“America has been a remarkably good and strong culture,” Orson Scott Card said at the 26th Annual Gala dinner of the Washington DC Chapter of the BYU Management Society this weekend, “but the Goodness of the culture has already been so damaged that it can barely be said to exist. And the Strength of the Culture is eating itself up from within.”
Card was honored by the society as a Distinguished Public Service Award Recipient for this year for his notable contributions as a best-selling author, columnist and lecturer. He is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read and increasing used in schools. Ender’s Game is in development as a film at Warner Brothers.
He has also written other science fiction novels, contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah) and many plays and scripts.
Former senator Gordon Smith told the attendees, that included federal lawmakers, CEOs of corporations and heads of foundations, that if ever there were a group that epitomized BYU’s motto of “Go forth to serve,” the people in that banquet room surely did.
However, it was to this group of powerhouses that Card’s message was delivered, asking them to be leaders and heroes to reclaim the culture.
Card answered the alarming question of how America began to be dismantled as a storyteller would. What follows is an excerpt from his talk:
How did this happen? It’s simple enough. We changed our stories. That’s right. I, a professional storyteller, am telling you that storytelling is the glue, along with ritual, that holds a culture together…Mostly I do only one kind of storytelling: fiction. There are many other kinds. In fact, storytelling is the primary human activity whenever we’re together in groups.
Gossip – telling stories about people that we know or know of – and why they do what they do.
Biography – telling really detailed stories about people alive or dead, and why they did what they did.
History – telling stories about human communities and their leaders, and why they did what they did.
Science – telling stories about nature and why it does what it does.
Politics – telling stories about what you’re going to do, and why it’s not your fault that it didn’t work the way you said.
News – telling whatever story the leaders gave you and pretending that it’s true. Oh, wait – I think I’m telling a different kind of story, called:
Criticism – telling stories about other people’s stories.
There are also rituals that bind a community together – rites of passage, experiences we all share. Watching movies or television is a Ritual; the content of what we watch is Story. We have rituals like graduations, marriages, passing through airport security, sitting in classrooms, playing sports and games. But we also tell stories about all our rituals – what they mean. Why they matter.
The stories and rituals of a culture define the culture to its members and to outsiders. The self-definition of a culture is the single most powerful tool in passing the culture on to the next generation and constantly buttressing the allegiance of its members.
A Strong Culture must have powerful stories explaining why it is a Good Culture – or it will die. Even the best culture can destroy itself if those who hate the culture are successful in getting its members to believe stories that discourage them from having enough allegiance to make sacrifices for it, like:
1. Paying taxes and other costs in property or service.
2. Obeying laws even when they don’t fit in with your desires of the moment.
3. Letting the culture educate your children in its values.
4. Sending your children off to fight in wars to defend the culture from its rivals, or going yourself to fight and risk death and injury.
5. Tolerating people and events that the culture insists its members have to tolerate – including such obnoxious groups as the rich and powerful, the poor and untidy, the foreign and odd, and all others who deviate from the norm in ways that the culture has determined to allow.
6. Confining your sexual and reproductive actions to the boundaries set by the culture.
7. Making the effort to become educated enough in the culture to participate in its propagation.
8. Conforming with the outward values of the culture even when you disagree with them, in order to help maintain the illusion of unity.
These sacrifices are hard, every one of them.
. That’s why it’s essential, for the survival of a Good Culture, that it constantly propagate stories that support the willingness to sacrifice. . . . . (Propagate shares its root with propaganda -propaganda is only evil when it promotes an evil culture; it is essential to promoting a good culture as well.)
That’s why there is no such thing as a thriving culture that does not have the story “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”: “Sweet and proper it is to die for your country.” A culture that no one is willing to die for will soon cease to exist, having been supplanted by a culture that does have members willing to die for it…
In the 1960s, we started listening to stories that struck at the very heart of our Good, Strong Culture. These destructive stories fall into several groups:
1. The old morality is stupid. You can’t stop kids from having sex. Sexual fidelity is old-fashioned and selfish. It will liberate women to let men have sex with them without demanding any kind of commitment from them. Fetuses are not persons and you can kill them without conscience. Men have no right to have opinions about abortion. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Marriage should last only as long as you’re enjoying it and it’s nobody’s fault if it ends. Everybody lies about sex.
2. Amerika isn’t really a good culture. We mistreat other countries. We mistreat the poor. When we’re in conflict with other countries it’s our fault. Of course they hate us – we deserve their hatred. Their cultures are just as good as our culture – in fact, they’re better. Anybody who wants to be a soldier to fight for Amerika is a crypto-fascist, a violent dangerous person. Good people don’t want to be soldiers because soldiers are just killers with permission.
3. God is dead. People who believe in God are ignorant or stupid or, at the very best, deceived. Conservative Jews and Christians who try to promote their values are forcing their religion on other people. Political decisions should all be made without regard to the desires and opinions of religious people.
