Conservatism and the Maverick: Be Careful How You Stir Those Ingredients

Messieurs Limbaugh and Beck were delighted with Ashton Kutcher’s Hollywood sermon; but the message that youngsters are smart enough to do everything on their own doesn’t sound very conservative to me.

I had never heard of Ashton Kutcher before Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh lifted his name in hymns of praise this past week.  (And I thought I was hearing “Aston” at first: who knows if I’ve got it right this time?)  I gave up on the film industry years ago—I believe the last movie I saw was Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; so I base the following comments purely on excerpts of the Kutcher speech and the commentary in which these snippets were embedded.

As the laudations fell bountifully from the kings of talk radio, I was particularly struck by one comment that suggested to me, yet again, how incoherent the word “conservative” has grown.  Kutcher, who apparently has played a young Steve Jobs in some new flick, remarked in his “gone viral” speech, “Everything around us that we call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you.”  Rush, specifically, was enamored of this observation (it’s cited, with other “highlights”, on his website).  He insisted that Kutcher must have imbibed the paideia straight from the Master (Jobs, that is—not Jesus).  I can well understand El Rushbo’s burst of enthusiasm.  As an adolescent, he himself apparently thwarted certain counsels or expectations in bypassing college to chase his dream of becoming a broadcaster… and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet one of the accomplishments not on Rush’s formidable résumé is being a parent.  I’m a little shocked, frankly, that the man commonly crowned Mr. Conservative by popular culture would endorse so open-ended an expression of anti-traditionalism with so much enthusiasm and without proviso.  It isn’t as if Kutcher said, “All of advanced technology seems miraculous—but every piece of it was once the brainchild of an ordinary person who worked hard.  And then, when one dwarf after another had scaled up the shoulders of the giant….”  No, no: I am about to rewrite his little exhortation into something that actually holds common sense.  The original words, rather, stated bluntly, “everything around us that we call life” was made by an intelligence no keener than ours.  On the one hand, the assertion goes far beyond a comment on how the high-tech revolution has advanced to… well, all life (if that means something more than cool gizmos to these kids).  On the other, it acknowledges no giant—no mass of cultural precedents, much less revealed truth or inspiration not based on IQ—upon whose shoulders individuals may climb.  In full context, the declaration claims that any of us can do pretty much anything, starting ex nihilo, with hard work.  And this is precisely what had Limbaugh and Beck leaping out of their chairs and cheering.

Where’s the giant?  Where is the apprenticeship to received wisdom whose mastery represents so much of the mountain to be climbed by hard work?  Or are we really to believe that a high-school drop-out can invent an anti-gravity machine in his garage (that is, his father’s garage) if he only sticks to it?  If the message is just to blow off your superannuated critics… well, children today don’t really need Kutcher, let alone Limbaugh, to tell them to ignore their elders.  Adults, particularly parents, are bungling fools at best in every entertainment a teenager consumes.  At worst, grown-ups are hypocrites, greedy schemers, dangerous perverts, and flagrant cowards, the whole lot of them having discarded their shame, decency, and common sense in the process of fitting into the mainstream.  Try sitting through a few of those “adult cartoons” whose main audience consists of mid-adolescents… or just look at the trailers for the latest “comedies” hitting the screen, such as the one about the idiots who fake being a family to smuggle illegal Mexican drugs.

Come to think of it, if today’s entertainment moguls are crude and puerile enough to think our border crisis a fit subject for comedy, then maybe the stereotype of the greedy, vulgar, cowardly, sybaritic adult is bang-on.  Maybe we should have comedies about the idiots who attempt to make comedies.

I have perhaps just endorsed Rush’s claim—or what he meant to be his claim.  No organization could snuff out the genius and vigor of its young footsoldiers better or more quickly than the Hollywood racket.  I get it.  There is a grain of truth to the “maverick” scenario, and I know that Rush was reaching for that golden grain.  Our political system offers similarly sickening illustrations of dumbed-down conformity: consider how quickly “playing ball” within well-worn parameters has sapped the originality and corrupted the conscience of people like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.

