A Stable New Dystopia
Two really interesting comments were posted last night on the Harvard’s Glass Menagerie thread. I think they’re connected. Reader Pacopond shared this e-mail from a friend of his, a brilliant (he says) older lawyer talking about the changes he has seen in young people coming to work at his firm:
I could go into great detail but, even discounting for the “kids these days” factor, I am 100% certain that I have witnessed a real change in over-all character among the annual crop of young people who came into my “kindergarten.” The specific impact of smart phones and social media is evident: The kids are far more sensitive to peer group perception and less mature, in the sense of having an established core of self-reliance. Their analytical skills are significantly less well developed than they used to be, and the store of basic knowledge about the world they hold in their heads (instead of their hands) is far shallower than in previous generations. They are far more apt to come back from a research assignment with only one answer, unaccompanied by much analysis or a statement of possible conflicting or different answers. They are more full of conclusions and opinions, but less able to tell me how they arrived at an opinion. Somehow, they have come to believe that their views and feelings are self-validating, that the fact that they think or believe something privileges the idea or sentiment they hold.
The role of ubiquitous media, especially including social media, isn’t hard to see in this: The constant delivery of little shots of dopamine from social media engenders a cycle of seeking and getting the thumbs up, the like, the retweet. These are the refined sugar of mental nourishment, and they have led to a kind of soft mental and moral obesity … little by little, minute by minute, day by day, hour by hour.
Reader Jones, who is a Millennial, and a Muslim — I’m saying that so you will have a context for these remarks he just posted on the Harvard thread — comments:
I am starting to have a serious concern. I don’t disagree with anything you said, really. Some of the people saying, “hmm, I don’t see this in young people” may have a kind of point. These people only get really nasty when you disagree with them about certain things. About the foundations of their new progressive worldview. So you are free to have all kinds of disagreements, so long as you don’t threaten that worldview. But a lot of what people like Rod believe, and a lot of what used to be considered legitimate political argument, threatens that worldview. So we notice.
The thing that really concerns me is not trying to figure out whether these people are right or wrong, good or bad, morally speaking. I don’t care — I know I hate this new movement and I think their worldview is garbage.
What concerns me is that it shows signs of stability. I was reading a Douthat column just recently about the way that sexual dysfunction didn’t really pan out the way either liberals or conservatives expected in the 80s. It has panned out in a surprising way — rather than portending social chaos and civilizational breakdown, it seems to be stabilizing as a genuine dystopia.
A dystopia is not a place that is threatened by genuine chaos — quite the opposite. It’s a moral horror because it actually stabilizes around evil things. The thing that was horrifying about Brave New World or 1984 was precisely that there could be no real challenge to an evil system. Indeed, most of the people living in those worlds do not see anything wrong with them, and accept them — compounding the horror further.
Like you, Rod, I’m tempted to think that an ideology this blind to reality cannot succeed. But I’m chastened by the example of societies that are built on pretty terrible foundations that are nonetheless stable. China and North Korea both come to mind.
It was around 2012-2014 that I started to really get angry about progressive ideology, and to worry about the extent to which it was actually gaining influence across society. It’s been 5 or 6 years since then. The opposition coalesced into the Trump movement, and as an opponent of progressivism the Trump movement has utterly failed, in my opinion. Progressivism shows no signs of abating or losing steam. I am worried.
I think the real, most urgent task is to understand what has changed, fundamentally, about the society we live in. Call it a post-industrial capitalist society — I can’t think of anything better. I think we’re only starting to find out what such a society really looks like. We still need to achieve a factual understanding of how this kind of society works, and to develop a really rigorous theory of whether or not it can be stable. I don’t see that anyone has achieved this yet. That’s the discussion I want to have. Then we can actually talk about how to prepare for, or exploit, its crisis tendencies.
My next book — about which I expect to have news to share soon — will be about how to live as an honest and upright person in this new dystopia.
I hope and pray that sooner or later, a leader arises — a man or woman who is more decent, more intelligent, and a hell of a lot wiser than Donald Trump — who can and will fight this New Class with everything he or she has. There will be enough of us left to join the resistance, I hope.
UPDATE: Reader Rich comments:
I finally watched “The Lives of Others” for the first time. What an amazing movie. I’ve heard of it over the years, but never got around to seeing it until this past weekend. (If I recall, W.F. Buckley said it was the best movie he had ever seen.) I wish it could be shown in every high school in the land (minus the R-rated scenes). “Dear young people, this is what socialism looks like.”
There is a minor scene that really haunts me. A group of people are in a cafeteria, and one man tells a joke that’s critical of the regime. He stops himself when he realizes two members of the Stasi are down the table from him. One of the Stasi members plays along with it and laughs, encouraging the man to continue with his joke. When the jokester is finished, the Stasi member laughs again, and then his face becomes stern, and he asks the man for his name and information. The jokester nervously says his name and where he works. And then the Stasi member laughs again, telling the jokester not to worry. It’s left unknown whether or not the jokester will be reported, or forgiven.
I have experienced something very similar numerous times. Not because of the Stasi, but because every single person around me could decide to take a video or photo with a brief description and “report” me online. I have had several conversations with friends about political and social issues (such as transgenderism) where one or both of us will literally look over our shoulder to see who might be listening. The suspicion and fear is palpable. That is our new reality.
It is. Here is the scene that moved Rich. It takes place in the Stasi cafeteria, actually; everybody there is a Stasi employee: