American culture feels dangerously stuck and stilted these days. Many of our best and brightest look for all the world as if they were standing at the tail end of something, equipped with resources fit for a bygone reality, at loose ends in this one. In a perfect bit of performance poetry—who says mass societies can’t be poetical?—we keep cycling through the halls of leadership a cast of tottering, familiar, reassuring grandparents, who spend their tenures insider-trading and murmuring hits from the old boomer songbook, desperately hoping that no cameras are running when they nod off, just a skosh, into their salad, or tip over their mountain bikes, ever so gingerly. Our president turns eighty in November, and he is vowing to run again. We have no new ideas for America. The best in our culture lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (approximately). A soft apocalypticism seems to be in the water.
What can this exhaustion be? How can a country so wealthy, so educated, armed absolutely to its teeth, find itself so at sea, inadequate to the challenges of a new century? We are, in 2022, in the midst of more than a political crisis. It is, rather, a slow-motion götterdämmerung—the creeping expiration of an illicit, secret god who was supposed to have died some decades ago.
Cultures are marvelous, literally unfathomable things, rooted in deep beliefs and values but stretching uncountable tendrils to every corner of a community—teaching us how to pray, die, and hold a fork—while also gathering in the sun and air that allow those deep values to live and grow. For all its marvelous complexity, any given culture, even one like ours that pretends to mere, universal humanity, is one thing and not everything. It can process much, adapt to much; if it is healthy, it can grow around or through any number of chainlink fences. But it cannot do simply anything. Sometimes a culture comes up against realities it cannot coherently respond to. Sometimes a culture gets stuck.
Jonathan Lear, in his fascinating book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006), presents one such case.11xJonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). He recounts the predicament of the Crow tribe, native to what is now the plains region of the United States, after European settlers piled up sixty million buffalo carcasses in a deliberate bid to end the tribe’s way of life. In Lear’s telling, the loss of the buffalo, combined with the government-mandated prohibition of battles and raids against the neighboring Sioux people, left the Crow unmoored, with a sense that their world had simply ended. As one Crow intoned, once the buffalo were gone, “nothing happened.” What does a Crow do, with no buffalo to hunt and no raids to undertake? What should he strive for? What then makes a good life? As Lear recognizes, these questions are not the kinds a civilization can easily answer—they are a potential abyss.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre theorizes this kind of breakdown as one in which “confrontation by new situations, engendering new questions…may reveal within established practices and beliefs a lack of resources for offering or for justifying answers to these new questions.”22xAlasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1988), 354. This he calls an epistemological crisis. Attempts to resolve epistemological crises are, according to MacIntyre, “informed by two ideals, truth and intelligibility, and the pursuit of both is not always easily coherent. The discovery of an hitherto unsuspected truth is just what may disrupt an hitherto intelligible account.”33xAlasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crises,” The Monist 60, no. 4 (1977), 455. For the past several years, confronted by hitherto unsuspected truths, elite, official America has been feeling the edges of something like an unintelligible abyss. Can anything truly happen from here on?
But our abyss has not been caused, like the Crow people’s, by the practical destruction of our way of life; that much stands relatively intact. Our abyss is spiritual, a sequel to the one documented by Hannah Arendt in the wake of World War II and revelations of the Shoah. Confronting these realities, Arendt found that her world had become unintelligible, and she could no longer feel at home. The crimes of the Nazis, she wrote in 1953, “constitute a break with all our traditions; they have clearly exploded our categories of political thought and our standards for moral judgment.”44xHannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954: Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1995), 310. Essay first published 1953. How was this so? For one thing, the emotionally loaded categories of “guilt” and “murder” seemed subtly off-key when applied to the rational, systematic death machines of the Final Solution. Arendt wrote with passionate outrage about the unique, unspeakable, inexplicable dehumanization of those Jews who perished in the gas chambers:
They all died together, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, the sick and the healthy; not as people, not as men and women, children and adults, boys and girls, not as good and bad, beautiful and ugly—but brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.55xHannah Arendt, “The Image of Hell,” in Essays in Understanding, 198. Essay first published 1946.
This is not a crime we can understand. The concentration camp guard is not the jealous, spurned lover, who in exacting revenge recognizes the moral agency of the wayward object of his obsession. We could partially understand yet still condemn such an action. No. “Beyond the capacities of human comprehension is the deformed wickedness of those who established such equality.”66xIbid., 198. With the Holocaust, Arendt saw that her moral categories could no longer accommodate the full range of actions undertaken by ostensibly “ordinary” human beings.
She did not, however, write of her crisis as a simple lack of fellowship between her and the German people. Rather, “to understand totalitarianism is not to condone anything, but to reconcile ourselves to a world in which such things are possible at all”77xArendt, “Understanding and Politics,” 308. (emphasis added). In what way had “the world” become alien?
Arendt understood humans as being engaged in a constant, ongoing attempt to make the world and other persons intelligible to themselves. This she called “understanding.” Understanding is not a mere collation of facts—it is, she wrote, “an unending activity by which, in constant change and variation, we come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world.”88xIbid., 308. The inhuman crimes of the Nazis had ruined Arendt’s sense of home, because her previously articulated belief that inhuman crimes are wrong was more than a statement of preference—for she surely continued to have that preference after the Holocaust. Contained in the statement that “humans must not be brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself” is a belief in a moral principle analogous to the principle in physics that “objects at rest tend to stay at rest.” The Nazis’ violation of the moral principle seems wrong, both morally and, in some sense, factually—it seems not to fit in the world as we have come to understand it. Arendt, quite in excess of what her explicit metaphysics could afford (she was an atheist), seems to have been dealing with a tacit, gut-level assumption that there exists some guiding principle—be it History, Progress, Modernity, Civilization, or whatever—guaranteeing that clinically normal, civilized humans will not, en masse, treat innocent fellow humans as mere organic matter. The ordering principle that Arendt had expected to keep humanity on its tracks was revealed by the Nazis to be nonexistent, or at least far different from what she had previously thought.
