324 Untethered Minds

As a  prototypical, optimistic “progressive,” believing the world was getting better and better, and after devoting his life to celebrating biological and societal evolution, H.G Wells in 1945 wrote a final, deeply pessimistic book, entitled A Mind at the End of Its Tether, sorrowing that everything seemed to be flying apart and nothing made sense.  A few years earlier the great Irish poet, E.B. Yeats had written an equally doleful poem, “The Second Coming,” lamenting the shape of things to come:  

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loose upon the world;
The blood-limned hoard is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Such passionate intensity is routinely visible in today’s campus protests, fueled by angry, profanity-spouting youngsters determined to prohibit controversial speakers from speaking.  Sure enough:  “Mere anarchy is loose upon the world”!  Their adolescent incoherence is thoughtfully analyzed by Mary Eberstadt in Primal Screams:  How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (West Conchohocken, PA:  Templeton Press, c. 2019).  Screaming youngsters, she insists, are indirectly asking a deeply personal and unanswered if perennial question:  Who Am I?  In the past, living in families and surrounded by stable communities, answering that question was relatively simple.  (For example, I could say I am my father’s son, reared on the high plains, and immersed in the life of a local Church of the Nazarene.)  Today, however, increasing numbers of folks cannot really find roots in such communities and turn to various groups wherein they seek to anchor their identities.  When this turn takes on political dimensions, they embrace “the desires and agendas” of aggrieved factions, providing a base whereby “human beings outside those chosen factions are treated ore and more not as fellow citizens, but as enemies to be eliminated by shame, intimidation, and, where possible, legal punishment” (p. 7). 

Allen Bloom had earlier discerned this development in his widely-discussed The Closing of the American Mind, wherein he described students as reared in accord with Rousseau’s prescriptions in Emile, “in the absence of any organic relation between husbands and wives and parents and children.”  Consequently, Bloom said:  “That is it.  Everyone has ‘his own little separate system.’  The aptest description I can find for the state of student’s souls is the psychology of separateness.”  Bloom blamed divorce as the primary reason for such separateness.  Now, thirty years later we must factor in the astonishing increase of out-of-wedlock births, all together resulting in what Eberstadt calls “The Great Scattering.”  Fractured families frequently mean not only missing fathers but fewer (if any) siblings and cousins and grandparents who are part of one’s life.  Still more (a point made in Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God):  youngsters without stable families have difficulty believing in and worshipping God.  Without family or faith to tether them to abiding realities, growing numbers of people seek to find their identity in self-selected groups.

Thus we witness the emergence of “identity politics.”  To answer the question “Who Am I” when traditional ways have collapsed, millions of moderns have relapsed into “one of the most revealing features of identity:  its infantilized expression and vernacular” (p. 64).  To speak personally, I have been utterly perplexed while witnessing utterly irrational behavior on university campuses as well as committee meetings in Congress!  Allegedly educated persons are, in fact, screaming rather than speaking coherently.  There are now “safe spaces” as well as “tiny ersatz treehouse stuffed with candy, coloring books, and Care Bears” on the campuses of the nation’s most prestigious universities (p. 66).  Apparently taking their clues from university professors, thousands of alienated youngsters take solace in identity groups, including feminism, androgyny, the #MeToo movement, etc., etc.

“‘Destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals leads inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group.’ J. M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature has explained.  He was speaking of elephants, of course” (p. 103).  But it’s also true of humans.  Consequently:  “Identity politics is not so much politics as a primal scream.  It’s the result of the Great Scattering—our species’ unprecedented collective retreat from our very selves.”  Indeed:  “Anyone who has ever heard a coyote in the desert, separated at night from its pack, knows the sound.  The otherwise unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is nothing more, or less, that just that:  the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own” (p. 109).

