Scott Beauchamp, contributor: With The Burnout Society, I recently finished reading all of the Byung-Chul Han that has been translated into English (the same curse of the completist that makes me such a thorough Dead Head). Some might say that I saved the best for last. It certainly has the most striking beginning of any book in the Han oeuvre: “Every age has its signature afflictions.” In The Burnout Society Han argues that the affliction of our own age is neurological burnout. As opposed to the 20th century, the age of immunological affliction and thus monomaniacal focus on us vs. them, our current age of neurological burnout obliterates any true sense of “the other.” What Han means here isn’t that difference no longer exists, but that our contemporary political and social logic wants to eradicate the negative or resistant aspects of radical variance. Think here of the more banal aspects of multiculturism where the very real and profound (and, Han might argue, valuable) variety between people and cultures get diluted and flattened. Or the incompatibility of borders (vestige of the immunological age) with hyper-globalization (neurological age).
Han argues that we pay a steep price for the loss of a “dialectic of negativity,” which in plain terms can be though of as things which offer us resistance—the sort of resistance necessary for developing interior depth, among other things. What we suffer from is an overabundance of positivity. The burden of sameness, empty repetition, and the insane demands of a cultural logic that doesn’t ask what we should do but only what we can do. And so our afflictions reflect this hyperactive excess of positive performance: depression, ADHD, and the eponymous burnout. There are of course countless more insights, observations, and most importantly nuance in this slim book, but hopefully readers will find the general thrust of Han’s argument a refreshing critique of an ubiquitous and destructive logic which moves freely across political boundaries.
Casey Chalk, contributor: A good friend of mine—from Australia, ironically—urged me to read a Tom Clancy novel. (I know, shame on me for having never read a single one of his books.) Given the resurgence of interest in Clancy with the new Jack Ryan televisions series, the moment seemed ripe. I’ve started with The Hunt for Red October.
Overloaded in the first few pages with references to Soviet Russia and the intricacies of late-Cold War era communism, I wondered whether this story has much application to our current socio-political moment. Communism is dead, and Russia’s threat to the United States is no longer so much in its military power as it is in its disinformation and propaganda prowess. Ours is no longer a battle between democratic and communist globalist powers, but an “age of concentration,” where globalists battle localists who want to preserve their nation and culture.
Yet I’ve been surprised in how The Hunt for Red October applies to contemporary crises. One is how Clancy, a cradle Catholic who graduated from Catholic schools and university, depicts the Cold War as a battle over the soul of man. Marko Ramius, the Soviet submarine commander who plans to defect to the United States, was himself secretly baptized a Catholic by his Lithuanian grandmother. She also offered him what religious education she could within the confines of her home, one that “faded into Marko’s memory, neither fully remembered nor fully forgotten.” Ramius, a brilliant naval strategist, “sensed more than thought that Soviet Communism ignored a basic human need.” This need is the need for faith. Clancy writes:
The Good of the People was a laudable enough goal, but in denying a man’s soul, an enduring part of his being, Marxism stripped away the foundation of human dignity and individual value. It also cast aside the objective measure of justice and ethics which, he decided, was the principal legacy of religion to civilized life.
Marko discreetly dispenses with communist ideology and seeks to “find the answers for himself.” This, Clancy writes, makes Marko commit “the gravest sin in the Community pantheon,” namely, becoming an individual in his thinking. This reaches a climax in Marko’s life when his wife dies, and he realized: “…the State had robbed him of more than his wife, it had robbed him of a means to assuage his grief his prayer, it had robbed him of his hope—if only an illusion—of ever seeing her again.”
This anecdote reminds me of how the progressivist ideology now commonplace across American universities does much the same. As Roger Scruton noted in a 2015 essay for First Things, universities are defined more by the “indigenous varieties of censorship than by any atmosphere of free inquiry.” In the name of expunging prejudice, books are censored, conservative or religious groups targeted, and speech codes promulgated to police language and ensure ideological conformity. In a word, universities are the ideological inheritors of Soviet totalitarianism. Clancy would likely roll over in his grave if he knew one of the best exemplars of the communist system he so ably describes is now present in American higher education.