Several decades ago the distinguished sociologist Daniel Bell wrote: “The real problem of [American] modernity is the problem of belief. To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the anchorages have proven illusory and old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism, lacking a past or a future, there is only the void.”
Fredrick Nietzsche argued very much the same in The Birth of Tragedy where the search for meaning in a nihilistic environment leads inevitably to the perverse and degrading.
And Oswald Spengler in his lugubrious account of Western societies contended in Decline of The West that a diminished sense of meaning will ultimately yield decline and defeat.
Is this a one way street to oblivion? Can American resilience reassert itself? What are the telltale signs in our midst?
Recently a Duke University student said she has entered the ranks of the pornographic world in order to pay her tuition expense. Not only has she advertised this condition, she says it as a matter of pride, asserting a right to feminist independence. Her acolytes agree. Apparently for these millennials the word “shame” is not in their vocabulary.
Three young men in a small Oklahoma town claimed to solve the issue of boredom by tracking a jogger and killing him in cold blood. One of the assailants indicated “there isn’t much to do in this town.”
A husband and wife found sheer exaltation in killing people. As they noted, there is a certain excitement in taking another life.
At a music award ceremony a young “artist” simulated fornication on stage for a national audience and, in some quarters, is admired for her “breakthrough” performance.
The most successful commercial publication of the last few decades is a book about sadomasochism with a woman claiming to have discovered the “joy of domination.”
A film nominated for an Academy Award, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” exalts the life of a drug addled swindler who exploited the fragile bank accounts of working class people for his extravagant life style.
“Adult cinema” means in effect the use of foul language that was once verboten in polite society. Etiquette and dignity have been interred by popular culture.
Yes, there are positive conditions in this deeply degraded and dumbed-down culture. Young men and women serving in the military are generally patriotic.
There are volunteers all over the nation that serve in hospices and help the elderly.
Despite a debased curriculum in most college humanities programs, hard sciences thrive with the United States a leading center of technical innovation.
Of course there should be more to say on the positive side of the scales, but there isn’t. We appear to be in a Spenglerian slide. Franz Kafka once noted “there is always hope but not for us.” It is hard to embrace that sentiment since hope itself is the harbinger of change.
What may be needed is an ideational explosion, an event so evil, so grotesque that the human imagination shudders in concert. It would require a Wilberforce in our midst to say “enough,” to introduce a pathway to a new future. We have battered the walls of tradition till there is nothing but the void. We have challenged the mediating structures; family, schools, churches, so they are no longer anchors in our lives. We search for meaning in all the wrong places.
This is the time for an awakening that recognizes our strengths, the residual resilience that still exists in some quarters. And it is time to challenge the bold revolution that is now conventional wisdom with a counter-cultural revolution based on kindness, traditional principles and a belief in a higher authority.
It is asking for a lot, but then where is the present road we are on taking us?
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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