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An important aspect of our current culture is diagnosed by Douglas Murray in The Madness of Crowds:  Race, Gender, Identity (London:  Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition, c. 2019), explaining that “we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed” (#36).   Consequently, “We are going through a great crowd derangement.  In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant” (#31).  As Yeats lamented, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  For many centuries the West was nourished by some “grand narratives,” including the heritage of the classical world of Greece and Rome as well as the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity.  For half-a-century now that story has been shunted aside in favor of a “new religion” best evident in various versions of “‘social justice’, ‘identity group politics’ and ‘intersectionalism’” (#60).  Consequently:  “identity politics” provides “the place where social justice finds its caucuses.  It atomizes society into different interest groups according to sex (or gender), race, sexual preference and more” (#66).  The identity groups Murray describes are gays, women, non-white races, and transsexuals.  Much of the book is devoted to detailing illustrations of these four groups, and anyone wanting a very up-to-date journalistic accounting of what’s taking places throughout our world can glean ample information from perusing its pages. 

But the real worth of The Madness of Crowds is the philosophical analysis Murray provides.  All these identity groups share common intellectual roots are manifestly Marxist (updated by fashionable, academic postmodernists such as Foucault and Gramsci) and feel they are engaged in a great class struggle.  There are the haves and the have-nots, but today’s exploiters are not so much capitalists as patriarchs.  So:  “At the top of the hierarchy are people who are white, male and heterosexual.  They do not need to be rich, but matters are made worse if they are.  Beneath these tyrannical male overlords are all the minorities: most noticeably the gays, anyone who isn’t white, people who are women and also people who are trans.  These individuals are kept down, oppressed, sidelined and otherwise made insignificant by the white, patriarchal, heterosexual, ‘cis’ system.  Just as Marxism was meant to free the labourer and share the wealth around, so in this new version of an old claim, the power of the patriarchal white males must be taken away and shared around more fairly with the relevant minority groups” #975).   Thus when we hear about “toxic masculinity” or “white privilege” or “rape culture” we need to remember such slogans are all lethal weapons in our  cultural war. 

Many of these phrases are manifestly nothing more than phrases or slogans which frequently contradict each other.  But “Marxists have always rushed towards contradiction. The Hegelian dialectic only advances by means of contradiction and therefore all the complexities – one might say absurdities – met along the way are welcomed and almost embraced as though they were helpful, rather than troubling, to the cause” (p. 1099).  To those of us perplexed by declarations of men claiming they are women—as irrational as any statement could possibly be—the cultural Marxists simply dismiss us a “logocentric” (e.e. thinking logically).  This, as Stephen Pinker (a Harvard psychologist) “wrote in 2002, ‘Many writers are so desperate to discredit any suggestion of an innate human constitution that they have thrown logic and civility out the window . . . The analysis of ideas is commonly replaced by political smears and personal attacks . . . The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense.’  Of course it had.  . . . . The purpose had instead become the creation, nurture and propagandization of a particular, and peculiar, brand of politics. The purpose was not academia, but activism” (#1119).

This essentially Marxist narrative has been recently amplified, Murray argues, by the social media.  In literally the blink of the eye the world has been transformed by “a communications revolution so huge that it may yet make the invention of the printing press look like a footnote in history” (#2030).  Thoughtful books and wisely-edited newspapers have smaller audiences today, for “twitter” and “facebook” postings have superseded them.  “It is there that assumptions are embedded.  It is there that attempts to weigh up facts can be repackaged as moral transgressions or even acts of violence” and enables anyone “to address everything, including every grievance.  And it does so while encouraging people to focus almost limitlessly upon themselves – something which users of social media do not always need to be encouraged to do” (#2056). 

And not only can one say anything about anything—everything he he has ever sent into cyberspace is forever there.  Using words or espousing positions which were once quite acceptable may be used to assail folks.  Something one may have tweeted a decade ago as an adolescent can be uncovered and weaponized to destroy him through excoriation and “public shaming.”  Social media “appears able to cause catastrophes but not to heal them, to wound but not to remedy” (#3280).   Especially absent is any possibility of forgiveness.  We face “the question that the internet age has still not begun to contend with:  how, if ever, is our age able to forgive?  Since everybody errs in the course of their life there must be – in any healthy person or society – some capacity to be forgiven.  Part of forgiveness is the ability to forget.  And yet the internet will never forget” (#3320).  Even the words of one’s father may be resurrected to punish a person, as the British race car driver Conor Daly found out when he lost a sponsorship when it was discovered that 10 years before he was born his father gave a radio interview and used a racially inappropriate word.

