Are you a sellout? If you came of age during the 1960s, whether to sell out was the existential question of your generation. Which to choose? Reckless youthful abandon or corporate "adult" obeisance? Yet Baby Boomers are sure to leave this ethical dilemma unresolved.
My fellow travelers, we of unlucky, witty Generation X have lived constrained careers with few options. Coupled with shrinking financial aid for college, the dismal job market made the choice between Wall Street and the Peace Corps simple. So we projected the debate onto of pop culture. Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli, judged all commerce and no art, were shunned. Artists who cashed in could be deemed genuine but only if they took chances and/or made decisions that were bad for business: The Clash, Elvis Costello, Nirvana.
The long-predicted winner-take-all society has arrived. A higher share of the income generated by each economic sector goes to a select few; others fight over scraps. The cost of integrity and the payoff for selling out have risen. So fewer Americans are taking chances.
People are holding on to jobs they hate, making it harder for young people to find work. Businesses are hanging tight, picking safe bets. Everyone makes concessions to the marketplace. I pride myself on ideological consistency and calling things as I see them even if offends my fans. But I rarely put vulgar words into my cartoons because newspaper and magazine editors won't run them.
"Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs," the Somali-American musician K'naan wrote recently. "My lyrics should change, my label's executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption."
Keeping it real doesn't pay the rent. Selling out does. When artists rely on capitalist markets, the freedom to choose integrity over selling out is a fraud.
"If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind--one I had to do to myself," K'naan continued. "The label wasn't telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information about my audience."
Make a living or starve. Or give up your dreams and silence yourself. Can anyone call that a real choice?
We see the same choice in politics. Sen. Marco Rubio recently embarrassed himself twice, first by pandering to the idiot base of the Republican Party, then walking back his stance on creationism.
Rubio explained his reasoning: "I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things."
Science isn't reconcilable with faith. Rubio knows that, but he also knows what would happen to his aspirations if he admitted the truth.
Integrity means doing the right thing even when it hurts. But you have to question the philosophical underpinnings of a society that requires its leaders and artists to work at Starbucks or act stupider than they are to get elected or sell records. Taking chances--which includes causing outrage--is how civilization tests new ideas, and how it progresses.
Not that they let you say whatever you want at Starbucks.