Ah, nihilism. The belief that everything sucks and that nothing matters. Province of the cool kids as they dress in black, smoke cigarettes, and watch depressing movies and listen to depressing music. Lots of us outgrow these types of thoughts around the time we graduate high school. But for many, nihilism isn’t just the way that they live their lives. It’s something they want to push onto all of us, especially by targeting our children.
How do they do this? By changing the culture, of course.
I’ve said this countless times, and I mean it: More so than politics–which obviously has an effect on our lives through laws, rules, and regulations–entertainment, whether it be books, movies, or music, is far better at that all-important job of changing hearts and minds.
This is not to say anything so outrageous as “Video games make you kill people!” But culture matters. Look at how television shows like Will & Grace, for example, helped change the culture to be more accepting of gay marriage, so its creators say. Or how the original Star Trek broke barriers of race and nationality by having people from all different parts of the world, and also aliens, just all treat each other as equals.
So art has an effect. And artists love to talk about how they are subversive, that is, undermining things about society they do not like.
Dissidence is well and good, and it can serve a vital purpose. But what if the things that the art is looking to subvert are actually good? Something like, say, all of Western civilization?
Drastic? Maybe. But let’s take a topic near to my heart: The way fathers, and men in general, are portrayed in movies and on TV, including many geared towards children.
Dad is always a bumbling schmuck, who can’t do anything right and gets no respect from his children or the women in his life.
If you don’t think that has an effect on people, then maybe you’d like to come over here into my windowless van . . .
This goes to my broader point which is this: Nihilism, though trendy, is bad for the future.
The kinds of narrative that permeate a society matter. Let me explain.I like to write, and I plan on releasing some of my work soon. And even back when I was making music, I would say that I’m trying to contribute to civilization and not tear it down. It turns out there’s a word for this artistic philosophy.
If subversive is about tearing down the structures of society, superversive must be about building them back up. Specifically, I believe superversive fiction absolutely must contain some of the following elements:
Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic. People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically. Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive. True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real. Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too. The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it. Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric. Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues. There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.
In Russell, I have found a kindred spirit. Here’s why all of this matters:
The kind of stories we tell reflect who we are as a people. This is no great revelation, but lots of us forget this and unthinkingly imbibe what is given to us under the guise of, “Hey, it’s just entertainment!”
It’s telling why we are into stories with depressing endings, zombie apocalypses, tales where the bad guys win, and dystopian futures.
Some of this might reflect where we are, but a lot of this drives where we’re going. Which is dangerous.
Why work towards actively tearing down the civilization that has allowed me and so many before me to flourish, leaving my son and the rest of his generation a an empty shell, or worse, a smoldering crater, where freedom and opportunity used to be? It makes no sense.
All of us can use our gifts to create stories and art and music like Russell describes, hopeful and instructive. What kind of lessons do we want to teach? That bravery, loyalty, compassion, courage, and love are virtues? Or that they are to be mocked and that life is a meaningless struggle and there’s nothing when you die?
I know what I’d rather create and enjoy, and what I want for my kids.