Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
They Said It:
What you have to understand, is your father was your model for God.
If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?
What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and God.
What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us.
Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club, 1996.
Last week, courtesy of David Harsanyi, we were reminded of an anniversary that we had missed and of a book that warned, somewhat inadvertently, of the great social crisis of our time. The book in question is Fight Club, written by Chuck Palahniuk, and the anniversary is Fight Club’s twentieth, which took place last summer. Harsanyi wrote a somewhat belated anniversary paean to this powerful and oracular novel and, in so doing, reminded us that the social ills and inclinations first identified twenty years ago have come to dominate our society and even alter its politics irrevocably.
Now, before we continue, we suppose it’s appropriate here to issue a spoiler alert: If you have never read Fight Club or seen the Brad Pitt/Edward Norton movie based on the book; and if you intend to do either or both, but just haven’t found time in the last couple of decades, then read no further – or at least skip down a few pages.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can continue. Fight Club, as you may or may not recall, tells the story of an anonymous narrator, who is bored and exhausted and yet can’t sleep. He meets a man named Tyler Durden, who, eventually, promises not only to alleviate the narrator’s insomnia, but his boredom as well. It starts with a fist fight – between the two men and which both enjoy. The two become roommates and then start a bare-knuckle fighting club that becomes wildly popular among a certain caste of men – men like the narrator and Durden. Everyone involved finds the fighting exhilarating and, as fate would have it, the release of pure animal spirits does indeed serve as cure the narrator’s woes.
We’re skipping a great many details here, but in the end, the narrator slowly comes to the realization that he is Tyler; or that Tyler is he; or that Tyler is a figment of his damaged mental state. Tyler was the personality he created to help him deal with his problems; the new/false identity that helped him to escape from the dull, hopeless, meaningless life he lived and that allowed him to engage in pure, unbridled masculine virility (fist fighting). This gave his life meaning it lacked. Of course, as the narrator comes to this realization, the meaninglessness returns, along with desperation, and true hopelessness. He shoots himself – and later wakes up in mental hospital. Harsanyi explains the relevance of all of this as follows:
Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Fight Club” was the coda to GenXers’ disaffection with the 1970s and ’80s, a distillation of angst and confusion created by assaults on masculinity. “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” the nameless narrator famously explains. That echoes a familiar complaint these days. . . .
While “Fight Club” is violent and funny, it’s also a book about despair, isolation, pessimism, and slackerism. Palahniuk’s lean sentences toy with unpleasant notions; his characters speak about men in a ways they understand but rarely express. . . .
I don’t remember if I figured out Tyler’s identity in my initial reading, although, “I know this because Tyler knows this” pretty much gives the game away in the first chapter. But I do know that a book about a disaffected young man engaged in nihilistic acts of violence holds different lessons for a grown man with a family and a mortgage to pay and history behind him. “Fight Club” is a lot darker when you read it in your 40s. . . .
It’s about loneliness, an emotional state that psychologists warn is far more powerful than people realize. . . .
It’s about boredom, another unappreciated and destructive human condition. . . . The conservative theorist Robert Nisbet once argued that boredom was a weapon wielded by second-generation Communist regimes. Monotony was like authority, he notes, because the “worst of tyrannies exist within the intimacies of life, and the same holds for life’s boredoms.”
In his assessment of the book – twenty years after reading it – Harsanyi comes to the conclusion that the two most important and most relevant themes are loneliness and boredom. In defense of the first, he cites “a recent fascinating piece in the Boston Globe” by Billy Baker, a 40s-something reporter for the Globe. And indeed, Baker makes a strong case that loneliness is a significant and dangerous component of contemporary life, particularly among men of a certain age. To wit:
Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation. . . .
Beginning in the 1980s, [Dr. Richard] Schwartz says, study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.
The research doesn’t get any rosier from there. In 2015, a huge study out of Brigham Young University, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, found that those who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise 26 to 32 percent.
Now consider that in the United States, nearly a third of people older than 65 live alone; by age 85, that has jumped to about half. Add all of this up, and you can see why the surgeon general is declaring loneliness to be a public health epidemic.
In defense of the second theme, boredom, Harsanyi cites the 1970s British “punks,” who “were also spurred by boredom.” That’s true, but we don’t have to go back four decades to see the damage that can be done by boredom. Indeed, England today is, in many ways, a tinderbox of boredom. In August, 2011, you may recall, bored youths in London nearly burned down their city, largely because they had nothing better to do. In our write-up of the riots, we quoted Mark Steyn, who noted that among Great Britain’s population, “one- fifth of children are raised in homes in which no adult works — in which the weekday ritual of rising, dressing, and leaving for gainful employment is entirely unknown. One tenth of the adult population has done not a day’s work since Tony Blair took office on May 1, 1997.”
