Mass shootings of the sort that happened recently in Florida and Nevada, whose only conceivable motive is the perpetrator’s compulsion to make his satanic and nihilistic hatred of other people and of existence itself a compelling item in the international news, have become almost monthly occurrences here, though they are rare in more mentally and emotionally healthy societies. Other Western countries, cultural cousins to the United States, face social challenges of their own while sharing many of the pathologies that are consuming America today. But school killings, indeed mass slaughter of any kind, are not among them—murderous rampages by Third World immigrants and terrorists excepted. The reasons for this discrepancy are not immediately apparent, but a broad explanation is that the U.S. is ground zero for the explosion of postmodernity. Atrocities such as those in Parkland and Las Vegas, like the Columbine massacre of two decades ago, are not features of happy societies. They indicate that the United States is not only the wealthiest and most comfortable society in the world, but the unhappiest one as well. How can this be?
All people in every time and of every culture have wished to be happy. The urge to happiness is humanity’s fundamental instinct after the urge to self-survival and sex, itself a type of happiness, though a spasmodic one. But only Americans have lived for 250 years under a guarantee of “the pursuit of happiness,” a phrase invented by the most ideological president of the U.S. after Barack Obama that can easily, and fatally, be misunderstood as a guarantee of happiness. In a recent book about the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the historian Gordon Wood observes that in Adams’s mind the Founding of the American Republic was an exercise in creating a new government, while for Jefferson it was the founding of a new age for mankind. This sort of millennial thinking, whether conscious or not among Americans of that period, and their happy awareness of their innumerable natural resources and of the vast spaces of a seemingly unlimited continent stretching westward beyond the Appalachians and the Alleghenies to another great ocean, were a large component of the famous American spirit of indomitable optimism and confidence in a free and prosperous future, more abundant than any country had previously enjoyed and endowed with a degree of political and individual freedom unprecedented in history. This spirit was unknown in Europe before the French Revolution—the Old Europe that American democrats scorned and despised for its supposed tyranny, and for a deep strain (or stain, as Americans saw it) of pessimism drawn from millennia of experience and from a religion that promised Christians trial and suffering in this world, and happiness only in the next. Americans, as much as Europeans, were raised on books of prayer and devotion which taught that the easiest way to find happiness is to forget that such a thing exists, while the most difficult means to attain it is to seek it directly. But in America, following the Wesleyan revival, the Protestant churches, liberalizing their doctrine as they accommodated themselves to the new democratic and positivistic society, began to lose sight of this lesson during the course of the 19th century, and nearly lost it afterward. Today, Christianity is far weaker in Western Europe than it is in America, where the Christian presence, though shallow, is nevertheless wide. This should give Americans an edge on happiness over the Europeans, but plainly it doesn’t. Europeans in the past two centuries have grown increasingly materialistic and selfish (as the novels of Dickens and Balzac, for instance, demonstrate), but “happiness” for them has always been an abstract quality and therefore far less a goal than the political and social “equality” their political philosophers and other writers have offered them, while neglecting to mention “happiness” or its pursuit altogether. (There is no such thing as the “European”—or the British, or the French, or the Italian, or the Spanish, or the German—“Dream” of a forever improving future, the firm expectation of an ever-improved standard of living and contentment.) Both Europe and America are decadent societies, but they are decadent in different ways. European decadence is the decadence of a civilization dying by degrees by its own hand, a suicide acting in slow motion that knows nevertheless how to die gracefully and even elegantly, surrounded by the glories, beauties, and appurtenances of the past, the old civilization it created over thousands of years. American decadence is an act of cultural violence, the sudden brutal replacement of a wan version of the European civilization America had neither the genius nor the time required to match by an arrogant postmodern anticivilization that is technologically progressive but socially and culturally regressive to the point of barbarism. The new anticivilization values (after the technological accomplishments that made it possible) happiness gained through absolute freedom of the self and the exaltation of the individual and his “rights,” his opportunities for “self-realization” and his ability to be whatever he wishes to be at any given moment, his freedom from social and governmental restraint, from the constraints of biological identity, of the unenlightened past, and, above all, of religion and the God he once accepted as being infinitely his Superior and his Master, the Giver of divine laws He expects His mortal subjects to observe on pain of eternal punishment. The postmodern American’s obsession with securing absolute happiness corresponds with his equally obsessive concern with ceaseless “progress,” making him vulnerable to promises by demagogic politicians of “hope” and of the “change” he imagines will reward “hope.” The question of why the citizens of the wealthiest and “freest” country in the world should be so impatient with the comfortable present, so impatient for “change” (whose nature everyone is careful not to specify) and therefore in need of “hope” is a question nobody ever raises.
