When alienation spreads across the land The young face the future with dread, not the delight of childhood
If you’re not driven mad by the incessant shocks of modern life, a wise man once observed, you must be insane. Such dark humor can be therapeutic in small doses, but there are sobering signs that Americans are losing the struggle to keep their heads clear in the mad swirl of the cultural rapids. The young are particularly vulnerable, greeting the new day with dread rather than delight.
The future is uncertain, obviously, and the kids are facing it with more than a little apprehension, by the reckoning of a new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Pew finds that 70 percent of American teen-agers aged 13 to 17 say they feel anxiety and depression about the future, 26 percent say they feel such anxiety but the feelings are a minor problem, leaving only 4 percent with the traditional carefree outlook of the young.
These teen-agers were not around to witness and feel the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the greatest shock to the nation since Pearl Harbor. But they have witnessed and felt the shock of the terrorism that has followed since. Children are young but they are not oblivious to the world around them. They have concluded that school shootings, attacks on cultural tradition, the toppling of monuments and memorials to the nation’s heroes and the wars and revolutions that play out on the evening news mean that danger lurks close by.
They hear the voices of partisan doom, such as the warning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, that civilization is approaching the end of the line. “Our planet is going to hit disaster if we don’t turn this ship around and so it’s basically like, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question, you know, ‘Is it okay to still have children?’”
Fear of the deadly peril was enough to send a troop of kids to Congress the other day to plead with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to enact the Green New Deal and dismantle the industrial state before we all die. It takes wisdom won in the passage of years to understand that partisan politics is the art of the possible but for others with the gift of the con, politics is the art of selling the impossible.
Beyond anxiety, intimidation and trepidation, the nation’s young are bedeviled by bullying, drug addiction, binge drinking, poverty, pregnancy and gangs, rated as problems by up to 90 percent of respondents to Pew’s pollsters. And it’s not just young people who feel buffeted by life. In his new book, “Alienated America,” Timothy Carney argues that it’s the culture that obscures the search for the American dream. Politicians and pundits, many of them confounded by Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, sometimes credit his appeal to the blue-collar class to his vow to make America great again by stoking the engine of the U.S. economy.
Timothy Carney points to a different path. “When Trump caught so many political commentators off guard,” he writes, “we looked for an explanation amid the closing factories, but we should have been looking at the closing churches.” Statistics on U.S. church closures range between 4,000 and 6,000 annually. (Many others, of course, are established every year.) Reasons for the decline include the nationwide population shift from tight-knit rural life to the concrete canyons of the troubled cities, and the impact on the young of government, educational and media hostility to religious expression.
Historically, America’s vibrant civic life has been anchored in its houses of worship, radiating outward to secular service and charity organizations. Secular institutions inspired by religious faith helped generations of Americans embrace a sense of community. As this faith-based core has collapsed, feelings of estrangement have grown.
A revival, not just a revival of the sawdust trail of yesteryear but a revival of the tradition of families sharing a faith-based commitment to one another and to the larger community could reassure both young and old. The American dream, after all, is about more than frivolous times and a full dinner pail.