Steyn’s point was that these people were the “children of dependency,” and about this, he is right. But they are also the children of boredom. They simply have nothing else to do. Ever. Rioting was their “job” for a few days. It was something to get them out of bed and out of the house. And it all but certainly will be again…and again…and again.
All of this, we think, supports Harsanyi’s notion that loneliness and boredom can make for a toxic mix. At the same time, however, we’re not sure that this is the entire story, or even the most important part of it. There’s something else going on here, something that caused Chuck Palahniuk’s novel to resonate two decades ago and something that causes it to resonate still today. Loneliness and boredom are indeed powerful, negative motivators, but they are not root causes in and of themselves. They are secondary factors, caused by something else, something more important.
Maybe it’s just us. Or maybe it’s the fact that immediately after reading Harsanyi’s reflection on Fight Club, we moved on to the next story in our stack of reading material, which just happened to be another report by Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton about the shocking rise in the death rate among middle-aged white Americans. Either way, we think that Fight Club’s resonance has to do with the entire social and economic milieu of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with a set of circumstances fostered both accidentally and intentionally that have led to a massive breakdown in expectations among specific segments of the population.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Anne Case and Angus Deaton are both economics professors at Princeton, and they came to national prominence two years ago, when they released a powerful study that shocked many in academia and politics. Their study showed that death rates for middle aged whites have been actually increasing dramatically since the turn of the century. In their second study, released a couple of weeks ago and conducted for the Brookings Institution, the two confirmed their initial results and expanded their observations by two additional years. And lo and behold, their new findings are even more shocking than before. The trends that Case and Deaton documented are not merely continuing; they are, in fact, still increasing. The death rate among their subject population is getting worse, even just two years later. In the summary of their findings, Case and Deaton wrote:
We build on and extend the findings in Case and Deaton (2015a) on increases in mortality and morbidity among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife since the turn of the century. Increases in all-cause mortality continued unabated to 2015, with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcoholic-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less. The decline in mortality from heart disease has slowed and, most recently, stopped, and this combined with the three other causes is responsible for the increase in all-cause mortality. Not only are educational differences in mortality among whites increasing, but mortality is rising for those without, and falling for those with, a college degree. This is true for non-Hispanic white men and women in all age groups from 25-29 through 60-64. Mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics continue to fall; in 1999, the mortality rate of white non-Hispanics aged 50-54 with only a high school degree was 30 percent lower than the mortality rate of blacks in the same age group; by 2015, it was 30 percent higher. There are similar crossovers between white and black mortality in all age groups from 25-29 to 60-64.
Mortality rates in comparable rich countries have continued their pre-millennial fall at the rates that used to characterize the US. In contrast to the US, mortality rates in Europe are falling for those with low levels of educational attainment, and are doing so more rapidly than mortality rates for those with higher levels of education.
If you unpack all of that, what you find is that this is a phenomenon that is confined exclusively to white, less-than-fully-educated Americans and that it includes a great deal of “death by despair,” which is to say death by overdose, suicide, and alcohol, in addition to an increasing rate of death by heart disease. This is a phenomenon that crosses gender lines, showing up among women as well as men, but that does not cross lines of race, ethnicity, or nationality. It is strictly a white, working-class “disease.” More to the point, because it does not cross lines of race, this “disease” defies easy explanation. It cannot be pinned exclusively on wages or unemployment, as these factors have remained more or less constant among the high-school educated populations of ALL races. It also cannot be pinned exclusively on obesity or obesity-related illness (i.e. diabetes, heart disease) for much the same reason. All of which is to say that there is something going on here that is far outside the normal range of explanations.
Given that most of standard variables fail to explain the phenomenon, Case and Deaton theorize that the population in question has been victimized over the course of the last decade-and-a-half by a cumulative set of circumstances that have combined to affect them specifically. And as you read this theory, you may note that much of it sounds familiar:
Some of the most convincing discussions of what has happened to working class whites emphasize a longterm process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education, see in particular Cherlin (2009, 2014). This process, which began for those leaving high school and entering the labor force after the early 1970s — the peak of working class wages, and the beginning of the end of the “blue collar aristocracy” — worsened over time, and caused, or at least was accompanied by, other changes in society that made life more difficult for less-educated people, not only in their employment opportunities, but in their marriages, and in the lives of and prospects for their children. Traditional structures of social and economic support slowly weakened; no longer was it possible for a man to follow his father and grandfather into a manufacturing job, or to join the union. Marriage was no longer the only way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children. People moved away from the security of legacy religions or the churches of their parents and grandparents, towards churches that emphasized seeking an identity, or replaced membership with the search for connections . . . These changes left people with less structure when they came to choose their careers, their religion, and the nature of their family lives. When such choices succeed, they are liberating; when they fail, the individual can only hold him or herself responsible. In the worst cases of failure, this is a Durkheim-like recipe for suicide. . . .
