New York Times columnist David Brooks is my favorite
conservative. He’s likable, the kind of guy with whom you could
enjoy a long dinner of many courses seasoned with thought-provoking
conversation, topped off with a digestif and a cigar.
New York Times columnist David Brooks is my favorite conservative. He’s likable, the kind of guy with whom you could enjoy a long dinner of many courses seasoned with thought-provoking conversation, topped off with a digestif and a cigar.
But I rarely agree with him, and his Aug. 7 column was no exception. In a piece called “The Virtues of Virtue,” Brooks explained why he thought America had become a better place in the last decade. Among other reasons, he wrote that “people have stopped believing in stupid ideas [such as] that it is every adolescent’s social duty to be a rebel.”
Fifty years ago today the iconic rebel who embodied this “stupid” idea, James Dean, died.
With his reclusive, romantic air James Dean was many things that Brooks is not. He lived, and acted, a brief life that balanced a lack of sophistication with to-the-bone honesty and sincerity. Coming of age after World War II at a time of somnambulant social complacency, Dean was a wake-up call.
Dean himself was an artist, not a political activist. He believed, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in “The Little Prince,” that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” He made being a teenager, and being a rebel, sexy. His raw angst embodied the search for meaning for many, especially the young, who felt adrift in a soulless, rigidly conventional society. And they didn’t even have Pat Robertson.
Today the epidemic of social narcissism and indifference that motivated Dean has returned, and this time the body politic has also been infected with a strain of rapacious ideology.
For almost five years George Bush’s cronies have lulled us to sleep with vague lullaby promises of safe dreams. Meanwhile, in the dark of night, they have pillaged the environment and gutted labor and tax laws, widening the gap between rich and poor. Tens of millions are left behind by a neglected health care system while the administration and Congress fight a useless war and pay for it with a credit card. Through it all, Bush’s oil friends have gotten rich – a fact that stares each of us in the face every day at the pump.
Yes, there are plenty of causes, and not nearly enough rebels.
Brooks was right about one thing: American youth no longer care about rebelling, but the reason is not what he thinks. They are complacent not out of virtue, but out of ignorance.
Eight months ago today, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released the results of a survey that found that well over a third (36 percent) of high school students believe newspapers like this one should be prohibited from publishing articles (perhaps like this one) without government approval. Three-quarters have no opinion about the First Amendment or take it for granted.
Are we raising a generation of fascists? James Dean might have suspected so – as does TV host Bill Maher, who wrote in February after the Knight survey came out: “The younger generation is supposed to rage against the machine, not for it.”
Perhaps the problem is that young people spend too much time raging on other machines, playing video games like Grand Theft Auto.
They should turn on the DVD player instead, because James Dean left us three great movies. Dean himself saw only one, his first, “East of Eden,” before he died. He’d just finished filming “Giant,” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” his most famous, was set to open a week later.
But after making three movies in 16 months, James Dean first wanted to take time off to drive to Salinas to take part in a race in his Porsche Spyder 550. That plan was cut short in a fiery crash near Cholame, when he collided head-on with Donald Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe at the ‘Y’ intersection of highways 41 and 46.
His death at 24 left us with a legacy of a tortured soul searching for the essential in life, things invisible to the eye. James Dean was luckier than most, because he had found his cause: the cause of art.