4. People who don’t have the same political beliefs as me are evil or stupid. They should be fired from their jobs. The law should be whatever I want it to be, and laws I don’t like should be struck down in any way possible. Speakers, writers, and demonstrators on their side are a public danger and must be stopped, but speakers, writers, and demonstrators on my side are exercising their sacred rights. (Please note – it’s easy to see how this paragraph describes your opponents, but you’re not getting the point if you don’t also look at the same attitudes when they show up within your own ideological camp.)
5. My side should have complete control of the education of everybody else’s children. School is only a meal ticket; all education is vocational training.
6. If you don’t give unlimited overtime to the company that hired you, then you’re not serious about your career. If you put your family first, you’re not a team player. The only law in business is do what works, as long as you can get away with it. The answer to all doubts is: It’s business.
7. Forget about the time when the “American dream” was to be independent and self-reliant. Now it’s to have all the same stuff other people have and to be guaranteed that you’ll have the same rewards as people who are luckier or harder working or smarter than you.
Do these stories sound familiar? They should – and because so many people believe them, we have the horrible social chaos that surrounds us. Millions of fatherless children, unwed mothers, broken homes, delayed marriages – in other words: Visible widespread reproductive failure…
If you really believe that all the old American stories were evil and worthless (even though they led to America’s world dominance, economically, militarily, and culturally), then of course you should try to replace that culture with a better one. But it’s a good idea, before striking down the old stories, to be sure you have new stories that will create a culture at least as Good and at least as Strong as the one you’re tearing down.
What about me? I write fiction.
That’s like politics or advertising, only we fiction writers admit from the start that we make it all up.
Yet fictional storytelling is one of the strongest, most important parts of culture formation and maintenance.
. Fiction creates the public moral universe. . . . . Fictional stories are still about what they’ve always been about – “hunger, love, and death.” Or call it “reproduction, community, and identity.” In our made-up stories, we fiction writers tell you, usually without actually saying so, what matters. Which actions and motives make a person noble and good, or despicable and bad. In other words, how an admirable person in the culture we’re advocating should behave, and why.
We tell you why people do the strange things they do. We show you how love works and how it fails, what it means to belong to a community or be rejected by it. We show you what causes pain and which pains are worth suffering if the cause it right. We show you heroes who judge themselves harshly when they don’t measure up to their own high standards.
And in the past fifty years, I’ve watched an increasing number of fiction writers turn away from the old values and use their fiction to advocate the ineffective or destructive replacement values.
When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and showed that he had been barechested under it, he killed the undershirt industry overnight. No man could wear one of those strappy undershirts after that. That was mere fashion. But Philadelphia Story showed us some of our favorite actors demonstrating that if you don’t forgive a man for committing adultery, then you’re the evil one; that if you uphold Christian values or even good manners, then you’re ridiculous.
Basically, we live today in the world that results from believing the moral exemplars of Philadelphia Story. That movie didn’t create it all by itself, but it laid groundwork for it.
From most movies, television, and novels today we – and our children – learn that the default decision is to have sex with people we barely know, as a kind of way of saying hello. That the only reason not to have sex is that your passions are not yet intense enough; that the only men who don’t have sex are geeks, and no admirable woman says, as her reason for refusing to have sex with an attractive man, that she only wants to give sexual access to a male who will enter into a faithful monogamous marriage.
Fortunately, it’s not all Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. Movies, TV shows, and books are still being produced that promote a culture good and strong. They aren’t always decorous, but they value what is valuable. Some are BBC productions based on old literature, like Lark Rise to Candleford, the recent Emma, and Cranford. But some of the great television is made in America today, like The Good Wife, The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Medium – Medium in particular, which shows a good family facing problems together. And Temple Grandin, the best movie of this year, though it was released on HBO and you can’t get the DVD until the end of summer.
…Hollywood and New York have evidence, if they care to notice it, that there is still a substantial audience for the kind of story that supports a Culture Strong and Good. And when you write a story that says a society based on the old proven values is worth fighting for, worth giving up your life for, it can still find a huge audience.
But we stand at the cusp. The people who are trying to remake America according to their theories refuse to see that the result of their replacement stories has been and continues to be devastation. They always assume that the destruction caused by their changes in the culture can only be alleviated by implementing those changes even more fully. And an astonishing number of writers ignore the obvious, proven destruction and continue to write as if these replacement stories actually worked.
But no matter how popular and fashionable the destructive replacement stories are, the culture itself does not forget that its members consist of semi-tamed chimps and baboons. The culture’s job is to suppress destructive chimp behavior; when the culture stops doing it, the chimps don’t put on suits and become Planet of the Apes. Humans become beasts, and we end up ruled by the worst among us.
