Robert Kaplan’s interesting article ends up feeling like a bit of a hodge—podge. Writing in The American Interest he analyzes today’s global problems by re-introducing Hannah Arendt’s concept of loneliness:
Then there is loneliness. Toward the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observes: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination . . . is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” Totalitarianism, she goes on, is the product of the lonely mind that deduces one thing from the other in linear fashion toward the worst possible result, and thus is a “suicidal escape from this reality.” Pressing men and women so close together in howling, marching formations obliterates individuality and thus loneliness. But even with all of our electronic diversions, is loneliness any less prevalent now than it was when Arendt published her magnum opus in 1951? People are currently more isolated than ever, more prone to the symptoms of the lonely, totalitarian mind, or what psychiatrists call “racing thoughts.”
I am as enamored of big ideas as anyone else, but loneliness does not quite do it. It is imprecise and does not sustain the weight that Kaplan wants to put on it. There is no special reason why loneliness should lead people to totalitarianism, to blind belief.
It is true that loneliness or something like it might lead people to want to join groups, but Kaplan is wrong to slander armies as “howling, marching formations.” Armies can be efficient and effective organizations. Not because they are howling but because they are organized and disciplined.
From a problem that belongs to the realm of individual psychology--loneliness--Kaplan skips to the problem of group belief. He continues:
People everywhere—in the West, in the Middle East, in Russia, in China—desperately need something to believe in, if only to alleviate their mental condition. They are dangerously ready for a new catechism, given the right circumstances. What passes as a new fad or cult in the West can migrate toward extremism in less stable or more chaotic societies.
Unfortunately, belief does not really solve the problem of loneliness. If loneliness is the problem then the solution is to socialize, to participate in a functioning society, to work with others toward common and productive goals.
I do not much cotton to the notion of loneliness. I prefer Emile Durkheim’s idea of anomie. People suffer anomie when they are living in a community that lacks norms or rules, where they do not know how to connect with others because they do not know the game, the players or the rules.
Is the world awash in anomie? Yes and no. Some places are; some are not. In most places, people deal with anomie by entering into what Tocqueville called voluntary associations. They join groups; they socialize; they work together; they attend religious services together; they celebrate national holidays.
And yet, some parts of the world are so cosmopolitan that it is almost impossible to navigate the chaos. The more the world becomes multicultural, the more difficult it is to know which rules to follow. Thus, the anomie will seem to be both insufferable and incurable.
Obviously, the need to join a group does not always lead to a happy ending. After the disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century Europe young men willingly and happily joined a war effort that proved to be extraordinarily destructive. For some the horrors of World War I made it impossible for some to think that socialization could cure anomie.
Human beings need to connect with other humans. If they cannot socialize, they fall back on belief. Connecting by holding common beliefs is a default position when all else has failed.
In a city like New York, where everyone is sensitive to different cultures, people connect by thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same feelings. They are connected because they hold the same beliefs.
As I have suggested in the past, New York is a city full of free thinkers, all of whom are thinking exactly the same thing. When it comes to politics, New Yorkers are decidedly intolerant, even to the point of being bigoted and fanatical.
Anyone who does hold the politically correct belief threatens the social fabric, or better, denies the cult that, in the absence of religion and loyalty to country, serves as a substitute for true socializing. One needs to emphasize that fanatics who believe in their ideas function as members of a cult, one that takes the place of community. They do not belong to a community founded on a system of reciprocal exchanges. They become part of a blob.
Kaplan adds a fascinating note on this topic:
But doesn’t technology empower, by putting people in touch with each other so that they can speak with one voice? Precisely: It is speaking with one voice that is the danger. The freedom of the internet is a conceit. Most people think that they generate their own ideas, but the truth is that most of their ideas are prepared by others who think for them.
It is important to note that those who feel that their place in society depends on their beliefs do not think for themselves. They do not form their own ideas. They scour social media, trying to find out what they should be thinking.
Society’s elites are not helping to solve the problem. When Kaplan derides the jet-setting elites for failing to belong to one or another culture, he is is saying that these elites are telling people that it is impossible for people to get along with each other. When we say that they are jet-setters we are implying that they are above everyone else. By suggesting that socializing with the hoi polloi is not worth the trouble, they are telling people not to bother.
The jet-age elites are of little help in translating or alleviating any of this. Cosmopolitan, increasingly denationalized, ever less bound to territory or parochial affinities, the elites revel in the overflow of information that they process through 24/7 multi-tasking. Every one of them is just so brilliant! They can analyze everything while they believe in nothing, and have increasingly less loyalty to the countries whose passports they hold. This deracination renders them wholly disconnected from the so-called unwashed masses, whose upheavals and yearnings for a new totality, a new catechism, in order to fill the emptiness and loneliness in their souls, regularly surprise and shock them.
What is happening today in the Arab world is not really the same as what is happening in the industrialized world. The Middle East is falling apart because it failed to modernize, failed to adopt free enterprise solutions to its economic problems and failed to function according to the rules and norms of a liberal democracy.
For his part, Kaplan sees an analogy:
This is to say nothing of the sense of personal alienation and loneliness that even people in these underdeveloped societies have experienced, thanks to the postmodern, technological condition we all labor under. Add to the mix the alienation of being a young, unemployed Muslim male in Europe, unable to marry, and it becomes actually easy to fathom the psychology of recruits to the Islamic State. After all, sexual frustration can be appeased much more easily by a totalizing ideology than by being able to vote once every few years in an election.
Of course, sexual frustration is also appeased by having sex slaves and by raping European women. I do not believe that those who belong to underdeveloped societies feel the same anomie as an American college student. Young Muslims in Europe and beyond seem to have suffered a cultural deformation that has rendered them incapable of adapting to the modern world. It will take more than opportunity to save them from the morass.
If they are drawn to totalizing ideologies, the reason is, as David Goldman has noted, that their civilization is dying. It has failed. They are afraid to abandon it and are unwilling to replace it. Thus, they engage in an activity that we might well call deconstruction, the sort advocated by Hannah Arendt’s lover, Martin Heidegger and his acolytes.
In the hands of the German SA and the SS, deconstruction was a fancy term for pogrom. When another culture has beaten yours, you can either build up your own to compete more effectively or you can try to destroy what your neighbor built. People who refuse to emulate their betters might very well try to destroy the culture that their betters have built.
Such is the issue in the Middle East, where Israel’s neighbors take its success to be the problem. They would do better to see Israel as a beacon showing them the way to improve their societies and their living conditions.
Now, however, many of these people do not know how to deal with the shame they feel when they see how Israelis live. They believe that Israeli success shows them to be failures and they believe that they must destroy it to restore their self-esteem. After all, this is a culture that believes that best way to restore family honor when a teenage daughter is caught holding hands with a boy is to murder her. They hold to fanatical beliefs, not because they do not feel connected to others within their community, but because the world seems to have passed them by. They cannot accept that their culture and their religion need a serious reformation.