I noted recently that educated and well-placed people today tend toward a stripped-down view of man and society that redefines family, religious, and communal ties as private preferences, thereby erasing their public importance. The effect is to promote exclusive reliance on the social authority of bureaucratic and commercial arrangements.
The existence and sentimentalization of non-binding private connections, such as marriage as it is now understood, doesn’t affect that result. After all, how much reliance can be placed on connections that are thought to have no intrinsic function and can be dissolved at will?
The tendency naturally concerns Catholics, because it leaves no room for Catholicism—which cannot understand itself as simply a private preference—or any number of understandings and arrangements needed for a minimally humane and functional way of life. Whatever theoretical beauty some may find in a society of radically autonomous individuals tied together by global markets and bureaucracies, it’s not a place any normal person would want to live. Nor is it one likely to hold together and last.
To make matters worse, in practice this tendency of thought rules out tolerance for opposing views. Commentary regarding Brexit and the recent U.S. election confirms that the educated, well-placed, and articulate tend to view those who retain a sense of the importance of traditional ties and give credence to the boundaries and distinctions that relate to them—citizen and non-citizen, marriage and non-marriage, even man and woman—as bigots. They’re racists, misogynists, and homophobes who pose a threat of violence to others. So why view them as legitimate participants in public life?
What is happening in America and the West generally is as frightening as progressives say, even though they mistake the nature and source of the threat. It’s also puzzling. Why the paranoia that leads so many to view a self-indulgent and socially rather liberal New York billionaire as the second coming of Hitler? Even before the election, there were numerous fake “hate incidents,” especially on college campuses, and a corresponding demand for “safe spaces” that exclude every hint of opposition. With that as the background, why do even sober and intelligent liberals accept post-election scare stories at face value? And why the fear and hatred directed toward the supposedly backward (the “irredeemable” “deplorables”), who after all include almost everyone who has ever lived, and even today the great majority of the world’s people?
In part it’s a result of the stripped-down view of man and social order. If at bottom you view the social world as something like an industrial process designed to produce satisfactions and distribute them equally, then family ties and religious and cultural community make no sense unless they are reduced to private predilections of no practical significance.
To the extent they correspond to definite public standards and retain the ability to play an important role in social life—for example, to the extent marriage is viewed as a uniquely legitimate and enduring union of man and woman oriented toward new life—they’re viewed as irrational prejudices that gum up the system. As such, they are expected to reduce efficiency, equality, and stability, so they’re stupid, oppressive, and dangerous. The people who favor them evidently approve of that, so such people must be motivated by ignorance, bigotry, or rage and resentment looking for an excuse to lash out at the helpless. To many people, that conclusion seems a simple inference from basic principles.
In short, the dominant view of social order, because it leaves out basic features of human life and considers itself uniquely rational, can’t conceive of reasonable well-intentioned dissent. But for that same reason, the form of life it aims at is not achievable. We’re not going to have a global society, a sort of perfected EU writ large, in which sex, religion, and cultural community don’t significantly affect success and social position. Those things affect people’s actions, attitudes, loyalties, and relations to others, so they inevitably affect how things work out for them. Why would any sensible person wish otherwise? Should we want society to be a big machine that overrides the effects of everything people are and do?
Nor are people going to keep pursuing forever an impossible and destructive vision that disrupts normal beneficial social functioning. So progressives aren’t going to get what they want, a fact they must sense at some level. The result, since they can conceive no rational and humane alternative to their goal, is that they often feel as if they were living on a thin crust of rock over a lake of boiling magma, a sea of foaming racism, misogyny, and whatnot, that is likely to burst out and destroy everything if the slightest crack develops. Hence all the upset, on campuses and post-election, about “safety.”
There is also the problem of identity and social position. The current dogma is that a system of stable identities is oppressive, and to the extent one exists it should be disrupted. That is the significance of the celebratory response to Bruce Jenner’s sexual makeover, and the very recent multiplication of “genders” and its embrace by mainstream institutions. Identity is to be something people construct and reconstruct freely, with each construction getting equal affirmation, and law and social custom ensuring that all identities are utterly irrelevant to social functioning and outcomes—that a genderqueer Latinx gets precisely the same respect, opportunity, acceptance, and likelihood of success as anyone else. The alternative is thought to be slavery and oppression.
That dogma isn’t limited to a few academics. In an age of mass electronic communications, mass higher education, mass graduate school, and mass social climbing, it’s gone mass market. Even when it’s not accepted through and through, it wins all the public arguments because there are no objections to it that count as legitimate. That’s why it’s increasingly coded into the law.
But if all identities are equally supported then no identity is supported. Identity is too basic for anyone to construct for himself, but in the world now emerging no one can expect social support for his actual identity, since any other would be accepted as equally valid. That situation guarantees that there will be a lot of fragile and insecure people who will be intensely alarmed if anything seems, even by implication, to put the equal validity of their chosen identities in question. It will seem an existential attack on what they are, and thus the moral equivalent of murder. That’s why the infinitely multiplying possibilities of “microaggression” are increasingly viewed as a serious problem: each is thought to erase the people microaggressed against.
If respectable opinion submits to such views and sees opposition as evil, and the opinion is based on accepted views of justice and rationality, so that resistance is mostly unprincipled and inarticulate, that’s a serious problem.
To make matters worse, in a number of ways social position really has become more uncertain and identity less reliable. Fewer people get married today. Social media substitute for enduring face-to-face connections. Relations between the sexes become ever more indefinite and unstable. More people move from place to place as employment becomes tenuous, home ownership an impossible dream, and locality less local as America is swallowed up by chain stores, shopping malls, apartment complexes, multi-lane highways, and the evanescent electronic world of the Internet.
Under such circumstances, many people, especially women, young people, minority group members, the unmarried and unchurched, and those who have moved away from their homes and connections, feel insecure. Such feelings are easily exploited for political gain; so politicians and publicists can be counted on to exacerbate them as much as possible. Hence the negative identity politics exemplified by the prominence given the “war against women” in past elections, and the supposed epidemic of shootings of innocent unarmed black men in the most recent ones.
The result of all these tendencies is a perfect storm of political ill-feeling and irrationality, with no prospect of change in the conditions that feed it. If the symptoms were not so harmful to civic health, one might be tempted to give this destructive psychosis a lighthearted name like “Progressive Derangement Syndrome.” No doubt it’s likely to cause a bumpy ride with an uncertain conclusion. In the storms ahead, Catholics, when engaged in the things of this world, need to remember that the most important things precede and transcend politics. Lunacy is contagious, and they’ll have to remember that to keep a cool head and steady judgment.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz where “Dorothy” (Judy Garland) reacts to the image of the “Wicked Witch of the West” (Margaret Hamilton) in a crystal ball.