As technical change and globalization reduced the quantity and quality of opportunity in the labor market for those with no more than a high school degree, a number of things happened that have been documented in an extensive literature. Real wages of those with only a high school degree declined, and the college premium increased. . . .
Lower wages made men less marriageable, marriage rates declined, and there was a marked rise in cohabitation, then much less frowned upon than had been the case a generation before. . . . [B]eyond the cohort of 1940, men and women with less than a BA degree are less likely to have ever been married at any given age. Again, this is not occurring among those with a four-year degree. Unmarried cohabiting partnerships are less stable than marriages. Moreover, among those who do marry, those without a college degree are also much more likely to divorce than are those with a degree. The instability of cohabiting partnerships is indeed their raison d’être, especially for the women, who preserve the option of trading up. . . — so that both men and women lose the security of the stable marriages that were the standard among their parents. Childbearing is common in cohabiting unions, and again less disapproved of than once was the case. But, as a result, more men lose regular contact with their children, which is bad for them, and bad for the children, many of whom live with several men in childhood.
Case and Deaton go on to admit – with some trepidation, we imagine – that their explanation is not all that unique and that it, indeed, shares “much, though not all, with Murray’s (2012) account of decline among whites in his fictional ‘Fishtown.’” Murray, recall, argued that the collapse of social norms, social institutions, and what he calls the “Founding Virtues” among the white working class has created a whole host of problems – many of which now have external documentation from Case and Deaton. Murray made the case that this abandonment of the Founding Virtues was, more or less, exclusive to the white working class and, moreover, had been encouraged in the name of “progress” by the educated classes, by the very men and women who now form an entirely different and differently situated caste in American social and political life. In short, Murray suggested that the American ruling class had cheered their working-class compatriots to abandon the virtues that they themselves still embraced and, in the process, had helped create a social dystopia that affected the working class/country class in unimaginably tragic ways. Case and Deaton now provide confirmation.
When Case and Deaton state that their model is mildly different from Murray’s, what they have in mind is the role of drugs and external economic forces. “Half of the men who are out of the labor force,” they note, “are taking pain medication, and two thirds of those take prescription painkiller, such as opioids.” Adding insult to injury, they concede that “in many cases, opioids are paid for by Medicaid. . . .” Nevertheless, they concede, “we emphasize the labor market, globalization and technical change as the fundamental forces, and put less focus on any loss of virtue.”
That makes sense, we suppose, from a personal, professional, and political perspective. After all, who among Brookings fellows and Princeton professors wants to get into the business of chiding their fellow Americans for their lack of virtue, much less blaming their fellow social elites for creating the conditions under which traditional virtues could be crushed?
Fortunately, we are not bound by such considerations and will therefore take a crack at that which Case and Deaton avoid. In our estimation the loss of virtue – and specifically the Founding Virtues – is the very cause of many of the problems facing the country today and specifically of the collapse of the working class. Additionally, and perhaps, more to the point, this collapse is the primary motivating factor in our politics today. Finally, all of this – from the collapse of virtue to the collapse of the working class to the bifurcation of the nation and the rise of populist politics – is not the result of mere happenstance. Rather, it was the result of moral and philosophical chaos intentionally cultivated by an intellectual elite desperate to advance the cause of its political proclivities, even the face of evidence of their ideology’s massive failures.
From the mid-18th century, the project of Western intellectuals has been to promote and to try to establish an earthly Utopia, freed from the chains of pre-Enlightenment religion and based on a radical and misguided notion of historically preordained equality. The political “Left” as we know it began with Rousseau, raged mercilessly through the French Revolution, evolved under the Utopian Socialists and the Marxists, and then saw its fulfillment in the communist and socialist revolutions of the 20th century. Rousseau’s embrace of the “egalitarian State of Nature” enabled and encouraged a second, quasi-secular, post-Christian outbreak of revolutionary, chiliastic fantasies throughout the West. But like all such fantasies, these were inevitably doomed to fail, and this failure carried consequences.
The failure of the Left to deliver on its promised Utopia exacerbated a crisis of belief and elevated the epistemological skepticism of Nietzsche to new heights. In response to socialism’s disappointments, the Left abandoned reason, abandoned “reality,” and, in the end, rejected the Enlightenment itself in favor of postmodern relativism.
As the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued in his opus After Virtue, the Enlightenment mission of destroying the traditional, religiously based moral scheme and replacing it with one based exclusively on reason was not merely doomed from its inception but was destined to change the world in dramatic and horrific ways. This mission left the very notion of morality shattered. Without a teleological framework, MacIntyre argued, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic,” which is, of course, subjective.
The ultimate end of all of this, MacIntyre wrote, is a civil order in which the traditional moral order has been eroded but has been replaced by nothing of any substance or meaning, which, in turn, breeds moral chaos.
