Chicken-head Johnston

The new issue of The Surfer’s Journal just arrived (I know, I know, you’re pissed you haven’t gotten yours yet) and, if it were online, I would link to the amazing article about Jalian Johnston, a former pro surfer from Southern California who now lives in a handmade house in Hawaii. It isn’t Johnston’s small-footprint living I was so impressed by. It’s fairly easy to pull off eco-conscious self-sufficiency when you live on six of the rainiest acres on Earth. It’s that, when the commercial forces of pro surfing started to bear too heavily upon him, still a teenager, he warily withdrew, spending more and more time at the foot of a cliff, living in a bush. Okay, so it’s not just that he lived in a bush. It’s also that he sometimes surfs while wearing something that looks like a giant chicken head, which, being a freelance clothing designer, he makes himself.

It’s a little hard to get past the fact that this is a rich kid from Palos Verdes whose big epiphany came when he started listening to Phish, but one look at the opening photo of him, with his sweaty, dirty, scratched-up, sunburnt face, the gnarled caveman pendant around his neck, and another decorative bird-head attached to his human head, and you have to conclude that he’s the real deal, an eccentric, a genuine nutcase, as well as something much respected in the surfing world, his own brand of badass.

Anyway, the article made me wonder about why I found this dude such a hoot, and, by extension, how his example, or my fondness for it, fits with right-of-center thought. From one perspective, Johnston probably looks like just another hippie dropout. It’s hard to overestimate the role the old hippie-loathing, and the anti-ideal of youth rebellion in general, still play in the social thought of the modern intellectual Right. (In a recent review of The Wackness, for example, John Podhoretz described The Catcher in the Rye as a “pernicious book,” pernicious because it enshrined the pose of disaffection as the model for thoughtful youth.) But this strain – which I would call modernist law-and-order conservatism – exists in real tension with the various individualisms of the Right – mainly the rights-based individualism that conservatives tend to share with (nonutilitarian) libertarians, as well as the rugged individualism of the American ideology. I don’t want to call it conformist, because there are many oddballs within its ranks, but this anti-hippie conservatism is, at the very least, unromantic about nonconformity. On the other hand, though, there are strains of conservatism that are more explicitly on the side of the weirdos and outliers. For me, the most attractive aspect of Andrew Sullivan’s writing is his defense of eccentricity and experimentation. He doesn’t just criticize the war on drugs, he dares to make some obvious points in defense of, well, drugs. He amplifies Oakeshott’s case that limited government – limited politics – is the best way to allow people to forge their private lives, however incomprehensible to the public world. (It must be said, Oakeshott’s private life was a marvel of eccentricity.)

And then there are people like Allan Bloom, dandy, connoisseur, chain-smoker – whose elitism had a little of Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism about it, which is very much concerned with the antagonism between certain unruly but commendable human types and the larger society, whose ruliness conservatism tends to have a major stake in. The question is, where do you direct your vestigial aristocratic sympathies now that we neither have nor want actual aristocrats. There are Bloom’s cultural giants, of course, but they exist as books, mainly, not people. If it’s action you want, there are athletes – and I have worshiped an athlete or two – but their world is so thoroughly regulated and monetized. There’s great talent but very little individuality. The most outrĂ© tropes are quickly internalized by entire leagues – regression to the extreme. Like mainstream musicians, athletes live in a world of sanctioned daring, the universal tattoo.

And so I end up chuckling to some lunatic surfer in a feathered headdress, because nobody else that I know of is scoring massive barrels in a chicken head. I’m not sure what that counts for, but it’s not nothing. Or maybe it is nothing, and that’s its charm.