Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
Ukrainian flags are flying on buildings across the country and Russian vodka is being poured into drains. Concerts are being canceled and books are flying off shelves over a cause that the vast majority of Americans would not have cared about and did not even know existed last year.
In a matter of weeks everyone has come around to having a passionate opinion on the subject.
And when the war in Ukraine has come and gone, some other cause will arrive to fill that void, and the outrage, blue and yellow flag waving, and all the rest of it will be gone with the vodka.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was perfectly timed to fill the emptiness left by the collapse of COVID restrictions. And what the reaction says about us matters more than what it says about Ukraine.
The desperate hunger for new causes is a spiritual vacuum. The Ukranians and the Russians believe in what they’re fighting for. We believe in the need to believe in something. The conflict over Ukraine stretches back centuries while our fervent investment in it goes back a few weeks.
It is quite likely that a few weeks from now we will be just as invested in something else.
It is no coincidence that the least religious parts of America are the most invested in this war, much as they’re the most invested in wokeness, in the COVID culture wars, and all the culture wars that have come before and that will come after to fill the void in their souls.
People without a purpose to their passions rush from one cause to another in search of a momentary sense of meaning. Conspiracy theories make the world meaningful and nurture their sense of outrage because it distracts them from the aching emptiness within.
Radical politics acts as a substitute religion with its own theology, momentous destiny and personal commitment, but without any sense of personal connection or enduring continuity. What is true in politics one week may not be so the next. Political touchstones shift and the partisan who is at the heart of the cause may find that a few years later he’s an outside enemy.
The Left’s purity tests and radical transformations force its followers to run to catch up or be left behind as reactionary bigots still protesting that we had not always been at war with Eastasia or that men have not always been considered the best possible women. Insecure social mobs embrace new causes because they have a deep fear of being left behind the bandwagon.
Politics provides them with external validation and internal purpose. To politically dissent is both the equivalent of losing their religion and their place in society. That is why cancel culture is dreaded at a psychological level, not just because of the loss of employment and educational opportunities, but because the affected party loses their society and their soul.
Herd behavior is a rational response to this threat. Virtue signaling protects their place in the herd. And offers a sense of temporary security in an extremely insecure sociopolitical order.
The seeming randomness and irrationality of some of the causes, the lack of personal connection to the mostly white upper class people who embrace them, are an asset. If a cause may have to be left behind at any time, it’s easiest if the cause, black people, a country thousands of miles away, mask culture, strange sexual fetishes, is impersonal.
A frictionless world in which family, sexual partners, friends, homes, and careers can be abandoned at short notice also requires frictonless causes that are equally disposable.
Replacing religion with politics has made for more frictionless souls who never grow. The emotional retardation can be seen everywhere as adults behave like teenagers and teenagers behave like children. No one ever grows up, instead they feign maturity through politics.
Advocating for causes makes them seem like they care about something more than themselves. The right politics bestows membership in a community based on politics, but behind all the virtue signaling is the fundamental immaturity of people who only truly care about themselves.
That is the dirty secret of leftist politics whose egocentrism is thinly masked as altruism.
Leftism is not an act of conscience, but an escape from conscience. Its causes, legitimate or illegitimate, are manifold, but what they all have in common is an underlying denial. The only form of liberation that their politics truly offer is the liberation from moral accountability and personal growth. The more radical the politics, the more radical of an escapism it represents.
True religion is an ongoing act of conscience while false religion evades the internal accountability and externalizes it into political causes. The external virtue signaling projects a false righteousness to mask the underlying failure to struggle for internal rightness.
Radicals jump from one unfulfilling cause to another because escape requires motion. The causes themselves are external and ultimately unfulfilling. No matter how hard leftists struggle to change the world, they fail to change what is truly within their power to change: themselves.
The addiction to causes is, like all addictions, initially a rush only to gradually become unfulfilling, frustrating, and debilitating. The rage is the suffering of the addict who is increasingly unable to recreate the seeming purity of their initial political involvements except by upping the dose and escalating the emotional and physical violence of their commitments. Radicalization, like higher doses of any substance, don’t address the anhedonia of the abuser.
Every cause gives way to another cause and then the original cause is often forgotten, occasionally to be picked up later when convenient. When the cause has its moment, then it eclipses all others, and for a week, a month or a year, nothing else deserves to be mentioned.
The cause fills all the airwaves, swallows up all other considerations, and becomes the single greatest issue in the universe. And then a little time passes and it’s forgotten and discarded.
The cause was never the true cause. It was only ever an effect.
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