And yet, pessimists abound on both the right and the left. Robert Bork laments the erosion of Americas moral fabric at the hands of corrosive liberalism. In Earth in the Balance , Al Gore assails American society as “corrupt” and “inauthentic” and compares the modern age to an ecological Holocaust. Feminists decry the oppression of women and multiculturalists decry the oppression of minorities. Men and women of faith condemn the secular culture that pushes biblical morality from the public square. Conservatives bemoan the cultural elites assault on American values, only to criticize the American public for its lack of outrage during the impeachment of President Clinton. Everyone seems angry or insulted about something, even as a majority of Americans are too busy, too happy, or too cynical to vote. And even those who declare the end of history do so with a note of despair, fearing that man has given up on the higher ideals and grand questions that fueled the great clashes, but also the greatness, of the past.
Obviously, we cannot judge modernity by its material achievements alone; and it is always wise to take social critics with a grain of salt, since they frequently lack the moderation to appreciate the complexity of their surroundings. For the fact is that modernity embraces and promotes multiple human types. The question”Who is the quintessential character of our civilization? Is he someone to be admired or lamented?”suggests numerous, often contradictory, answers. Is it the high“tech entrepreneur or the organization man? The soccer mom or the pregnant teenager? The little“boy killers at Littleton or the martyr who gave her life instead of renouncing her faith in God? The millions of children on Ritalin and Prozac or the ambitious overachievers who flock to SAT preparation courses? The spirited or the apathetic? The unforgiving ideologues or the nonjudgmental relativists?
Plato said that the human city is the soul writ large, and so it should not surprise us that the city, like man, is mired in these and other contradictions. But among the confusions of modernity certain human types can, I think, be identified. In prosperous times, the “middling” sort prevails. He is neither totally aimless nor totally satisfied. He struggles to balance the gifts of modernity with its lack of answers to mans permanent questions. He is, as Tocqueville noted 150 years ago, “restless amidst abundance.” And thus he is susceptible to certain maladies of the soul: debased irony and cynicism, which reduce life to absurdity; a therapeutic ethic, which deifies the self and devalues virtue and transcendence; the revolutionary spirit, which denies the fact of human limitation or rebels against all tradition and restraint; and, most common, the life of the bourgeois egoist, who is decent and practical but spiritually unsatisfied.
The old orthodoxies of modernity are exhausted. The only question is whether these sad wanderings will lead man to terminal trivialization and despair or to a rediscovery of his transcendent, eternal, and revealed purpose.
In The Closing of the American Mind , Allan Bloom indicts American youth as languid, empty, and adrift. “They can be anything they want to be,” writes Bloom, “but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular . . . . Why are we surprised that such unfurnished persons should be preoccupied principally with themselves and with finding means to avoid permanent free fall?” The moral drifter has no responsibilities, no hope, and no purpose. He is free from all commitments and tries not to concern himself with the perilous questions of life and death. He is a stranger, a tourist, an indifferent observer. He is the television“watcher, the apathetic consumer, the college student who stares blankly for four years from the back of the classroom, waiting, he says, for real life to begin.
The drifter is homeless. Nothing is stable or binding in his life, and so he always expects the arbitrary and the fleeting. Divorced from tradition, nature, and the old responsibility of upholding the family name, the drifter does what advertisers tell him or what his urges urge him. He has sex when its convenient but never falls in love. His parents are divorced or distant, and his home life is dominated by the anxious extremes of yelling and silence.
When it comes to politics, culture, and morality, the drifter is tolerant by default. He does not judge others because he is unwilling, afraid, or unable to judge himself. His life boils down to the defensive statement, “Im not bothering anyone.” He focuses almost entirely on himself, and yet he is, at bottom, ambivalent toward himself, holding no strong opinions one way or another. This is not humility, since humility affirms a transcendent good”a God”that is a source of wonder, forgiveness, and guidance. Indifference is just the opposite: it destroys the sacred altogether, taking all things as equal and as equally nonbinding.