To cope with the madness of crowds, more common sense reasoning,  such as Murray provides, must be recovered in all segments of our society.

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A significant and largely unintended consequence of the sexual revolution is elucidated in Warren Farrell and John Gray in The Boy Crisis:  Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It (Dallas, TX:  BenBella Books, Inc., c. 2018; Kindle Edition.)  Older men, such as myself, grew up in a time when “masculinity came with a built-in sense of purpose of being the provider-protector (e.g., warrior; sole breadwinner)” (p. 10).  As boys we wanted to grow up and assume the responsibilities of mature adults.  We had good reason to be.  But young men today frequently fail to find it.

To prove there is in fact a crisis Farrell considers boys’ mental, physical and economic health as well as their educational success.   Men kill other men and themselves far more frequently than do their female counterparts.  Indeed, the data are depressing!  Though “only 6 percent of the overall population, black males make up 43 percent of murder victims.   More black boys between ten and twenty are killed by homicide than by the next nine leading causes of death combined” (p. 16).  As many white men have killed themselves as have died of AIDS.  As soon as they enter puberty, boys turn suicidal:  “between ten and fourteen, boys commit suicide at almost twice the rate of girls.  Between fifteen and nineteen, boys commit suicide at four times the rate of girls; and between twenty and twenty-four, the rate of male suicide is between five and six times that of females” (p. 16).  Indeed, “the male-female suicide gap in the United States has tripled since the Great Depression” (p. 273).  “Women cry, men die!”  Men also go to jail in alarming numbers and “93 percent are male and are disproportionately young” (p. 18).

Though women were in the distant past called the “weaker” sex, that is certainly not true if one considers longevity as a marker of physical well-being, for men and boys are twice as likely to die as their female counterparts of the same age, making for “a greater life-expectancy gap than at any time since World War II” (p. 20).  Indeed:  “Being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death,” says Randolph Nesse, Director of the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University (p. 20).  Young men are alarmingly overweight and unfit.  As another indicator of physical well-being, an alarming decline of sperm count has been tracked by researchers.  “Boys today have sperm counts less than half of what their grandfathers had at the same age” (p. 20). Economically, the picture is equally drear, especially for men who don’t go to college.  “Over the last forty years, the median annual earnings of a boy with just a high school diploma dropped 26 percent.”  He is 20 percent more likely to be unemployed for significant times.  And if a young man lives “in an urban area, he’ll likely live in one of the 147 US cities in which young women under thirty haven’t just caught up to their male peers, but now outearn them (by an average of 8 percent)” (p. 26).  If he had a university degree things would be different, of course, but many men are failing to pursue higher education. 

“Worldwide, reading and writing skills are the two biggest predictors of success. These are also the two areas in which boys fall the most behind girls.  In the United States, by eighth grade, 41 percent of girls are at least ‘proficient’ in writing, while only 20 percent of boys are.  Many boys used to ‘turn around’ in about their junior or senior year of high school.  Anticipating the need to become sole breadwinner, and therefore gain familial pride, peer respect, and female love, they got their act together.  The expectation of becoming sole breadwinner became his purpose.  No longer.  In one generation, young men have gone from 61 percent of college degree recipients to a projected 39 percent; young women, from 39 percent to a projected 61 percent” (p. 28).  And these well-educated young women almost always refuse to consider lesser educated men as potential husbands!

