I happened upon a strange television show recently. (Like every man of a certain outlook, I have to hurry in here and urge that “I never watch TV,” which is true, actually.) It was a Disney production, I think, and it had been prepared for children. It was set in a sort of Hogwarts school — shadows, a touch of menace, crosscurrents of evil in the air. The “plot” escaped my grasp altogether. I seem to recall a plump lady teacher with wings of some sort — not angelic. The pupils were youngish teenagers representing a sampling of ethnic groups. Somehow they began to encounter Evil, the avatar of which was a blond boy who looked somewhat like your archetypal English choir boy.
The program reminded me of a DVD I saw once, again meant for children. The tots in the story kept encountering all sorts of beings who, on first glance, would arouse terror in any ordinary mortal: great grinning pterodactyls, for example, and an elephantine purple blob with one eye coming at you, and tarantulas, basilisks, anacondas, and cockatrices. But they all turned out to be not only harmless, but positively companionable. Sympatico. Allies. Fun.
An agenda was clearly at work here on the part of the producers of the little drama: Exorcise the bugbear of stereotypes from your child’s bosom. Stereotypes spawn terror, and thence hatred, and thence cruelty. One’s soul becomes sullen and niggardly if one looks at life through the baleful lens of stereotype. You can’t tell at all what someone will turn out to be merely by glancing at his clothes or weight or stature or color or features. Ugliness may cloak generosity, trustworthiness, innocence, and heroism as often as not.
Developing such an outlook in children becomes critical in the epoch of globalism that has rushed upon us. We mortals lived for millennia in surroundings that were hedged in by geography, distance, custom, culture, religion, and blood. Suddenly we are all thrust together. Hitherto, Watutsi, Danes, Celts, Samoans, Aryans, and Chinese lived under a canopy of expectations and assumptions that had been settled long since by their historic and anthropological locale. They rarely had to cope with the “others,” and when they did, as often as not trouble broke out.
The treasure that is to be attributed to these limited cultural situations is rich beyond counting. Every museum and library in the world testifies to this. All music, painting, architecture, sculpture, poetry, and dance testifies to this. “Multiculturalism” has not had enough time yet for us to decide whether it will join the antique train of these limited cultures with their rich dowry. Limitation seems to have been the very mother of peace (such as it ever was) and creativity.
But children are no longer born into Montenegro as such, or Java or Baffin Island or Nepal or Germany. They are now born into the world. Information in tsunami force and quantity, traveling at light speed, and instant communication with all six billion of us — and hence the vision of multiculturalism — form the landscape in which we all live now. We must come to terms with it one way or another.
The question that now appears on the horizon is: What, exactly, is the footing on which we will raise the new world? The cultural millennia that have preceded us all drew upon certain fixities. When you sift through matters of ethnicity, geography, climate, and so forth, you come eventually to the fixity that undergirds any culture: It is the notion of the gods. Many or One? Malign or benign? Personal or abstract? If there is a culture somewhere that has never acknowledged any transcendence at all, it is hard to find.
And from that transcendence there has issued what we call morals. Ethics. The awareness of Good and Evil. Taboo. Manners. All myths and fairy tales testify to this, as does history.
And Good and Evil are recognizable to us mortals. From the beginning, just men have responded with joy to the joyous, and with outrage, horror, and disgust in the face of the outrageous, the horrible, and the disgusting. We recoil at what threatens — at first even by its appearance. If what we feared as a threat turns out not to be so, then joy knows no bounds. This irony shows up in the fairy tales and myths — the Ugly Duckling or the Frog Prince. The Elephant Man turns out to be sheer beauty in tragic disguise.
But Good and Evil, and the cultural forms in which they present themselves, evaporate when their source in transcendence is banished.
This has happened in our own time. The modern age testifies to this in its painting, its poetry and fiction, in cinema, and in public morals. Questions seem to overthrow what had been thought to be the fixities, and you get first uncertainty (“But is that, after all, so bad as they thought?”); and then experiment (“Ah! Let’s leap over this quaint taboo here and authenticate our autonomy”); and then bravado (“Let it all hang out!”); and then the loss of memory (“It was only poor Queen Victoria — or the Puritans, or the Catholic Church — who came up with all these strictures”); and eventually squalor, bathos, and ennui. Babylon, Sodom, and the Rome of the late caesars do not appear in our imaginations as icons of authenticity.
But what about the DVD with the peaceable monsters? Clearly the point there is to dispel stereotyping so that children finding themselves on a globe rather than in a village or a kingdom will be predisposed to discount appearances and to learn that ancient and universal cautions are to be set aside in the interest of a new innocence and freedom.
Would that the fruit of the effort would turn out to be global neighborliness and peace all round. But one wonders whether there is not a tincture here that has tainted all utopian schemes built on the notion of the good will, not to say innocence, of us mortals. The globe isn’t Happy Valley. Who knows what evil lurksin the hearts of men? Appearances most certainly do not tell the whole story — indeed, they may brutally falsify the story (think of the Elephant Man or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa the cockroach). But Brook Farm and all communes trumpet the sad story of efforts to set aside the protohistoric cautions and hesitancies.
Do we do children a favor by dissipating for them the cautions, even fears, that arose from our local, cultural insularities by pressing upon them a global insouciance, so to speak? The way through such cautions and fears is a hard and long way. They may turn out in the long run to belong to our very humanity. They may guard our limitedness, which itself may belong to our humanity. Paradise is the locale of universal trust and affability. Catholic imagination does not suppose that it will be gained on this globe by programs. Conversion — the very rebirth of every one of us — and not programming, is the precondition for universal trust and affability. The joker in the pack is called Original Sin. Prejudice and ignorance are merely fruits of that tough root.
So: What shall we say? Two cheers, perhaps, for the DVD? I myself would think so. But it’s two cheers leading to some long reflecting on how we’re doing in the global sweepstakes.