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Man Needs Sex and Violence, Not Top-Down "Meaning"
Elites are Miserable, Normies are Fine, and the 1990s as a Respite from Intellectuals
Although I’m extremely happy with how things have turned out, in many ways I never felt more alive than I did as a teenager and young adult. Until I was around 16 or so, I would sometimes get into fistfights. Not every day; depending on what you count as a real fight, it was just under or over 5. I remember when I was 15 getting into it with a kid who was a few years younger but had boxed competitively, and him punching me one time after another until my face was bloody and bruised. He stopped the fight, as he’d gotten tired of punching me before I’d gotten tired of getting hit, which impressed everyone watching. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Me and the boxer became friends after that (last I heard he had impregnated some black girl in Chicago).
Today, I have a fulfilling personal life and successful “career,” or whatever this is. But I still find myself trying to recapture some of the excitement I felt while growing up. I do this in part by trolling, or just being honest about my opinions, which often amounts to the same thing. Getting people mad at my views on euthanasia or the impact of women in academia adds a bit of thrill to a life that is mostly satisfying but still lacking in the excitement one finds on the highest planes of human existence, which for a man is a life full of the realistic possibility of violence and sex (with new people, not marriage). I rely on my Twitter followers for rides to and from airports, and one of them recently suggested I take up jujitsu, so maybe that will fill the void at some point, although it’s hard to find the time.
I thought about all this when reading Ross Douthat’s recent article “Hootie and the Blowfish and the End of History.”
It’s not joy at the end of history, exactly, that defines the Hootie-DMB-Counting Crows aesthetic, but maybe it’s what you might call a sense that ordinary life suffices (a key stabilizing sentiment for a liberal society). That you can have a rich human experience, full of joys and sorrows, without the extreme premodern or 20th-century stuff, war and God and utopia and all the rest. (And without racial division, too: The multiracial makeup of the Dave Matthews Band and Hootie and the Blowfish is also important here.) That you can be a fulfilled human person just through the highs and lows of normal-seeming suburban American life. That tropes of early-adult male heterosexual experience like “the yearning to be famous” or “the awesome girl who lets you down” or just “hanging out with your friends and feeling a little sorry for yourself” are all sufficient as grist for the strong feelings that make up an interesting life. And that when those feelings get you down, you can be depressed in a way that’s personal rather than existential, that’s just about you rather than about everything that’s wrong with life under late capitalism or whatever.
This speaks to me. Douthat might’ve added that in the 1980s and 1990s, a common trope in movies and film would be a young boy getting beaten up by a bully, and the point was he was supposed to learn to fight back. Even if he didn’t win, he’d respect himself and others would respect him for overcoming his fear. My fight mentioned above was actually the third in a series with the same guy, with me having decisively lost the first and won the second. I think a good cultural script is sex and violence when you’re young, and then marriage and children when older. You’ll never have the time or energy for spiritual angst. Again, at least for men. Women are more complicated, and too different for me to say I have much insight about what makes them happy given how much emphasis I put on personal experience, so keep that in mind throughout this essay.
For most people, not much has changed since the 1990s, and it’s still true that, in Douthat’s words, “ordinary life is enough.” Despite what you’ve heard from woke lunatics or New Right types, Americans are not drowning in existential despair. Here’s Gallup’s survey of American happiness from 1949 to 2019.
It’s not hard to guess what happened here. For all the political and social developments since the 1950s, you don’t see much of a change in happiness until masks and lockdowns. If most people think ordinary life is enough, there wasn’t much elites could do to take away people’s happiness until they shut down ordinary life. Nonetheless, humans are resilient, and mental health indicators across the world rebounded as pandemic restrictions were relaxed.
Of course, society still has problems. Deaths of despair are killing a lot of people, but can to a large extent be explained by the increasing availability of pain medication. Opiates feel great, and some people can’t control themselves. One doesn’t need a special theory about societal decline or a lack of meaning to explain this. Social media arguably has not been great for young girls. But overall, there is little to justify the doom and gloom that has become a staple of American art and intellectual life over the last two decades.