Civilized people see, at some level, that the cool destructive stories put their ability to have grandchildren at risk. As monogamy collapses, as marriage becomes an afterthought to reproduction, as young people delay marriage, as men are pushed or drawn out of any meaningful role in more and more households, as philandering Alpha males and opportunistic Loser males face no penalty for their actions and are encouraged in some of them, the role of women becomes less and less secure, children lose faith in everything, and the net national happiness plummets.
The old rules promoted sexual fidelity and universal lifetime monogamy, rearing children in stable families headed by role model fathers and mothers. The fact that no marriage was perfect does not change the fact that the model was worth aspiring to and measuring ourselves against. The replacement rules do the opposite. Who is happier?
The inevitable effect of the replacement rules is drastically decreased allegiance to the society. When the people who pay the tax bills and who maintain the stable families see the surrounding culture as hostile to their interests, they become less and less willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. They not only don’t want to send their children off to war, they don’t even want to send them to college, because they know that the professors at most colleges regard their religion and their lifestyle as something to be despised and disposed of.
A Strong, Good Culture can tolerate a certain amount of deviance – as long as it is marked as deviant behavior. A few rapacious businessmen, a few adulterous Alpha males, a few secret alcoholics, a few atheists on the faculty -these don’t damage the Stories of the Strong, Good Culture, in part because they prove the culture’s self-story of tolerance.
But when the deviancy from the norms becomes the norm, and the people who keep to the rules of stability, decency, fairness, fidelity, loyalty, faith, honor, generosity, courage, respect, conformity, and consistency are depicted as deviant in the replacement stories, then you’re looking at a society that has decided to die.
It cannot last, because when you declare that selfishness and faithlessness are virtues, then public trust by definition disappears. The community is shattered and it’s every man for himself…
Nations sink into despair or dissolve entirely, and society re-forms itself in small groups surrounding Alpha males – the lowest form of society. Tribalism. Balkanization. It’s the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. It’s the suicide bombers. It’s the gangs in the city turning into gangs in suburbia. It’s the society that picks a scapegoat and torments her until she kills herself.
Do you think that one high school was evil? Think again. It’s what happens when there are no more rules of honor and decency and empathy to restrain selfishness and xenophobia and hate. It’s the inevitable result of the stories promoted by the would-be replacement culture – the culture that celebrates the destruction of all the stories that kept the chimps under control and satisfied.
It is social auto-immune disease, where the powerful institutions of authority are turned against the remaining healthy tissue; when it becomes too weak, the whole organism dies.
It has happened over and over again in history, in many different ways. Always, though, when a culture stops fulfilling the promises of civilization, the chimps stop accepting any limits on their behavior. All communities are fictions anyway – we all agree to pretend we’re alike because doing so confers powerful advantages. When the advantages are thrown away, then so is the pretense.
I’ve told you a lot of stories tonight. I think they’re true. I think that for America to survive as a Culture Strong and Good, we must stop telling the stories that are destroying both our Strength and our Goodness, and work to combine the best parts of what’s old and what’s new into stories that will remake us, into not only a society that can last, but also one which should last.
The stakes are so high that it’s worth making the attempt, even if it turns out that it’s already too late to keep this culture from self-destruction. Even then, there would still be the hope of building something Good and Strong among the ashes.
Why do people do things that they know are not good for them? Because somebody has told them a lot of stories that sound good, but which are not true. Or because they prefer to go about their own business, thinking that the culture will take care of itself, without any particular attention or sacrifice from them.
America needs better stories, and it needs people who will hear them, believe them, and act on them.
. You are members of the culture; you act and speak within your homes, jobs, and the many communities you belong to.
I think of my friend, Rick Fenton, a corporate accountant in Greensboro. A year ago, before any Tea Parties, he decided it was not enough to think that our civilization was wrecking itself. He and his family came here to DC, having got the appropriate permission, and held a small demonstration on the mall. Just a handful of people, for just a few hours. Telling a better story; standing up for values that the intellectual elite ridicules and despises. They got no press attention. But their friends knew what they had done, and most admired their courage and determination, and were themselves emboldened by it.
A lot of other people have felt the same impulse in the months since then, and have also spoken up – people who used to silently let the culture change around them. I don’t agree with everything these groups advocate, but I agree with the courage to act, the determination to tell a different story and make a different culture.
I think of the lonely voice of Winston Churchill, telling the story of calamity to come, in a time when nobody wanted to hear the warning, when they thought they could have a peaceful civilization just by giving the monsters what they wanted. That never works, but it took a long time for anyone to hear him.
When they finally did, it turned out, barely, not to be too late. But if he had not spoken, when the cost of speaking seemed to be the destruction of his career, then there would have been no story to turn to in order to stand firm in defense of civilization.
You’re not Winston Churchill? You’re no hero, no leader?
Well, why aren’t you? Winston Churchill was only Winston Churchill because he decided to speak, to act. In the world you move in, among the people you know and work with, why aren’t you?