To the drifter, everything is at best a game, a joke, an ironic play. If he is not entirely humorless, the sadness of the drifter is softened by easy pleasures, repackaged humor, and childish naughtiness. He sits for hours in front of the television, remote control in hand, flipping from station to station, sitcom to sitcom, with nothing in particular to watch and nothing in particular to do. He is not horribly sad, but he is bound by nothing, loves nothing, reveres nothing. He is totally passive, and dislikes himself, but only vaguely, and not enough to do anything about it, since he really has no idea what he ought to do. His laughs are short, and he does not make jokes; he only retells them.
Ironic distance is the drifters last recourse”the snide filter that reduces all things big and small to one sad unobtrusive monotone. Humans are ridiculous creatures, and we have always been smart enough to laugh at our foibles, our shortcomings, and our failure to live up to the better parts of our natures. This gap between man the stumbler and man the exalted is the heart of all irony and humor, from Shakespeare and Aristophanes to The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live . And yet there is a crucial difference between low irony and high, between an irony that narrowly debunks and one that points out the distance between the high and the low, the sacred and the profane.
The low irony of our age has nothing to contribute beyond the observation that life is absurd. It is all debunking; it leads men nowhere. High irony, by contrast, is funny precisely because it retains a memory of mans seriousness. It points man toward higher meanings by pointing out the absurdity, the baseness, and the limits of the low. To the high ironist, everything is not a game, and so he often treads dangerously on sacred ground; to the low ironist, by contrast, nothing is sacred, reverence is impossible, and the only salvation is that others are crazier than you are. Which explains, in part, why so many people watch daytime talk shows”the infamous Jerry Springer Show , for example”that turn mens basest instincts into public spectacles.
The cynic, like the ironist, sees only the absurd and nothing beyond. Irony and cynicism are variations on a theme, which is why cynics are typically quite funny to the rest of us (at least for a while), if only partially so to themselves. The cynic expects the dark before even looking. He is blind to joy, blind to transcendence, blind even to the simplest goodness. The cynics heart has contracted, and his intellect is cold. The exacting cynic can be rather useful, since he sees through utopian schemes and sentimental solutions. He recognizes the limits of man but sees none of the possibilities. He offers no basis for restoration, no direction, no hope. All he sees is a world worthy of resentment, a world that brings only suffering and hypocrisy, a world that is ultimately silent and empty.
Dark irony”the irreverent blend of irony and cynicism”is the dominant sensibility in American popular culture. It combines the debunking style of the ironist with the cynical sense of life and death as profane fodder for amusement”a genre aptly titled “pulp fiction.” In the recent film by that name, for example, professional killers engage in trivial repartee as they load their weapons and head upstairs to do their work. Once inside, one of the killers (Samuel Jackson) admires the tastiness of a soon“to“be victims fast food burger and beverage, then immediately switches into the role of a dark prophet, reciting a passage about vengeance from the biblical book of Ezekiel before killing everyone in the room. In the wildly popular cartoon show and movie South Park , the running joke is that one of the children dies every episode, which his friends find wildly amusing. The shows first episode”a bloody fight between Santa Claus and Jesus over who is the real Christmas hero”became a cult hit and led to cover stories in Newsweek and Rolling Stone .
The morality behind both Pulp Fiction and South Park is the same: death is funny, nothing is sacred, and everything is absurd. The thirst for meaning, order, and wholeness”which marked the philosophical absurdity of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus”is gone. There are only fragments of sacred traditions, which are cut and pasted together with postmodern trivialities. There is no tragedy, because there is no longing for something better; there is only darkness, and the futile laughter of a trivializing culture.
Nor is this simply a chimerical culture without consequences. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Littleton killers, “whooped and hollered like it was a game” (in the words of one of the survivors) as they acted out the “Gothic” roles glamorized by popular culture and murdered twelve of their classmates. The same nation that mourns over the mayhem at Littleton chuckles at the pop nihilism that comes out of Hollywood”and sees no contradiction.
