Catching up with some items that I’ve set aside for comment, I was struck by the relevance of the January edition of R.R. Reno’s “The Public Square” column in First Things magazine:
Plenty of commentators have linked the two. Few, however, will entertain the thought that the entire West shares a common metaphysical vacuum—“the cult of the individual,” or, as I have put it, a materialism that disenchants. Nor has our chattering class noticed that the working class in New Hampshire and elsewhere now features social pathologies akin to those that nearly shipwrecked Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when alcoholism was rampant and life expectancies plunged. Someone unaware of twentieth-century history who visits an old steel town like Steubenville, Ohio, would have to assume either that America had lost a major war and suffers the burden of onerous reparations—or that is beholden to a particularly brutal and inhuman ideology. …
… Ethnic solidarity, patriotic loyalty, and a certain thrill in being able to come together to put a stick in the eye of remote and condescending elites—these are unstable and dangerous impulses. Yet they are also embers of love’s desire for something higher than self-interest. …
… Today’s populism must be anchored in a renewal of marriage and family. The lonely, atomized, homeless man—in this instance, especially the male—is more likely to rally behind the cruel gods of Blood and Soil than someone embedded in a network of familial relations and responsibilities. More important still, the growing desire for a return of the strong gods must be purified by a greater, supernatural desire for God, the one in whom alone we can find our true home.
One interesting question that arises from this perspective, if correct, is whether ethnic identity politics, including white supremacism, are different in kind than in the past. After all, the racialism of the past existed at a time when people led more-traditional lives, including their participation and, moreover, was intimately bound up with the notion of marriage, family, and the racial purity thereof. If the racial focus of today emanates from “the lonely, atomized, homeless man,” then it would seem some other mechanism must have produced the racial focus of those whose lives answered Reno’s vision of the cure, at least superficially.
At some level of analysis, that is certainly true, but at another level, the atomized individual is little more than a distillation of the same conceit that brought the bigotries of the past. That “lonely man” in fact has nothing connecting him to a family, a community, or God, but in the past, all of those other things were merely components of himself. The purity of the family’s blood and the community’s identity were part of his own purity and identity, to be proven, perhaps, to a distorted vision of God or perhaps merely to himself.
The solution, therefore, is not merely “a renewal of marriage and family,” but a vision of marriage and family founded in equality and mutual respect — a structure, that is, that binds the individual in the concentric circles of a familial and community network in which the individual neither takes the group to define him or her nor gives him or her self over entirely to the definition of the group. If in the past our society needed a greater sense of the equality of individuals, what’s needed now is a grounding of our equality in something more substantial than either individuality or ethnicity.