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‘Everybody Knows That Something Is Coming’

I met a Hungarian journalist for coffee this morning in Budapest. “Everybody knows that something is coming,” she said. “We can all feel it. I think this is why your book [1] resonates with so many people.”

After we parted, I made my way back to my hotel. In my morning reading was this Andrew Sullivan essay [2] contrasting Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now [3]Pinker’s book argues that we’ve never had it so good. Violence is way down, historically speaking, and people are healthier and better fed than ever before. Pinker’s general idea is that humanity is making real progress, and that people should ignore the doomsayers.

Sullivan writes:

At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed [4], by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.


Which is to say that both Pinker and Deneen are right, but Deneen is deeper. Deneen sees paradox in human life, tragedy even; he respects the wisdom of the aeons that Pinker is simply relieved we have left behind; and he has a perspective that Pinker — despite his vast erudition and intelligence — doesn’t seem to grasp. Pinker, for example, has no way to understand our current collective rage — why aren’t we all ecstatic about such huge and continuing “progress”? — unless he blames our gloom and grief and discontent on … bad media. It’s all the journalists’ and intellectuals’ fault for persuading people they’re sad when, in fact, they’re super-happy! And he has a faltering grasp of politics, the cycle of regimes, the vicissitudes of history, the decadence of democracies, or the appeal of tyrants. His view of history is so relentlessly Whiggish it’s almost a self-parody. His understanding of the Enlightenment, as David Bell notes [5], surgically removes its most popular representative, Jean-Jacques Rousseau [6], who saw from the very beginning the paradoxes of liberty and reason, and, for that matter, Edmond Burke [7], who instantly realized the terrifying emptiness of modernity, and the furies it might unleash upon us.

But, as Deneen understands, we are where we are. There is no going back. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914. We have, after all, imperfectly controlled weapons of mass destruction, and humans have never invented a weapon we haven’t used (including nukes, of course). It is also true that humans have never lived before without a faith or cult or set of practices designed to reconcile us to death and suffering.

Why should this continue forever? Pace Pinker, this is a question that remains terrifyingly open. For Pinker, every sharply upward graph continues indefinitely upward. But I have never seen such an astonishingly rapid ascent without an equally sudden decline, a return to the mean. Maybe I’m just a doomsayer. But it takes a remarkably sturdy set of blinkers to think it’s an impossibility.

Read the whole thing. [2]Andrew Sullivan is doing the best writing of his career now, if you ask me. Please, if you missed it the first time, read his recent piece on the opioid epidemic. [8]Excerpt:

And it is significant, it seems to me, that the drugs now conquering America are downers: They are not the means to engage in life more vividly but to seek a respite from its ordeals.

The alkaloids that opioids contain have a large effect on the human brain because they tap into our natural “mu-opioid” receptors. The oxytocin we experience from love or friendship or orgasm is chemically replicated by the molecules derived from the poppy plant. It’s a shortcut — and an instant intensification — of the happiness we might ordinarily experience in a good and fruitful communal life. It ends not just physical pain but psychological, emotional, even existential pain. And it can easily become a lifelong entanglement for anyone it seduces, a love affair in which the passion is more powerful than even the fear of extinction.


One of the more vivid images that Americans have of drug abuse is of a rat in a cage, tapping a cocaine-infused water bottle again and again until the rodent expires. Years later, as recounted in Johann Hari’s epic history of the drug war, Chasing the Scream, a curious scientist replicated the experiment. But this time he added a control group. In one cage sat a rat and a water dispenser serving diluted morphine. In another cage, with another rat and an identical dispenser, he added something else: wheels to run in, colored balls to play with, lots of food to eat, and other rats for the junkie rodent to play or have sex with. Call it rat park. And the rats in rat park consumed just one-fifth of the morphine water of the rat in the cage. One reason for pathological addiction, it turns out, is the environment. If you were trapped in solitary confinement, with only morphine to pass the time, you’d die of your addiction pretty swiftly too. Take away the stimulus of community and all the oxytocin it naturally generates, and an artificial variety of the substance becomes much more compelling.