Meanwhile, the philosophers teach us that art and reality are the same, since “reality,” including moral reality, is just an arbitrary construct. The deconstructionists and postmodernists who rule over the academy are simply ironists and cynics in different guises. The deconstructionist actively (and spitefully) debunks order and tradition. He attempts to show that morality and reason are illusions. Postmodernists, for their part, celebrate the splintering of morality as the happy emancipation of the mature self, who is left to cut and paste reality as he desires. “Postmodern ironists,” says Richard Rorty, are “never quite able to take themselves seriously” because they are “always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus themselves.” Many postmodernists celebrate the Internet as the structural underpinning of the postmodern world, since it allows individuals to adopt multiple personae, switch genders, and indulge whatever fantasies.
The college freshman, whose moral sensibilities have been shaped largely by the darkly ironic world of popular culture, arrives at the university with already diminished expectations. Instead of being led out of the cave, or at least pointed in the right direction, his professors tell him that irony is all there is, that his unsatisfying instincts are the summit of human understanding, that he has already arrived, because the destination is “nowhere and anywhere.” They tell him that “reality” is simply the “prisonhouse of language”; that life is merely an empty struggle between oppressors and oppressed; that eccentricity, revolution, and irony are the only “authentic” ways to live in the “abyss.” Most students, thankfully, settle for irony, which they already know. And in the end, the distance between philosophy and conventional sensibilities collapses: students leave just as they began”darkly ironic, with any vestiges of hope and wonder slowly dying inside them.
Therapy attempts to console such empty and wayward souls. In the therapeutic universe, the goal of human life is not virtue or grace but sanity and self“esteem. Therapy displaces the moral categories of good and evil, the philosophical categories of truth and falsehood, and the spiritual categories of reverence and faith. As sociologist James Nolan explains, “Where older moral orders looked to a transcendent being, to a covenantal community, to natural law, or to divine reason to provide the substantive basis for cultures moral boundaries, the therapeutic ethos establishes the self as the ultimate object of allegiance.” This new focus on the self is not self“examination in the Socratic sense, since that would require some ultimate criteria, such as truth, God, or reality. Rather, the turn inward is wholly self“regarding; it is, at bottom, an act of desperation in the face of an empty culture.
For while postmodernists may celebrate the great divorce of the self from ultimate criteria, the ineradicable fact of suffering and death and the inherent human longing for meaningful order and social attachment dictate that some moral vocabulary will fill the void. Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth. The therapeutic ethic has attempted to fill the void by, as Anthony Giddens puts it, “dispensing with the great riddles of life in exchange for a modest and durable well“being.” It attempts to build an anesthetized Garden of Eden, redefining both sadness (now called “depression”) and sinfulness (now called “mental illness” or “addiction”) as chemical or psychological pathologies, thus recasting the cause of the primordial fall as a psychiatric disorder. Freud, who reinterpreted the panorama of human experience in pathological terms, provided the moral and cultural vocabulary for this fundamental shift in human self“understanding. In Freuds universe, sanity is the best one can hope to achieve”an empty category when compared with biblical holiness, Christian grace, or philosophical ascent.
In the most sympathetic interpretation, the therapeutic ethic is a humanitarian, well“meaning effort to restore meaning and purpose to peoples lives by establishing the self as the “ultimate object of allegiance.” Therapy today attempts to overcome Freuds tragic conclusion”namely, that the primal self conflicts with the demands of civilization”by freeing the self from all demands, restraints, responsibilities, and anxieties. Individuals turn inward, define themselves entirely by their subjective emotions, and become responsible only to themselves. The only external reference points are the interpretive frameworks of the therapists, who pathologize anxiety and transgression as a series of illnesses, such as “Impulse Control Disorder” and “Adjustment Disorder with Anxious Mood.” These classifications are taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, put out by the American Psychiatric Association, which estimates that “one in four adults will suffer from a mental illness or substance abuse disorder in any [given] year.” According to a recent Surgeon Generals report, one“half of all Americans will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime.
