I grew up in the days of the first Cold War and believe me, life was plenty terrifying then too. Nuclear holocaust loomed in the background as we young Americans went through their our “duck and cover” drills. Communism was the enemy, Democracy and its’ ideological travel partner, Capitalism, seemed to have a straightforward task: fight back, do not yield, and good will win in the end. At least that part seemed clear.
Unfortunately, not really. This logic stemmed largely from the ease with which our memories called up and romanticized the template of WWII. We were willing - even eager - to forget in an instant the central role communist Russia had played in that victory over the Nazis. What we remember is often a matter of convenience, and what we hate often works that way too. And now, with the tragedy of Paris breaking our hearts for the millionth time, this temptation arises again.
But our response to terrorism needs to be mindful of what the French philosopher Andre' Glucksman, who died the week before these attacks, wrote about in the aftermath of 9/11: terrorism is nihilistic before it is ideological. It's all to easy to forget in our postmodern age that good and evil are all mixed together. London citizens join Isis, behead Westerners, and post videos. Unemployed working class whites denounce their President while carrying signs that read “Keep the government away from my Medicare”. These examples all get conveyed through the rapid-fire, superficial screen mediums of computers and television, whose primary strength is to decontextualize everything. When you decontextualize everything, contradictions lose their significance. People can lie with impunity and just wait until the next entertaining news cycle washes their statements of falsehood down the storm drain.
It you think this is new, think again. Consider this from a February 15, 1983 NYTimes article:
Reagan Misstatements Getting Less Attention
"President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore.
Indeed, the President continues to make debatable assertions of fact, but news accounts do not deal with them as extensively as they once did. In the view of White House officials, the declining news coverage mirrors a decline in interest by the general public."
What this means is straightforward: If Ben Carson lies and complains of being persecuted by the media, both these things are probably true. This is the sort of veracity gumbo that heralds our age of nihilism. Images, not words, are its’ primary messenger. Those old enough to remember Vietnam war coverage will remember this famous image of 9 year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running for her life from American napalm.
Most analysts at the time and afterwards contended it was a good thing we were horrified, because that horror accelerated the end of that war. As someone who worked with others toward that end, I remember comforting myself that this was true - and it mostly was. It is psychologically reassuring to frame things as good vs. evil, to know where one stands, where the fight is, and to then “do good” in confronting it.
Nihilism want to change all that. It wants you to believe that the universe has become meaningless. That random events will always spray down on us like the odious liquid from a skunk’s anus and most of us will be forced to adopt the wisdom of the bears and give our equivalent of skunks - terrorists, politicians, corporate moguls, serial killers, etc. - as wide a berth as possible. If there is one characteristic that still makes ideological fundamentalism attractive, it is the false notion that the world IS divided into good and evil, and you can choose “our good” and have an army of comrades to join with in the fight. ISIS, the US military, climate change activists and Medicins sans Frontiers all need you to make this sort of choice to have the necessary motivation for you to join them in their cause. They ALL have a point - but none of them have the whole point, and none of us know the whole point. We can’t in a world where complexity, obfuscation, corruption and appetite reigns supreme, and where new information renders old information obsolete overnight. But we choose anyway - we have to. We choose based on our psychological, community, and spiritual health. If we don't choose, nihilism wins.
Another way of saying this is that if we don't choose, the world becomes the mutant hybrid of Aldous Huxley’s world with and George Orwell’s. The noose of nihilism's tightens. We see ISIS talking of caliphates and authoritarian order based on the Koran, and instantly know that the Koran is just their cover. It’s no different from fundamentalist Christians quoting compassion passages from the Bible and then fueling their hatred by covering their minds with Rush Limbaugh’s spittle in their ride home in the car. That’s how antinomianism works.
What, then, are the horrifying images of nihilism? Faceless, all powerful, often technological.
And what are we to make of all this? How can we fight back when good and evil are nefariously blended together? When our sources of information so brazenly corrupt? When life seems increasingly devoid of meaning and inspiration and engagement begins to seem less credible than burying ourselves in some form of a cynical, passive cave?
We have to fight back. We have to because it's still our best, more powerful way of asserting our humanity. Even if we find out down the road that the vehicle that carried our fight for a time was flawed in some way. The world just disappears in a whimper if it doesn’t. But while we can plant ourselves in causes we trust enough to know our energy is well-expended, in the long run this fight also has to take a lesson from a deeper understanding of the nihilistic enemies we wish to defeat.
That means not turning simplistic and taking cover under absolutist ideologies. The best ally of an environmental activist may well turn out to be a coal company executive. It means not passively rolling over or running away. There’s only so many episodes of Game of Thrones anyway. And it means not cynically attacking those who can’t defend themselves, no matter how beautiful the border wall Mr. Trump hopes to build may seem in the scared imagination of so many.
Nihilism has superseded ideology as our greatest foe. It’s a challenge all of us face, whether we like it or not.