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Happy New Year! (And a Reflection on a Troubled Age)

Happy New Year! (And a Reflection on a Troubled Age)

Happy…see that? That’s Snowy grinning up at you and wishing a very Happy New Year. So how’s your year been? I want to wish you strength, courage, determination for the new one.

We had a strange year. Did anyone have a good year? The newspapers are full of articles like “23 good things about 2023!,” which of course you wouldn’t have to publish if it had actually been a good year. Forced cheer, false optimism, a kind of enforced gaslit pretense that everything’s fine, teeth gritted—these are the ides of an age where the world’s gone haywire.

I’ve been reflecting on it. What should I offer you for my message as this year draws to a close? I think that any sane and thoughtful person probably had a pretty terrible year. If not personally, though the dire statistics tell me beyond a shadow of a doubt that most people had a devastating year personally, too, from emotionally to financially—if not that way, then just by way of reflecting on the world, and all that’s going wrong in it.

The emotion of this age, I’ve come to feel, can best be described in a single word: dread. And we’ll talk about that more. But for now I want to talk about where dread comes from, and why we all feel it so acutely. That isn’t my opinion—again, I’ve shared with you what I call the Most Important Chart of the 21st Century, which shows negative sentiments, unhappiness, despair, pessimism, exploding off the charts over the last decade.

What are we losing in this age? You see, none of it’s working. What I mean by that is this. We are feeling an acute sense of loss. A range of new emotions are hitting us, for which we scarcely have names yet. Eco-grief is one that almost does. But what do you call the feeling of watching your society being taken over by fanatics, monsters, and lunatics? How about the feeling of watching democracy crash and burn—remember, it’s declining by the stunning rate of about 10% a decade, putting its extinction within our lifetimes. What do you call the feeling of watching a mass extinction of life unfold?

We don’t have words for these new feelings. I make this point often. And yet what’s truer is that our approach to them isn’t working. Calling it an “approach,” even, is to overstate the case. Psychology has no idea, really, what do with these feelings. Shall we positive-talk them away? You see, these feelings are real, but they’re new, for psychology. They might bring up childhood trauma or parental attachments gone awry, but they’re not effects of it. They might be related to “core beliefs,” but they have absolutely nothing to do with them. Even if my “core belief” is that I’m not worthy or if I had a poor childhood, that’s not what caused the end of the modern world as we know it, which appears to be unfolding around us.

And so we’re all being traumatized, and we have no good way to deal with it yet. No way at all, really. Psychology has yet to invent therapies for an age like this, which help people really address this new range of emotions, these novel anxieties, which are incredibly real. And they’re real for a reason, which brings me back to what we’re losing.

What’s making us feel this bad, this awful, so much so that happiness measures have never really seen a cratering decline of this catastrophic magnitude?

I often say that we’re losing modernity, but here I want to put it even more bluntly.

Freedom is what we’re losing. Not freedumb—that’s on the rise, and it’s begun to replace the sophisticated, modern notion of freedom, which is the only one worth the word, really. Freedumb is the power to take away from others: their rights, but more than that—their personhood, dignity, humanity. To subjugate and dehumanize them. Hate. Violence. Bigotry. Supremacy. All these ills on the rise are forms of “freedumb,” if you like, to put it inelegantly. But as freedumb rises, freedom is its price, because if the game is just about taking away from others—where are we left in the end? Tumbling down the abyss.

I want you to think of the ways in which we’re losing freedom itself now, and again, the real thing, the sophisticated, true, noble notion of it, dating back to antiquity, and even beyond.

The UN Secretary General called it, famously, the “age of global boiling.” What’s that going to cost us? Let’s think about very, very basic forms of freedom. How about…clean air? As Canada burned, the air was unbreathable in many American cities. How much freedom are we going to have in a world running short of the most basic of basics—air, water, food?

Then there were the political earthquakes of 2023. Trump returned, triumphantly, to the stage, besting Biden in the polls, and this time, more overt in his depredations than before. He openly promised to be a dictator, purge government, and create a totalitarian society of the pure of blood. Freedom? Think of all the modern freedoms being lost in this day and age. The fall of Roe ushered in a bleak new era for women in America—their rights of expression, privacy, speech, and movement all eviscerated at once. And of course that was just a first step—all the other groups the fanatics want to target come next, with similar losses of basic freedoms.

When we feel this intense dread about the future—anxiety’s far too understated a word for what we’re feeling now—I think that it’s about the loss of freedom in all these ways. We look into the future, not even the distant future, but the immediate one, and we see a world, societies, lives, in which we are dramatically less free. And as our possibilities wither, so, too, do our hearts begin to break a little bit. We grieve for ourselves, for human possibility itself, for a future coming undone, in this truest of ways.

