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The Dangerous Radicalism of Longing
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The Dangerous Radicalism of Longing

Missing what we’ve never had creates a powerful push for cheap substitutes.

(via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (including those of you who were right about the deep state all along),

In a recent episode of Daryl Dixon, the new Walking Dead spinoff, Daryl says, “You can’t miss what you never had.” And for some reason I keep thinking about it. 

According to the internet, this is originally a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though I suspect someone said it before him. This is one of those sayings that sounds profound and wise but isn’t actually true. Or at least to the extent it’s true, it really depends on context and the definitions of “can’t” and “miss.”

I think an enormous number of our problems come from people who miss things they never had. Just off the top of my head: Palestinians miss having a viable country, but have never had one. Lots of people who grew up without siblings, or fathers, or best friends miss having such people in their lives a great deal. People who had bad experiences in high school, or who never went to college, miss things they never had. 

Maybe this helps explain why I say the definitions of “can’t” and “miss” are important here. For the sorts of people described above, missing what you didn’t have is a kind of longing. And people in fact do and can have such longings. “Missing,” it seems, conveys a statement of fact. You actually had something and lost it. “I had a brother. He’s gone. I miss him.” That’s a different statement than “I always wished I had a brother.”

Regardless, such desires are very, very, common. Regret—a good word for combining both “miss” and “longing”—over what might have been, what was lost, or what you never had is one of the most powerful human emotions and one of the greatest drivers of despair. Such feelings are also one of the most powerful motivations for human action. 

The first nationalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were full of longing for a nation that had never actually existed. Sometimes they invented an ancient past of national identity and claimed they were seeking to restore what was lost to the Romans or some other conquerors. 

The romantics, who helped create nationalism, played similar games. The idea of the “noble savage” was essentially a kind of unscientific science fiction. It was based on ideas that had no actual basis in anthropological or sociological fact. But it did have a good deal of theological support. Man, before the fall, lived in happy ignorance and harmony with nature. Knowledge or technology or modernity ripped us out of this blissful state. All that was required to return to it was the will to return to it. 

I think that in a very fundamental—and very oversimplified—way, all radicalism stems from these kinds of longings. Karl Marx was very much a romantic, and his vision for the end of history looked very much like Rousseau’s vision of the beginning of history. Once all class consciousness was swept away, once the economic aristocracy was toppled or liquidated, everybody would be able to live in an unconstrained state of natural bliss and autonomy. The Marx-influenced radicals pushing for “national liberation” in the 20th century were not as fully utopian, but they believed that all of the suffering and inequities of their lives could be erased with a cleansing purge of imperial control. The Islamic radicals of Iran and elsewhere believed that all that was required to live in spiritual harmony and happiness was to remove the decadent bulwarks of “Western” liberalism, religious pluralism, secularism, capitalism, etc. 

None of these stories ended well, and many ended horribly. 

But the radicalism such desires can inspire aren’t the problem with missing what you never had. 

Some of you probably remember “The Life of Julia.” This was a weird video ad put out by the Obama campaign. I was one of those conservatives who had a lot of fun at Julia’s expense. The gist was that at every stage of Julia’s life—or at least the stages the campaign thought were worth mentioning—Barack Obama and, by extension, the federal government were there to provide for her. When she needed a small business loan, “under President Obama” Julia got one. At retirement, thanks again to Barack Obama, she gets enough money from the state to volunteer in a community garden. One of the creepiest statements of any campaign material I’ve ever seen was “Under President Obama: Julia decides to have a child.”

Why the trip down memory lane? Because nowhere in the “Life of Julia” were there parents, or a husband, or anyone other than the benevolent presence of Barack Obama and the munificent federal government. 

This is the kind of vision one gets when people miss what they didn’t have. For years, I’ve been bugging my wife to write a book, My Husband, the State. The admittedly provocative (and Nockian) title reflects a very real dynamic in American life. As families shrink or break down, as the sinew of local communities breaks down, the government is seen as a necessary substitute. No, I don’t think all women should stay at home and rely on their parents or husbands as providers and breadwinners. But in a society where so many biological fathers have little desire to be real fathers or actual husbands, the demand for the state to compensate for what’s missing increases. 

This isn’t just a point about the growth of the welfare state or those darn progressives. It’s just one example of how people miss what they never had—fathers, husbands, healthy families and communities—and look for cheap substitutes for them. As I’ve been saying forever, “The government can’t love you.” But when you lack people who love you, when you lack a sense of community, the hunger remains and you pursue whatever you think might satisfy it. 

Another form of longing drives this tendency: nostalgia, which might be the best rebuttal to the claim, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces in politics and life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t prone to it. Nostalgia is a neologism coined by a Swiss medical student to describe the melancholy (a medical term back then) felt by Swiss mercenaries who fought far from home. It’s a mashup of sorrow or despair and “homecoming.” It’s come to mean homesickness for the past. 

The problem with nostalgia, at least in politics and economics, is that it is a highly selective remembering—and misremembering—of the past. We tend not only to emphasize the good stuff and forget the bad stuff, we exaggerate the good stuff beyond reality. This has always been my problem with “Make America Great Again.” It’s a nostalgia-soaked misdiagnosis of the past that tells people they can have what they miss but never had, at least not in the way they remember it. 

