Facts no longer matter, although they did during the Cold War. Or so argues Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, where she approvingly cites arguments from a new book by Peter Pomerantsev. Since capitalism and communism both claimed moral and economic superiority, “facts that revealed their deceptions could endanger them.” Regimes had a motivation to lie about those facts, obviously, but were “invested in being seen as truthful.” Now, however, “few leaders claim to have an ideological map to a better world,” and thus “truth scarcely appears to matter.” It has been replaced by a bald and unapologetic “will to power.”
It’s an interesting claim: when regimes made utopian promises, they lied to cover over the facts that might reveal their inadequacy; but when regimes make no moral claims, they need not pretend to truth―they aim only for power. Put more simply, regimes that make truth claims lie all the time, while regimes that lack big ideologies tell unvarnished truth about their goals.
Now, after the passing of the “universalist visions of progress”—which, apparently, were lies—we are left with a kind of “amoral relativism” that seeks power for its own sake, where everyone “invents their own ‘normal’ humanity, their own ‘right’ history.” If we wish to return to “objective truths” and “an evidence-based future,” we’ll need to “restore faith in a rational path forward” for a “common mankind” with “common projects.”
Of course, this is all about Donald Trump, who has done more to return “objective truth” to favor among our cultured mandarins, after their long exile in the postmodern desert, than any tradition-minded scholar or journalist that attacked postmodernism ever did. Now the Times prints op-eds condemning the “flight from enlightenment empiricism.” Well, as my grandfather might have said, “a day late and a dollar short.”
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Still, on the same day of print, if you turn just a few more pages, to the “Arts” section, you’ll discover a full-speed retreat from “common mankind” and the “common projects” of the Enlightenment. Consider the article “The Soul Needs Pampering, Too,” by Amanda Hess. Here the reader is informed that eye cream, furniture, and gym memberships are able to “soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem,” and more. Makeovers are “an almost spiritual conversion,” akin to “the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.”
Again Trump appears, as an icon of the “nihilistic zeal” of the “surface delights” of American culture of “just a few years ago.” Now, however, pampering and “self-care” have taken on a new “spiritual urgency,” “weighted with significance,” and (finally) free from the need to pretend that one’s consumption is acceptable, because now it produces “explicit social byproduct[s],” such as eco-friendly materials or proceeds that vendors donate to charity. Pampering is now “an act of political warfare”—quoting Audre Lorde—“empowerment,” “a spiritual calling,” “a closely held identity.” And even though our “political discourse is concerned with economic inequality, . . . the cultural conversation is fixated on the healing power of luxury items.”
A Confused Culture Blindly Grasping at Answers
Admittedly these are just blips of data, two articles from a single issue of the Times. Yet they broadly represent the cultural moment, or at least that moment as it is experienced by those, as Hess describes them, who “reside in coastal cultural centers” and “hold fulfilling and lucrative jobs.”
The best-credentialed, successful, influential, powerful, and esteemed―those who possess the most cultural capital―seem to have remarkably incoherent and fragmented visions of what makes for a worthwhile life. On the one hand (like Goldberg), they admonish us not to invent our own, custom-made vision of humanity, even as (like Hess) they claim that luxury consumer choices “are now jumping with meaning.”
Goldberg claims that there is a sort of hopelessness among the smart set of liberals, many of whom talk about a “‘dark timeline’ that we’re all trapped in,” a sense that the culture “feels stuck,” and that somehow we need to concoct “belief in a future . . . to restore faith in a rational path forward.”
As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”
Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”
The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like The School of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colacho with grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”
That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.
The Real Question: The Happiness of the Human Person
All too often, we who hold to more traditional notions of life have responded to the desperate and enervated with mere moralism: we have neglected to tell a coherent and full story about happiness and well-being. We do a disservice when our arguments look like “tsk-tsking” or pearl-clutching about sex, transgenderism, the family, religion, and so on. We make it appear as if we disagree with popular culture merely about lifestyle and private choices.
Instead, we ought to remind ourselves and our detractors that ours is a case for human well-being, for lives that are noble, flourishing, free, and happy. Our moral argumentation, however demanding and rigorous it is, comes from a concern for people: for those who, we believe, have been robbed of their cultural inheritance, robbed of happiness, robbed of a coherent account of what makes life worthwhile. We are motivated not by resentment or fear, not by the desire for power or control, but by an ambition for our neighbor’s well-being―that is, by love, no matter how awkward it sounds to put it that way.
We need to communicate moral teaching in a manner that rises fully to the need of our time. We need to provide human formation in ethics, conscience, freedom, and worship, all in keeping with a fundamental account of human nature. All the while we must constantly remind ourselves that we are seeking worthwhile lives for ourselves and our fellows.
The Western Tradition Has the Answers―We Just Need to Communicate Them Better
Through its account of freedom, desire, love, and rights, the western tradition proposes a compelling vision of the human good. But contemporary ways of speaking about and understanding human experience make it difficult for many to hear what the tradition says―to grasp what desire is truly for, what love really is, what freedom is and is not.
Yet the dogmas of the Times are all but guaranteed to leave the human person starving for better answers. Squid-ink risotto, no matter how wonderful, is not enough, and only a full account of the human good can restore our faith in the common good.
Human beings have not changed. We need these truths and we all inevitably seek them. For us bearers of the tradition, the challenge now seems to be, not to make stronger arguments or to shout them louder, but to discover how to make them lucid, visible, and imaginable. Not only must we draw on the best content and evidence available―which is on our side―but we must respond kindly and compassionately to the starving souls around us.
The ideal of pampered living that Amanda Hess proposes cannot satisfy the craving for common projects and a common humanity that Michelle Goldberg identifies. Goldberg rightly and nobly demands truth, but the vision offered by her colleagues at the Times―and indeed by the “best and brightest” of our various cultural institutions―is glaringly inadequate. We stewards of the tradition have good answers for what makes life worth living. If only we could be imaginative enough to give new voice to those ancient truths and avoid the stultifying fate of pampered souls.