But embracing the rituals of an elite club in order to please its hierarchy is really no closer to learning traditional wisdom than currying favor with book reviewers, say, is to acquiring a tasteful writing style.  One of the reasons “old boy” hazing and triage has compiled such a shameful record of influence in our culture is that we do not have a truly functional culture—or not, at any rate, a “high culture”.  What ever became of those certain things that a gentleman just doesn’t do?  Why did our forefathers believe that it’s categorically wrong—no discussion needed—to break a verbal promise, or to kick a fella when he’s down, or to circulate stories about a rival’s personal life, or to read someone else’s mail, or to tell lewd jokes in front of women?  Our children certainly aren’t learning such lessons as these in their apprenticeships or from their academic or professional mentors… yet can they, after twenty or so years of life, figure out on their own the wisdom that underlies the lessons?  Are they that smart?  Do they instantly grasp the advantages of the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative?  Is a college freshman capable of divining out of thin air that whatever mansions and supermodels he buys with a Steve Jobs-caliber fortune cannot compensate him for the loss of self-respect and peace of mind he would have found in subscribing to a set of abstract, universal laws?  Does he glimpse even for an instant how much easier it is to face the death that awaits us all—to believe in an eternal life beyond that death of the body—if one has not lived one’s corporal life by the rules of the body?

High culture: things of the spirit—beauty, goodness, and truth for its own sake.  How many decades will the maverick need to find any of those?  Did Steve Jobs ever find them?  As a staunch supporter—in the beginning—of Barack Obama, wasn’t he yielding to the same tawdry spiritual seductions as his arch-rival in business, Bill Gates?  These ultimate mavericks-made-good, these trailblazers, these bad boys who wouldn’t do their math the right way… how is it that they ended up using their vast wealth to haze the herd down the chutes of a progressive slaughterhouse they had designed with the ruling elite?  Were there some lessons, perhaps, that these “American originals” should have learned about respecting originality in others?  Might they have been more successful as human beings if they had not been denied those lessons by America’s “bottom-line, cost/benefit” culture?

Some will say—many students have said to me—that “this ethical or spiritual stuff” should be left to the churches, where individuals may have their fill of it or not, as they choose.  What a “young maverick” point of view!  The truth is that all genuine morality—every system of right and wrong, that is, where those words are not mere redundancy for pleasure and pain or profit and loss—requires a metaphysical foundation.  Doing good cannot ultimately rest upon selfish advantage; indeed, a standard “good deed” that brings great personal profit loses most of its goodness (e.g., helping an old lady cross the street because you expect a tip).  The awareness of metaphysical space is powerfully stimulated by artistic experiences such as listening to profound music (not Rap or cry-in-your-beer), and also by sublime experiences such as visiting the Grand Canyon or studying the stars.  In a society like ours which has either discarded these experiences as worthless and time-wasting or else hopelessly degraded them by grooming them for the market—and whose public schools are a kind of charitable work project for philistines who barely kept a 2.0 in college—the Gateses and the Jobses might just as well have skipped high school: “screw-el”, as Rush calls it.  I understand.  I get it. 

Yet the vast dark space that such youngsters carry forth within them is transported to churches as well as to Silicon Valley.  The church alone cannot elevate our cultural rubble into a basilica with a few Bible readings.  Scripture itself becomes distorted by “spiritual mavericks” to complete some self-serving metaphor that leaps into their uncultivated heads.  Perhaps the most dismal example of this is the perversion of the “salvation through faith alone” doctrine, which entire denominations have transformed to mean that all those gentlemanly strictures of yesteryear—keeping your promises, playing fair with your opponent, etc.—are mere paganism.  The very suggestion that one might embody faith through works is blasphemy.  Could there be any message more tolerant of the American marketplace’s low culture than this—and could any far-out sect draw a grosser caricature of Christianity?

I did not support Steve Jobs for canonization, and I will not support the lad who played young Steve for the same honor—not simply because he remarked, “Everything in life has been created by people all on their own.”  Even though spiritual accomplishments are indeed always very private, from the artist’s inspiration to the mystic’s vision, such moments happen when the individual turns deeply within himself in order fully to transcend himself.  The bright entrepreneur sometimes comes up with a brilliant idea on his own to make money, yes; yet the idea, if it makes money, caters to the statistical mean of public taste, often in servile fashion; the entrepreneur, if he gets rich, applies himself materially to stirring envy and admiration in his neighbors; and finally, if he grows weary of accepting worship passively, he decides to issue decrees for the good of all puny mortals as if he were God in Heaven.  The one who seems most alone is not alone at all: the one who seems most independent is a slave of sordid passions he can’t even identify.

Are our children smart enough at eighteen to figure this all out on their own, Rush?  I think not.  Is conservatism really just a matter of turning young mavericks loose upon a marketplace without rules?  I hope not. 

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