Identity, Modernity, and the State

 

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!

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  1. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Gloomy, indeed. You write this essay in a time of near-universal “public-health tyranny”, with entire populations at the literal mercy of lockdowns for their own good. Riots in the streets do not protest the real tyranny, but the invented tyrannies of police brutality and racism. 

    • #1
  2. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I have to disagree.  The chief problem of our time is that people think that government should solve every problem.

    • #2
  3. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Randy Webster (View Comment): I have to disagree. The chief problem of our time is that people think that government should solve every problem.

    Which is downstream of the things I’m writing about.

    If I belong to nothing — if I am nothing except a ward of the state — then, naturally, I look to the state to solve all problems.

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Read ‘Kalki’ by Gore Vidal. 

    • #4
  5. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Kephalithos: 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?

    I don’t get this.  I’ve never questioned who I am.

    • #5
  6. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Kephalithos: 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?

    I don’t get this. I’ve never questioned who I am.

    Good. You’re not part of the problem, then.

    • #6
  7. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Kephalithos: 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?

    I don’t get this. I’ve never questioned who I am.

    Either have I. But I think we are minorities here.

    This is very much a spiritual problem. If you define yourself with the rock solid parts, you have an anchor, but even those are under assault.

    I am a woman, a daughter, a sister, a mother. Those are biological realities that don’t change on a whim. There’s solid foundation here. But it’s been weakened and drilled down to dust by modern culture.

    Those blessed with some form of stable life in forming our identities are not as adrift as those who were deprived by design or human failure. 

    • #7
  8. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Kephalithos:

    Modernity itself cannot answer what may be the most important question any individual could ask himself: Who am I?

    I think modernity’s main answer to this question is that we are just a bunch of random molecules that have come together by chance and that there is no greater meaning at all in this purely physical universe.  It’s not much to look forward to.

    • #8
  9. PedroIg Member
    PedroIg
    @PedroIg

    Walker Percy, the great Catholic novelist, addressed this topic of identity in a post-modern age, in his non-fiction work, Lost in the Cosmos:  The Last Self-Help Book.  He does so in a very clever way, by thought experiments, followed by multiple choice quizzes.  Worth the read.

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Stina (View Comment):
    Those blessed with some form of stable life in forming our identities are not as adrift as those who were deprived by design or human failure.

    My life has been about as stable as one could wish.  My parents stayed married until my mother died in 1999, and now, I’ve been married for 41 years.  I’ve only had 3 jobs since 1993, sort of a record for construction worker types.  If things work out like I hope, by 2026 I’ll only have had three jobs since 1993 then, too.

    • #10
  11. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    The hungry soul is the root of the problem.  And the young are eating straw.

    • #11
  12. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    Flicker (View Comment):

    The hungry soul is the root of the problem. And the young are eating straw.

    I have no idea what you meant, but it sounds very profound!

    • #12
  13. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    The hungry soul is the root of the problem. And the young are eating straw.

    I have no idea what you meant, but it sounds very profound!

    Oh, it’s the most profound thing!  Actually the OP was succinct and profound, and in my view pretty much all encompassing.

    I just meant that everyone wants — needs– a purpose in life.  And the younger you are these days, the less purpose you’ve been given in life.  God has been expunged from many people’s lives.  Culture and society have been stripped out down to empty shells — replaced I suppose by apps.

    My guess is that not one of the protesters or rioters, or even most of those who are adults living as children in their parents’ homes, are Christians.

    They have hungry souls, and what they’ve been given to eat is a godless, hopeless, morality-free, existentialist future, with no pay-off.  They’re spiritually hungry and being fed spiritual straw which isn’t enough to sustain spiritual life.

    • #13
  14. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    I think modernity’s main answer to this question is that we are just a bunch of random molecules that have come together by chance and that there is no greater meaning at all in this purely physical universe. It’s not much to look forward to.

    This is the strongest argument for Christianity but it also applies to every other faith and/or belief system that requires one to submit one’s will to a Deity or a group. In itself it is not enough to attract those who question the need let alone the benefit of submitting. When I was young I investigated atheism and one result was that I could not see the purpose of procreating when that meant dedicating my life to the raising of young to replace me if that was all it amounted to. So I can understand why so many young see nothing but futility in spending their lives for anything other than the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure pursued for it’s own sake turns out to be empty so they are doubly disappointed when they get what they desire. Learning to find pleasure in doing things for others on one’s own is a long process filled with disappointments. But when the young are prevented from learning the lessons of the ages they face a long hard slog. 
    Having rejected its Judeo/Christian heritage it remains to be seen whether the West can find sufficient energy and justification to defend itself against the twin attacks of Islam and Statism in it’s various forms.  I hope so for the sake of my grandkids.

    • #14
  15. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):
    Those blessed with some form of stable life in forming our identities are not as adrift as those who were deprived by design or human failure.