One way of thinking of postindustrial America is to imagine it as a former rat park, slowly converting into a rat cage. Market capitalism and revolutionary technology in the past couple of decades have transformed our economic and cultural reality, most intensely for those without college degrees. The dignity that many working-class men retained by providing for their families through physical labor has been greatly reduced by automation. Stable family life has collapsed, and the number of children without two parents in the home has risen among the white working and middle classes. The internet has ravaged local retail stores, flattening the uniqueness of many communities. Smartphones have eviscerated those moments of oxytocin-friendly actual human interaction. Meaning — once effortlessly provided by a more unified and often religious culture shared, at least nominally, by others — is harder to find, and the proportion of Americans who identify as “nones,” with no religious affiliation, has risen to record levels. Even as we near peak employment and record-high median household income, a sense of permanent economic insecurity and spiritual emptiness has become widespread. Some of that emptiness was once assuaged by a constantly rising standard of living, generation to generation. But that has now evaporated for most Americans.

New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania have overtaken the big cities in heroin use and abuse, and rural addiction has spread swiftly to the suburbs. Now, in the latest twist, opioids have reemerged in that other, more familiar place without hope: the black inner city, where overdose deaths among African-Americans, mostly from fentanyl, are suddenly soaring. To make matters worse, political and cultural tribalism has deeply weakened the glue of a unifying patriotism to give a broader meaning to people’s lives — large numbers of whites and blacks both feel like strangers in their own land. Mass immigration has, for many whites, intensified the sense of cultural abandonment. Somewhere increasingly feels like nowhere.

It’s been several decades since Daniel Bell wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, but his insights have proven prescient. Ever-more-powerful market forces actually undermine the foundations of social stability, wreaking havoc on tradition, religion, and robust civil associations, destroying what conservatives value the most. They create a less human world. They make us less happy. They generate pain.

The reason the brilliant Steven Pinker can’t understand why there is so much unhappiness is because he is a materialist. Patrick Deneen, Andrew Sullivan, and people like us understand otherwise. There is no replacement for the company of other people.

You might recall my post from last September [9] about a speech I heard Sen. Ben Sasse give to a big group of Evangelical Christian philanthropists. Sasse, whose academic training is as a historian, said that social science identifies four things people need to thrive:

The period we are now entering, he said, is one in which every one of those things will be radically challenged. He urged the audience to devote their charitable giving towards building up local institutions that will help people develop resilience to cope with the tumult upon us now, and coming at us even harder and faster.

The center is not holding. We know this. The important thing, I told the journalist, is that we are not destined to collapse with the rest of it. We have the liberty now to form ourselves, and our communities, in such a way that we can thrive amid the chaos and darkness. We have resources — but we have to commit ourselves to going against the mainstream. The choice — the option — is ours.

165 Comments (Open | Close)

165 Comments To "‘Everybody Knows That Something Is Coming’"

#1 Comment By Paul Loebe On March 16, 2018 @ 11:20 am

I’m pretty sure the only solution to this capitalist mess that has beset the nation with turmoil (brought by wealthy oligarchs who pretty much own Congress) is small groups of local anarcho-syndicalist businesses. That would be businesses where the workers and laborers receive the profits equally. If you work, you are a shareholder. And give 50% of the board to reps from the labor force.

Other than that we’re just going to see more of the same as antitrust laws are not enforced, and politicians could care less about the average citizen, regardless of which political party they affiliate….

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 16, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

Small groups of anarcho-syndicalist businesses cannot produce the volume of goods at the relatively affordable prices that most Americans have become accustomed to. Its more work to develop an economically egalitarian framework with economies of scale, but people won’t stand for anything less.

#3 Comment By Bernie On March 16, 2018 @ 9:45 pm

Siarlys, the difference between us is that you’re a socialist at heart and I’m not. It’s just that simple.

#4 Comment By Rick On March 17, 2018 @ 4:50 am

Joey D,

“Learn new skills, or better still: Move! But lots of people prefer opiates. To modify the rodent experiment example, in our rat cage, there’s a Greyhound bus that runs right to rat park, but precious few rats choose to get on it.”

Ah yes the just move argument. Now of course if you live in an economically decimated area like the rust belt, who is going to buy ones house to free one up to move?

And given to cost of job retraining — anywhere from $15,000 to $45,000 — who is supposed to take on that debt for at best a minimal return?

Since states cut back on tuition support and shifted the burden onto the student via federal student loans how is one supposed to retrain while incurring huge education debts them move to increasingly expensive urban areas to find jobs that cannot support the increasing costs?

But hey just move right?

#5 Comment By JonF On March 17, 2018 @ 7:45 am

Re: People gave their loyalty to kings because kings were the protectors of the nation.

Which for the most part were not nation states in the modern sense, but rather a collection of territories the kings had managed to amass by conquest or marriage. Only Portugal, of European realms, was ethnically homogeneous, and only if we ignore the overseas empire the Portuguese began building in the 15th century.

