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The chief problem of our time is not climate change. It is not police brutality. It is not Donald Trump’s tweeting. It is not even COVID-19. The chief problem of our time, rather, is the problem of identity. Modernity itself cannot answer what may be the most important question any individual could ask himself: Who am I?
The angsty teenager, then, is the modern person par excellence. She knows not who she is — or why she exists, or what she should be doing with her time. Nonetheless, she looks for answers to these questions, and she inevitably finds them in the plethora of subcultures and political movements served up by contemporary society on a silver platter. The social marketplace is as innovative as the economic one, and it provides no shortage of goods for the ravenous consumer. Predictably, the angsty teenager tries (and fails) to resolve her crisis by adopting one of these subcultural identities and conforming to its dictates. Perhaps she dons a spiked collar; perhaps she surrounds herself with healing crystals; perhaps she stretches her earlobes to the size of dinner plates or dyes her hair turquoise; perhaps she lops off her breasts, takes hormones, and rebrands herself as Steve. In all cases, she’s liable to say that she’s “expressing herself.” But what she’s really expressing is membership — membership in a little (or maybe a massive) ad hoc tribe with its own rituals and prescriptions. That is, after all, what it means to “express yourself.”
. . .
Existential freedom is a burden that few humans in world history have borne. Nobody asked Gronk the Cro-Magnon what he wanted to be when he grew up. At no point did Ötzi the Iceman feel a need to “find himself.” These people simply lived. Born into and habituated by existing social orders, they did what circumstances required and what expectations demanded. The severity of ordinary existence both precluded and answered all existential questions. Life was nasty, brutish, and short, but at least it was certain. I’ve no doubt that all people, at all times, had the capacity to become angsty teenagers — or angsty adults trapped, as half of Millennials are, in infinitely extended adolescence. But only second sons faced the problem of creating an identity, and the second sons fortunate enough to live during the imperial age had a ready outlet in the form of adventurism and colonization. We’re not so lucky. On Earth, there are no frontiers to be conquered, no mysteries to be solved. Science has picked the low-hanging fruit, and literature, art, and architecture have re-reinvented themselves to the point of exhaustion. We now know what lies around the corner and across the nearest hill. Space itself is vast and empty, dry and dusty and dead.
. . .
Take a look at the rhetoric pouring out of elite institutions across the globe. You’ll find a remarkable unity. From Adelaide to Atlanta, every PR organ — every corporation, every university, every public school district, and every professional organization — is falling over itself in a mad dash toward the therapeutic. In Ireland, the Trinity College Historical Society recently disinvited Richard Dawkins, offering the explanation that “we value our members [sic] comfort above all else.” Comfort? This is a college debating society. A debating society that values comfort above all else is, almost by definition, a debating society without debate. Yet the Trinity College organization minces no words: It is comfort, not knowledge or free inquiry, which matters most. The telos of any and every institution in 2020 is the same — diversity and inclusion.
When someone demands “inclusion,” he’s actually saying, “I require that the institutions I belong to engage in prescribed rituals that acknowledge my self-proclaimed status.” He does not serve the institution; the institution serves him. Specifically, it serves him by validating the identity he’s chosen for himself. We’ve moved well beyond the period when the left wanted mere redistribution of wealth; the left now wants redistribution of status, and especially the status conferred by victimhood. A critical mass of citizens, lacking wholly the sense of meaning and self-worth once baked into the very fabric of civilization, now expects the state to provide it for them. Never mind that the state cannot give them what they desire. It’ll have to try.
The pink police state is the logical consequence of liquid modernity. Having stripped the world of all permanent things, and having placed the burden of existential heroism on ordinary and fallible human beings who lack either the desire or the willpower to live as Camus might have wanted, modern society creates a vacuum that nothing can fill. Western civilization is trapped in a death spiral. The atomized, made miserable by their atomization, seek liberation, and by doing so merely atomize themselves further. They clamber toward utopia, but utopia lies just beyond the horizon. It recedes ever into the distance, like a mirage on a desert road.
Many of us imagined that the collapse of civilization would be a dramatic event — a grand battle in which some heroic Achillean figure falls amid a cacophony of explosions and cannon fire. This won’t be the case. Instead, civilization, having aged into infancy, will simply lie down in the corner, jam its thumb into its mouth, and die.
. . .
In a strange twist of fate, I happened to write this essay on World Mental Health Day. Too funny!Published in