Even the recent rise in depression among teens and young adults appears to be overblown. In the media you see a lot of charts like this, showing increasing unhappiness between the early 1990s and the late 2010s.
But if you zoom out a little bit, things don’t look nearly as bad.
The fluctuations are small. Notice how the y-axis in the chart above appears to go from 1.95 to 2.13 on a five-point scale, which gives an exaggerated sense of how much things have changed. And the trends don’t indicate that as of 2017 or so we were in a particularly terrible time, even for teens, given that things were just as bad only a few decades before. This means that as far as we can tell most Americans are about as happy as they’ve always been, with the exception of young girls, who’ve only become about as unhappy as they were in the early 1990s. If you don’t trust survey data, one can look at suicide data for teens and young adults, which has the same u-shaped curve, being particularly bad three decades ago, then falling, and then increasing again throughout the 2010s. And recall it was the 1990s when the culture told us everything was fine! People who blame the internet for the rise of depression among young girls don’t really have a theory as to what went wrong in the early 1990s, and may simply be scapegoating new technology.
Maybe you don’t believe surveys. Such data is not perfect, but it’s probably the best we’ve got if we’re going to compare eras. The happiness research passes a lot of common sense tests that could theoretically falsify it. For example, google searches for terms related to depression appear to correlate well with happiness data and hospital visits for suicide attempts (but see here). People report being happier living in rich countries people want to move to and less happy in countries people are trying to get out of. And so on. Analysts can of course find shortcomings in the data, but I have not seen anyone present better ways to compare subjective states of well-being across different times and countries.
Why So Negative?
We have something of a paradox here, in which Americans seem fine by historical standards, while cultural taste-makers and narrative-builders are increasingly pessimistic. I don’t know how much quantitative evidence one needs for the latter claim, as it seems self-evident to me based on personal experience as a consumer of news and culture. But if it’s not obvious to you, news headlines denoting negative emotions such as anger and fear have skyrocketed since the 1990s and early aughts. Pop music has also gotten sadder and angrier, though here the trend goes back longer.
While there hasn’t been much change in how happy Americans are, we do see declining trust in institutions and more negativity about government. Sometimes this is taken as a crisis in and of itself, but it doesn’t have to be, given how little of a role politics plays in the lives of most Americans. This data may simply reflect negativity in news coverage. It’s sort of like how people often express positive sentiments about their own economic situation but feel negatively about the state of the economy or see it through a partisan lens. Individuals have direct experience with their own finances, but “the economy” is an abstraction they hear about on TV. As of 2022, 82% of Americans expressed that they were satisfied with their personal lives, compared to 17% who felt the same way about the country.
So why are intellectuals so miserable, therefore spreading so much negativity about American life and institutions? As with teen depression, the growth of the internet and social media seems like an obvious culprit, and here the evidence is better. Matt Yglesias writes about his experience founding Vox.
I think it’s very under-appreciated by people in the technology industry that most of the media trends they deplore are direct consequences of Facebook’s influence over journalism in the mid-2010s. The huge shift in media sensibility that happened during this time was absolutely not what editors and senior figures in the industry wanted to see. Even in retrospect I don’t really understand why this was the case, but objectively speaking, hard-core identity politics and simplistic socialism performed incredibly well on Facebook during this period. That doesn’t mean journalists started pretending to be left-wing to get clicks. But people who had some authentic left-wing opinions found that writing on the subjects where they were the most left tended to generate the most traffic, and early career journalists with authentic leftist views outperformed their colleagues. So you ended up with this whole cohort of discourse structured around “Is Bernie Sanders perfect in every way or is it problematic to vote for a white man?” as the only possible lens for examining American politics and society.
The use of big data often makes products, services, and even how people play games more efficient. When I was a kid, a “sports analyst” was someone who said stuff like “Johnson helped them win tonight because he just wanted it more than anyone else on the field.” Scouts, general managers, and coaches were pretty much winging it. Today, analytics has changed how sports are played and understood, which is why you see more three-pointers and home runs. One can understand what has happened with news in the same way. Instead of some editor sitting around and just deciding what people probably want to read based on his relatively refined interests and taste, he now has data at his fingertips showing that an article about Thanksgiving being racist outperforms reporting on the federal budget.
