Disney and Springsteen as misfits

Dan Pallotta offers a perspective on creativity. He identifies vulnerability and the willingness to be a misfit as two traits of visionaries:

Imagine Walt Disney at the age of nineteen. His uncle asks him what he plans to do with his life, and he pulls out a drawing of a mouse and says, “I think this has a lot of potential.”

Or Springsteen. In a concert he once told the story of how he and his dad used to go at it—how his father hated his guitar. Late one night, Springsteen came home to find his father waiting up for him in the kitchen. His father asked him what he thought he was doing with himself. “And the worst part about it,” Springsteen says, “was I never knew how to explain it to him.” How does he tell his father, “I’m going to be Bruce Springsteen?”

Someone interviewed me a few months back for an entrepreneurship project, and he mentioned that in his conversations the thing that stood out most was the willingness of great entrepreneurs to be vulnerable. It’s not the first association you’d make with an entrepreneur. Words like “driven,” “ambitious,” and “persistent” usually come to mind. But the moment he said it I knew he’d hit the nail on the head.

Vulnerability. It is the most poignant quality in every entrepreneur I know.

There’s a misfit in each of us, and it’s the most delicate, precious thing that we have. Sadly, most people make it their life’s mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same “regurgitations,” as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you’d see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it’s Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Ironic that all those enterprises were begun by entrepreneurs trying to do something different. And poignant that in the absence of Walt Disney himself, the Walt Disney Company just keeps building more Disneylands.

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, “Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children.” And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: “Is this all there is?” And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

To question the hegemony of merry-go-rounds — to actually care that there should be something more magnificent than a merry-go-round — is to be a misfit. I mean, who worries about these things?

“Vulnerability is the absence of cynicism,” writes Pallotta. “And the absence of cynicism is love.”

Engineering consumer behavior

Looking for incongruous wealth and status in popular culture, and figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t warp your sense of reality:

How much does it cost to be CJ?  Not Pamela Anderson—CJ. So, not how much are  implants, a nose job and a personal trainer; but how much are CJ’s nail appointments, and hair? How much does her (or any of the characters’) makeup cost? The car lease? Her CD player and apartment in Malibu?  The sofas? CJ and the gals never wear the same clothes in two shows.  Never the same shoes. How much does that cost? They don’t shop at Sears, right? …

Baywatch, along with Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, is changing America in ways you don’t notice– precisely because you don’t notice. In prior TV and movies any incongruous displays of wealth had an explanation, however cliched.  Magnum PI lived off the kindness of Higgins.  Rachel on Friends has rich parents.  But with rare exceptions, the characters in the new crop of 20 something TV have access to material goods way outside their pay range, but they are made so ordinary you never think to question it.  We know very well how Pamela Anderson affords it.  But it’s made axiomatic that CJ can.

It’s wrong to look at the Baywatch women as pornography, especially during a time when actual pornography is becoming so easy to acquire.  The real pornography is the surrounding materialism, the casual display of impossible lifestyles and unattainable goods as if they are ordinary commodities. After ten hours of porn, a breast flash doesn’t seem like a big deal. After ten hours of Baywatch, leasing a car doesn’t, either.

When I read the above article, an example that came to mind was from “Night Stalker“, a short-lived 2005 reboot of a 1970s detective/horror series. This particular scene from the opening credits has stuck with me after all these years, I guess, because it shows the lead character, Carl Kolchak, working from his Hollywood Hills home:

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The median sales price for a home in the Hollywood Hills is just under $1 million. The median salary for a reporter in Los Angeles is roughly $90,000/year. And you can tell that the home above would be way more than $1 million. That scene was filmed at the Stahl House, which was built in 1959 for $34,000, which someone recently attempted to buy for $15 million. So maybe the Carl Kolchak of that series inherited the house from his grandparents, but he definitely wouldn’t be living there on a journalist’s salary.

Ramit Sethi has written about subtle barriers in place to combating the subtle psychological barriers to meeting reality when it comes to losing weight. He’s addressed the “Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?” complaint:

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written a terrific book describing how food companies systematically engineer foods to overeaten (including designing foods that can be swallowed quicker so we can consumer more and more in one sitting). These are tested, refined, and optimized processes, not mere accidents.

Most importantly, behavioral change is not simply about trying harder.

There’s a strong case for intentionally shielding yourself from popular culture in many areas of life.

Being receptive

Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a book of essays on our culture’s love of labor for labor’s sake:

The concept of intellectual work may be traced back and explored in terms of various historical sources. It implies, in the first place, a very definite view of the mode and manner of man’s intellectual knowledge. What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up).

Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing.

