Zeitgeist

Strife and Wrangling in Las Vegas

October 13, 2017

Multiple Pages
Strife and Wrangling in Las Vegas

Fifty-eight people dead in the Las Vegas massacre and 489 wounded. The location feels grimly fitting, for the city itself, a vast carnival of pleasure, is a testament to our pagan decadence. As with the San Bernardino and Orlando tragedies, and the school shootings that have become regular occurrences, the nation is in anguish; “How could this happen?” our difficult question.

To understand America’s darkening, we must recognize that civilization does not exclude the state of nature, for the state of nature is man himself, his historical inheritance, the unchosen animal endowment he must strive to tame, to constrain, to control. Examine your experience. Think deeply on what you are. Notice how on this day, as on every other, you have been subject to all sorts of shifting desires, thoughts, and impulses. Where did they come from, you uncanny creature?

Nobody knows, nor can. We simply inhere in the natural world, and our freedom consists in resisting the forces to which we are subject and, to the extent that we can, guiding them through wise conduct. The most trenchant description of animal experience—call it our inner savage—is by Arthur Schopenhauer. “Yunghahn relates,” the philosopher wrote in The World as Will and Representation, “that

he saw in Java a plain far as the eye could reach entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a battlefield; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles, five feet long and three feet broad, and the same height, which come this way out of the sea in order to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs (Canis rutilans), who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off their lower armour, that is, the small shell of the stomach, and so devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs. Now all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, then, these turtles are born.

“The news reflects America’s pagan arena, one madman after another striving to matter at any cost.”

It is the grave responsibility of government and religion to give order to this natural struggle, this astonishing spectacle of suffering and pain. Restraint, temperance, delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, cooperation, compromise—these social virtues do not come easily. They are the product of discipline over time, of habits that, at best, make for a mature and rational disposition. And yet, even when that exceptional character is achieved, there remains a part of us—so seductive because it’s ours—that believes with Milton’s Satan, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Indeed, even the good person, in his imagination, tends to admire at least a kernel of this egoistic power. Consider the pleasure we take in Shakespeare’s hero villains, in Dostoyevsky’s intractably rebellious underground man, in Mob films and television shows, and so on and so forth. Again, so many of history’s ablest and most admired men, the most celebrated of great names, have been brutal tyrants. In William Hazlitt’s words, “If mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago.”

Social life is a theater. Behind the curtains, beasts reign. Fear is the primary check on the underlying self-assertion. Just as justice, at bottom, is usually no more than a desire to inflict pain, so the law and the state itself are possible only at gunpoint. The main reason people pay taxes, resist from harming one another (when they do), and obey the law is not that they are good moral agents, but that they are deterred by the prospect of painful consequences. Hence the foolishness of Bret Stephens’ wish to repeal the Second Amendment. Of course, it’s only reasonable to lament the many maniacs with guns. But getting rid of guns would not get rid of the need for self-defense; after all, the state itself is so much self-defense. There is, besides, a huge underground market for illegal guns, and as with the desire to use illegal drugs, legislation can hardly avail against that: The low does not create human nature; it merely reflects it.

What’s needed is not gun control but people control. What’s needed is God, and I say so as an unbeliever. God is indispensable with respect to law and order, because for the earnest believer the idea of God—a being you cannot evade, unlike the human law—provides an inherent check against noxious desires and inclinations. The wrathful God of what Christians call the Old Testament is a devil whose goodness frightens us away from our own monstrosity. Modern man no longer fears God. Now he is a very willing devil, and mass murder a norm. The common cultural response is a dangerously naive faith in the power of the law: The ever-expanding state is to be the new God, saving us children from our own agency. Many people act as though the law were as efficacious, reliable, and straightforward as updating their smartphone. No, the law is another idol, a pagan flight from our cultural descent.

Violence and terrorism are distinctly male phenomena. As I argued in my last column, there is an inherent need to be valued by other people, and there are men who, if that need is not met, lash out like tigers. There are other causes of the bloodshed that has become casual. Men like Stephen Paddock and Dylann Roof are abundant today because there is a general deprivation of human value. Man’s most vital sources of meaning—the family, heterosexual love, religion, culture, community, dignified, meaningful work—are all dying out in the West. One of the many horrible effects is men who seek to assert their will, to show that they will be noticed, the only way they can: by making others suffer. For such men, other people are all regarded in the abstract: persons who did not esteem them; therefore, persons who must be punished. The news reflects America’s pagan arena, one madman after another striving to matter at any cost.