Re: Otto the Great, raised aloft on shields of his nobles after the victorious defense of the German tribes at the Battle of Lech.

Yep, Otto put an end to the depredations of the Magyars, who were then constrained to remain in their own lands which became Hungary to which land our host has recently fared to be feted by folk whose ancestors were once the terror or Europe. But Otto’s realm was not remotely a nation state. It included a diverse set of German tribes, any number of which might have founded their own national state (as the Dutch in fact did eventually) had history gone otherwise, as well as assorted western Slavs, French borderlands and northern Italy. And for his bride Otto had a Byzantine princess– the Kaiser was no kind of nationalist; he had internationalist plans, nothing less than the refounding of the Roman Empire from which his title derived.

Using the Greeks as example of a nation state is bizarre: they acknowledged themselves part of one people but were divided up in multiple city states, many of them fiercely antagonistic to each other. It took external conquest (by semi-Greek Macedonia) to finally end their ceaseless warring on each other.

As for the French Revolution it will be good to remember here that it ended not with a happy nation state but with a nearly successful attempt to establish a French imperium over all Europe. Which points to the fact that nationalism is a highly volatile fuel with which to power community. An even more object lesson in this comes from that part of Europe once called the Germanies, plural. And also from Russia in the time after their revolution. Better to use something with less potential to burn down the world. Given the grim devices what sit in cold silos in the Midwest we play with world-riving fire when we play with such violent passions. Far lesser acts of hubris have summoned Nemesis to chastisement.

#6 Comment By Jefferson Smith On March 17, 2018 @ 9:35 am

@Rob G:

The three sentences of mine you refer to contained just one presupposition: that Brendan from Oz would stick to his position. Not sure whether that one turned out to be true or not (see below), but of course a claim is not necessarily false because it presupposes; we presuppose things every minute of the day. I am presupposing right now that the St. Pat’s Day party I’m going to later won’t be canceled because the pub where it’s happening will be swallowed first by a giant sinkhole. Maybe that presupposition is wrong! But probably not.

The rest of what I said wasn’t presupposition, it was observation and conclusions drawn from evidence. People of faith have been explaining away inconvenient facts about the universe in all kinds of ways for hundreds of years now.

@Brendan from Oz:

You are over-emphasising my phrasing… Creation already exists and we observe not create the logic in it that has been there forever. Agree or disagree?

Agree! But then I don’t know what you mean by referring to the universe as created “for us.” You originally raised this by way of disagreeing with March Hare, who pointed to scientific discoveries that call into question the “divine creation story” and the idea of a creator figure who had “structure[d] the world for us.” Of course, one can believe in that story and in such a figure, but that’s an act of faith — a presupposition, one might say. 😉

Obviously we are able to live in the universe, and can study it and, within limits, understand it. But was it created — some 13 billion or so years before the appearance of our first platypus-like ancestors — so that we could do those things? Or is it instead that we are able to do those things because we evolved within this universe and in ways shaped by its conditions?

I get that you think that we cannot reshape the universe however we might wish; our technologies are always limited by the logic built into the cosmos. That of course is true. But it seems like that idea is better captured by saying that the universe was not created for us, not that it was.

#7 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On March 17, 2018 @ 11:45 am


The world is doing really, really well

Oh, this sentence is so 1910…

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 17, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

Siarlys, the difference between us is that you’re a socialist at heart and I’m not. It’s just that simple.

Neither is an excuse for facile, small-minded platitudes.

But it seems like that idea is better captured by saying that the universe was not created for us, not that it was.

“It seems” is no more scientific than “I believe.” It is true that religious belief is based on faith, not sight. Thus, it cannot be proven scientifically. But, that doesn’t mean it cannot be true. I remain intrigued that of all the creation myths in human history, only one aptly describes what we now know to have been the course of the big bang. And the best refutation I’ve read for that observation is “lucky guess.”

Oh, this sentence is so 1910…

Well, after 1920, we still had indoor plumbing in most of the areas that had it in 1920, not to mention sufficient industrial capacity to fight WW II. And after 1945…

#9 Comment By Hound of Ulster On March 17, 2018 @ 11:33 pm

Nationalism is a luxury, in an age of thermonuclear weapons, biological warfare, and climate change, that humanity can longer afford. However, the Nation is not a luxury, but a needed antidote to corporatism, so long as it does not subject itself to the Corporate Power.

Yes to Nation, No to Nationalism.