In none of this is Arendt a particular outlier. In a short, compelling book titled Against Nature (2019), historian of science Lorraine Daston argues that for reasons tied to the nature of human cognition, we have an “extraordinarily strong and tenacious” tendency to see normative and natural orders as one and the same, “even in the largely built world of late modern societies.” This ostensibly archaic tendency survives “in today’s imagined moral orders, for example the campaign for universal human rights that know no national borders or local jurisdictions.” The distinction between is and ought seems to be a post hoc philosophical one, not native to human experience. Daston argues that there is, correspondingly (and as Arendt’s response to the moral enormities of World War II attests), “a deeply felt connection between violations of the natural and moral orders.”99xLorraine Daston, Against Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 69, 41, 31.
This brings us, finally, to our own season of crisis. The disjunction Arendt saw between our moral norms and the natural order has never been healed; indeed, it has barely been confronted. Instead, what immediately followed the devastation of World War II was les trente glorieuses, as the French call the thirty years of postwar growth, social mobility, reform, and innovation that began after the war and gradually yielded in the mid-1970s to Chicago School economics and the reinvigoration of the Cold War. It was easy enough, in this period, for Westerners to forget the horrors of Treblinka, and begin again to think what humans tend to think—that what seems good to us is natural, and vice versa. That we are, in short, at home in this world, that when the convulsions of history have run their course, all of reality will naturally come to rest in a state of postwar liberalism. Even if there is an occasional blip on the screen, equilibrium will reassert itself. Banish the natural, as the French say, and it comes galloping back. The god who had died in the camps quietly rose again, without saying a thing, and padded quietly to his throne, where he has reigned ever since.
This view of the world—as guided by some nebulous force called Progress, say—has been tacitly embraced by the mainstream of elite America for decades. It has animated a chronology-based form of moral reasoning (“I shouldn’t have to say this in 2022!”) and a general confidence about the direction of history: that its arc is long, perhaps, but bending always in the direction of liberalism. This view of progress could allow for rebellions by non-Western actors, who, the thinking went, simply lagged behind in the secular development of morality. But to hear any dissent from a properly situated, white Westerner was a grave, grave thing.
This is exactly the spectacle that has confronted our elite for the past six years or so. Brexiteers, Trumpists, Orbánists, and other chronologically privileged actors, bucking the natural truth, have been showing up the natural truth as possibly not so natural, but as situated, historical, contingent. This is a sight too painful to behold. If wide swaths of the rich, tech-savvy world have broken from postwar liberalism, then perhaps the natural order does not root for us, does not guide events where we eventually hope to go. The catastrophism of our current moment takes part in Arendt’s sense that some governing metaphysic—tacit though it was—had given up the ghost, and left us stranded. The possibility of an illiberal uprising in the West is one of MacIntyre’s hitherto unsuspected truths. Our leaders now stand in an unintelligible world, clutching the verities that held true for such a long time, swinging them at the air in feckless hopes of bringing down an adversary or two. After this, can anything really happen?
It is difficult to know what one could possibly say in response to the Holocaust; probably there is very little worth saying. But Theodor Adorno was wrong in concluding that we shouldn’t paint and dance and write poems anymore. Those arts put us into confrontation with nature, with the material reality that holds and makes us, and what we have to know and remember is that Gerard Manley Hopkins was right: “nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”1010xGerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” lines 9–10. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44395/gods-grandeur. First published 1918 (posthumously).
Brilliant as Daston’s account is, it falters in her sense of moral epistemology. She generally takes moral claims to be generated simply by the community, then imposed, subconsciously, onto the broader material world. If our norm-generation mechanisms are in poor repair, then the world can do little to help us. But this is surely wrong. A thousand times in history—a million, more likely—visionaries, prophets, artists, and philosophers have wandered away from the social world that made them and sat themselves in nature, to see what could be seen when you stop demanding that nature echo back precisely the creeds of your community. We can think here of Elijah or John the Baptist, Muhammad or the Buddha, or Christ. Closer to our own time, Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson went to nature to find a renewed, energized version of America. Analogous solitudes have been sought and found even in prison cells—think of Martin Luther King Jr. or Fyodor Dostoevsky. As much as all of these men’s cultural formations accompanied them into solitude, shaped what they would see, there is also—in nature, in reality—more than is contained in any philosophy or culture. The main things that are needed are silence and trust—and not just for the would-be prophets among us, but for all of us: teachers, policymakers, clerics, parents, humans of any stripe. Panicked catastrophism will only ensure that our challenged cultures stay brittle and stuck.
The turn to panic has been an immensely frustrating aspect of the past several years. The liberal establishment has gnashed its teeth, shrieked, buried its head in the sand, blamed its comeuppance on omnipotent Russian bots, anything to avoid going back to reality and seeing what it might have missed, how its cultures have been blind, how they could be refreshed. The ongoing advancement of postwar liberalism is not guaranteed by the dictates of nature. That is fine, or it had better be, because it is true. But what should we do with that fact? Here there are infinite options. We have to say it again, and keep saying it: There is always more to see in the world; the process of understanding is unending. There are ways for America to stay America, while gathering back in its various warring factions. One thing we can say for sure is that to keep giving voice to the shouted slogans of yesterday is not one of those ways. If America wants to return to a state of relative social peace, if it wants its various peoples to be at home in its world, it had better dispatch its incumbent prophets from the noisy, contentious town square immediately. New, more capacious visions are needed—great awakenings and reformations and renaissances still to be seen. Thankfully, beautifully, reality is waiting, and reality is never spent.