Let me give you another example. The majority of Americans are now “cashflow negative.” In other words, hypercapitalism has failed so catastrophically that the average person is literally broke and can’t make ends meet—sure, that’s a success for it, but a failure as a socioeconomic system. Can we really say Americans are “free,” then? If you’re in debt your whole life long, because the system is designed so that you can’t make ends meet, then of course your possibilities are vastly diminished. Hence, downward mobility is what we see, along with terrible dilemmas, like “your home or your healthcare,” or “your retirement or your kids’ education,” and so on. Americans are experiencing a catastrophic diminution in freedom as they fall into impoverishment.

And yet they’re reacting, too, by rejecting freedom itself. They’re turning to Trump en masse, even, astonishingly, young people—embracing the vision of a totalitarian society. Why is that? Why would people be so irrational as to react to the loss of freedom with the rejection of freedom?

The answer appears to be that in regressive forms of social order at least lies a sense of stability. If you can’t have freedom—you’ve become so cynical and jaded and disillusioned, by having it promised to you, but never really being delivered, to the point you don’t believe in it anymore for yourself, or anyone else. And perhaps you think to yourself something like: at least in a way of life much more like peasant, serf, and noble, at least lies a ladder of hierarchy that I can understand, have a secure place in, and even one that’s above someone even less fortunate than me.

What we’re seeing around the world now is the rejection of freedom, and that should ring alarm bells for any sane and thoughtful person. People are so disillusioned that they appear not to believe in the idea of freedom anymore at all. Instead, they’ll do something remarkable, and very, very Orwellian, peculiarly totalitarian—in the name of “freedom,” they’ll burn down their own rights, in the name of taking away some other group’s they’ve come to hate, all so that they can gain the psychic thrill, the dopamine rush, of power.

In other words, as the Age of Freedom draws to a close, what people are seeking is power. But power is not equality. Not truth, not justice, not liberty. People are seeking “vertical power,” which is to say, hierarchical forms of dominance, which is best exemplified perhaps, in Trump’s vicious appeal to “poisoning the blood.” This rejection of freedom in the name of freedom—but in actuality, as a form of repressive vertical power—is the hallmark of this age, and it was the defining theme of 2023, the last decade, in fact.

Where does that leave us, the sane and thoughtful ones? We must remember. We gave up, you see, our side. Once, we had great and noble goals. An end to war, hunger, violence, disease, deprivation, despair. And then, somehow, all that got diluted, and being on the side of progress and sanity was reduced to much, much smaller ambitions. So we must remember.

In our world, we need, again, emancipation. With the failure of hypercapitalism, we need emancipation from its catastrophic failures, from inequality, to mass impoverishment. Algorithms rule our social lives, and we need to emancipate ourselves from the tyranny of Big Tech, too—this year, maybe log off a little more. As the planet burns, we are going to need emancipation from the very forces which make us complicit in its ruin, from the idea that life is about consumption, to the idea that status is about climbing a ladder of it. And we need emotional emancipation, too, from the dread of watching modernity burn—a new set of paradigms for how to survive an age like this, psychologically, socially, relationally, which liberate us to feel meaning and purpose in our lives again, instead of just the wave of negative emotion that’s drowning the world in despair and rage.

Liberation. From all the old broken systems and paradigms. I know, I know. This is the kind of stuff that’s dangerous to write. It gets me in trouble. Look, I’m not Karl Marx. I’m not a revolutionary. I’m just a guy, like any other one. And we all know that things are going wrong now, badly so. All of us know it—hence, the statistics, the feelings, the rancor, the pessimism.

The road forks before us. Now we must choose. The road of liberation, which is the long, terrible journey through the valley of the shadow of death, because of course emancipation only comes as old, failed systems, ways, ideas, are allowed to die. Or the road we’re on, which is the perverse, twisted one, where embittered, deluded masses abused so long they’ve given up on freedom shout “freedom!,” but mean rage, repression, and domination, in response to demagogues, who have totalitarianism, fascism, hate, and ruin glittering in their eyes. That road history knows well. Empires before us have walked down it, and they whisper to us, from the bottom of the abyss, warning of where it leads.

Those of us who are still here? Whose minds and spirits haven’t been broken by the depredations of the last few years, twisted into hate, diminished into gutter-conspiratorialism, ravaged until a mere husk is left, unlike so many others? Our job is to spark that set of changes and transformations. Our task now is to lead humanity down that road. It won’t be easy. And it won’t be simple. But you know and I know: there are two roads before us, but only one choice.

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