Many of the young people rioting today are not committed Marxist revolutionaries. (There are large, powerful, dark forces behind the riots; the actual rioters are just political fodder.) Many are rioting largely because it’s considered by their peers and their influencers to be the cool, popular thing to do. In that, they are the most recent iteration of the popular American “counterculture” that began in the mid-20th century and has traveled hand in hand with left-wing politics (and has, alarmingly, gained the upper hand in the popular culture).
That counterculture has a lineage that goes back to the Beat Poets, a group of young men with literary ambitions who sought to live a more passionate, more ecstatic experience than the standard “American Dream” of family, security, and prosperity. Their writing and experiences became the blueprint of the American counterculture: sex, drugs, rapturous music, mad impulses, and defiance of authority. With them, a new spirit was unleashed; while decadence has always been with us, after the Beats, it was often celebrated as a cultural advancement, a virtue.
By the end of the 1960s, the counterculture the Beats initiated had become mainstream, promoted as such by the media. Many youths adopt the Beats’ unbridled lifestyles for at least a brief period of adolescence or young adulthood. Rock may have replaced the Beats’ beloved jazz, and rap may have replaced rock as the soundtrack for the times, but the popular acceptance of decadence and defiance has persisted in youth culture to this day. To be “cool,” at least in the popular national consciousness, has been to show contempt for traditional mores, to regard those trying to preserve order as less evolved, and to flaunt one’s pursuit of sensuality.
Now a new set of young men is showing a new direction, a new “cool.” Although they are unfamiliar with each other and rose to national prominence in different situations, similar themes run through their actions. They are Nick Sandmann, who coolly stood his ground and maintained his dignity when verbally accosted in person by an antagonistic protester — and again when the media tried to paint him as the aggressor; Kyle Rittenhouse, who coolly protected himself under fire against a mob of criminals hell-bent on harming him during the Kenosha riot; and Brady Williams and Jarad Bentley, two high school football players who resolutely stuck up for their principles by carrying flags representing the police and firefighters onto the field before a game on September 11, despite knowing that punishment by their school’s administration awaited them. (Certainly, other examples exist, but these four exemplify the pattern.)
They are not part of the coastal elites, but from flyover country: Sandmann is from Kentucky, Rittenhouse from Illinois, the other two from Ohio.
They come from different backgrounds. Sandmann is upper-middle-class; his mother is a vice president of Fidelity Investments, and his father is a sales manager for a manufacturing company. Rittenhouse comes from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum: he was raised by a single mother who works as a nurse’s aide. Williams and Bentley are from the prosperous working class: Williams is the son of a sheriff, while Bentley’s father is a firefighter.
These four boys do not seem to be the sort of young men who usually garner public attention. They are not heading to Harvard with perfect SAT scores. Nor have they been embraced by the popular culture, to say the least.
Actually, little is publicly known about their performance as high school students (as it should be), but the way they present themselves is telling. Sandmann is articulate; he appears to have excelled as a student and is now attending highly regarded Transylvania University. Catholicism looms large in his background; he attended a Catholic high school and rose to fame when attending a March for Life in Washington.
Rittenhouse is a high school dropout and seems to have struggled more than the others. He was bullied in school. He is enamored of law enforcement and participated in a juvenile police cadet program. He also tried to enlist in the Marines at age 17. He has worked as a lifeguard, has done some volunteering, and has taken first aid training (he brought his kit to the Kenosha protest).
Williams and Bentley have not faced quite the firestorm of scrutiny that Sandmann and Rittenhouse have. In interviews, they came across as respectful and well spoken — albeit, perhaps, with a rough-and-rowdy yet wholesome edge befitting their blue-collar football player status.
The cumulative actions of these four and their subsequent behavior represent so much that is good about humanity: respect, patriotism, sacrifice, faith, courage, service, humility, resolve, and dignity. Sandmann seems headed for a leadership role as he matures; the other three seem poised to become the guardians of society, the “rough men” who “stand ready to do violence” in order to let the mass of people “sleep peacefully in their beds at night” (from a line by critic and essayist Richard Grenier encapsulating sentiments voiced by Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell).
These four young men from the Heartland, with their fresh-faced, clean-cut appearances and respectful demeanors, stand in stark contrast to the mad barking loons and preening narcissists of today’s mainstreamed counterculture and its popular culture heroes.
Contrast them with the prancing hyper-sexuality of pop, rock, and rap stars, or the uninformed mumbling of professional athletes, or the neurotic, irrational demands made by movie stars.
Better, contrast Sandmann, Rittenhouse, Williams, and Bentley with the perpetually angry, vicious, foul-mouthed, and unhinged Antifa and Black Lives Matter rioters with their often disturbing appearances and antisocial contempt for order. Which group’s members are seeking goodness? Which of them are likely to marry and raise families and teach their children to honor the nation and the rights of others? These are not difficult questions.
Or, better still, contrast them with the original counterculture, the Beat Poets, who have all written their final chapters. Two of the five original members committed murder.
Three of them were drug addicts; Jack Kerouac was an alcoholic. Homosexuality played a part in all of their lives, with the possible exception of Kerouac: Neal Cassady dabbled as a male prostitute in his youth; Lucien Carr stabbed an older male with whom he had a destructive relationship that may or may not have been physical; William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg almost certainly bedded boys who were well below the age of consent, with Ginsberg openly advocating for the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Both Kerouac and Ginsberg humiliated themselves on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line TV show, Kerouac because he was drunk and Ginsberg because he insisted on performing a cringingly awkward Hare Krishna chant. Cassady died of a heart attack at age 42 while under the influence of depressants. He is reputed to have said, “[T]wenty years of fast living — there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.” Kerouac died broken both financially and physically at 47 from internal hemorrhaging.
Let’s see what Sandmann, Rittenhouse, Williams, and Bentley are up to in 20 or 30 years. Indications are that they will be responsible, respectable men who serve and protect in some fashion. They have defiantly gone against the zeitgest. Let’s hope they set the standard for what is “cool” in the future — and unlike in the Beats’ case, that the examples they set will lead to a renewal of honor and respect among the young.
Written by Jay Schalin for The American Thinker ~ September 27, 2020
Jay Schalin is the director of policy analysis for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.