Our Age Of Doubt

I am uncertain what handy label we will eventually attach to the era in which we now are living.  Some have suggested that “The Age of Anxiety” might be fairly descriptive because many of us now seem consumed by fears.  Worries about global warming, environmental toxins, economic collapse, and virulent diseases fill our minds on a daily basis, and America’s rates of anxiety, suicide, and depression are at stratospheric levels.  Although the fear mongers are certainly correct that we are all going to die eventually, it perhaps seems implausible that we are soon to drown in rising seas, be incinerated like ants under a magnifying glass, or collapse and die en masse due to some new contagion.  The end of civilization—should it actually ever arise—will likely be less satisfyingly cinematic.

The fears that now grip many are probably an artifact of spending far too much time with the alarmists and cuckoos on social media who masquerade as objective sources of news and commentary, but this brings up the question of why so many readers and listeners are embracing conspiracy theories, baseless analyses, and insane predictions instead of dismissing them.  Given our inability to predict what will happen in just the next week, the wide-eyed credulity granted to those who claim to be able to see the inevitable future awaiting years—or even decades—ahead is worthy of examination.

Why are we unable to filter the factual from the foolish?  I don’t believe this is happening because we are filled with anxieties; this, to me, is a confusion of cause and effect.  I find it more likely that our “Age of Doubt “ is producing many of the fears that plague us today.

Our trust and belief in our leaders and institutions is at a low ebb.  Decades of official lies, self-serving business and governmental behavior, corrosive policy failures, and a rotting away of daily norms of civilized conduct have left us bereft of guidance and managing principles.  We instead live lives that are defined by our many suspicions, and the perceived need for constant vigilance that results has left our nation in a state of nervous collapse.  Our doubts about our country and our own futures have put us in a self-reinforcing loop of all-out attack and desperate self-defense that is destructive beyond all measure.  Our enemies are everywhere, and reliable friends and protectors are rarely to be found.

People now exist in a reactive attack mode because they feel themselves under siege.  If we do not know who to trust or what to trust, the resulting doubts about the very fabric of our daily existence will cause a tremendous amount of anxiety.

When faith recedes, irrational doubts and fears rush in to fill the void.  Everyone must rely onsome set of core beliefs that gives order and meaning to their lives—unless they are truly lost.  However, we now have an existential problem because so much of what once constituted the framework of our lives—God, country, and family—is either highly suspect or openly ridiculed.  It is, therefore, little wonder that so many Americans find themselves grasping for some shred of meaning and security in what we are repeatedly reminded is a meaningless, doomed existence.  Unfortunately, the substitute ideologies available today—which pretty much all boil down to a belief in some doomsday demise from flood, fire, starvation, war, drought, or plague—are themselves understandably prone to ratchet up our already keen levels of anxiety.

The crux of the problem today is the one defining faith that sustained many Americans over the past century—the belief in the curative powers of heroic government—is now coming to a debt-ridden, scandal-plagued, and disheartening end.

The puzzle is, of course, why do so many Americans who have apparently no faith in our leaders and institutions have a fanatical belief in the need for big, bigger, and biggest Government?  If you believe our nation is run by crooks and liars, why would you want to give those same people absolute power over every aspect of your life?  Think through the argument here: If your taxes are high enough, your freedoms are circumscribed enough, and your dissents are stifled enough, all will be well!  Really?

My own explanation for this contradiction is this: The incredible popularity of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and other advocates of total governmental control of America and Americans has less to do with the logic of their ideas and more to do with the desire to believe in some “higher power” that will provide a measure of protection against the vicissitudes of our world.  

Roughly a century ago Americans began abandoning their faith in G-o-d in favor of a belief in G-o-v.  The powers over our daily lives that government assumed during times of extraordinary national crisis such as The Great Depression and World War II made a great deal of sense at the time.  However, it is reasonable to ask—and many have—whether government now must be drastically scaled back to better conform to the tax revenue available to support it while allowing market-based solutions to national and local problems to take precedence.  

The counter reaction to this—the desire for more and more government rather than far less—sometimes seems born of frantic fears rather than hope.  There is an underlying premise that individual Americans are stupid, dangerous, and unreliable, so their behavior must be constrained and modified by omniscient and omnipresent state power.  To see the obvious parallels between the need to believe in an all-powerful God and an all-powerful State, each of which is often fundamentally irreconcilable with the other, is to better understand the most basic needs of humanity for order and safety—and to see the foundations of the anxieties consuming our country.

Doubt can destroy us, and the competing remedies for our fears today, a belief in God versus a belief in Big Government, have led to two parallel populations of Americans who often exist in inexorable opposition to one another—neither of whom has any doubt they are right.  The political polarization of America is, in the final analysis, actually driven by a religious polarization.  Those who regularly worship in a church, mosque, or synagogue often cannot quite understand those who worship weekly with National Public Radio, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post.  

These divisions are, of course, not absolute—plenty of practicing Christians are tuned to NPR during their morning commutes—but this distinction does neatly track tendencies that are rapidly redrawing the electoral map of our nation.  

Moreover, this better explains that supposed contradictions that still befuddle traditional political analysts.  Liberals who are certain that Hispanics will inevitably hate conservative leaders because of past discrimination seem to forget that many Hispanics are devoutly religious.  Conservatives who cannot understand why urban African-Americans would stick with liberal mayors whose policies are actively destroying many American cities forget that past Big Government interventions broke down the hateful walls of segregation.

No one can truly comprehend America and Americans without considering the roles that our levels of trust and doubt regarding both G-o-d and G-o-v play in determining our personal and voting behavior, and we can perhaps better find whatever common ground might exist if we acknowledge the prisms through which so many see our nation, its problems—and the possible solutions.