By Jonathon Van Maren
We are rapidly approaching a time when nobody living will remember what life was like before the sexual revolution. With the exception of scattered communities that have fought, with varying levels of success, to preserve their ways of life, traditional Christian culture as a civilizational phenomenon is dead in the West. Church attendance has collapsed across Europe and, especially over the past two decades, in the United States as well. The institution of marriage has been broken, redefined, and, finally, largely abandoned. The young are now growing up in a world almost totally devoid of the certainties that belonged to their ancestors for time immemorial.
The late Polish philosopher and former Stalinist Zygmunt Bauman described our time as one of “liquid modernity.” Bauman used this term to describe the conditions of our era, which he saw as one of constant mobility and change in all things: relationships, global economics, personal identities. Everything has been privatized, and with the overnight coming-of-age of the transgender movement, the personal has become perpetually political. A young man can become a woman or vice versa; he can become “non-binary”; he can even become “trans-racial.” What he cannot do, however, is to return to the world of his grandparents, filled as it was with restrictive orthodoxies and rock-solid certainties.
Instead, young people today inhabit a world in which everything is up for grabs, but nothing is solid enough to hang on to. It may seem like freedom, but, as Bauman observed, there is a crushing responsibility in having to figure everything out from scratch. Your identity, family, religion, even your sex—everything can be changed at your whim (or so we are told). It is a bewildering tyranny of choices producing profoundly unhappy people. You can have anything you want, but nobody will tell you what you need.
Mary Eberstadt describes this well in her book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Identity politics, she argues, is not just some new political tribalism. In fact, even the word ‘tribalism’ indicates that one has a family—and today’s tribalism is largely driven by the fact that people do not have families. Shrinking families, fatherlessness, abortion, and other new “norms” have resulted in what she calls “the Great Scattering,” and today’s identity politics are one consequence of all this. Eberstadt points out that we have never seen this level of social disruption in the history of civilization apart from times of warfare or natural disaster.
Denied the human ecosystems that their ancestors inhabited for centuries, Eberstadt writes, young people are instead seeking out new identities, joining their comrades in this “preeminent emotional howl of our time”: Who am I? (“Identity politics,” she adds bluntly, “is the screaming bastard child of the birth control pill.”)
Add to this the unprecedented phenomenon Eberstadt refers to as gasoline on the fires of our crumbling cultures: social media. The utopian fantasies of networks that would unite us are long dead, and social media has instead become a great leveler of culture. Never in human history has there been a time when children and adolescents could separate themselves so totally from the oversight and influence of adults, including older family members. The young now seek the approval of their peers and have created networks impervious to their parents, producing new cultures that are totally disconnected from any tradition and exacerbating the fluidity of liquid modernity. In connecting us to everyone, social media has often disconnected people from their own histories, traditions, and even faiths.
And so, the question arises: What does a young conservative do in this great era of endings? We are cursed with having a multitude of options, but very few good ones, and it often seems like there is little to be conserved and that we are only reminded of what is left when we see the progressive beasts fix their eyes upon the next target.