Matthew Stokes: Don’t get scared now

Matthew Stokes: Don’t get scared now
ADN Columnist Matthew Stokes

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

As our children get older, it has been a lot of fun rewatching older Christmas movies with them. Recently we pulled out Home Alone. Did you realize that movie is now twenty-eight years old? It holds up remarkably well, from the slapstick humor, the well-respected actors and actresses willing to star in such a movie, the late 80s home decor. It’s all terrific. The children think it is hilarious.

Personally, I was surprised to see how much of the movie I can recite; practically all of it. One of the more famous lines uttered by Macaulay Culkin, as he cocks his BB gun in preparation for Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s arrival, is “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” It’s a great laugh for kids and adults, but it’s a helpful admonition in other ways, as well.

As we watched the funerals for President George H.W. Bush this past week – and what funerals they were! – it was remarked that we were not simply witnessing a funeral for one man, however important he was. Instead, we were witnessing the final passing of an old aristocracy, the mild-mannered WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) culture that resided in much of America’s power centers for decades. Even the presidency of George W. Bush was a shift away from the old centrist WASP culture. There has been a lot of ink-spilled about whether or not the demise of the old WASP order was good or bad, and I’m largely torn on the question. Of course, WASP culture in Alabama exists only in small pockets around the state, in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery with a few folks who’ve spent time in Charleston or Savannah, but the lessons are largely the same.

On the one hand, the old order closed the door to anyone who didn’t reflect its character. That originally meant Jews, Catholics, women, African-Americans, and practically every other racial or ethnic minority was excluded. Much of that was on purpose, though some of it wasn’t. The inadvertent exclusion came about as those in power inevitably created structures and institutions that seemed foreign, intimidating, and confusing to those who were unfamiliar with them. The new ruling order, often referred to as the meritocracy, suffers from this problem. However well-intentioned, this group of high-achievers, with their ACT prep classes, Model United Nations, countless services hours, and strident inclusiveness is just as prone to creating a world that is unfathomable to those outside of it. The Who was prescient when they told us to the new boss was the same as the old boss.

There’s one lesson the new ruling class could heed from the old one. Just as little Kevin McAllister told himself; don’t get scared. Perhaps the greatest failure of America’s elite during the last few decades is the promote its own values as the very things that made it a success. That can mean something as basic as manners; how to speak, how to dress, and so on. More to the point, it means reconstituting a sense of gratitude for all that we have, regardless of income or wealth, and passing that gratitude to our children. That also means even developing a sense of obligation to those around us so that we may serve our communities and nation in order to return the blessings they have bestowed on us.

The problem is that we are not teaching these virtues in our homes, but outwardly in our schools and community organizations. This seems anodyne until we realize that this new world of service isn’t based on gratitude or even obligation. Instead it is based on bureaucratic notions of leadership that simply do not make sense in the minds of most ten year olds. Moreover, these structures are based on a complicated world of parent volunteers, advanced technology, and extracurricular involvement that are overwhelming for the best of us, and almost impenetrable for those who lack the social capital to make it all work.

When we lose our nerve for well-ordered virtue, we will attempt to meet that need somewhere else. If it is not met at home, it will be met by bureaucrats at the school board or in the department of human resources. Those folks may have the best of intentions, but they cannot love, guide, or instruct us the way our families or churches can. Of course the schools and civic institutions of earlier generations reinforced virtue, too, but they could do so knowing that parents and churches had laid the foundation for virtue long before young people ever showed up at school.

The old WASP culture was often accused of being cold and stoic, and at times, this was often true. Yet anyone who saw President George W. Bush weeping at the end of his eulogy for his father, or saw former Secretary of State James Baker sob at the death of his friend, knows that claim to have been exaggerated and mythologized. The lessons of service and obligation teach us that we should do all we can to help those less fortunate. This should be done through the Tocquevillian civil society where possible, though we can recognize a role for government in this sphere. However, we should never confuse government aid with love and devotion.

There is so much great work being done in the non-profit sector. In this season of giving, we should encourage it. All the same, we should not forget that the greatest impact is made in our homes and neighborhoods. Where we have the resources and capital, we should honor those blessings by passing on to those nearest to us a sense of gratitude for our blessings and obligation to the world that has granted and protected them.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.