Young people are very much in the news today, marching, petitioning, and yes, sometimes rioting. They want a better, fairer world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the past, it has often been the young, unjaded by experience, who brought about beneficial change. Alexander Hamilton was 22 when he became George Washington’s aide; Thomas Edison (he invented the light bulb, you know), was 29 when he founded his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey; and Nathan Hale was only 21 when he was executed as a spy during the American Revolution. Young people today want to be heroes, bless their hearts, but do they truly know what makes a hero?
I’ve seen examples of their efforts at social improvement locally, here in Virginia. Two college students put considerable effort into trying to get the name of their housing development, “Stonewall Manor,” changed. Recently local young people founded “Wake Up, Vienna!” which aims to “promote anti-racism in our town.” They want, among other things, to halt a planned expansion of the police headquarters and redirect funding to other activities. They recently ginned up controversy on local social media about an alleged incident of police harassment that turned out to be a domestic dispute. In the end, activists get their names in the paper, but it’s not clear that anyone’s life is any the better for it.
For those who wish to serve others, there are real things to do in the community. The Knox Presbyterian Church food pantry, for example, has an urgent need for nonperishable food to distribute to the needy. They also need people to collect and distribute furniture. The community has programs to tutor children and teach ESL. Hospitals and nursing homes have needed people to make masks. Every community is full of organizations begging for volunteers. Groups that help their neighbors one-by-one in quiet, selfless ways make a difference in real lives. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the glue that binds our society together.
Barack Obama, the community organizer, has become the model for too many young people. When I first heard the term, I thought it meant a kind of community helper, the sort who opens a soup kitchen or starts a literacy program. Instead, I discovered that it meant someone who helped direct a community’s discontent into action. A community organizer, in other words, is someone who finds problems rather than solves them, and then encourages people to demand that others fix their problems. A properly written thesaurus might provide as synonyms agitator, complainer, and whiner.
Somehow, we have raised up a generation of community organizers. I suspect that in our eagerness to get past our nation’s history of slavery and segregation, we have spent an inordinate amount of time on the various struggles for civil rights and equality. Leftist professors at college have layered on figures whose programs have been less admirable, such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Bernadine Dohrn, each a criminal in ways big and small. The educational system seems to have gone into overdrive to root out and shame the sins of the past. Students have been taught to parse literature and history not to find the common bonds of humanity with people of the past, but to identify the thought crimes of the past. Was Shakespeare a brilliant wordsmith, or a man with dangerous views on gender? Did he fight systemic racism? Elevate marginalized voices? Then why study him? Young people around the country are tearing down the statues of our country’s heroes because they have not been taught to appreciate their legacy.
It matters who we hold up to children as heroes, and why. Feed children a steady diet of military heroes, and don’t be surprised if your country eventually finds itself in a war. Teach them to admire only artists, and we will have no one to cure the common cold. Obsessively focus on anyone who claims to fight against injustice, and the streets will be filled with riot and looting. Our young people have good hearts, but we have taught them that the highest calling for people of good will is to seek out unfairness and correct it, and they are determined to do that, with no sense of the complexities of life, and the realties any functioning society must face. Every white-on-black police confrontation is an act of racism, because they need to have racism if they are to fight and overcome it. They cannot be heroes if there is no danger. So what if crimes that harm real people, multiply?
We need our young people to find better heroes to emulate. My definition of hero comes from the example of the firefighters and policemen who, despite the known danger to their own lives, went up into the Twin Towers in an effort to save those who hadn’t yet escaped. A hero is someone who goes up when everyone else is going down. Police Captain David Dorn, who was murdered when he went into St. Louis during riots to protect a friend’s pawn shop, was a hero. Every policeman who goes into our angry streets is a hero. Medical personnel who kept going to work every day despite the danger of catching Wuhan virus showed heroism.
Maybe, too, we need fewer “heroes.” Maybe we need more people who do the little, necessary acts that keep our communities humming. We need people who will stock the food pantry, feed the homeless, volunteer at the library, and visit shut-ins. Helen Keller once wrote: “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” We need a lot more of that. It is ordinary people, doing the many necessary small tasks, that make a community and thus a nation. We need more of that and a lot less rioting in the name of social justice, right about now.