The news media has a downstream effect on the rest of the culture, but it mostly has an effect on people in the industry. Journalists are probably the largest consumers of journalism. One would expect the turn towards negativity in reporting to have a much larger impact on intellectuals than it does society as a whole, where most people pay relatively little attention to the world of ideas. This theory is consistent with the data showing that elites are highly pessimistic while Americans are not feeling that bad by historical standards.
The feminization of institutions also has a role to play. The concept doesn’t just encompass more female journalists, although that is part of it. It’s also changed the kind of man who can succeed in the field. Norman Mailer would regularly get into fistfights, including once when a young man told him his dog looked gay. Yale Law Professor Vicki Schultz writes about the “sanitized workplace,” arguing that sexual harassment law has become less worried about equality between men and women per se and instead has focused on seeing sex as a demonic force that has to be purged from working life. The kind of man who can check his heterosexuality at the door is going to be physiologically different from one who can’t, and HR has its strongest foothold in more established institutions. Increasing female representation along with civil rights law means we’re not only getting more women, but more feminized men. Among other traits, such individuals are higher on neuroticism, which shapes how they perceive and interpret the world.
I also think that the 1990s was a unique moment in history in that a lot of ideas that are bad for both mental health and societal functioning were clearly discredited. The time period saw not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the peak of the post-1960s dysfunction that ravaged American cities. In response, our politics became relatively sensible, with bipartisan consensuses in favor of things like free trade, welfare reform, and actually locking up criminals instead of coddling them. Real-world events discredited those who would argue for economic central planning or prioritizing reducing inequality over growth, in addition to root cause theories of crime. It was more obvious than it had been at perhaps any point in history that markets were the solution to poverty rather than the cause of it, and people are not poor because they’re oppressed but due to a mix of biological and cultural reasons that governments can’t easily fix.
The thing about more populist views on inequality and left-wing cultural stances is not only that they’re wrong and make for bad policy, but that there’s good reason to think that they make you miserable. This may be why liberals are less happy than conservatives, and I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that rates of depression in young people rose alongside the Great Awokening. Intellectuals didn’t in the 1990s become inspired by the magic of markets in the way their predecessors had fallen in love with central planning, but they were humbled and had less of a prominent role to play in shaping narratives about American life. And the demoralization of socialists and blank slaters allowed more space for ideas that had been considered heretical before and have regained that status since. This was the era of The Bell Curve getting a positive review in The New York Times (along with J. Philippe Rushton!!).
To move away from this optimism, all that was needed was the passage of time. Today, the collapse of the Soviet Union is in the public imagination generally seen as a triumph of democracy over dictatorship, to the extent it’s remembered at all. Despite the Cold War having been more recent, it today doesn’t have the emotional salience of World War II or the Civil War, which are understood as battles against white racism, perhaps the only absolute evil in this world. Intellectuals at one point sympathized with the Soviet Union, and when that became impossible, the Cold War turned into a battle over freedom rather than an empirical dispute about the best way to organize an economy that ended with conservatives being right and liberals being wrong.
As for the Great Society, in the 1990s there were still people old enough to remember when American cities were not warzones with murder rates approaching numbers only seen in some of the most violent countries in the world. Americans of the last few generations take it for granted that large portions of major cities aren’t places you can feel safe in at night, and so we don’t compare the state of our urban areas to what they were like before the Johnson administration and the Warren Court, but rather pay attention to relatively small trends in crime over much shorter time periods. In the 2010s, people could plausibly think that taking a stand against racism and seeking to de-bias institutions were how to fix the problems of our inner cities, in the genuine belief that such things had never been tried before.
Do Individuals Need Religion? Does Society?
Left-wing institutions have become woke, and the wokes have a story to tell. They can’t plausibly argue that we’ve become more racist and sexist over the last few decades, so they justify increasing negativity by arguing that we’re finally dealing honestly with problems we’ve always had.
