By Nathaniel Blake, The Federalist
Ants recently invaded my kitchen. I responded with genocide. I cleared the area of food, laid out bait stations, and soon had my own little formic Jonestown as ants hauled poison back to share with the rest of the colony. The bait was the first thing available for the ants, rather than real food, and it exploited their social nature. A few days later, the ants were gone.
This might be a metaphor for our age. Aspects of a healthy, nourishing culture have been cleared away and replaced with toxic substitutes that poison lives and relationships. Despite our civilization’s wealth and technological prowess, many among us have been dispossessed of what matters most. Man does not live on bread alone, even with air conditioning, an iPhone, and other wonders of scientific achievement.
We are materially rich compared to the past, but many of us are spiritually and relationally impoverished, even poisoned. True sources of order, identity, and meaning have been deconstructed and dismissed. Our culture provides poor answers, or none at all, to essential questions about who we are and how we are to live. From the rioters and vandals burning, looting, and defacing to the ostensible authorities and elites allowing and approving the destruction, the absence of right understanding of human flourishing is obvious.
The good life is rooted in relationships of love, respect, and justice. It is found when one is at peace with God and man, living justly and working honestly. It stems from having a loving family and a place in the community. One could add more to this list — intellectual and artistic achievement, honorable service to one’s country, etc. — but it is the foundation of human well-being. A healthy culture would direct us toward these ends; ours rarely does.
We Don’t Understand Ourselves
This failure to understand human flourishing also inhibits our ability to understand the problem of evil. The moral disorder of this world is among the most basic human experiences, and we demand an explanation for it. But the profound accounts of evil that Western religion and philosophy provided have been set aside for pop psychology and the half-baked Marxist leftovers of critical theory. Instead of being led to grapple with and understand the capacity for sin in each of us and in society, we are offered the shoddy substitutes of collective guilt and banal aphorisms.
This makes it difficult to understand how we are to repent, atone, reconcile, and forgive. Merciless mob vengeance and cancel culture are mockeries of justice, and the half-liturgical prostrations that have become popular parts of protests are far from genuine repentance for sin. A bit of theatrical self-abasement while confessing the sins of others, and maybe a few personal sins of omission, is worth little. It does not rectify wrongs, provide forgiveness, or prevent us from returning to actively indulging sins such as greed, envy, lust, and malice.
Just as our culture muddles our self-understanding as moral and spiritual agents, it confuses our knowledge of our being as embodied persons. Existence demands we consider how we should live as men and women, but instead of guiding us toward fulfillment in accord with our biological natures, our culture offers us the same advice it does with regard to religion and philosophy: We are to make it up as we go along, with our only prejudice being against tradition.
We are told this is liberating and that we should rejoice in opportunities for self-creation as we are unbound from faith, tradition, and even biology. In practice, this is individually immiserating and socially destabilizing. Fewer marriages, children, and congregants mean less recognition, support, and respect, especially for ordinary people. Previously, even a poor man of modest ability might aspire to be a good husband and father, and even a saint. Now such sources of identity and respect are dissipating as families shrink and dissolve, and churches decline.
Americans are increasingly isolated from each other, as well as our history and our future. Instead of honoring our forebears, we learn to hate them as unenlightened villains. We also learn to view children as a crime against the planet, and to fear having them unless they have been meticulously planned for.
See the Poison for What It Is
Our cultural leaders want to cut us off from traditional sources of identity, purpose, and fulfillment. We are instructed to create our own creeds, regard our embodied nature as optional, sever our connections to the past and future, and retreat from community and family in the present. Social media cannot fill the void this leaves, and in many ways makes it worse. For instead of seeking respect from those who are important in our lives, it encourages us to chase clicks from acquaintances and strangers.
We are being isolated, which makes for easy marks for corporations eager to sell us prepackaged identities and distractions, and for politicians and ideologues who want recruits for a cause. Many people are effectively dropping out of life, with men in particular being sedated by porn, pot, and PlayStations.
Even the current violence has an unseriousness to it. As the philosopher John Gray notes, “Woke activists … have no vision of the future. … [T]hey are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power. … Rather than aiming for a better future, woke militants seek a cathartic present.” Abolishing the police is not much of a reform plan, and looting, smashing statues, and getting people fired are indulgences of destruction and cruelty for their own sake.
Rarely have would-be revolutionaries been so open about their nihilistic desire to hurt people and break things. This, as much as anything else, demonstrates the toxicity of their movement. The inability to articulate, even rhetorically, a vision of human flourishing reveals a project that is purely negative and destructive. It is societal poison, and those joining mobs are not the only ones our culture has dispossessed.
Unlike the unfortunate ants who trespassed in my kitchen, we don’t have to take the bait. We can recognize the poison we have been given and seek something better. Although the immediate task before conservatives is to stand up to the mobs, our long-term task is to preserve and build.
We must demonstrate that there is a better way of life, rebuilding and reinforcing the relationships and institutions that give us healthy identities and noble purposes. We must ourselves live that which we would protect and restore. Nathanael Blake is a Senior Contributor at The Federalist. He has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.