In approaching Ernst Jünger’s seeing as “act of aggression,” we can understand why the child and childhood is so wonderful, because it’s the time when burdens recede, or before they impose, to allow the mind to work without laboring. To be human, to wonder. This is true both for the child and for the adults who love her.

We want to become aware of a thing without feeling the need to possess it. This idea cuts to the core of the Christian notion of temptation, and Alan Watts’s addresses this “appreciation v. possession” dynamic in The Wisdom of Insecurity, that unhappiness draws its power from our futile attempts to possess that which is fleeting.

Being receptive seems to be about appreciating the things that are unfolding in front of you, and appreciating those things as they are—without running ahead intellectually to ask what use you can put them, or how to turn them to your advantage or purposes.

False infinities

Pope Benedict XVI in August 2012 reflected on the human instinct to want to live forever, to become infinite in some sense, to escape the limits of our creatureliness and our embodied and finite existence:

“Psalm 63 helps us to enter into the heart of [the matter]: ‘O God, my God, for you I long at break of day; my soul thirsts for you, my body pines for you, like a dry land without water.’ Not only my soul, but even every fiber of my flesh is made to find … its fulfillment in God. And this tension cannot be erased from man’s heart: even when he rejects or denies God, the thirst for the Infinite that abides in man does not disappear. Instead, he begins a desperate and sterile search for ‘false infinities’ that can satisfy him at least for the moment.”

A few years ago I was sitting out on Market Street in Old City, Philadelphia with a friend of mine, and we were talking about sin. How can we talk about sin to someone who doesn’t accept it as making any sense, as referring to any real or concrete thing?

I attempt that by describing sin as those moments where I’m essentially being dishonest with myself, moments when I choose not to live in a way that’s consistent with the story of “Who Tom is” that was meant to be told. In those moments we rob the world of something that was meant to be, to borrow and differently apply an idea from Michael Novak. It’s in sin that, to some degree, I try vainly to be infinite. That is, a moment of sin is a moment where I’m lying to myself in saying, “I can do all of the things that I desire to do, from moment to moment, and can be every ‘version’ of myself that I want to exist, forever, and that’s a reasonable way to live.” In this, I’m trying to live out an infinite number of versions of my own life. I’m trying to live out an infinite number of “Toms”—one Tom that lives this way, one Tom that lives that way, one Tom that says this, one Tom that does that, etc.

The recognition of sin as a reality, and the sense to call ourselves hypocrites, both stem from the reality that even while Christians believe we were made for an experience of the infinite in God as the creator and essence of all things, we ourselves are not infinite, and only a hypocrite could try to live out what Benedict XVI calls “false infinities” without at least the consequence of being a bastard, if not ultimately facing to metaphysical account.

Legends live on

I wrote yesterday about Henry W. Shoemaker and his efforts to conserve oral stories and put them into print in his era of mass written and visual communication. But why collect things like American Indian folklore and early Anglo settler stories? What was the point? On Oct. 26, 1922, Henry Shoemaker delivered an address to the Keystone State Library Association in Central Pennsylvania. In his speech, “The Importance of Collecting Indian Legends,” he puts it this way:

The librarians, though they handle the finished product of the historian’s perseverance and skill, may still have a hand in bringing in the raw materials. This means a closer co-operation with influences outside and apart from the library walls, a broadening of the sphere of influence of library extension. It is the outside, legendary oral form of human annals that lasts longest. How sad to stand within the four roofless walls of a ruined library such as the one at Timgad, in Mauritania. Not a vestige of book or manuscript or parchment left. Only the tablet of pink marble telling of the donor’s business successes and his generosity in giving it to the city — now all dead and still these two thousand years. Yet the history of Timgad lives on among the wild tribesmen in the surrounding hills and in books and manuscripts thousands of miles away. The building may perish, but the thought, the legend, lives on. It is hard to blot out a thought once launched. It is dangerous to launch a bad one. Let us hope that this modest inspiration or thought, now expressed, to collect more of our unwritten history of Pennsylvania, will open up new and happy channels of research and indirectly create wider opportunities for the use and benefits of libraries and the able and cultured men and women who direct their destinies!

Knowledge of self and of others consists in encounters with them, and what we lead out of each another. The American Indian legends Shoemaker shared seemed to help do this across the generations for the first Americans.

Who was Henry Shoemaker?

In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.

American moral consensus

David Carlin writes that strong societies used to require a common religion:

Once upon a time, everybody believed that if a society was to cohere it had to have a common religion. And thus kings and other rulers had little choice but to persecute heretics; for heretics, like criminals and political rebels, were great disturbers of social unity.

Queen Elizabeth I persecuted Catholics on the one hand and Puritans on the other, not because she was a religious fanatic but because she was a conscientious ruler. If she failed to punish dissenters, she’d be allowing them to undermine social unity.