But while therapy may temporarily pacify its patients, it does not inform mans truest, most persistent longings; it does not help the “self” address the most important human questions. Instead, it creates a moral universe where nothing is demanded of individuals, who are reduced to mere creatures of appetite, prone to “emotional imbalances,” and so totally dependent on therapeutic drugs and experts.
By redefining responsibility inward, the therapeutic ethic devalues virtue, transcendence, and duty to others. The individual is left on shaky, unsatisfying ground, while all the worst features of modern society”atomization, fragmentation, sentimental response”are bolstered by a new class of therapists and counselors. Man is subdued but not saved, quieted but not answered, excused but not forgiven. And in the end, the therapeutic self”like the ironist, the cynic, and the drifter”cannot help but be moved by his own self“conscious mortality, by his experience of smallness, or by his ineradicable, as yet unanswered, spiritual needs. The humanness of human beings inevitably revolts. But without the old maps to guide them, the old traditions to direct them, or the old ideals to awaken them to their better angels, such revolt is either self“indulgent or utopian; and it leads only to disruption and despair.
Revolt has taken many forms in the modern age, but three predominate: revolt against the ordinary, against the political order, and against the transcendent. The first”revolt against the ordinary”spans human experience from the mundane to the drastic: tattoos, body piercings, daredevil stunts, abnormal eroticism. Of course, when informed by some noble purpose, an honest spirit, and the humility that befits mans estate, this thirst for the extraordinary can lead to creativity and insight. But when transgression becomes a desperate act, a camouflaged cry in the wilderness, it corrupts both the individual and the city. The revolutionary screams out for a unique place in the universe, for meaning and purpose, for the thrill of extremes. But without any basis to discriminate, without reverence or humility, the revolutionary denies that much of what is ordinary is good. That, or his pride leads him to deny that norms, nature, or tradition apply to him.
Political revolt exaggerates the will to greatness or mere recognition into a social program. Having abandoned transcendent truths or the notion of God the Redeemer, revolutionaries embrace an apocalyptic politics. They claim to hold the secret”indeed, the destiny”to deliver man from wretched imperfection to this“worldly utopia.
Following Marx, the revolutionary frames his apocalyptic vision in populist terms; he promises to liberate the oppressed from the status“quo power structure. And yet, the typical revolutionary has nothing but contempt for the “small“minded morality” of ordinary people, who fail to join the revolution and instead place their hope in God and family. The revolutionary frames his program as the march of progress, the new beginning. But its reality is dark, as repeatedly failed attempts at the perfection or liberation of man lead to increasingly unsavory methods”what Lenin unapologetically called “cracking the eggs.”
The revolutionary is spiritually and metaphysically sick, which explains the desperation of his politics. He cannot accept the fact of human limitation, because he has rejected”or lost”the moral, philosophical, and religious ways of knowing that make limitation bearable and meaningful. He cannot accept the imperfectability of man or the apparent smallness of his own place in the universe. He cannot accept the slow, imperfect business of political reform or the anonymity of altruism; he wants, instead, to be the liberator of mankind. The revolutionarys soul is hardened; he lacks what G. K. Chesterton called the “wondrous vision of the child.” Instead, he wants “peak experiences””such as acid trips or the momentary god experience of defying death. He has no time for kindness and no gratitude for lifes blessings or even life itself.
As with the therapeutic ethic, the revolutionary ethic recasts the theology of good and evil as a secular struggle: the power elite versus the oppressed; affirmative action supporters versus hate“mongers and racists; friends of the environment versus environmental Nazis; tolerant multiculturalists versus ethnocentric imperialists. And again, as with therapy, ideologies of liberation appeal to the desperate, the cynical, and those who simply long for the moral self“congratulation that seems to be missing from their modern cosmopolitan lives. As Vaclav Havel observed:
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