Another problem, as we learn from the great American thinker Christopher Lasch, is that the modern world is hostile to authority by definition. Before industrialization, children’s primary notion of authority was the father, the patriarch that is civilization and its rightful head and guardian. Once the father left the home for the workplace, authority, in its psychological conception, was transferred to the state. Now fatherly authority may well inspire resentment and therefore a desire for revenge in the young, but nevertheless, so long as the father is a good man, those feelings will probably be tempered by love and affection. The state, however, is a cold, faceless, fearsome thing. Human psychology finds no reason—apart from fear—not to transgress it. From the very beginning, then, we feel authority is our enemy. Meanwhile, our rotten universities, in their conceited ignorance, are committed to producing treasonous riffraff like Antifa and Black Lives Matter. We should expect such terrorists, and the actual white supremacists, to become more deadly in our pagan era. Terrorism and violent tragedy in general are likely to become only more common. Especially as so many boys now grow up without a father—that is, a necessary shaping male influence—since our “strong and independent women,” in their delusive hypergamy, refuse to settle for anything less than the illusory perfection they think they deserve. Men who did not have a father—the vast majority in black America, which is singularly violent—and men who don’t know women’s tender love as adults are still more trouble for the state: Many become wicked, and many of the wicked become criminals and murderers.

Women are indeed an important correlative to male violence, for women historically have functioned to soften men’s aggressive tendencies. Yet American women are themselves in a bad way, and therefore hardly suffice to domesticate the savage in man: Although it is revealing that taming the savage is the archetypal female romantic fantasy, even as man’s, in primordial complement, is rescuing a needful woman. American women are now married to the government and entertained by bad boys. For they bought the illusion that the dreadful workplace would make them happier than traditional roles. Now men and women, between whom “there is naturally strife and wrangling,” as Montaigne said long ago, do not suit each other: They are competitors, not so much friends as enemies, all while feminism—which, subsequent to its reasonable first wave, has been mixed at best—more and more makes a grotesquerie of womanhood, to the disgust of all men who have taste. Few men and women now find happiness in eros. It is a telling sign that the old custom that men and women are to be kind to one another, to have a spirit of goodwill and generosity, is vanishing, while flaking and ghosting correspondingly abound. Couples now go to therapists—mostly poorly educated women with an unwittingly femicentric perspective—in order to get traditional good sense in a most roundabout fashion: $300 an hour to learn to listen, to be decent, and to sacrifice for one another—this is just more of the general parody of American life. It’s not working out for the sexes, and as women’s hypergamy runs its course, more men who lack sexual satisfaction and emotional intimacy will use violence to discharge their profound frustration.

The dearth of constructive masculine activities and outlets is yet another problem for our pagan culture. Instead of playing sports, many boys now spend much of their time alone with digital distractions. This creates an excess of energy that is sometimes vented in destructive ways, which in some cases become destructive habits. Those habits may be picked up on by others. For there is a human need for fellowship, and not everyone finds it at the local church: For some, friendship and community mean the local gang, in which young men seek the masculine camaraderie they never had.

Americans worship wealth and status. This false god makes for wretchedly instrumental human relations; our interactions seem scripted by marketers. Nor can every man succeed. Some turn to video games, others to drugs, many to pornography. The worst kill people, vast numbers of them. For today the human will—no longer constrained by religion—becomes a god itself: It will answer to nothing, this sublime pagan; it will be its own law. Modernity killed God. Now it is killing democracy as well.

I have been describing a general cultural malaise. All of these issues are influenced by the new digital conditioning, which hardly promotes the nuanced understudying and adroit communication democracy requires. Digital conditioning rather produces massive incoherence and solipsism, and reinforces errors, illusions, and vain expectations. Here too our future looks dark indeed. There are many problems to deal with. And yet most Americans hardly know how to read, write, speak, or think. In interacting with millennials, I often have the sense that for them only the virtual realm will do. Life itself is not real, being too inconvenient: They wish to screen everybody through the digital buffer, reducing him to a mere instrument for their own ends.

Although I foresee greater evils ahead than those we have witnessed of late, the truth, to be sure, is that civilization itself is not what people tend to think. To a significant extent, civilization is nothing but a rationalist illusion. Conflict is the natural state of all animals, and man is the only cruel animal only because other animals are not thus advanced. Intrinsically competitive, the world is forever torn by incompatible interests. If we had knowledge of our collective motives and intentions, we’d see that human life is not meant to be peaceful and orderly. No wonder we all live in and by conflict, with ourselves, with family, with friends, with colleagues and co-workers, and on and on.

When a large number of men do not have what their nature needs, we should expect massive destruction to take place as a result. And it is only thus that the culture can get back on track, assuming that is still possible. What’s needed is a better sort of disposition. But bringing that into being is not a matter of argument. If our paganism is not the end of America, it shall produce a new Authority as we navigate rivers of blood.

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