R.R RENO: CULTURAL NIHILISM

People are not stupid, at least not over the long haul. At some point, perhaps soon, they will wake up to the fact that their unhappy lives are part of a failed post-1960s culture that’s overseen by establishment authorities insulated from and indifferent to the damage they do.

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The decline in life expectancy in the United States is a symptom of a failing culture. It is driven by deaths of despair: Suicide rates are up, as are drug overdoses and alcohol-related diseases. Those are hard, cruel facts. There are other signs of failure, more auspicious ones. We read about young voters who reject the status quo. On the left, they are embracing socialism. On the right, they are becoming more conservative on social issues. Surveys show support for LGBT causes rising or remaining steady in all cohorts—except for young self-identified Republicans, among whom it has declined. Left-leaning young adults think their Baby Boomer leaders have betrayed the core value of the left, which is economic solidarity. Right-leaning young adults think the same leadership class has betrayed the core value of the right, which is moral order. On both sides, there’s a rebellious temperament abroad, one that is increasingly bitter about what it sees as the failures of the ’68ers and the culture they midwifed.

The young are right to rebel. Our body politic is badly diseased. Economic solidarity has broken down—but it can be repaired. Our shredded moral order poses a more intractable problem. In “The Three Necessary Societies” (June/July 2017), Russell Hittinger suggests the proper framework for thinking about what afflicts us. We are living amid the decline of the marital covenant, the dissolution of political community, and an aversion to religious life. Without these three necessary societies, an individual’s life becomes a lonely struggle for financial security and social status.

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone present doleful data about sexual relations and religion among younger Americans in a recent article for The Atlantic, “The Happiness Recession.” The General Social Survey, the baseline government-sponsored social scientific study, shows that only 25 percent of those between eighteen and thirty-four said in 2018 that they were “very happy,” the lowest level recorded. Stable sexual relationships between men and women are strongly correlated with happiness, and stability in intimate affairs is what eludes those formed by today’s toxic culture. Rates of marriage have fallen in that same group, from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018. Cohabitation is down as well, and at similar rates. Even casual sex and short-term relationships have declined. Of those eighteen to thirty-four, 14 percent of women and 22 percent of men report not having had sex in the previous year, both record highs.

Put simply: The male-female dance has become dysfunctional. Sexual liberation and feminism work for some, but not most. The last fifty years have been good for the highly educated and wealthy. Charles Murray’s research shows that the upper end of society has adjusted reasonably well to post-1960s changes in social norms. But it’s been hell for normal people—the median.

The same trend toward atomization and isolation holds for religious participation. Among the younger cohort, regular church attendance is down, from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018. The numbers saying they never attend—the Nones—have spiked. The Nones are not secular, if by that term we mean coldly materialistic. But today’s ersatz spiritualisms and the patchwork religions of yoga, natural foods, and progressive politics lack the poetic-intellectual coherence and depth of traditional religions. They don’t provide communal structures reinforced by rituals and moral disciplines. Just as healthy patterns for intimate life have been demolished by the post-1960s imperatives of liberation, so too have the templates and contexts for spiritual life.

Wilcox and Stone do not provide data on patriotism or civic involvement. But here, too, I predict declines among young Americans. Given the way they are now indoctrinated, I’m sure that fewer in that cohort would say that America is a great nation that has been a force for good in the world. Healthy forms of civic identity have been dismantled. White descendants of Confederate soldiers are told they come from an irredeemably evil background; black descendants of slaves are told their country is irredeemably racist. Males are told they have inherited unjust privileges; women are taught that the past is patriarchal. The rising generation has been stripped of the proper pride one should feel for one’s heritage and nation. By default they are defined by the cold, individualistic machine of market competition and the mad scramble for status on social media.

Our unhappiness has been a long time in the making. It has its sources in the middle decades of the twentieth century. For example, the initial effect of gay liberation was sexual excitement. It titillated the imaginations of the majority of straight people, and the permission granted to sodomy served as plenary permission for all manner of sexual experimentation. The LGBT agenda came to be championed at universities, among corporations, and in the media, and its cultural effects shifted significantly. As sexual perversion came to be affirmed as normal by authoritative institutions, normal sex took on the characteristics of perversion, which is why young people now approach it cautiously. Widespread use of hormonal contraceptives has had a similar effect. In the first stages of its use, the Pill opened up what felt like new erotic horizons. Decades later, sex has shrunk to the exchange of opportunities for pleasure. It’s not just #MeToo; consensual sex has a bitter taste. This is one reason why young people are less sexually active than in previous generations.

The poisoning of patriotism and national solidarity comes about in different ways, as does the silencing of religious voices in education and public life. Yes, the virtuosi of critique flourish, landing jobs as literature professors and diversity officers. But here, too, the dominant cultural institutions systematically deprive ordinary Americans of the social sources of happiness. John Rawls was a Harvard professor, not a marginal activist. It was the United States Supreme Court that adopted dire strictures against religion in public life. Howard Zinn’s hypercritical approach to American history was championed by the educational establishment throughout the nation. The same is true for contraception and sexual liberation: They were elite projects from the very beginning.

The unhappiness reported by Wilcox and Stone will not remain a private suffering. It will become a powerful political grievance. Our liberal establishment will frame the grievance as a protest against residual barriers to still greater sexual liberation, female empowerment, and social inclusion, all of which will be blamed on the oppressive structures of tradition that supposedly rule society with an iron fist. But in 2019 it is obvious that our cultural norms are not set by Mormon elders, evangelical pastors, or contemplative nuns. They are set by elite institutions dominated by the Davoisie, which uniformly trumpets its “progressive” values. People are not stupid, at least not over the long haul. At some point, perhaps soon, they will wake up to the fact that their unhappy lives are part of a failed post-1960s culture that’s overseen by establishment authorities insulated from and indifferent to the damage they do.

This article was originally published at First Things