I didn’t grow up listening to late 70s punk jams in my bedroom. So I never knew what made the Sex Pistols so iconic and edgy. As far as I could tell, the band’s music wasn’t so much the source of their success, but their message of youthful rebellion is what attracted legions of fans.
It’s not hard to captivate a band of conformists with a message of non-conformity. Impressionable teenagers and adults love to be told they are raging against the machine when, in fact, they are cogs in the system. Sex Pistols may still be regarded as an influential rock act, but the devil-may-care attitude they championed is now so commonplace that it’s boring.
That’s why it was a pleasant surprise to see John Lydon – known also by his stage name Johnny Rotten – recently rebuff the poisonous attitude engendered by his band. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Lydon berates comedian and movie star Russell Brand for his idiotic views on politics. Brand just released a book titled Revolution in the hopes of sparking an upheaval against the political establishment. Like all socialist utopians, Brand wants to smash capitalism to pieces and build an egalitarian promised land over its wreckage. His book is short on details for bringing about the so-called “revolution,” but is long on self-aggrandizement and mysticized blather.
Lydon is having none of it. He calls Brand’s fantastical notions of revolution “the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard.” If Western youth went along with the Brand playbook for a new world order, Lydon warns, “What you’ll get is a rat pile of infestation. And indolence, laziness, and eventually you’ll all be evicted.” Taken to its sound conclusion, trying to change the political system through positive-based activism is just a euphemism for “A lifestyle of cardboard boxes down by the river.” “[Brand is] preaching all this from a mansion,” Lydon reminds everyone.
It’s hard not to agree with Lydon’s critique. Though the former Sex Pistol is naive enough to think that voting can fundamentally change the system, he is correct in lampooning Brand’s contrived notions of revolution. Romantic views on effecting change are easy to create; the dirty work of turning an institutionalized political system inside-out is not something you put down in an Amazon best-seller. When then-candidate Barack Obama told a gushing crowd “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he was playing to the mob’s perception of self-importance. That’s exactly what Brand is doing by filling a few hundred pages on why he’s the leader of a nascent movement to alter the current political order.
Thanks to the rise of liberal democracy over the past few centuries, returning power to the people is a popular and celebrated notion. But revolution isn’t for serious individuals; it’s for children. There’s nothing special about wanting to change the world. Every daydreaming schoolchild wants to be known for altering the course of history. Public school teaches them that societal transformation is best fostered by eloquent politicians and academics. Then morons like Russell Brand go on television, spouting off nonsense about a proletariat uprising while starring in boorish films.
The truth is political revolutions are nothing to celebrate. The French experience with abolishing feudalism brought out the guillotine. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward caused famine and massive death. Everywhere socialist revolutions were attempted brought murder on top of murder, suffering on top of suffering. Victims of the liberation weren’t freed from the drudgery capitalist exploitation; they were relieved from their earthly vessels.
Political revolutions, whether well-meaning or pernicious in intent, are almost always a source of widespread misery. Rabble-rousers overestimate humanity’s capacity for engineering society. They cast disgusted looks upon the old, established order, while starring dewy-eyed at a future of their own creation. Their ambition far outweighs their practical ability to succeed.
Loud-mouthed supporters of societal insurrection misunderstand what it means to be rebellious. In many ways, mind your own business and living quietly define what it means to be independent. Free spirits are a dime a dozen in the age of viral internet videos.
The most revolutionary thing one can do in the post-modern era is to live a peaceful life, away from the fame and noise, raising a family of upstanding, equally well-behaved children. The real revolutionaries are people whom George Eliot called “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” To be remembered as a kind person who lived virtuously is the ultimate form of subversiveness.
Progressive moral relativism is responsible for incalculable destruction of Western society. Out of wedlock births, fatherless families, no-fault divorce, and rampant secularism are all tearing apart the seams of traditional society. A lifelong marriage with grandchildren is almost unheard of outside the generation that produced the baby boomers. What’s more rebellious than sticking to the old mores of society when disgruntled minorities aggressively demand we affirm their lifestyle?
In a recent speech before the Christian Gathering, New York Times columnist David Brooks described the hyper-progressive worldview as one that emphasizes accomplishment over fulfillment. It’s now conformist to strive for the best grades, the best job, the best resume, and the best position of power. Success is measured in the size of accomplishments; not the substance. Our cultural heroes are those who rise triumphantly to the top, exuding splendor to cheering crowds. They are the Russell Brands and punk rockers who think raunchy behavior and extremist political rhetoric are the things of fundamental change. Brooks decries the narcissistic, achievement culture for lacking a moral purpose. He says the “secular world may look like Kim Kardashian and vulgarity, but I am telling you it is a river of spiritual longing.”
Even the most impoverished and decrepit segments of society are filled with people who long for tangible success. They don’t understand what it means to be content with the way things are, and how to enjoy small moments of unbridled joy. They fail to see the virtue of living like George Bailey, with a loving family and a network of good-natured friends.
Russell Brand embodies the lifestyle of egocentric pleasure-seeking that hollows out civilization. His 14 month marriage to pop singer Katy Perry was the manifestation of a life void of transcendent meaning. A marriage based entirely on surface-level love, Brand broke off the sacred bond via a text message. Is there anything more modern than tossing off centuries of tradition with an impersonal message on a cell phone? Unfortunately, the short-love, long-divorce practice is becoming a norm even for non-celebrities. The decay of the nuclear family foundation will cause untold damage to orderly life; the deleterious effects of which are still forthcoming.
John Lydon’s leftists tendencies might be misguided, but his critique of Brand’s “I take drugs and tell jokes in not funny ways” schtick is spot-on. There is no seriousness in his call for revolution.
Living plainly is anathema to the revolutionary aspirations of progressive reformers. They want the immediate results of provocation, without the tireless work of striving toward virtue. Good societies aren’t built upon constant agitation, but dedication to an agreed-to moral code. Tradition and homeliness are as much a revolutionary weapon as a barrel of gunpowder. The difference is explosions only leave destruction in their wake; a calm, indefatigable pursuit of simple goodness can bring everlasting change for the better.