Digging more deeply into the boy crisis, Farrell identifies a lack of purpose as one of its primary reasons.  “The Japanese call it ikigai, or ‘a reason for being.’  Japanese men with ikigai are less likely to die of heart disease.  And both sexes with ikigai live longer.   Whether we call it ikigai or sense of purpose, when we pursue what we believe gives life meaning, it gives us life.  Historically, a boy’s journey to prove himself is what gave him that sense of purpose” (p. 46).  To protect and provide for his wife and family have, throughout human history, given men ikigai.  But today, in Japan as well as much of the modern world, boys struggle to find it.  Much of this results from men being less and less needed to provide food and shelter for their families.  They also have far fewer heroes to emulate.  “What is a hero?  The word hero derives from the root ser, from which we also get the word “servant” (think “public servant”), as well as slave, and protector.  In Japan and China, the word samurai also derives from the word for servant, saburai.  Billions of boys throughout history have embraced the opportunity to serve and to protect in the hope of being labeled a hero or samurai.  Though the fiercer the enemy, the greater their chance of death, boys were willing to exchange their lives for the label.  They were, in a sense, slaves to the potential honor they might receive if they served and protected their families, villages, or countries” (p. 62).  Occasionally our youngsters see such heroes in action.  Consider the first responders on 9/11—99% were males!  In fact 76% of the firefighters in the country are volunteers, virtually 100% men!  So there are heroes in our midst, but too often young boys are fed anti-hero messages in feminist-run schools and popular culture. 

Thus parents need to strategically prepare their sons for adulthood, and that requires preparing them for employment in our digital age.  If they do well in school, opportunities abound for them if they persevere and find a well-paying slot in the economy.  If they’re not academically-inclined, it’s important to help them train for well-paying blue collar jobs—welders, plumbers, etc.  Participating in athletics is often crucial in helping boys become men.  Farrell provides lots of practical tips for parents (and grandparents) wanting to help their boys mature.  Above all, in a culture celebrating instant gratification and victimization:  “The discipline of postponing gratification is the single most important discipline your son needs” (p. 98).   But practical advice may mean little unless we face “the most important single crisis in developed countries:  dad-deprived children, and especially dad-deprived boys” (p. 102).  Boys reared without an attentive father are inevitably harmed.  If their dads dies, boys do OK, for they have memories of good men.  But when they lose their dads through divorce or never even know them because they were born out-of-wedlock, their stories frequently end poorly.  For those concerned, Farrell provides an appendix listing “some seventy ways that children benefit from significant father involvement—or put another way, seventy-plus ways in which dad-deprived children are more likely to suffer” (p. 117).  They are more likely to fail in school, to join gangs, to go to prison, to lapse into various addictions, to fail in marriage.  To cite only one painful fact:  “Prisons are the United States’ men’s centers (93 percent male).  A staggering 85 percent of youths in prison grew up in a fatherless home.  More precisely, prisons are centers for dad-deprived males—boys who never became men” (p. 120).  In short:  boys without dads do poorly!

But Farrell does more than alert us to problems.  He sets forth quite detailed ways in which dads can help rear healthy boys.  Simply being present in a boy’s life is hugely significant.  Merely interacting with a father boosts a boy’s IQ, strengthens his ability to trust others, reduces aggressive behavior, and enables him to rightly develop.  Stepfathers, unfortunately, have less (if any) positive influence.  Nor do same-sex parents!  Only biological fathers can do the crucial role of fathering.  Added to being present, good dads should preside over routine family dinners—a remarkably important ritual for children.  They can also enforce behavioral boundaries, whereas moms often set but fail to enforce them.  “One boy half-joked, ‘My mom warns and warns; it’s like she ‘cries wolf.’  My dad gives us one warning, and then he becomes the wolf” (p. 136).  Still another illustration:  women are more likely than men to give underage teenagers alcohol, admitting “that their desire to please trumped what they knew was right” (p. 140).  Dads normally roughhouse with and tease their kids—teaching them important lessons never derived from a woman.  They can lead them on wilderness excursions, camping trips, adventures of various sorts demonstrably valuable for youngsters.  They challenge their kids to accomplish things (whether in sports or school) and allow them to deal with defeats.

Farrell devotes many pages to the problem of divorce—and to ways to cope with it.  He also suggests legal changes to better enable men to be better fathers.  But the main message of The Boy Crisis is just that:  it’s a crisis and it’s devastating our culture.  Though wildly overstating the case, Jed Diamond claims:  “The Boy Crisis is the most important book of the 21st century.  Farrell and Gray are absolutely brilliant,” showing “why our sons are failing.”  Indeed:  ‘If you care about the very survival of humankind, you must read this book.”