When you grow up conservative, you quickly learn that if you’re going to enjoy good music, movies, and television, then you’re going to have to hold them at arm’s length. You have to separate the art from the artist, knowing full well that the man or woman who made you laugh or who moved you to tears may — in their very next interview — rip your faith or your politics to shreds.
At its best, this reality generates a healthy detachment, an ability to appreciate a person’s gifts and talents apart from their preferred candidates. Moreover, it prevents dangerous hero-worship and helps you understand that talent isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and it’s certainly not synonymous with virtue.
At its worst, the power and hostility of modern celebrity culture drives conservatives a little bit crazy. They alternatively yell “Shut up and dribble” and fawn over every celebrity that smiles in their general direction. After all, a plurality of GOP voters happily nominated the biggest Republican star in the land. And if you ever doubt that Republicans don’t love “their” celebrities with an odd intensity, just spend a little time watching Fox News.
“Coming up, Scott Baio discusses how great it is that Trump ‘talks like a guy.’”
This, of course, brings me to the ongoing, colossal left-wing meltdown over Kanye West. In case you’ve just returned from the International Space Station, Kanye not only had the audacity to tweet affection for Donald Trump, he doubled-down, time and again, even to the point of declaring that he and Trump share something called “dragon energy.”
The liberal Internet piled on. He was unmoved. It kept piling on. He remained unmoved.
Now, Kanye being Kanye, he may well turn around and tweet something entirely different in the next twelve hours. He may turn on Trump with ferocity. But it seems clear at this point that Kanye’s legendary independence holds even in the face of what may well be the most intense public attack — especially from his colleagues and friends — that he’s ever endured.
Of course, there’s a political component to this story. Kanye has an immense following, and his declaration of political independence represents a powerful and potentially influential break with pop-culture political groupthink. The Democratic party depends on a united, motivated black base. Even a slight reduction in their support would be extraordinarily damaging to the party’s national political influence. And Kanye hasn’t just broken with his peers, he’s elevating other dissenting voices.
But the politics here are much less interesting — and, ultimately, less important — than the emotional and spiritual consequences. Read the commentary, and it’s clear that many of the takes aren’t just angry, they’re anguished. Reading those words, it struck me — the Left isn’t used to this. The marriage of pop culture and liberal politics is so deep and long-lasting that millions of Americans haven’t learned to embrace the art while holding the artist at arm’s length. It’s not just a song that speaks to their hearts but a person. The role in their lives isn’t merely professional, it’s pastoral.
In an increasingly secular culture, people still yearn for transcendence, and they still seek mentors. For millions of liberals, the art provides the transcendence, and the artist becomes the mentor. It’s not unlike the appeal of a powerful preacher. The congregants thrill to his message, and they long to respect the man.
I was reminded of the marriage of art and artist when Prince died. The emotional response was orders of magnitude beyond the considerable merits of “Let’s Go Crazy” or “When Doves Cry.” It wasn’t just Prince’s music that turned his death into the “Black 9/11.” Legions of fans shared stories about the man and his ideals (selectively, it turned out — Prince was hardly a down-the-line leftist). He gave the people music, and the people gave him their hearts.
In thinking of what it’s like when a person you’ve long admired suddenly seems different, or you learn that he’s not the person you thought he was, I’m reminded of one of the seminal events of my childhood — when our beloved preacher ran off with another man’s wife. It didn’t make the good words of his countless past sermons any less true, but since man and message were inseparable, those words were tainted forever.
Ultimately, I learned good things from that painful moment. I learned that we can’t put our faith in men. Hero-worship is spiritual poverty. I learned no person should be arrogant about his own virtue, but instead that we should understand that all good things come from God, including our own integrity.
At this moment, there are Americans who look at Kanye as if the pastor has abandoned his flock. The sense of betrayal is deep and profound. While we don’t know what happens next, the importance of opening cracks in the Democratic coalition pales in comparison with the cultural importance of questioning the cult of celebrity. The anguish of the Left reveals the emptiness of the pop-culture faith. No man should have such a hold over the human heart.