The collapse of morality into chaos, coupled with the collapse of the Leftist Utopian dream, created a social and intellectual condition almost eerily foreseen by Nietzsche – a society characterized by belief in nothing at all – which we know in the vernacular as nihilism.
After World War II, the Europeans rose from the ashes of their defeat of one form of perverted Leftism and established, in its place, another. Under the intellectual influence of Michael Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, the Europeans set about building a convoluted, soulless, technocratic “third way,” dedicated to the propositions that “reality” is merely a word and that equality, liberty, and fraternity can be achieved through bureaucratic competence and wishful thinking.
A similar process took place in the United States, of course, though under slightly different conditions. Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School theorist turned father of the “New Left,” declared that socialism wasn’t over, that his New Left would not be beaten. “I don’t think it’s dead,” he said, “and it will resurrect in the universities.” And so it did. This post-modernism and its attendant nihilism became the dominant intellectual and, in time, social paradigms of the post-war West.
In 1996, when Chuck Palahniuk published Fight Club, the effects of decades of post-modern thought had trickled down from the intellectuals to the educated classes more broadly. The upper and middle classes had withstood the tumult of the ‘60s with their values more or less intact, but their children did not. The Gen-Xers – the subject of Fight Club – emerged from adolescence and embraced the nihilism of the post-Marxist Left. The Gen-Xers cared for nothing, believed in nothing, and valued nothing. They were removed from the traditional bonds of their communities, lacked aim and ambition, and saw their lives mundane and useless. And this is precisely the angst that plagues the narrator in Palahniuk’s book. He believes his life is meaningless, and yet he knows that that is not the natural state of man. Man has purpose. Man is alive and needs to experience life. And thus he created Tyler Durden to help him experience the life that had been drained from him by contemporary nihilistic culture.
What Palahniuk doesn’t explain, however, and what he almost certainly could not have foreseen is the fact that the Gen-Xers who experienced this nihilism were lucky. Like their parents before them, they had the social and economic means to withstand this anguish, without letting it develop into full-blown despair. The Gen-Xers in question weren’t poor and uneducated. They were educated, which is why they felt the intellectual nihilism more acutely and earlier than their working-class contemporaries. They were exposed to the post-Marxist Left, absorbed its ideas, experienced its desolation, but were lucky enough to have the economic and social capital to move beyond it. Palahniuk’s narrator despairs and shoots himself, but he was the exception. His contemporaries grew up, got married, started going to their parents’ churches, and became normal, well-adjusted members of society.
Of course, that didn’t stop the nihilism from continuing its downward trickle. As we have noted before in these pages, the Left insisted that its victories against religion, against traditional moral beliefs, and traditional social structures were enormous social goods. And yet in their own lives, they never embraced those social goods entirely and instead pushed them off on the lower classes, whose lives were accordingly devastated. By the 1960s, the post-Marxist Left had destroyed the black family and created a culture of dependence among minorities. And over the course of the next five decades, it did the same to working class whites, undermining their values, spoiling their social relationships, and leaving them to fend in a new and callous world with only the ubiquitous “government” to help them.
The difference between Palahniuk’s middle class Gen-Xers and the working class millennials and middle-aged individuals today is that unlike the former, the latter don’t have the capital to survive their period of nihilistic dejection. They don’t have married parents with enough savings to help them through their troubled times. They don’t have insurance to pay for rehab. They don’t have the education that will allow them to recover from joblessness and start a new career in a new field. And so, as a result, their anguish turns to despair. To use a biblical analogy, they are Judas to the middle class Peter. Peter’s denial was redeemed and he became the rock on which the Church was built. But the millennials turned to hopelessness and then, in the end, to suicide.
David Harsanyi is right. Loneliness and boredom are critical, disruptive, and enduring themes in American life. Likewise, Anne Case and Angus Deaton are right. The labor market, globalization, and technology are also critical, disruptive, and enduring themes in contemporary American Life. That said, the nihilism of the post-War Left is probably the most critical, most disruptive, and most enduring theme in America today. Previous generations overcame social disruption. They overcame technological and economic disruption. They weathered the proverbial and inevitable storm and made it out, no worse for the wear.
The current generation – and specifically the factions of the current generation that lack the social and economic capital to defend themselves – has not been so lucky. They have been beaten down by fate and have had nothing to pick them back up – no faith, no family, no social networks. And they have, understandably, despaired.
The political result of that despair is, of course, Donald Trump. When no one else cares about your problems; when no one else even acknowledges them; you turn to the one man who professes concern, who declares his sympathy, and who promises to fix what’s wrong. The catch, of course, is that Trump is only one manifestation of this despair. If he doesn’t succeed in righting those wrongs, his despondent supporters – and others who are despondent as well – will turn to someone else. For those who think the Trump presidency is a mess, keep in mind that it is entirely possible that we will, in time, look back on that mess as “the good old days.”