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While reading Bari Weiss’s excellent essay “Stop Being Shocked” at Tablet, I encountered the phrase “therapeutic totalitarianism” from the Eastern Orthodox author (and occasional crank) Rod Dreher. I’m familiar enough with Dreher but do not follow him closely, but when I read his term I understood it immediately. It puts a name to the strange, bipolar philosophy on the left in which every person must feel positively affirmed about their manufactured identity, their apparently fragile minds soothed and cheered at all times by their government, their entertainment, their education, and their places of employment—that is, everyone who is a non-white and secularized progressive consumer. Everyone else must suffer for their sins at the hands of an avenging state.
Much has already been written about the consignment of us supposed “oppressors” to social gulags, and I won’t go into it further today. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the gradual rise of the therapeutic aspect from my vantage point as a millennial.
It was television commercials that alerted me; during the Obama years, I began to notice the way advertisements were crafted to make me think the product—a Honda automobile or an Apple laptop or what have you—would not simply enable me to accomplish the desired task, or raise my social status, or get me sex, but would let me finally, at long last, allow me to just, like, really be me, you know? I gradually came to call it humanist consumerism: the idea that a luxury product would allow me to realize and validate my authentic self. It’s a peculiar mix of Romantic ideals and crass materialism, both mawkish and cynical at once.
Then I noticed this on television shows themselves. America Ninja Warrior, the ultra-physical competitive event which rose to prime-time prominence over the last several years, was only partially, or even incidentally, about athleticism. Rather, at its bleeding heart were the feel-good narratives of overcoming adversity as told through the long interviews which made up a large part of the show’s total run time. I don’t watch much television, but every competition show of which I’ve caught a glimpse over the last several years has had the same format. They exist to soothe.
This transition is particularly prominent in videogames. The world of videogames is not what it was in the 80s and 90s. Over the last fifteen years, the videogame industry and its “journalist” apparatus (a glorified advertising platform, largely) has become stridently progressive and a bastion of activism by young, college-educated leftists. One of the most prominent sites is Polygon, a social justice-obsessed subsidiary of Vox which publishes material as vacuous as you’d expect. Notable examples over the years are an attack on a Polish company for creating a videogame set in a medieval fantasy Europe and not populating it with black characters and a long, incoherent tirade by a queer transgender Native American averring she had been “invalidated” by a game about Norse legend. The creators of the recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, a campy action game set in ancient Greece, included a female warrior-hero who at no point is recognized by the game world as a female—a fact which would certainly have come up back during the Peloponnesian War. The developers explained that they did not want anyone to feel uncomfortable with the misogyny (a Greek word!) the heroine would certainly have faced. God forbid anyone feel uncomfortable in a game in which the player slits hundreds of throats. And there are endless such examples wherein the videogame industry, its customers, and its boosters bend all their efforts towards a comfortable numbness.
Many Americans have come to expect regular doses of opiate from their screens, and they demand it from their government, too. Doubtless, the Biden Administration will spare no effort in blessing its constituents with government-sanctioned warm and fuzzies. The government exists, after all, not to protect borders (racist) or ensure order (a construct of white patriarchy), but to make everyone us the best and happiest me that we can be—and may God have mercy on those who dissent from the government’s vision of what that is.Published in