John Wayne, John Galt and John McClane walk into a bar. Why does each of them come out alone?

“No. You’re wrong, punk.
I’m the real plastic Jesus!”

Photo by: Esparta Palma

No, I’m not making a joke. I can come up with my own dumb-joke premises, thank you. And I’m not teaching Pickup For Swarthy Brutes. No, instead I’m talking about… art…

Now that’s a manly topic! That’s not a joke, either. Poetry is leadership, and, accordingly, art is always a man’s job. Marxism triumphs by eviscerating fatherhood, and one of the most important duties for a self-responsible father is to introduce his children to the right art – the art that will show them how to grow up to be self-responsible parents.

John Wayne, John Galt and John McClane can’t do that job. Each one, considered as archetypes for their thousands of fundamentally-identical clones, is in fact a retelling of the self-sacrifice of the Nazarene. Whatever you may think about that kind of story, pushing your problems off on the other guy is the polar opposite of self-responsibility.

Do you want to tell me that you enjoy the explosions in movies like Die Hard? Totally get it. You like seeing trash-talking bad guys meet up with slow-talking vengeance? Good on ya. Your secret dream is to rub your hands together, saying, “I am not either an obsessively solitary evil genius! Just for saying that, I will stop the motor of the world!” Whatever floats your boat.

But: None of those stories moves the ball down the field. In terms of cultivating better future parents, they’re as nourishing as the popcorn you wolf down with them. If at this moment you wish to quibble with me about the moral lessons taught by the zombie armies of Nazarene-lite swaggerbots, I will remind you that the actual moral lesson to be drawn from each one of those yarns is this: It’s safe to run away from your problems as soon as the Homicidal Batmaniac shows up.

It gets worse. A successful social or political movement is both evangelical and prolific. Both. The movement actively – avidly – recruits new members, and the members have lots of babies, who are raised within the movement. Our three Johns deal out dubious moral advice to your children, but they do worse than nothing to proselytize other adults – or their children – to the idea of self-responsibility. John Wayne says, “Do it my way – or I’ll kill you.” John Galt says, “Do it my way or I’ll sneer at you – while you starve to death.” And John McClane just says, “Yippee ki yay, [Millie Fenwick]!” The fact that this greeting strategy pulls so few rejoicing converts is astounding only to those deploying it.

Here’s what’s what: The art that you enjoy and the art that moves other people your way can be very different. As I pointed out obliquely earlier, Virgil and Horace – arguably the greatest of the Roman poets – were both paid propagandists for Caesar Augustus. Here’s another faggot for the fire: Although both wrote in beautiful Latin, back home in their villas they would have read for pleasure in Attic Greek. They understood what you may not: All art has an agenda, and the promise of entertainment is simply the bait in the trap.

“Traps?!? Propaganda!!?” It’s possible you’ve never read a kid’s book – and it’s plausible that you see all art as children see it, all sugar and no medicine. But while you may not be all that interested in art, art is always interested in you.

If you are of liberty, considered in the most ecumenical possible way – if you are libertarian or a liberty-seeking conservative – John Wayne, John Galt and John McClane advance your agenda not at all. Mittyesque Batmaniacs will revere Wayne and McClane, and the very geekiest of teenagers like to wear Galt like an inflatable Superman costume for a while. But no one else is converted by these aggressive displays – too much the contrary. And of course, a society composed of nothing but actual Batmaniacs would self-exterminate overnight. They are not moral exemplars, they are fantasized radical outliers who serve to license lifelong moral cowardice for everyone else.

What does an actual morally-heroic man look like – to your kids, and to the victims of statism you long to convert? He looks like Mister Married: Loves his wife, adores his children, defends his values – and he expects everyone, starting with himself, to live up to his high moral standards. A leader is not a magical gift from the heavens who shows up to solve your problems for you. A leader is the man who gets you to get the job done by setting the agenda and then pitching in himself. This is the debt of leadership art owes to humanity, and it is by telling this one story in thousands of variations that art repays that debt.

And in no other way, take note. Why must John Wayne, John Galt and John McClane go home from that bar alone – solitary and friendless, as always? Because, once the shooting stops, they’re all just bossy, obnoxious jerks. Art can have many agendas, and you can have many motives in the art you choose to consume – or create. But only one kind of art makes people better – benedy, the art of people working together to make themselves and each other better – and, accordingly, that is the only kind of art that will both help you to raise better children and to recruit more joyously-committed converts.

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