It began as curiosity, an alienated feeling, the desire to understand. It became a temptation. The occasional trace of a melody would wriggle into my imagination. So what if I snuck away to enjoy a hot single now and then? No one had to know. But now I’ll admit it—I have two pop stations preset in the car. And I’m not ashamed.
Pop culture may mostly be terrible—derivative, routinized, raunchy, sometimes totally idiotic. But occasionally it’s marvelous, providing a panorama of and connection to the full range of human experiences, feelings, and thoughts of life in our time. As our country is being derided, by the Left and by the Right, as irremediably corrupt, it is worth occasionally descending into the cultural cave to remind ourselves that most people—even you and I—remain thoroughly human, doing our best, though often enough making a mess of it. No longer a separatist, I am now merely moderately marginalized, music-wise.
Taking oneself off somewhere, family in tow, almost seems sensible today. How can we raise our children in such a degraded culture, such an unethical system? Deceptively titled as though it were yet another derivative superhero movie, Captain Fantastic presents separatist Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) raising his six children in a Pacific Northwest family fort. This remarkable film both cheers and challenges separatism.
We first catch sight of the family thick in the forest hunting, camouflaged, disappearing into nature. After the eldest son slaughters the deer with a knife, his father feeds him a piece of raw meat and rubs blood on his face in a coming-of-age rite.
Hunting by day, reading by night, they parrot their father’s Marxist declarations. Instructed by him in natural science, literature, history, music, and constitutional theory, but also hand-to-hand combat and survivalist skills, the children learn to steal in what Ben dubs “Operation: Free the Food.” It may appear an ideal mixture of Athenian and Spartan educations, except that it isn’t an education for citizenship, for life in common with others.
Ben’s mentally ill wife Leslie (Trin Miller) writes a final letter to her mother before checking in to the hospital and joyfully reports that “We created a paradise of Plato’s Republic. Our children will be philosopher kings.” But kings over whom? Raised outside civilization, they prove comically incapable of normal interaction. Ben’s sister objects, “They will be totally unprepared for the real world.” Ben: “I happen to think the opposite is true.” His pride in his wilderness-ready brood causes us to wonder, what is the real world for human beings?
The beautifully done film—well written and engrossingly performed not only by the always good Mortensen but by the child actors—follows the family traveling to crash Leslie’s funeral. Ben’s father-in-law has threatened to have him arrested for child endangerment if he shows up, but Ben marches proudly into the church, delivering a sermon condemning religion.
The most trenchant criticisms of Ben come not from his father-in-law but from the middle son, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton). He blames his father for his mother’s suicide, rolls his eyes at the overwrought leftist clichés mouthed by his siblings, and says he would prefer to celebrate Christmas like other people instead of “Noam Chomsky Day.” (The film’s writer and director, Matt Ross, invented this celebration of the linguist/activist’s birthday and makes his family observe it.) Ben, surrounded by the other five children, offers the dissident a chance to present his case, but the son walks away silently, in disgust, wisely recognizing that some people—often the most proudly open and rationalistic—cannot be reasoned with.
The film pokes fun at today’s crunchiness, often embodied in a culinary, ironically trendy semi-separatism. Ben’s wife had clashed with her brother-in-law due to the “extremity of her position about Frosted Mini-Wheats.” “What’s cola?” a child asks. “Poison water,” Ben answers. Ben matter-of-factly explains suicide and sex to the children: “I tell the truth to my kids.” His sister inserts a crucial distinction: “Protecting children from certain concepts that they can’t understand isn’t lying.” The conflict is not over whether we should shield children, but over how and against what they should be shielded. Ben gives the kids, ages seven to 18, authentic Ka-bar knives on Noam Chomsky Day and takes them cliff-climbing in a storm. What his quarantine keeps them from is fascistic, corporate civilization and its carbohydrates.
The vulnerable potential of baby faces inspires in parents hopes for the great—but also fears of the rotten. Some react to what may look like utter plasticity by trying to control all influences, producing children who know a whole lot about what the parents judge important and next to nothing about anything else. The home-schooling movement averts this danger largely by working in networks—churches and other communities prove crucial. At its best, it is an education by a village of volunteering, cooperative families rather than one alone. A college student who was well home-schooled runs academic circles around his peers.
