The Dangerous Radicalism of Longing

From The Dispatch:

In a recent episode of Daryl Dixon, the new Walking Dead spinoff, Daryl says, “You can’t miss what you never had.” And for some reason I keep thinking about it. 

According to the internet, this is originally a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though I suspect someone said it before him. This is one of those sayings that sounds profound and wise but isn’t actually true. Or at least to the extent it’s true, it really depends on context and the definitions of “can’t” and “miss.”

I think an enormous number of our problems come from people who miss things they never had. Just off the top of my head: Palestinians miss having a viable country, but have never had one. Lots of people who grew up without siblings, or fathers, or best friends miss having such people in their lives a great deal. People who had bad experiences in high school, or who never went to college, miss things they never had. 

Maybe this helps explain why I say the definitions of “can’t” and “miss” are important here. For the sorts of people described above, missing what you didn’t have is a kind of longing. And people in fact do and can have such longings. “Missing,” it seems, conveys a statement of fact. You actually had something and lost it. “I had a brother. He’s gone. I miss him.” That’s a different statement than “I always wished I had a brother.”

Regardless, such desires are very, very, common. Regret—a good word for combining both “miss” and “longing”—over what might have been, what was lost, or what you never had is one of the most powerful human emotions and one of the greatest drivers of despair. Such feelings are also one of the most powerful motivations for human action. 

The first nationalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were full of longing for a nation that had never actually existed. Sometimes they invented an ancient past of national identity and claimed they were seeking to restore what was lost to the Romans or some other conquerors. 

The romantics, who helped create nationalism, played similar games. The idea of the “noble savage” was essentially a kind of unscientific science fiction. It was based on ideas that had no actual basis in anthropological or sociological fact. But it did have a good deal of theological support. Man, before the fall, lived in happy ignorance and harmony with nature. Knowledge or technology or modernity ripped us out of this blissful state. All that was required to return to it was the will to return to it. 

I think that in a very fundamental—and very oversimplified—way, all radicalism stems from these kinds of longings. Karl Marx was very much a romantic, and his vision for the end of history looked very much like Rousseau’s vision of the beginning of history. Once all class consciousness was swept away, once the economic aristocracy was toppled or liquidated, everybody would be able to live in an unconstrained state of natural bliss and autonomy. The Marx-influenced radicals pushing for “national liberation” in the 20th century were not as fully utopian, but they believed that all of the suffering and inequities of their lives could be erased with a cleansing purge of imperial control. The Islamic radicals of Iran and elsewhere believed that all that was required to live in spiritual harmony and happiness was to remove the decadent bulwarks of “Western” liberalism, religious pluralism, secularism, capitalism, etc. 

None of these stories ended well, and many ended horribly. 

But the radicalism such desires can inspire aren’t the problem with missing what you never had.

. . . .

 As families shrink or break down, as the sinew of local communities breaks down, the government is seen as a necessary substitute. No, I don’t think all women should stay at home and rely on their parents or husbands as providers and breadwinners. But in a society where so many biological fathers have little desire to be real fathers or actual husbands, the demand for the state to compensate for what’s missing increases. 

This isn’t just a point about the growth of the welfare state or those darn progressives. It’s just one example of how people miss what they never had—fathers, husbands, healthy families and communities—and look for cheap substitutes for them. As I’ve been saying forever, “The government can’t love you.” But when you lack people who love you, when you lack a sense of community, the hunger remains and you pursue whatever you think might satisfy it. 

Another form of longing drives this tendency: nostalgia, which might be the best rebuttal to the claim, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces in politics and life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t prone to it. Nostalgia is a neologism coined by a Swiss medical student to describe the melancholy (a medical term back then) felt by Swiss mercenaries who fought far from home. It’s a mashup of sorrow or despair and “homecoming.” It’s come to mean homesickness for the past. 

The problem with nostalgia, at least in politics and economics, is that it is a highly selective remembering—and misremembering—of the past. We tend not only to emphasize the good stuff and forget the bad stuff, we exaggerate the good stuff beyond reality. This has always been my problem with “Make America Great Again.” It’s a nostalgia-soaked misdiagnosis of the past that tells people they can have what they miss but never had, at least not in the way they remember it. 

Link to the rest at The Dispatch

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