Conservatives increasingly seem to agree with the left-wing premise that there is something terribly wrong with modern society, even if they point to different causes. As with the left, there’s the sense that the masses need something deeper and more important than what they have. Sometimes, wokeness itself is seen as the sign things have gone haywire, a tendency that, while it gets at something real and important, exaggerates the nature of the problem.
Charles Murray, for example, recently declared that religion is indispensable for a moral society. I see no indication of him actually being a religious believer. Rather, in the long tradition of secular conservatism, Murray thinks that religion is a social good, regardless of whether any particular faith is rooted in truth.
About a year or two ago, I think I would’ve agreed with this. Those of us opposed to wokeness see that society is getting more secular and becoming more PC. We see much of the resistance to the things we dislike coming from people of religious faith. It’s easy to therefore come to the conclusion that, whether or not one believes in the tenets of Christianity, society needs some kind of belief in the supernatural, or at least religious practice, to resist modern ugliness.
Is this true though? To determine whether society needs religion, one must differentiate between two theories:
Individuals need religion to live happy and fulfilling lives (individualist view)
Society needs religion to function well (social view)
Of course, the two arguments are related, since a society where most people live happy and fulfilling lives is likely to be one that functions well. Nonetheless, it’s possible to imagine religion making people happy as individuals but being correlated with negative outcomes in the aggregate, or that religion makes people miserable as individuals while being good for society. For that reason, it’s possible to separate the two theories and judge them independently.
Neither of these propositions has much empirical support as far as I can tell. A recent meta-analysis by David Bryce Yaden and three co-authors looked at 256 different studies of the relationship between five measures of religiosity and life satisfaction. The results are as follows. They find a weak but consistent positive relationship.
The average correlation of the 5 measures is 0.18, with a range spanning .11 for religious attendance to .30 for spirituality. These aren’t strong relationships. The results are consistent with previous meta-analyses.
And all of this is before publication bias. Check out the funnel graph from Yaden et al. below.
One can see that the smaller the sample size (higher standard error on the Y-axis), the stronger the correlation between measures of religiosity and life satisfaction. In plain English, this means that the already weak correlations are probably exaggerating the relationship. Finally, Yaden et al. find that the effects are even lower in developed countries, which implies that faith may be a crutch that people only need under difficult circumstances. Between the small effect sizes, the even smaller effects in rich countries, and likely publication bias, it seems that the best evidence suggests that there is practically no relationship between religious faith or practice and life satisfaction outside of the developing world.
One may also check whether secularization over the decades has made people less happy. There appears to be little evidence of that. Here is happiness across various European countries. All of them, I think, have experienced increasing secularization, and probably drop-offs in other things people consider central to meaning like pride in one’s country.
Another datapoint: atheist blogger Jerry Coyne put a helpful graph together showing the negative correlation between religiosity and happiness across different countries.
How about the collectivist view? Does religion make society function better, even, if one can’t find much in the way of positive effects at the individual level?
To the “Drag Queen Story Hour Conservative,” yes, because more religious societies prevent sexual perversion. But can a broader case be made that could convince those who don’t think transsexualism is the most important issue in the world?
One might start by pointing out that the most secular countries in the world are generally the most successful.
Of course, causation at least in part certainly goes in the other direction, as being richer makes you more secular. But it’s telling that there’s little indication that modern secular nations are falling apart. I understand that this might seem like a shocking claim to some people, and if you’re one of them, you’re probably spending too much time on Twitter getting angry at random nonsense that doesn’t matter. By historical standards, across the West, we see that growth is solid, crime is manageable practically everywhere outside the American inner city, people are happy, and there is no foreign actor that poses any serious threat to our safety or well-being.
