Mill in contemporary popular culture

In honor of Steve Jobs’ death, I present one of the most famous ads in recent history:

What is of interest to me, however, is the obviously Millian elements of this advertisement. We must note, for instance, the celebration of “oddballs,” diversity, genius, and so on, which is straight out of the Mill playbook. It is also emotionally powerful. Our culture tends to identify with figures like this; we prefer to think of ourselves as aligned with people like Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein, and this is not just because of the moral or political rightness of these figures. At least in this ad, the identification comes from a celebration of their oddballness, the fact that they “didn’t care for rules” (which, I must add, is a claim that is utterly absurd in all of the cases cited in the ad). We love the underdog story–the person that is outside the system, is able to see things that more “conventional” people miss, and then succeeds against the odds. In this sense, the position Mill is arguing for really has won the day. We tend to find it superfluous even to argue for it any longer.

Does this mean Mill’s celebration of individuality has become a dead dogma? Perhaps. The other reason I wanted to share the ad is that Millian ideas, which were really controversial at the time he wrote them (Mill was considered to be a far left radical), have now become advertising slogans. One expresses one’s individuality or asserts one’s oddball geniusness by purchasing an Ipod. And this leads me to one other key issue regarding Mill, at least given my own political commitments: his position is, to my mind, all too compatible with the tendencies, so prominent in contemporary political culture, toward privatization and consumerism.

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