Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Rebel or Wind-Chime?

For those visitors to Vital Signs Blog who are unfamiliar with Jack Niewold, the essay below is an excellent introduction. If you're interested in reading more of Jack's fine writing -- writing which expresses a stimulating and eminently sane moral perspective on the culture wars -- I'd suggest you send him a "Friend" request over on Facebook and perhaps reading his engaging memoir, Frail Web of Intention. Here's a bit more about Jack's book but why not read the essay below first?

True Rebel or Wind-Chime? by Jack Niewold

When I comment critically on the role of popular culture in the lives of my family, my friends, the life of the nation, even the church, I am met with a number of typical responses. “Why are you so negative?” I hear. “There’s nothing wrong with Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, or an occasional male piercing.” Or: “My iPod is Me! Like my tattoo, my music is an expression of some deeper spiritual reality that I can’t really explain, but that’s important to me.” Or: “You need to be on to more important issues, and not alienating people, especially younger people, with your prejudices against things that are cool to everyone else.” Or: “You don’t know how tough it is to be a young person today; all they’re trying to do is find themselves.”

There’s no doubt that I parachuted into this postmodern world from some other place, but maybe that outsider perspective gives me an advantage. Popular culture thrives on the image of the rebel, the dropout, the doleful nonconformist. So, let’s do a thought experiment. What might a real outsider—say a James Dean slouching against a wall with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth—have to say about pop culture?

I am helped in this experiment by a recent column by David Brooks of the New York Times.

The first thing my James Dean alter ego would say about pop culture is that it sets people up for a world that doesn’t exist. Nowhere is this more clearly reflected than in the pieties so characteristic of graduation speeches. Here’s the standard issue message, according to Brooks: “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.” This message, according to Brooks, is “the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

The problem is, the real world that awaits the college graduate, or any young person, is one that requires you to shed your swagger, maybe even your Mohawk, when you come in the door for an interview. Even trophy kids, those whose lives have been carefully groomed by Volvo-type parents seeking a vicarious personal legacy, find that the marketplace doesn’t care about the mythology of “I am Somebody.” It wants Anybody who can listen, who can talk intelligently, who will take orders, who isn’t entitled.

As for finding oneself (one of the central tenets of commercial-driven adolescence), Brooks suggests that young people instead learn to lose themselves in a cause larger than themselves. But be careful here. There are many ready-made causes that cater to this impulse without really moving you away from a kind of Farmville fantasy world. Any cause you can join that doesn’t change you in some profound way for the better is a fraud.

That’s why I can’t stand all those “groups” you encounter on Facebook, the ones your friends sign you up for without your consent. They’re basically commitment-by-click. In the same way, cheap hopey-changey political allegiances often leave you worse off than you were. Not only are you disappointed in the messiah who led you away; you haven’t learned anything about yourself in the process. An endless coolhunt, like the quest for happiness, will ultimately end up in misery. It’s supposed to.

Today’s young people, Brooks says, “enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life... But the purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

Why not follow Jesus Christ, who said all of this long ago? Why waste your time on anything or anyone less? But beware: He’s not just another Thing you try for awhile before drifting on to the next thing. He’ll make you an authentic outsider, one ready to take on the world as it actually is.