In 2016, one of the key tenets of the MAGA crowd was that crime was worse than ever. At the time, this was untrue (though crime was indeed on the rise). Crime has gotten worse in some important respects since then, and it is a very serious problem today regardless of how it compares to cherry-picked moments from the past. Still, if you talk to a lot of people, you’d think it was worse than ever. It’s not. 

In June, a poll found that a majority of Americans—and a supermajority of Republicans—believed that things were better 50 years ago. I noted at the time:

I look fondly at my 1970s childhood, but it would be ludicrous for me to think such fondness was proof the country was doing better. When Americans say things were better 50 years ago, do they mean the runaway “stagflation”—high inflation plus low growth? The lines to buy gas? The Vietnam War? Watergate?

We hear a lot about rising crime these days. It’s a legitimate issue, but perhaps we’re nostalgic for the 1970s and 1980s not just because crime gets so much coverage but also because we’ve memory-holed the fact that crime was so much worse (maybe the lead poisoning from those days caused amnesia?). Violent crime exploded in those decades and has been trending mostly downward since 1993. In an 18-month period from 1971-1972, according to the FBI, there was an average of five terrorist bombings per day. In 1976, an FBI spokesman described San Francisco as the “Belfast of North America.”

Now, none of this is to say that America is doing great. In some ways, things are much worse than 50 years ago. In other ways things are much, much, better. I’ll spare you all the statistics for either case. The important point is that whether things are worse than some point in the past is in many respects irrelevant. Oh sure, it matters insofar as data about trends is a useful way of identifying and dealing with problems. But nostalgia never has much use for data.  

I think many of the things driving our problems have to do with people missing things they never had. Suicides are acts of despair. In Christian teaching, despair is a sin because it is a rejection of the idea that one can be saved or redeemed. I certainly think that the decline in religion—and religious conviction—is part of the rise in suicides and deaths of despair. But it’s also the result of people losing human connections with friends, family, community, etc. Teen depression and suicide is driven in part by “FOMO”—fear of missing out. Kids see other people being happy with others and they despair for what they lack. Social media fuels this, because a lot of social media amounts to a vast envy machine. As Montesquieu said, “If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.”

The rush to mass politics—rallies, protests, populist exhortations of the left and the right—can be understood at least in part as a desire to create a sense of community in angry politics for people who miss a healthy sense of community in the real world. For others, the seduction of crowds is a hunger for transcendence. Getting swept up in a group can be ecstatic, temporarily filling the hole in your soul. But such transcendence is temporary, addictive, and prone to corruption. Belonging to the group becomes more important than the reason the group was created in the first place. 

A lot of people who talk about a “crisis of meaning” do so as part of a project to restore one -ism or another. Nationalism will fix it. No, religion will. No, socialism is the key. Not all of these arguments are wrong in every regard, but what gets lost in an effort to provide new sources of meaning to replace the old ones is that the new ones are often artificial. 

I had two great conversations on The Remnant this week with David Brooks and Dan Senor. David made the case that people need a reason to get out of bed. He quoted Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” The point is people can handle, even thrive, under a huge amount of suffering or simple inconvenience if there is some greater purpose or point to it. And that purpose or point is usually in service to others. Religion opens a path to such service. Nationalism can too. I’d argue that top-down socialism really can’t because the bureaucratized nanny state is designed to remove face-to-face service. But that’s an argument for another day. Suffice it to say that the struggle for socialism has long been a very seductive source of meaning on the cheap. But your kids, your spouse, your friends, can be a reason to get out of bed too. 

Meanwhile, Dan made a very similar point about Israel. Israeli nationalism—i.e. the organic, theological, and philosophical connection to the survival and success of Israel—is a reason for people to get out of bed. The state infrastructure of Israel is actually pretty weak and dysfunctional, but the social solidarity of Israel is incredibly strong. The state doesn’t manufacture social solidarity, social solidarity keeps the state from collapsing. There is no crisis of meaning in Israel. 

There is one here in America. I don’t think it has very much to do with the lack of social services or income inequality or any of that stuff. It has to do with the fact that in myriad ways lots of people are missing what they never had. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So Zoë and Gracie continue their dance for alpha status. Basically every time Zoë gets out of the chair next to me, Gracie moves in and demands attention. This outrages Zoë, who doesn’t understand that she can’t call shotgun for eternity. So she starts yelling at me. Meanwhile, Pippa got a new haircut this week. I think she looks fabulous. She was very cross with me for leaving town for The Dispatch meet-up in NYC. But I’ve been trying to make it up to her. She’s also been more worried about the eternal threat of mean dogs. Don’t know what to do about that. People keep asking about Zoë’s lipoma bulge. It really bothers us too, but it doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. And two different vets have told us that removing it is a much bigger risk than leaving it alone. Chester continues to lie about how he has no felonious or sinister intent when he tries to get into the house. We’re not buying it. But the Fair Jessica does give him treats every day, which of course perpetuates the cycle. The girls do love the fall. 

Jake Tapper’s “Home for Our Troops” charity drive is upon us, and you can bid to have lunch with me. It’s a crazy price, if you ask me. But it’s for a good cause. 

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.