Earlier this week, Jim Geraghty triggered an interesting online conversation when he highlighted recent culturally conservative comments from high-profile celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Bono. Kutcher now-famously exhorted teenagers to embrace hard work and to essentially redefine “sexy” as something more approaching “virtuous.” Bono made the entirely accurate and (one would wish) common-sense observation that foreign aid and welfare are a “band-aid” for poverty, but “free enterprise is the cure.” In the great desert of pop culture, these comments represented a tiny oasis, a place for some replenishment and hope before venturing back out into the pitiless wastes.
In the battle for culture (in which I’m an enthusiastic but talentless participant; I can’t sing, dance, make movies, play an instrument, write a book anyone will read, or model athletic wear, but I did try out for Survivor once!), we’ve got to overcome four key lies the secular Left has sold successive generations since the Baby Boom. These lies are particularly difficult to defeat because they pull off the perfect con — convincing young people they can feel virtuous without being virtuous. They can feel good while being bad.
First, you can rebel through conformity. Did you know that our great centers of artistic expression, rebellion, and learning are less ideologically diverse than your typical Evangelical mega-church? It’s true. Check out the voting patterns of the urban centers of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City (excepting Staten Island) versus the percentage of the Evangelical vote that goes to Republican presidential candidates. Entire liberal cities are less diverse than a religious group centered around the same, rather specific theology. And as ideologically uniform as our cities are, they’re diversity festivals compared to our elite colleges and universities. Rebellious conformity, what a great gig.
Second, you can feel virtuous without acting virtuous. Think Republicans and red-staters are less compassionate than the Left? Think again. Republicans give more to charity and volunteer their time more than Democrats, and the religious (those nasty people!) donate and volunteer most of all. For far too many Americans, their virtue is in their attitude and their vote, and they delegate the messy business of actually, you know, helping people to others. Another great deal.
Third, your sexual self-expression is brave. If there’s one virtue that virtually all Americans agree upon, it’s valor. We admire bravery. So what is bravery? Well, according to Lady Gaga, and her “Born Brave Bus Tour,” it’s basically doing whatever the heck you want, especially if it involves sex. I grow especially weary of Hollywood’s insistence on honoring its own “courage” for making movies that “trangress boundaries” — meaning that the sexuality shocks some rube in Alabama– even as they bask in each other’s applause.
Fourth, you get to feel morally superior to people who exhibit actual virtue. Why be better when you can simply feel better? We live in an upside-down world, where the people who do next to nothing lord their presumed morality and virtue over those who actually get out their checkbooks and get their hands dirty for the “least of these” in our culture. Faithful Christians — far more despised in pop culture than, say, the Muslim Brotherhood — prop up the world’s largest private relief agencies and give far more time and money to the poor than they ever do to the causes they’re allegedly “obsessed” with — like same-sex marriage.
Those four quite seductive lies play to our innate selfishness while convincing us that we’re also somehow brave and selfless. The conservative project to reclaim culture — a far more important project than reclaiming the White House — has to relentlessly and creatively expose these lies while also demonstrating the attractiveness of true virtue. I fear we’re better at the former than the latter and thus succeed mainly in making people feel bad, not in inspiring them to do good.
How can we inspire? Your ideas are welcome in the comments.