Without such a village, the Cash family remains cycloptic. Of the Cyclopes, Aristotle quotes Homer: “each one gives law to his children and his wives.” Living scattered and locked at the level of the nuclear family, the Cyclopes lack the perspective only a plenitude of perspectives affords. For Aristotle, the village, a collection of families, transcends the hand-to-mouth needs of daily life, but only a larger, less consanguineous community—the city—provides the venue for proper development of the person, his full use of reason. Yet Aristotle the Stagirite went to Athens for philosophy. The Greek civilizational sphere permitted Athens’ incredible cultural achievements. Beyond the little polis, a civilization—a culturally linked array of law-governed cities—supplies a range of spiritual and material goods contributing to human flourishing.
The Cashes makes use of this supply, even while Ben disdainfully washes his hands of society. Aristotle says of those who, by their natures, do not need a city that they are either gods or beasts, above or below the rest of us. The film portrays the Cash children as in some ways superior, in other ways animal-like. One daughter constantly wears a hat made of a bobcat’s head. One son must be reminded to wear clothes for family dinner.
The movie’s attitude toward its superish hero remains ambiguous. One scene in particular provides what may be a large interpretive clue: A daughter explains how the first-person narrative in Nabokov’s Lolita induces the reader to sympathize with a dirty old man—the reader is drawn to admire how much the man loves the 12-year-old girl, even though it really is child abuse. The suggestion here is that Ben’s father-in-law correctly condemns the family’s way of life.
But this interpretation is not carried through to the end. Rather, in the final analysis, the film perhaps celebrates Ben too much, corrects him too little, and does best in maintaining ambiguity about his separatist utopia. Ben diagnoses real problems and accomplishes great things, but he goes too far. We are drawn to admire this man who is doing his best in a difficult human situation and only partly making a mess of it.
By way of contrast, in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), some survivors of violent crime begin an off-the-grid commune to escape the irrational brutalities of civilization. They protect their children but only with orchestrated and fabricated fears. The group discovers its inability to thwart the ugly consequences of human nature, but in the end recommits to the utopian commune.
The Cash family concludes differently, by relocating to a farmhouse closer to town, keeping chickens, waiting for the school bus. That last bit is most important: the ex-Cyclops Ben allows his children’s minds to take in ideas from others, from the surrounding society.
Without this moderately filtered openness to civilization’s plentitude of perspectives, people undergo an intellectual and spiritual version of “genetic isolation.” Genetic isolation occurs when a biological community is cut off from interbreeding with others of its species, leaving the subgroup vulnerable to quickly compounding mutations not stabilized by the larger gene pool, sometimes leading to oddly beautiful flourishes or new adaptations, sometimes leading to sterility or extinction.
Culturally closed minds, families, and villages—since their ideas breed only among themselves—run parallel risks: oddness (sometimes beautiful, sometimes not), brilliant novelties, mistakes uncorrected by the larger pool, intellectual sterility, cultural extinction. The Cash family possesses downright oddness in addition to an odd beauty: one child artistically decorates her tree house with the skeletons and skins of small mammals. And Ben’s insouciance about the children’s physical safety needs correction by civilization’s more stable judgments.
As the Cashes wait for the school bus, they have rejoined the cultural gene pool. They are no longer separatist, but more moderately marginal. It is moderately marginal people who can benefit from civilization’s treasures even as they take them in from a healthy distance. A subculture is the place to be.
We tend not to recognize this because, for us, “marginalized” has come to mean “oppressed”—as though being marginal always resulted from societal hostility. The truth is that some things just are, by nature or by chance, off-center. For example, true friends of liberty, like lefthanders, are naturally marginal. It’s in the job description.
When being marginal does not entail oppression, it can prove healthy. A moderately marginalized person not only sees more, because from an odd angle, but often develops the intellectual and moral strengths to be not as swiftly swept up in cultural currents. This requires a sense of humor and a healthy ironic distance that can be difficult to uphold. Such independence may collapse into an overly harsh disdain for the mainstream or a fatigued submersion into it—opposite moves, but both spring from a longing to be in the center.
Subcultures, though, naturally view themselves not as marginalia but as the salt of civilization. Every subculture worries that its heirs will lose their saltiness—a powerful fear.
Though the Cashes are Marxist, American-style faux Buddhists, and though communes have been mostly an indulgence of the Left, the film might speak more clearly to those on today’s Right—for example, those tempted by the “Benedict Option,” which is “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity.”
Keenly observing faults might induce blindness and ingratitude for the (admittedly mixed) blessings of life in today’s America. Assimilation into the mainstream threatens, but so do alienation and arrogance, not to mention oddness, sterility, and extinction.
That’s reason enough for me to keep one hand outstretched to the mainstream, reaching unashamed to the car radio for my no-longer-secret indulgence—pop music. Which I listen to sometimes . . . not, like, usually. Perhaps with a little ironic detachment.
This essay was originally published at Law and Liberty on October 21, 2016.