Liberal Tears: For Progressives, A Power Potion And A Poison
Today -- Friday March 10 -- is the last day of this blog, after almost twelve years of writing nearly daily. I realized yesterday that I had never once taken a vacation from it. When I would go on actual vacation, I would take my laptop, and keep blogging. That's dedication. Or sickness. The difference is hard to tell sometimes.
David Brooks has a column today about "progressive sadness" -- meaning, the measurably poor mental health afflicting those on the political Left. Excerpt:
Young liberals were hit especially hard. A 2021 study by Catherine Gimbrone, Lisa M. Bates, Seth J. Prins and Katherine M. Keyes looked at the emotional states of 12th-grade students between 2005 and 2018. Liberal girls experienced a surge in depressive symptoms. Liberal boys weren’t far behind. Conservative boys and girls also suffered from higher rates of depressive symptoms, but not nearly as much as liberals. Sadness was linked to ideology.
Lord knows the right has gone off on its own jarring psychological journey of late, but many on the left began to suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness. This mind-set had three main features.
First, a catastrophizing mentality. For many, America’s problems came to seem endemic: The American dream is a sham, climate change is so unstoppable, systemic racism is eternal. Making catastrophic pronouncements became a way to display that you were woke to the brutalities of American life. The problem, Matthew Yglesias recently wrote on his Substack, is that catastrophizing doesn’t usually help you solve problems. People who provide therapy to depressive people try to break the cycle of catastrophic thinking so they can more calmly locate and deal with the problems they actually have control over.
I want to think about David's point in that last paragraph in terms of my own writing. The longer you have been reading this blog, the more familiar you will be with my Chicken Little persona. And yet ... the sky really is falling! When I think about the changes that have swept over the United States since I started this blog in August 2011, I find vindication for my general thesis, and it's not even close. As I have often noted here, when people meet me, they are often startled by the fact that I'm not wild-eyed and/or perpetually angry, given what they've read on this blog. Partly that's a professional failure of me as a writer. Partly it's my own temperament (most of the time, I just want to go to the party and drink beer and talk to people and have fun). Partly it's a credit to my faith, and my conviction that no matter how bad things get, God is with us, and therefore our suffering has meaning.
My catastrophizing has everything to do with the fact that my main tribe -- Christians -- are still for the most part living as if everything was fine, or was going to be fine, if they just sat still and waited, or kept voting Republican. I've devoted most of the last decade to countering that dangerous fantasy. It is still a mystery to me why so many people still insist that The Benedict Option is a book about freaking out and heading for the hills; in fact, it's a book about waking up to what's actually happening, and leaning hard into strategies to build resilence, insofar as there is no place to hide (seriously, I say that in the first chapter). My theory is that this is a coping mechanism for Christians who know perfectly well that things are in bad shape for us, but who want to excuse themselves from having to change their own lives or ways of thinking to prepare themselves, their families, and their congregations for the new realities. I've tried to be constructive in my books about what we can and should be doing to build that resilience. I realize that you wouldn't know that from reading this blog alone, because the blog is news-driven, and there's always some new Awful Thing happening somewhere. You might think I blog so much about the Awful Things as clickbait, but that's not true; my TAC salary was not driven by page views. I perseverated on those things in a spirit of, What's It Gonna Take, People?
And now that I think about it, this attitude of mine was set deep within me by the five years of writing I did from 2001-2006, on the Catholic abuse scandal. I kept thinking that if I just kept yelling my head off at my fellow Catholics, something would click with them, and they would rise up and demand accountability from the hierarchy over the culture of abuse and clerical sex, and sexual networks, the bishops had allowed to fester. It didn't really happen, and as you know, I burned out and lost my Catholic faith over it. That was a hard lesson to learn about when to pull back from the brink. Still, I always felt that if I didn't stay on their backs, I was somehow failing in my mission. At some point, you have to realize that those who want to hear have heard, and those who don't never will, and move on.
So, back to what Brooks is saying. It brings to mind what my friend Paul Kingsnorth has been telling me lately: that I need to step away from the culture war, because trying to fight it at this point is a waste. It's not that Paul thinks there aren't very serious issues in play. It's rather that he thinks I should instead focus on building things that give us all hope and resilience. Similarly, a couple of you readers have written in the past two weeks to say that at this point, the people who don't understand the nature and seriousness of the crisis never will, and that I should instead focus my writing on solutions.
I think there's a lot to be said for this, and I need to figure out how to make that shift. It's easy to spot what's wrong with this falling-apart world; I do it all the time, and it's as easy as turning on one's laptop. It's a lot harder to do the other thing, in part because people who are trying to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of their families and communities usually don't turn up in the media. Still, as Rod Dreher's Diary, my Substack newsletter, goes forward, I will still be blogging about culture war stuff, but I recognize that I need to find a different mode of doing so. I think it remains important to point out the more outrageous stuff, because a lot of people still don't realize how bad it is. But I recognize that I need to move beyond just pointing at it and saying, "Look at that! Isn't that insane?!"
It's odd, though, that as catastrophist as my own thinking is and has been -- and hell, as catastrophic as my own personal life has been over the past year -- I am not depressed. Again, it's partly down to temperament, and mostly down to faith. In particular, it's down to my deep conviction that bad things happening to good people is just part of the deal, and the quality of our faith is revealed under trial. Seems like I need to show more of that side of things going forward.
