They left us. I’m not sure when. It may have happened even before I was born. I’m having a hard time remembering lately. But I do know that they once lived among us and now they are gone.
Giants. There was a time when our nation, our world, was teeming with them. As giants tend to be, they were a mixed bag. Some were clumsy and destructive. Some, regrettably, were downright evil and trampled us under foot. Many others used their great size to lift us up to heights unimaginable. All of them were distinct in their power, and their mere presence was transformative. But now they’ve all but disappeared. It was a gradual disappearance. It was no cataclysm that did these giants in. No, like an animal that gradually loses its habitat to “civilization,” these giants just dwindled away. One day, today, as I was reflecting on the state of our world, I realized that the giants were all gone. And I miss them. We all miss them I think. We need them.
It’s a challenge to find any area of our culture still populated by giants. Take politics as an example. Like many of you, I’m sure, I grow tired of every single conversation drifting towards politics. It’s exhausting, and it’s unnatural. It’s not normal for citizens to be so obsessive about politics all the time. Life, truly living, is about so much more than politics. Our current obsession with politics is not evidence of the strength of our leaders but of their absolute weakness and ineffectiveness. Think about it. No one talks about tap water. Until the tap water is toxic, and then they can talk about little else. We obsess over politics so much because our politicians are so bad at their jobs. We no longer have leaders. The giants have exited the political landscape only to be replaced by small image-obsessed entertainers more concerned about being in the news than actually making news. There are no giants in Washington. There are only high-priced Instagram influencers looking for the next photo-op.
Or what about the civil rights movement? There is no doubt that our nation is in a significant civil rights moment reminiscent in some ways of those big moments from before many of us were alive. It has become painfully obvious that one of the differences between the 1960’s and today is the absence of giants. Does anyone else find it depressing that in over 50 years, we have yet to produce another Martin Luther King or even another Malcolm X? Where are the giants? Where are the leaders? I’m not saying that there are no important voices in our current civil rights moment, but they are often lost in a loud cacophony of competing voices. And so many of those who position themselves as leaders have more in common with grifters promoting their own personal brand than they do with authentic giants. “Buy my book. Hire me for your corporate event. Join the movement by signing up for my newsletter at only 5 bucks a month.”
What about entertainment? Where is our generation’s Tolkien? They have either been consumed by their own decadence or trapped inside their castle by an angry woke mob. If we were to have a Woodstock today, who would even be invited? My guess is that they’d invite a bunch of “bankable” acts from the 90’s to satisfy the corporate sponsors. Are there any giants left in television or movies? Johnny Carson has been replaced with a dozen clones, and arguably the most important “movie stars” today are the people sitting behind computer screens creating CGI landscapes and action sequences. Entertainment is now a land of endless content but emptied of giants.
Religion too. Where are today’s Billy Grahams preaching to Presidents and stirring the hearts of tens of thousands? Today’s Billy Grahams no longer preach to Presidents. Instead, they pander to them. Too many of today’s Billy Grahams seem more interested in carefully building a platform and an image on their way to fame rather than humbly seeking the heart of God.
Ross Douthat, in his excellent book about decadence, makes a powerful argument that even in science and technology we have stopped truly innovating. Gone are giants like Neil Armstrong willing to risk life and limb to reach new frontiers. They’ve been replaced by the tech entrepreneur hoping to become the next Silicon Valley billionaire by making modern life a fraction more entertaining or efficient with the manipulation of some 1s and 0s.
The land has been emptied of giants. And I miss them.
I wonder what happened to them. In some tragic cases, like Martin Luther King, we killed them. In other cases, we lost them over time as we lost the mono-culture. Johnny Carson lived at a time when becoming Johnny Carson was possible. That time no longer exists. We live in a different time where everyone’s voice is amplified making it hard for giants to be heard.
I think another, related explanation is that in an era where everyone’s voice is amplified, we’ve become obsessed with fame. We are more interested in amplifying ourselves than we are in lifting others up. Our leaders are leading us in this obsession. A person’s importance is judged by modern commodities like retweets and followers which often have no connection to any real ability to lead. It’s a smoke and mirrors influence economy where the illusion of leadership is sufficient. Ironically, those who pursue fame as an end are the most quickly forgotten. I don’t know if they’ll be building any monuments to Instagram influencers.
Which reminds me…
This whole post has been nostalgic and a bit depressing. I’m sorry. That’s just how I’m feeling at the moment. There has been a lot of looking backwards recently. Author Thomas Friedman once said, “When memories exceed dreams, the end is near.” I thought about this as I watched angry mobs of people tearing down monuments and statues across the country. I’ve heard all the arguments about how some of these statues needed to go. Fine. I’ll agree with that. But as crowds attack statues of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Grant, and even Frederick Douglass I couldn’t help but wonder if something else is going on. Some cling to the past for purposes nostalgia. Some cling to the past for purposes of resentment. I’m not sure if there is better evidence that the giants have left the land than seeing angry crowds toppling and defacing monuments dedicated to their memory. Giants aren’t merely extinct. Many of us have grown to despise giants. We’ve dedicated ourselves to finding their flaws and deficiencies. Rather than creating new giants, all of our efforts are for debunking or cancelling the giants of the past. We are impossibly small, and the only thing that seems to help us in our smallness is bringing the giants down to size.
Martin Luther king had a dream.
Seems like all we have are memories.