’t they, via novels or film or television or comics, create them instead of coopting Bond and the Ghostbusters? Likewise, if LGBT advocates believe the world will be better off with more lesbian princesses and out-and-proud superheroes, why don’t they produce this material themselves?
The answer, I think, is fairly simple. During the feminist and civil rights movements, leftism (however vaguely that may be defined) didn’t build things. It changed things built by someone else. America, it perceived, had great potential, but was hamstrung by the bigotry and moral failings of its founders, bigotry and moral failings passed down to those currently controlling the governmental, societal, and cultural strings.
Leftists took control of those strings and, at least in their minds, succeeded at bettering everyone, and those who came of age in subsequent decades essentially came to believe that the most virtuous way to stamp out bigotry and discrimination was not to build something new but to overtake pre-existing institutions and fix what the builders did wrong. Quite simply, my generation doesn’t know how to create because we never bothered learning how, being taught from the cradle that honing our parasitic skills was a better use of our time.
This is why the average young adult who needs GPS to find anything beyond three blocks around his apartment can’t make it through Columbus Day without proclaiming his moral superiority over the Italian explorer—because, in his mind, embracing diversity and checking his white privilege on American soil is a greater accomplishment than discovering American soil. It’s also why your average high school student who can’t write a thesis statement feels not an ounce of inferiority when comparing herself to Thomas Jefferson. After all, writing the Declaration of Independence is a fine accomplishment, but it’s nothing compared to picking the racist twigs out of the Founding Fathers’ nest by shouting “slave rapist” every time his name is invoked.
It’s also why my generation feels such overwhelming compulsion to “fix” the misogynistic or heteronormative stories someone else has already told and pat ourselves on the back for our bravery. Why bother learning that forgotten skillset of creating when it’s inherently less virtuous than overtaking someone else’s imperfect nest? Exorcising young girls of the Aykroydian and Flemingian implications that women have no business busting ghosts or super-spying is a greater accomplishment than actually inventing the Ghostbusters or Bond, so quit whining about the girl versions not being funny or interesting when building a humorous or entertaining nest is of less value than cleansing those nests of their misogynistic impurities.
Likewise, when my generation has become convinced that a host’s privilege points only serve to weaken its defenses, why break a sweat learning to create your own worlds when it should be a piece of cake to take the franchises built by straight, white males? Why spend all that time making an original queer princess story, only for it to be relegated to Netflix’s mostly ignored “Gay and Lesbian” section, when you can get Disney to hand you the reins to the “Frozen” empire by threatening them with accusations of bigotry? Why do the hard work of creating an audience-enticing, super out-and-proud superhero, when you can just seize the one audiences have already embraced from the over-privileged nest builders who surely don’t have the strength to fend you off?
Christians Aren’t Off the Hook
Granted, the liberal social justice warriors were not the only ones to inherit the “take, don’t make” mentality. For the past several decades, conservative Christians adopted the parasitic approach, convincing themselves that overtaking secular nests and repurposing them in a “Christian” style was somehow more virtuous than actually making something new.
Having embraced the same mindset as many secular counterparts, Christian parents convinced themselves that creating their own unique faith-driven stories or storytelling genres, like Dante and Milton and Bunyan and Wallace and Lewis and Tolkien had done, would have been too much work and required capital and capabilities they didn’t have, so they churchified the Saturday morning cartoon nest by showing their kids videos of a talking cucumber lecturing them about honesty and fairness with a Bible verse or two thrown in at the end. They swapped out Batman episodes with the adventures of Bibleman and praised themselves for their faithfulness. They put the “Facing the Giants” DVD in the “Remember the Titans” case. They justified all of this thinking rebuilding secular nests with Christian garbage was best for their children.
Likewise, with regard to music, furthering the tradition of legendary Christian hymnists and composers like Paul Gerhardt and Johann Sebastian Bach would have required a skillset these modern Christians were neither taught nor willing to learn, and finding their own voice would have proven just as difficult.
But three chords and pop song structure were pretty easy to imitate, so when they saw their children listening to music that glorified premarital sex and drug use, they parasitically strapped on guitars, infested the pre-existing nest of secular music, and produced awful Christian rockers, embarrassing Christian rappers, and an endless array of Top-40-sounding Christian artists ranging from bad Belinda Carlisle knockoffs to somehow-worse-than-actual-Richard-Marx Richard Marx knockoffs.
The results, however, were disastrous—not just because, in seeking to make Christianity better, they only made rock and roll worse, but also because they rendered us, their children, incapable of knowing any better. Because they settled for secular copycats, they never exposed us to Christendom’s great music, literature, artwork, and architecture. Because of this, we’ve become a bunch of musically illiterate, artistically impoverished believers with no appreciation for beauty who are perfectly content to spend Sunday mornings singing terrible music in repurposed movie theaters or gymnasiums, aspiring to nothing more because it’s never even occurred to us that the Christian faith gives us the power to form culture instead of parodying it.
By trying to safely place us into those pre-built but repurposed nests, our parents only succeeded in obligating us to the parasitic tradition. We’re already passing down that tradition to our offspring, and until we learn to stop believing the lie that taking is greater than making, I fear we’ll never recover the ability to create.
Making Is Stronger than Taking
So as one who has, in his own terrain, seen the culturally destructive effects of the brown-headed cowbird approach, I beg those to my Left to reconsider their methods for affecting change. If you’re a feminist, infesting the Ghostbusters or James Bond nest won’t teach your daughters to be bold and assertive. It will just teach them to be lazy, thinking they’ve accomplished something greater than the Cub Scouts by sloppily painting “girl power” on a treehouse built by the boys.
Perhaps it’s time to see that everyone benefits when nobody stoops to swiping each other’s nests.
Likewise, if you’re of the opinion that gay characters aren’t already overrepresented in media, you’re not going to better the state gay people by shoving the straightness out of Queen Elsa or Captain America’s nests. All you’ll accomplish is stripping the next generation of the ability to create its own characters, tell its own stories, and leave its own mark.
Granted, much of the cultural change that modern feminists and LGBT activists are trying to bring about is not change that I want to see happen, just as I’d imagine that many of the things I’d like to accomplish are unappealing to them. But in a world where people tend to imitate the tactics of those on the other side of the cultural wars, perhaps it’s time to see that everyone benefits when nobody stoops to swiping each other’s nests.
Perhaps it’s time for Christians to let moralizing cartoon characters stay secular and for feminists to let Ghostbusters remain men of the 1980s, while all of us work on rediscovering the lost art of creating our own stories, making our own art, building our own beautiful things, and trusting that the world will notice and history will remember the makers far better than the takers.
Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.