A few years ago, the iconic leader of Apple computers, Steve Jobs, died. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Jobs has become something of a hero in American culture. The “maverick” innovator whose skill and talent created extraordinary devices and billions of dollars of income. In a somewhat incongruous coincidence, Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day Jobs did. In contrast to Jobs, most people know nothing whatever about Shuttlesworth. He was a minister in Birmingham Alabama, and one of the most important civil rights leaders (he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was one of the main organizations working to promote the end of segregation in the South). One can tell a great deal about a culture by the heroes we celebrate. That Jobs has become a hero and Shuttlesworth is forgotten pretty much tells us what one needs to know about whether U.S. political culture is more aligned with Mill or Rousseau. The plucky entrepreneur is no doubt far more celebrated in American culture than the one who devotes himself to improving the justice of our political community.
However that may be, I also wanted to link to one of the most famous commercials in recent times.
What is of interest to me here is the obviously Millian elements of this advertisement. The commercial aims to celebrate “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 like 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. Though MLK is remembered more than Shuttlesworth is, King’s memory is almost wholly de-politicized. What gets remembered is a “cuddly” Martin Luther King, the one who talks about his dream and makes us white folks feel good about how tolerant of other races we’ve become.
This de-politicized celebration of King is explicit in this ad. The viewer is not really supposed to identify Martin Luther King’s political positions–his opposition to the Vietnam War, for instance, or his advocacy for more resources to deal with the effects of poverty and racism. Rather, one is invited to identify with King’s, or Einstein’s “oddballness,” the fact that they “didn’t care for rules.” This claim, of course, is utterly absurd in all of the cases cited in the ad. Whatever else you might say about MLK, he respected the rules. But the issue here is not just the ad’s falsity (is there anything more boring that pointing out when an ad is false or misleading?). What’s important is the mythology it invites the viewer to accept: 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 a way, this is Mill’s basic orientation, through and through. And 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.
This might mean, of course, that Mill’s celebration of individuality has become a dead dogma. 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: his position has perhaps become all too compatible with the tendencies, so prominent in contemporary political culture, toward privatization and consumerism. In the name of genius and innovative individuality, one ends up embracing a mass consumerism and conformity.