It is a significant question nonetheless, and so is its answer: postmodern liberalism’s ideological commitment to a society totally mobilized to achieve its ideal of transcendental perfection on earth. The same ambition was rampant in America around the middle of the 19th century, and in less bizarre and more rationalized forms in the early 20th. It has returned with a vengeance since the 1980’s with a program that is at once exaggeratedly rationalistic and hopelessly fantastical. Liberalism, which has controlled America’s principal institutions and American culture for the past century, never quits insisting on the unfairness, the inequality, and the incompleteness of American society past and present, and on how much “work” remains to be done to realize the glorious nation heralded by the Declaration of Independence. It is the self-serving argument of people who are working to transform the nation according to their vision for it and hand it over to the Democratic Party, the NGOs, the universities, and the other established institutions, all of them liberal. Nevertheless, it is an argument repeated so ceaselessly, ubiquitously, and shrilly that it has impressed itself by now on the minds of everyone exposed to it—including conservatives and other antiliberals who have not been able to resist being unconsciously affected and influenced by its siren song.
In the beginning, Americans pursued happiness through the political efforts of free men—working through representative government, the laws of free speech, and “democratic” institutions—acting freely. This was in the Constitutional and early Republican periods. Next they tried chasing down happiness in material ways: exploiting their natural resources, ensuring economic freedoms at home, and adopting protectionist policies abroad. During the second half of the 19th century they looked for happiness in “a more perfect union” by conquering and outlawing disunion; in industrial development; and in empire. In the new century their way, their truth, and their life was a refurbished democratic system, which politicians insisted could be guaranteed only by making the world safe for democracy. Following the Great War they tried unrestrained capitalism, the mixed economy of the New Deal, the defeat of “international communism,” and finally global hegemony. So far, Americans had pursued happiness by hard application to material and human reality and its laws, while priding themselves on their realism, their common sense, their hardheadedness, their practicality, even their materialistic philosophy, which they managed to reconcile to their satisfaction with their progressively attenuated, abstracted, and symbolic understanding of Christianity. But then came the 1960’s, and with them another American revolution, a revolution that was not narrowly political but fundamentally conceptual—one that aimed to transform society, its moral, intellectual, and metaphysical bases, as steps in the “long march through the institutions” on the way to the political revolution that would inevitably follow. This new revolution—the work of the New Left inspired by the immigrant Frankfurt School that stood behind it—eventually coincided with an otherwise unconnected revolution: the digital revolution. With these the pursuit of happiness, which up until now had meant dominating and exploiting the material world, turned—like Dr. Johnson’s seeker who, unable to draw truth from the cow, went to milk the bull—to the pursuit of unreality, and finally to “virtual reality.”
The revolt against the real, the given—including natural law, human nature, the laws that govern human societies, the fact of two discrete sexes and the essential physical, mental, and emotional differences between man and woman, the historical truth of divine revelation, and so forth—naturally caused immense social and moral confusion, in sexual and social relations especially. And the arrival of computers, the internet, and virtual reality encouraged the abnegation of the real in every aspect and the collective escape into fantasy. The two combined made possible and allowed for biological and genetic engineering, “designer” babies, transsexual surgery that only the other day permitted a transgender “woman” to lactate when presented with a biological woman’s baby, and similar medical “advances.” They also created the expectable metaphysical angst and moral confusion whose social effects include loneliness, uncertainty, fear, an absence of human grounding, and the spread of “lives of quiet desperation” from the artistic and intellectual classes to the masses, for which the evidence is apparent everywhere: mass murder, drug addiction, and the digital addiction that is producing mental, emotional, and physical pathologies among self-isolated young people especially, a considerable percentage of whom tell researchers that they have no close friends. Last winter, Great Britain appointed a Minister for Loneliness to address the latter problem, one by no means confined to the young.
Postmodern liberal society’s remedies for these evils is therapy: social and political therapy—“meaningful” political activism, social inclusiveness, more multiculturalism, more “caring” and the further replacement of Christian morality by “ethics,” and the expenditure of more public monies—and psychotherapy and “meds” to counter postmodern forms of addiction and the damaging effects of other “meds.” All of them are wildly insufficient to treat the underlying problems, something that should be obvious to everyone and isn’t, but liberalism has no other tricks in its medical bag.
Immediately after the latest shooting, liberals reflexively demanded “gun control,” and conservatives (just as reflexively) retorted that “guns are not the problem.” In fact there is no problem, and therefore no solution, available in the context of the social and mental world advanced liberalism made. American society will either collapse in violence and chaos in the next couple of decades (perhaps much sooner), or it will heal itself by the rediscovery of sane thinking and a return to sane ways of life based on them, a process that is necessarily a gradual and lengthy one. No Christian will ever be able to “prove” to the satisfaction of a follower of any other religion, of an agnostic, or of an atheist that Christianity is the “one true” religion, but it is relatively easy for him to show by resort to history that Christian societies have, on balance, been the most humane and civilized ones, while allowing that many societies ruled by false Christians have been despotic or simply brutal arrangements. American society in the 21st century is neither despotic (yet) nor brutal, despite the murderous horror of abortion. It is, however, a profoundly neurotic society, deeply scored, crippled, and deformed by personal and collective neuroses whose origins are easy to discover. Chesterton, who once referred to what he called “the huge and healthy sadness” of the classical pagan world, glimpsed something of a future one in the rise of Nazism, which appalled and seems even to have terrified him, though he died in 1936. What he foresaw was the huge unhealthy postmodern spirit that suffers from a desperation that is far deeper and more painful than sadness, even than death, and infinitely more demoralizing than both of them.