It's a hard balance to strike, though. Good things are happening now at the state level, with legislation rolling back the more egregious aspects of wokeness re: race and gender. They would not have happened if not for people like Chris Rufo, Asra Nomani, Matt Walsh, Billboard Chris, and others keeping these issues front and center, and refusing to be reconciled to having lost the culture war. The thing is, I do believe that as a general matter, we have lost it, in the same sense that the French army lost to the Germans in 1940. But underground resistance continued, and eventually, after some time and suffering, the Germans were expelled. We religious and social conservatives have to play the long game. The Benedict Option idea is about playing the long game, and surviving the present darkness. I need to figure out how to shift into a different mode of writing about this stuff, because though we really are living through a catastrophe for traditional Christians and other social and religious conservatives, it is absolutely not the case that we are powerless in the face of it. That's what The Benedict Option teaches, and that's what Live Not By Lies teaches.
A last point: I agree with David Brooks that catastrophism is often useless or worse, but I really do push back on the keep calm and carry on mentality as a blanket solution. Sometimes it's virtuous, but in my view, more often that not it's cowardice masquerading as virtue, in that it's the kind of thing that people who are afraid of confronting the reality of the crisis, or unwilling to do so for other reasons, say to make their avoidance of hard realities seem like a sign of strength. Kingsnorth accepts that climate change is unstoppable, in the sense that the kind of radical things we would need to do to stop it aren't going to happen, given human nature. He believes that his former colleagues in the environmentalist movement are wasting their time at this point trying to convince people that there is still a solution to all this, instead of helping people adapt to the massive and convulsive changes that are coming. I don't think Paul is being a surrender monkey at all. I think he lives in reality. I don't think my own critique about the catastrophic change in the cultural climate is surrender either. But I have learned from watching Rufo and others, and from watching Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, that there are still some political things that can be done to help push back the tide. They will not be enough without a broader and deeper commitment to change. But it's not hopeless. We can't expect meaningful change, though, until people of the Right understand that our problems are deeper than the capacity of politics to solve, and start to work on them. What does it mean to be a conservative when there's not much left to conserve?
And, I believe that we cannot expect change until we begin to disincentivize, structurally, progressive catastrophism. In his Substack essay today, Ed West observes that we have an oversupply of liberal tears because they actually work.
In their book on politics and anxiety, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff made the point that modern politics works as reverse cognitive behavioural therapy. If you ever try CBT, you will be told to avoid nine key areas of negative thought, which are:
Emotional Reasoning: letting feelings guide your interpretation of reality.
Catastrophising: focussing on the worst possible outcomes.
Overgeneralising: seeing a big pattern of negatives based on a single incident.
Dichotomous thinking: viewing events or people in all or nothing terms.
Mind reading: assuming you think you know what people are actually thinking
Discounting positives and
Anyone who uses Twitter will be familiar with at least six of those, since the sort of social justice politics which has characterised social media since about 2012-13 encourages almost all those negative thought patterns in various forms; it’s hardly surprising that people encouraged to think that fascists are taking over America, or that transphobes threaten their safety, or even that a clumsily-phrased comment was actually a deliberate racial slur, are going to be incredibly miserable.
Political hypochondria is a real phenomenon, the widespread trend of people perceiving the rise of fascism everywhere, just as hypochondriacs see cancer all around (especially if their family has suffered from it). Just as quack doctors spread hypochondria online, political health anxiety grows because it suits a lot of people to cast their opponents as fascists.
Recently I highlighted in this space observations made by a male Blue State friend in a very unhappy marriage that American political and cultural life seems dictated by the standards of Borderline Personality Disorder, which he is having to live with daily. We are all apparently living in BPD Nation. More:
What has made public morality especially dysfunctional since 2013 is that the new sheriffs tend to be from the most mentally ill sections of society — extremely progressive young females, who also happen to be engaged in a moral status game with rivals. So we get rule by the least stable members of the educated classes, a maniacracy.
That perhaps explains some of the correlation between mental illness and how liberal a society is; the more it is ‘dedicated to the value of equality and the more choices it offers for individual self-determination, the higher its rates of functional mental illness’. It is one reason why, as English-speaking countries have become more woke over the course of this young century, they have become less happy.
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It's not going to stop on its own. It will have to be stopped. As long as people in charge of institutions who know better than to surrender to the hysterical and the tearful keep doing so, the crisis will continue, and even deepen. But it serves to hollow out their own authority. The Gospel Coalition capitulating to the hysterical critics of Joshua Butler and cancelling him was a self-castration. It is one thing to take critics seriously and to give them a platform to respond. That's a good thing! But they scrubbed their site clean of Butler's essay, and separated him from the Keller Center (it's not clear if he resigned, was fired, or was asked to resign) -- effectively cancelling him. It is now clear to everybody that the Keller Center project of TGC can be pushed around by the Twitter mob, and will not stand by its own decisions or its own people if that mob comes after them. All the people who invested time and money and labor in building the Keller Center project are now going to have to pay a heavy price.
Again, today is the last day for this blog. I hope you'll be staying with me after today at Rod Dreher's Diary. I'll be sending out the occasional essay to all the free subscribers, but the daily mailing will only go to those who pay $5/month or $50 a year. Plus, the paid subscribers get to comment. I'm still trying to work out the optimal format for commenting, but if you've missed the old comments section on this blog, I can tell you that it's back, and better than before, because now comments appear at once, not waiting for my approval. It turns out that the kind of people who pay for a newsletter are not the kind of people who troll with obnoxious comments. Which is a wonderful thing.