Likewise the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s. They fled England, generations of American schoolchildren have been told (I remember being told this in the 4thgrade), in search of religious freedom. True enough. But not the principle of religious freedom for all; only the desire of freedom for themselves.

One of their number, Roger Williams, believed in the principle of religious freedom for all, and for that heresy they tossed him out into the wilderness of Rhode Island. They also expelled Ann Hutchinson for heresy, and they punished Quakers by hanging them.

After many religion-based wars – for instance, 16th-century civil wars in France, the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48), and the English Civil War of the 1640s – the world, having discovered that compulsory religious uniformity didn’t always work well, began to turn in the direction of religious freedom. It was a gradual process and took a long time, but much of the European-American world finally arrived at the conclusion that society could cohere without a religious consensus.

And things seemed to change with the United Stated. We didn’t need a single national religion, but instead could live in a pluralistic society with many different denominations of a single religion:

In the United States, from the beginning of the republic, we did fine without an ecclesiastical consensus; that is, we didn’t all belong to the same church. But we didn’t have to do without a religious consensus, albeit an informal one. Virtually everybody was Protestant. There were a few Catholics and Jews and Deists and frank unbelievers. But they didn’t count very much; they were small non-Protestant drops in a very large Protestant bucket.

The Protestants, of course, came in many denominational varieties: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and more. But all Protestants, regardless of their denominational differences, agreed on many things: the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Ten Commandments, Heaven and Hell.

They all agreed too that Catholicism was a great perversion of Christianity. We should never forget that anti-Catholicism was an important “glue” holding the Protestant world together.

As Catholics and Jews came into greater numbers in America, and as the confidence and strength of Protestant denominations waned for various reasons, the fusionism of Judeo-Christianity sought to serve the role of social glue for an even more pluralistic society:

By the early years of the 20th century, however, you could no longer say that the USA was a Protestant country. Too many Catholics and Jews were living here by then, and too many of them were playing important roles in American life. But then somebody came up with the brilliant idea that, if we could no longer have a Protestant religious consensus, we could at least have a “Judeo-Christian” religious consensus. It wasn’t as “thick” a consensus as had been the Protestant consensus, but it was thick enough. Just think of all the things religious Protestants and religious Catholics and religious Jews agreed upon.

And so, by 1950, more than 300 years after Roger Williams had argued for freedom of religion, Americans still had a religious consensus, albeit one that was informal and not legally prescribed.

That finally collapsed in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory prayer in public schools is a violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment. Until then schools, in keeping with the spirit of our national Judeo-Christian religion, had mandated prayers that gave no offense to Protestants or Catholics or Jews. Usually, this was the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer whose content gave no offense to any believer. But all prayers would give offense to atheistic parents of school children.

Just as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954 was a symbolic moment declaring that blacks are equal to whites, so the prayer decision of 1962, Engel v. Vitale, was a symbolic moment declaring that atheists are equal to Judeo-Christian religious believers. If Brown meant that racial segregation was on its way to the dustbin of history, so Engel v. Vitalemeant that our informal national religion was headed in the same direction.

Judaism and Christianity in all their forms seemed to work well together to deliver great social and moral victories in the 20th century in the form of largely non-violent political and civil rights movements:

So it is only since the second half of the 20th century that we Americans have had to try the experiment of living without a religious consensus. How are we doing? Not too well, I’d say, to judge from the great divisions currently plaguing American society.

The great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) argued that in modern secular society, where religious consensus is impossible, we could still have a moral consensus. This moral consensus would be based on natural law, a law that applies to all humans and is known by all humans, whether religious believers or atheists or something in between.

But is this moral consensus, boiled down in simple terms to a shared sense among Christians, Jews, and others in America of a “natural law” written in the heart of human beings, still a meaningful social force? Carlin continues:

Now I’m a great fan of Maritain and a great believer in the idea of natural law, and many years ago, influenced by Maritain, I expected that in America a moral consensus would replace our collapsing religious consensus. But it hasn’t. We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.

Well, if we cannot have a religious consensus, and we cannot have a moral consensus, what kind of consensus can we have in the United States? For surely we have to have some kind of consensus. A society that cannot agree on anything won’t be able to endure.

The best I can think of – barring a religious and moral revival – is that we will endure, if we do endure, with a consensus about the importance of making money and spending it. If we cannot agree about abortion or homosexuality or euthanasia, we can, perhaps, at least agree about the wrongness of commercial fraud and cheating on taxes and other forms of thievery.

But that’s not an inviting prospect.

“We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.”

That seems broadly true, but maybe that’s just a natural consequence of an America that’s far more pluralistic today that it was a century ago. If that’s the case, the real question is whether there is a limit to how pluralistic a nation can be without ceasing to be one.