    My life has been about as stable as one could wish. My parents stayed married until my mother died in 1999, and now, I’ve been married for 41 years. I’ve only had 3 jobs since 1993, sort of a record for construction worker types. If things work out like I hope, by 2026 I’ll only have had three jobs since 1993 then, too.

    If things had worked as I desired I’d have spent 40 years in a tire plant in OKC instead of the 35 I did spend before it was closed. My plan was to retire then because I figured I would have supported them for 40 years and if they then supported me for the next 40 I would match the 102 years my great-grandfather had on Earth which would only be fair ;>) Instead I had to do several other things until I reached a reasonable retirement age and could move to KY and design and build our retirement home. I don’t sit around though, I drive a school bus occasionally as a substitute (gets me out of the house and provides some supplemental cash for our trips) but not this year due to the over-reaction to the Covid virus.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    In my 20s, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to ask myself, “Who am I?” I just drifted, stumbled and tried to make do with my life. Gradually I found some meaning in my life, but it hardly answered the larger question. I have to admit that Zen Buddhism gave me a grasp on the question, but emphasized that there was no fixed me–which wasn’t totally true. When I returned to Judaism, I started to see clearly who I was: the kind of human being I was, and who I could become and what I was here to do. The journey or path is not a fixed one, but it is taking me in the right direction, as I learn and discover more about what it means to serve.

    Great post!

    • #16
  17. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    We are children of God.  Many of the young people don’t know God and can find no help or desire to find Him.

    • #17
  18. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Is the icon of our age Holden Caulfield or Rodin Raskolnikov?

    • #18
  19. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Is the icon of our age Holden Caulfield or Rodin Raskolnikov?

    I never read The Catcher in the Rye.  Did I miss anything?

    • #19
  20. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Is the icon of our age Holden Caulfield or Rodin Raskolnikov?

    I never read The Catcher in the Rye. Did I miss anything?

    Read the summary of the cliff notes as did an entire generation. My father made me read it as part of summer reading instead of faking it because a friend of his claimed to the inspiration of a character in the book. Long pointless saga of a self-absorbed douche.

    • #20
  21. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Is the icon of our age Holden Caulfield or Rodin Raskolnikov?

    I never read The Catcher in the Rye. Did I miss anything?

    Read the summary of the cliff notes as did an entire generation. My father made me read it as part of summer reading instead of faking it because a friend of his claimed to the inspiration of a character in the book. Long pointless saga of a self-absorbed douche.

    In other words, I missed nothing.

    • #21
  22. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Old Bathos (View Comment): Is the icon of our age Holden Caulfield or Rodin Raskolnikov?

    Ooh. That’s hard. Both, maybe.

    Most people are merely Holdens, but the intellectual elites are Raskolnikovs.

    • #22
  23. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I can’t remember.  Is Raskolnikov the detective in Crime and Punishment?

    • #23
  24. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Randy Webster (View Comment): I can’t remember. Is Raskolnikov the detective in Crime and Punishment?

    He’s the main character — the neurotic, murderous student.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment): I can’t remember. Is Raskolnikov the detective in Crime and Punishment?

    He’s the main character — the neurotic, murderous student.

    A Russian language tutor (from Russia) who I still sometimes follow on YouTube said she wanted to name her boy Raskolnikov. But her entire family was against it and talked her out of it. The kid seems normal. 

    • #25
  26. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Someone writing at an aviation magazine observed that “if you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”

    In a society, the POH is the aggregate of customs, laws, received wisdom, and social expectations.  Unquestionably our societal POH has needed revision on many occasions…but these days, the POH is being either radically revised by people who don’t either have any flying experience (in terms of the analogy) OR any knowledge of the relevant engineering disciplines.

    So we have a lot of people who have been put in the position of being test pilots, whether they want to be such or not.

    Some people like the adventure of being test pilots and are comfortable with the ambiguity and the risk.  But many are not.

    • #26
  27. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    The Reticulator (View Comment): A Russian language tutor (from Russia) who I still sometimes follow on YouTube said she wanted to name her boy Raskolnikov. But her entire family was against it and talked her out of it. The kid seems normal.

    Oh, boy!

    I once worked for someone who wanted to name his son Heathcliff. But that didn’t happen. His wife, evidently, thought better.

    • #27
  28. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment): A Russian language tutor (from Russia) who I still sometimes follow on YouTube said she wanted to name her boy Raskolnikov. But her entire family was against it and talked her out of it. The kid seems normal.

    Oh, boy!

    I once worked for someone who wanted to name his son Heathcliff. But that didn’t happen. His wife, evidently, thought better.

    Heath isn’t a bad short name, so that wouldn’t have been awful.

    Raskolnikov doesn’t shorten so well…

    • #28
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