People have become extraordinarily anxious.
The situation is most extreme among political progressives. Surveys show that political and social attitudes among conservatives have mostly been rather stable in recent years, but among liberals they have been breaking leftward. Since conventional public opinion is liberal, the result has been a strong trend to the left. Notable examples include transgenderism, rising support for socialism, radicalization on issues related to race, and growing suppression of dissenting voices.
But the farther the slide to the left goes the more worried progressives become. The result is constant panic. A Harvard professor tells us that a preference for classical architecture leads to fascism and genocide. Sensitive souls without scientific training are terrified that climate change will kill us all.
A few years ago people saw nothing especially right wing about concerns regarding immigration. In 2000, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants. More recently Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Bernie Sanders have also supported stronger enforcement.
But progressives now see advocacy for immigration restriction as “white nationalism,” and view events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as terrifying signs of a resurgent extreme right. All issues connected to identity provoke similar fears. Fifty years ago identity crises were a niche pursuit for affluent college students. Today worries about identity have become the soul of progressive politics. People multiply them, choosing new identities and then worrying that others may not believe in them—a failure that is felt as an assault on their very being.
In New York City such attitudes have induced officials to establish fines of up to 250 thousand dollars for “misgendering.” There is even anxiety about other people’s identity, which can be felt as a terrifying threat. That is why a poster saying only “It’s OK to be white” would now create a crisis in any progressive community.
On the non-left people are also anxious. Their worries most often relate to the threat of a featureless global society that crushes dissent and flattens family, religion, and nation. They also worry about the increasing irrationality of a public world dominated by concerns about “safety,” fears of a supposedly resurgent far right, and a growing conviction that dissent from progressive orthodoxy is intolerable. To many conservatives, America has come to seem pre-totalitarian.
But why is this happening? Why so much anxiety among progressives, whose various causes have been piling up political and social victories for centuries, and recent opposition to whom has generally been sporadic and populist and therefore disorganized and ineffective? To outsiders, the fears seem paranoid.
Some would say that rightist concerns about globalism and the increasing craziness of public discussion are equally paranoid. But left and right are fundamentally dissimilar. Western life and thought have long been moving away from traditional ways and transcendent concerns and toward secularity and comprehensive industrial organization of social life. Progressives have favored the tendency, while conservatives and reactionaries have reacted against it and wanted to protect various goods they fear are being lost.
So the two sides differ in their basic nature. Progressives are likely to have clearer theories of what they are about. Their cause is usually advancing—that is why people call them “progressives”—while their opponents play defense. And their opponents are likely to be divided among themselves, since they have very different objections to the direction of events.
Nor are the two sides likely to be equally justified. If the direction of events is beneficial, the progressives are the good guys and conservatives are selfish or lacking in vision. But if the progressives are taking us over a cliff, then they are the ones who lack vision and are likely to be acting in accordance with obstinate prejudice and personal and class interests.
Others have noticed some of the same tendencies and given their own explanations. Mary Eberstadt’s recent book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics blames identity politics on the disintegration of the family and the resulting loss of a sense of self. And almost seventy years ago Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community attributed modern ideological fanaticism to the rise of the modern state and the resulting destruction of traditional and informal connections.
Neither explanation is wrong, but both are incomplete, because general tendencies associated with the progressive movement lie behind both situations. Early progressive governments often provided some practical benefits. The industrial-style organization and secular utilitarian outlook they favored promoted literacy, public health, and economic development. That led to declines in disease and hunger that we can all approve.
But man needs more than physical health and comfort, and the progressive suppression of traditional ways and diversion of attention from transcendent concerns soon turns destructive. Without authority that transcends the individual each becomes a law unto himself. We end up with the view the Supreme Court has made authoritative in American law that “at the heart of liberty [and thus legitimate public order] is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
However, that view makes no sense. We are not little gods, each creating his own world, and an attempt to force such a view on human life will end badly. In theory people will be allowed to do what they want, but in practice there will be limits: they will be required to leave others equally free, and whatever they do will have to support the system—which, after all, is understood as a uniquely legitimate system of equal freedom.
But that means that government will put more and more effort into weakening social connections, since strong connections mean we interfere with each other, and promoting the way of life bureaucrats and billionaires find easiest to manage: one based on career, consumption, various private indulgences, and support for the system. The results will include the growth of the state and the destruction of traditional and informal arrangements that Nisbet notes; the weakening of sexual standards, family life, and settled identities that Eberstadt points to; and the identity anxieties, ideological fanaticism, and general feeling that anything at all could happen, because nothing is settled, that we see all around us.
Left and right agree the situation is likely to end badly. Political movements aren’t going to solve the problem, because what’s needed is a fundamental change of orientation. That is something the Church could and should provide. During the Roman Empire she gave people a new principle of human connection and social integration in an increasingly cosmopolitan and fragmented world. She could do that again.
But the radicalization of post-Vatican II tendencies, together with general mediocrity, has kept her from doing so. Catholic progressives, who line up behind secular progressivism, have mostly been in the saddle, and other Catholics have largely gone with the flow. The result is that even in the Barque of Peter we have increasing disorder and anxiety. The crew is undisciplined, the officers are having fist fights, the passengers are confused and alarmed, and the captain is doing God knows what. Not only cranks and visionaries but even bishops and cardinals openly speak of apocalyptic times.
Under such circumstances, we all need to reorient ourselves away from the standards of a world that is losing its grip on reality and toward what is permanent and real. Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. This year—more than ever—we have reason for that.
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