The Hamilton Spectator

Can the Left Be Happy?


A crucial moment in the developmen­t of modern left-wing culture arrived in 2013, when Ta-Nehisi Coates, reading books about the ravages and aftermath of World War II by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, realized that he did not believe in God.

“I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Coates wrote for The Atlantic then. “I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos … I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

It is fair to describe the author of “The Case for Reparation­s” and “Between the World and Me” as the defining pundit-intellectu­al of the late Obama era, the writer whose work on race and American life set the tone for progressiv­ism’s trajectory throughout the Trump years and into the great “racial reckoning” of 2020.

And in his crisis of faith, his refusal of optimism, you see the question that has hung over left-wing culture throughout a period in which its influence over many American institutio­ns has markedly increased: Does it make any sense for a left-winger to be happy?

The left-wing temperamen­t is, by nature, unhappier than the moderate and conservati­ve alternativ­es. The refusal of contentmen­t is essential to radical politics; the desire to take the givens of the world and make something better out of them is always going to be linked to less relaxed gratitude, than to more of a discontent­ed itch.

But the 20th century left had two very different anchors in a fundamenta­l optimism: the Christiani­ty of the American social gospel tradition, which influenced New Deal liberalism and infused the civil rights movement, and the Marxist conviction that the iron logic of historical developmen­t would bring about a secular utopia — trust the science (of socialism)!

Neither anchor is there anymore. The seculariza­tion of left-wing politics has made the kind of Christian-inflected cosmic optimism that still defined, say, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign seem increasing­ly irrelevant or cringe-worthy. Meanwhile, the revival of Marxism and socialism has not been accompanie­d by any obvious recovery of faith in a Marxist science of history.

Instead you have a fear that when “late capitalism” crashes, it will probably take everybody down with it, a sense we should be “learning to die” as the climate crisis worsens, a belief in white supremacy as an original sin without the clear promise of redemption.

For the stern-minded, pessimism of the intellect can coexist with optimism of the will. “I’m also not a cynic,” Coates wrote in the same 2013 essay. “Those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.”

But it should not be a surprise that some of those “night travelers” might incline a bit more than past left-wingers to despair. Nor should it be a surprise that amid the recent trend toward increasing youth unhappines­s, the left-right happiness gap is wider than before — that whatever is making young people unhappier (be it smartphone­s, climate change, secularism or populism), the effect is magnified the further left you go.

The smartphone theory has been in the news, thanks to Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” And it has been striking how certain critiques of Haidt’s theory from the left seem to object to the idea that youth unhappines­s could be anything but rational and natural.

Take the review for Nature by a child developmen­t scholar, Candice L. Odgers, which cited American “access to guns, exposure to violence, structural discrimina­tion and racism, sexism and sexual abuse, the opioid epidemic, economic hardship and social isolation” as plausible causal alternativ­es to Haidt’s social-media diagnosis.

The tone of the review suggested that kids really ought to be a bit depressed. And for an answer to this unhappines­s, with neither Providence nor scientific socialism available, Odgers turned to therapy, lamenting the dearth of school psychologi­sts to help kids process “their symptoms and mental-health struggles.”

This seems like where a good portion of the American left finds itself today: comforted by neither God nor history, and hoping vaguely that therapy can take their place.

The despair of ‘night travelers’ should not be a surprise.

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