The one place that the pro-meaning crowd may have a point is when it comes to birth rates. This is such an important topic that it probably deserves its own post at some point. For now, I’ll say that in Europe there doesn’t appear to be much of a correlation between fertility and belief in god or religious attendance. I agree with Anatoly Karlin, who has argued that developed countries that have higher fertility today were the ones that had their second demographic transition earlier, meaning that there’s been selection for a desire for larger families. If this is right, there may not be much government or top-down propaganda can do to change fertility patterns, as this is a matter of evolution running its course.
Meaning Doesn’t Need Intellectuals or Government
The reason humans don’t need “meaning,” as the term is understood by intellectuals, is because meaning is too encoded in our DNA to ever be missing from our lives. In 1914, men with a need for camaraderie and purpose enthusiastically marched off to war and started slaughtering each other. After 1945, European leaders decided to seek a durable peace based on economic and political integration. The project has been largely a success. Nonetheless, instead of firing at each other from trenches, young German and French men now bash each other’s heads in over soccer matches. They get the joy of meaning without the risk of death.
Before it was invaded by Russia, I used to listen to analysts who were saying Ukraine had never been a real nation and its people wouldn’t sacrifice for their country. Whether or not they were right about the psychology of pre-war Ukraine, it turned into a different nation once it was attacked. It reminds me of the debate in the years before the US invaded Iraq, in which the American government assumed that Iraqis were nationalistic and ignored the Sunni-Shia divide. After the insurgency started, the narrative turned around and became that religious sect had always mattered a lot more to Iraqis than we suspected. I don’t know if that’s necessarily right — I’m guessing that before the war most people were just trying to survive without giving much thought to the glory of their nation or which branch of Islam they belonged to, and when the US created a vacuum it helped empower the most violent fanatics in the country, draw in other extremists from abroad, and polarize society along religious lines. Social scientists have known for generations that you can get people to behave tribally with only a little bit of nudging, a result that has held up during the replication crisis. Under a wide variety of circumstances, individuals and communities on their own have no trouble conjuring the emotions that intellectuals believe need to be synthetically manufactured by elites like themselves.
In America, we’re too successful to care about other countries or be reasonably threatened by them, so we have professional sports leagues and college athletics. And of course, the culture war, which itself can be seen as a struggle for meaning — which I think can be understood as a more seemingly elevated way to talk about status. Our great debates are often only tangentially related to issues, and much of it, like how corrupt Hunter Biden is, has about as much intellectual content as a sports rivalry. Elites see the viciousness of the culture war and think Americans must be miserable, but that’s sort of like watching Auburn fans yell at Alabama players and coming up with a broad sociological theory to explain what’s happening. The fight itself is the point. Nietzsche: “You say that a good cause will even sanctify war. I tell you, it is the good war that sanctifies every cause.”
The intellectual looks at all this and despairs. He says people need meaning, with him either inventing it or acting as a channel through which the will of God or the popular will operates. If he’s on the Right, he’s either a nationalist or advocating more religion in public life. Or, if he’s on the Left, he seeks equality of outcome between different groups and to overcome the sins of the past.
There’s little to indicate that most people need this kind of meaning, that is, a belief about something they should be struggling for in the political realm. To the extent they do need something approaching the emotions such a struggle evokes, they can generally find what they’re looking for themselves without having it provided by intellectual elites. Take away universal conscription and patriotic education, and they’ll still become soccer hooligans. Leave humans alone, they’ll follow their evolutionary programming and seek power, status, money, and sex. That’s plenty to occupy you before you drop dead and get eaten by worms.
The point here is not to stress complacency. Societies have problems, and people of intelligence and goodwill should work to solve them. While religiosity doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship to happiness, wealth clearly does. So, as banal as it sounds to say, it’s good to promote economic growth. But to try to improve society by consciously trying to give the masses a larger purpose leads to, at best, ineffective solutions to problems, and at worst, tyranny, chaos, and world wars. This was probably the best insight of Buckley-era conservatism. Rather, it is better to shape institutions and laws so that they create incentives for more productive and pro-social behavior. We need a cultural norm in which deep thinking about the nature of existence and where humanity is going is considered the responsibility of a select few of unusually high intelligence and mental stability. For everyone else, sportsball is good enough.
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