Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has been pitching a big tent for actor Ashton Kutcher since Kutcher's insightful speech at Sunday's Teen Choice Awards. The unusual seriousness of the speech in that venue was itself newsworthy, but Limbaugh's gushing over the speech has made more news than the actual speech did - probably because he is usually spewing bile over the Hollywood set.
Rush Limbaugh spent several minutes of his show on Wednesday playing clips from the Teen Choice Awards and patting Kutcher on the back for sharing the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps values that young people just are not hearing enough of. (Show portion and transcript) Our youth, Limbaugh contends, are being lied to and being taught that rich people and evil corporations are taking opportunities away from them.
I agree with Limbaugh that Ashton Kutcher gave a great speech. I watched it and was very impressed at his message, and his passion. (As a public speaking professor I was also pleased with his speech construction: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, remind them what you just told them.) I also agree that his messages - that hard work is necessary for success, that looks are superficial, and that you have power over your life - are ones that young people need to hear often.
But the Republican pundit overlooked a few points of Kutcher's life and speech. Those hard-work opportunities the actor mentions happened before he was 19, when he was discovered in a bar and became a model. Mere months later, he was signed to That '70s Show, reportedly after a single audition. While I've heard modeling is back-breaking work, it is not a path to success available to many young people, and there is more than a small element of right-time-right-look in this story.
Because he became a model/actor/producer, Ashton Kutcher's criminal conviction for third degree burglary and his incomplete college education did not hinder his progress. For most young people trying to get ahead, a record and the absence of a college degree would be like albatrosses around their necks. Convicts are disqualified from several occupations and employers are not rushing to hire anyone with a record. Someone with a record getting a loan to start a business is about as likely as Rush Limbaugh supporting the Dream Act.
In his speech, Kutcher equates sexiness with intelligence, thoughtfulness and generosity. (How does Ashton exercise those to get his washboard abs I wonder...) Rush does not mention that portion of the speech in his praise-fest - understandable, since generosity is not a core Republican value. Yet, generosity is absolutely essential to a society's success. There will always be people who need a helping hand because social strata (and in the United States, race) greatly limits their hard-work opportunities. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is not possible if there is no strap...or no boot.
Many rich people and large corporations fight tooth and nail, within and outside the law, not to pay their taxes. Taxes pay for libraries, education, HeadStart programs, food assistance, public healthcare - boot straps for the underprivileged. Republicans stand with corporations to squash workers' rights and living wage requirements - turning hard-work opportunities into hamster wheels of poverty. Jobs and opportunities are persistently out of the reach of minorities and the poor because of racism and classism, removing rungs on the proverbial ladder to success.
I applaud Ashton Kutcher's speech, and even Rush Limbaugh's sharing it with his audience. But if Rush and others of similar minds continue to ignore that we are not playing on a level-field and that all our bootstraps aren't of the same quality all the speeches in the world wont make a heck of a difference.