#10 Comment By Rob G On March 18, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

Jefferson Smith: “I get that you’re a man of faith, so these facts will either be ignored or explained away. I respect faith, but it shouldn’t be confused with logic. March Hare is talking logic; you are not.”

1) Faith and logic/facts are inherently opposed.
2) Facts speak for themselves
3) The man who has faith tends to ignore or explain away facts.
4) Faith precludes logical thinking, so any knowledge gained by faith not only isn’t logical, it isn’t knowledge.
5) A person of faith thus cannot “talk logic,” when his claims are faith-informed.

There are undoubtedly more. These are presuppositions because none of them is verifiable by either logic or observation or some combination of the two.

#11 Comment By Jefferson Smith On March 18, 2018 @ 8:07 pm

@Rob G:

1) No, I don’t believe or presuppose that. The two are not inherently opposed, but they are different, and Brendan from Oz was claiming the one while actually giving voice to the other.

2) If I thought that, I’d never make an argument in which I pointed to or tried to marshal facts. Yet I do this all the time.

3) As I said, I did presuppose that Brendan, as a man of faith, would do this. Not all people of faith do it, but many and (I think) probably most do. So it was a “rebuttable presumption,” i.e. he was welcome to prove me wrong if he wished.

4) and 5) You can of course argue logically within a framework that relies on faith, but the original faith-claims themselves — the creation of that framework — is not a matter of logic. I wouldn’t call it illogical, but rather a-logical or axiomatic. So, in the case at hand, to say that galaxies too distant to even be seen from earth were created “for us” is to posit a relationship between Earth or human life and the rest of the cosmos that logic in no way requires. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it means we don’t get to it via logic. I notice that neither you nor Brendan have actually challenged that particular point.

#12 Comment By ex_ottoyuhr On March 19, 2018 @ 3:27 am

@Siralys_Jenkins, @Brendan Sexton:
I doubt you’ll see this, but I apologize for that initial post. I saw red and posted angry, causing nothing but harm in the process.

#13 Comment By Rob G On March 19, 2018 @ 7:14 am

“1) No, I don’t believe or presuppose that. The two are not inherently opposed, but they are different”

Depends on what you mean by different — whether it implies compatibility or not.

“2) If I thought that, I’d never make an argument in which I pointed to or tried to marshal facts.”

My point was that facts need interpreting. Mere accumulation of them does not constitute an argument.

“4 & 5) You can of course argue logically within a framework that relies on faith, but the original faith-claims themselves — the creation of that framework — is not a matter of logic. I wouldn’t call it illogical, but rather a-logical or axiomatic.”

True, but the opposing approach is equally axiomatic, in that it presumes that logic and empirical data are what constitute knowledge. This thesis cannot be proven by logic or empirical date or a combination of the two. Logical Positivism has long been rejected by philosophers but its ghost still seems to haunt much modern thinking about faith and science.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 19, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

ex_ottoyuhr, I actually had to go back and look to see what the comment was you had second thoughts on. Perhaps this would be a good occasion to consider that communists and fierce anti-communists are both human beings, and most of us really are trying to come up with a beneficial way forward for humanity.

I suspect that you are not a capitalist oligarch. You have philosophical reasons, reasons from personal experience in your life, perhaps some study of history, that make you skeptical of communism. That is just a little bit like the rank and file confederate soldier who didn’t own any slaves. In certain circumstances, perhaps still the enemy, but not The Enemy.

Even capitalists are human. Its their structural position in an economy and the way they make their money, plus their motivation to politically protect the way they make their money, that has to be controlled or eliminated.

Anyone who wants to replicate the Soviet experiment is crazy. But there are real structural problems with capitalism. Whether there is a way to develop a socialist economy that is self-sustaining to fix those problems, or whether distributism actually offers a better way, or we need to find a third approach, is not entirely clear. (I said once that the cooperative commonwealth would be well worth a mass — IF an approach rooted in Catholic theology proved to deliver what I’m looking for).

So let’s set the slogans aside and talk about these things. I uphold the integrity and honor of those who, for the best of reasons, devoted themselves to communist and socialist movements, and who, among other things, saved me from all kinds of errors by making those errors in good faith and giving me something to learn from. That doesn’t mean I want to repeat the same mistakes.

#15 Comment By Jefferson Smith On March 19, 2018 @ 6:07 pm

@Rob G:

Stated thus broadly, I don’t really disagree with those last comments. It’s a matter of what happens when we get down to cases, I guess. Presumably we’ll have further opportunities to do that here in coming weeks and months.