The Myth of The RebelThe

The Myth of The Rebel

The myth of the rebel runs something like this: the world is full of inauthentic fuddy-duddies who control the culture. Out of all this inauthentic life comes the rebel, who leads himself and others to authentic existence through his love of art. The rebel is oppressed by the old fuddy-duddies, and overcomes them through the power of his authentic life.

In a word, the story goes like this: authentic life comes through self-expression, which is tested by the willingness to rebel against the established order. We have all heard this story a thousand times- it is the story of modern pop icons (Elvis, Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones… but why limit it? Every new wave of pop music boasts of authentic life exercised against the old fuddy-duddies) and it is also the story of many political and scientific movements (Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, the hippies, and many others.)

The myth asks us to admire the “authentic life”. Notice what authentic life is not: it isn’t moral life, it isn’t a life of self-denial out of love, it isn’t even an examined life. Far from ever having to examine his life, the rebel always seems to have everything worked out from the the beginning, as though he were Christ questioning the teachers in the Temple. The rebel never has to experience the essentially moral drama of figuring out that “the greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves”, for the rebel-as the story goes- only experiences grief at the hands of others, extrinsically, because he is oppressed and misunderstood. Because the rebel never experiences anything in his soul that he sees the need to correct or master (except perhaps, his own self- repression), the rebel is unable to have any moral development. In truth, the moral life begins when we accept that there are things in us that need to be perfected with outside help (family structure, churches, prayer) but the rebel sees his life as essentially perfect and ready to perfect the world around him.

The story of the rebel is bad art. Art pleases by making something known, and it makes something known by showing us what it is. But the story of the rebel doesn’t tell us what the rebel is. If you want to be certain of this, ask what people think of rebels when they actually have to deal with them. Ask a cop, or a teacher, or a parent how cool a fifteen year old rebel without a cause is. You know what you call a rebel in real life? A Brat. There’s nothing romantic or cool or hip about brats. In real life, whatever good they have is marred by the fact that they are awkward, lazy, ill-mannered, self-righteous, disobedient, smug little boys and girls. The cult of the rebel is the cult of the brat, and brats should conjure no feelings of admiration, but rather feelings of pity and sadness which should be ordered to empowering a mature society to empower the brats out of their misery.

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