Fundamentalist Nihilism

At some point, progressivism begins to collapse by the weight of its own internal contradictions and becomes faith-based. Future anthropologists will have a difficult time sorting out all the bizarre rituals and sacraments of this early 21st-century progressive cult.

In today’s headlines, we have three crystal clear illustrations of the phenomenon. Let’s begin first with the recent case of the four-year California drought (2011-2015).

Nihilist Environmentalism

There are three salient facts to remember about the state’s dry spell:

1) President Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, and California’s legislative leadership all declared the drought to be a result of climate change. Accordingly, it would both be near permanent and demand government intervention to make radical changes in Californians’ lifestyles;

2) Yet in some 120 years of accurate record-keeping, no California drought seems to have lasted much longer than four years;

3) Not a single new reservoir, canal, or aqueduct was started during the drought, although several projects had been envisioned over a half-century earlier in the original blueprints of the state California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

By 2016 nature had ended the drought with normal precipitation, although the state’s political leadership insisted that the drought had persisted into a fifth year—and so along with it continuance of supposedly temporary restrictions on water use and diversions of contracted irrigation water.

Yet by the first four months of 2017, California had experienced a record level of rain and snow.

What was the state’s reaction to these quite normal and predictable events?

With a water storage system suited to a 1970s population of 20 million people rather than of the current 40 million, and with no desire to increase capacity, the state so far has allowed some 50 million acre feet to flow to sea from the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River watersheds. That huge volume is greater than all the existing storage capacity of man-made reservoirs in the state. In other words, by not building dams and reservoirs, California has wasted the likely wettest year on record and ensured no margin of safety should another drought be on the horizon.


A variety of reasons explains the insanity. The state, with the among the highest bundle of income, gas, and sales tax rates in the nation, is nonetheless broke, and facing a multibillion annual deficit on top of huge unfunded pension liabilities. How one of the highest taxed states managed to ensure one of the country’s worst infrastructures is a long story, but reminds us that often higher taxes and larger government paradoxically ensure substandard schools, roads, and infrastructure.

Environmental fundamentalism also plays a role. Coastal environmentalists, at least privately, do not insist any more that freshwater releases into the San Francisco delta ecosystem will really restore delta smelt populations (the environmentally iconic 3-inch baitfish more likely suffers from invasive species of predatory fish and perhaps even from the treated effluents from Bay Area sewage plants).

Nor do they any more believe that an unfettered, whitewater San Joaquin River will really ensure permanent salmon migrations to the Sierra Nevada mountains in the supposed fashion of the 19th-century.

align=”left” All these examples reflect to the point of absurdity ideologically-driven fundamentalism. Rail against climate change induced drought without building a reservoir to store water; promote anger at the country one wished to enter and romance for the homeland one wished to flee; and stage protests against privilege from islands of privilege and pleasure.

Instead, the stubborn insistence on not storing water (for the Left just as fracking is not a cure for high oil prices, so new reservoirs are no remedy to scarce water supplies) is religious in nature: it wishes California to resemble its mythical past when a million or two residents enjoyed lush deltas, unbridled rivers, and unspoiled landscapes, and did not worry much about floods, power shortages, or sustaining irrigated agriculture.

So progressives on the coast no longer agree with the state’s century-long and four-part rationale for water storage: create recreational mountain lakes for the middle classes, cheap hydroelectric power for the masses, affordable irrigation water for farmers and water transfers to arid communities, and flood control for those in the path of flood-prone rivers.

Instead they have invented a new fifth reality: never build an artificial reservoir, given that their own coastal water supplies were long ago guaranteed by existing Sierra reservoirs, and instead release the storage water contracted to others to recreate 19th-century riverscapes.

All this sounds nihilistic, but Californians were also absurdly assured that permanent drought was proof of climate change (in just 12 months, global warming went from ensuring that California would likely never have another wet year to causing “climate chaos” of record rain and snowpack). Thus any Neanderthal effort to build reservoirs would simply mean that they were never filled and would remain embarrassing dry basin monuments to human folly.

The net result is that “settled science” ignored the effects of a predictable drought and did not prepare itself for a predictable end to a drought—and now somehow clings to the farcicality that an expanding state of 40 million can return to a mythical pre-reservoir past of a century ago. Understood is the assurance that arid, but enlightened communities on the Pacific coast should, of course, remain beneficiaries of imported mountain water via dams, reservoirs and aqueducts constructed in the past by a quite different generation.

Nihilist Immigration

Illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America offers another progressive anti-empirical disconnect. Millions of illegal immigrants have crashed the southern border, eager to flee the poverty, corruption, racism, and insecurity of southern Mexico and Central America anyway that they can. And yet despite this reality, both illegal immigrants and their lobbying representatives have never situated this startling development in a context of open acknowledgment that America is a preferable place to any country south of the border (Mexican citizens rarely flock to Guatemala)—much less why that would be so.

I was reminded of this last year when stopping at a Mexican-food canteen on a neighboring rural avenue, seeing the menu and all the signs in Spanish, two Mexican flags waving atop, and a quarter of the customers sporting Mexican flag decals on their cars (since November 2016, the Mexican flags have mysteriously come down, replaced by an American flag, a California state flag, and a U.S. Marine Corps flag).

Most demonstrations in favor of illegal immigration, La Raza lobbying, and campus politics accentuate stale themes of past U.S. racism, the theft of Mexican land, and the supposedly racist DNA of the United States.

These themes completely ignore obvious paradoxes: a) if the United States is so awful, why would foreign nationals risk life and limb to enter its borders illegally; and if apprehended, would not deportation seem a godsend?; b) if the American southwest still did belong to Mexico, or if it were to recalibrate itself to cultural, political, and economic norms existing in contemporary Mexico, would arrivals from southern Mexico then flee still further northward?; c) how can protestors expect Americans to continue to accept illegal immigration, when protests on behalf of illegal aliens, whether inadvertently or not, come across as hostile to the U.S., or at least hostile to anyone who might dare to ask that guests follow the laws of their hosts? 

Indeed, it is quite stunning to see guests and their advocates make demands in a way, mutatis mutandis, that would be considered absurd not just in Mexico, but almost anywhere else on the planet. No one in the National Council of La Raza has quite explained to the general public why anyone would leave a Spanish-speaking country of a mostly uniform raza only to enter a multiracial country of English speakers with quite different origins and protocols—only to nostalgically embrace the culture and language that they have left and to which they have no apparent desire to return.

Apparently any such exegesis might not be morally relative and instead suggest that the U.S. Constitution differs from Mexico’s, as does the American judicial system, political structure, market economy, and embrace of diversity (the Mexican constitution has racial qualifiers in reference to immigration).

Why is diversity to be treasured by immigrants from south of the border when there is far less of it in Mexico than in the United States?

Factories of Nihilism: Our Universities

But perhaps the most inexplicable of modern progressive phenomena is the current brand of campus activism. At those universities where recent protest is most rabid such as Berkeley, Middlebury, or Claremont, the vast majority of the students, both whites and minorities, are among the most affluent in the United States. Yet current campus dogma demands an end to “white privilege”.

What exactly does that mantra mean? To have one’s affluent parents also pay for the cost of one additional student from West Virginia? To insist that development officers do not accept gifts from privileged white male alumni? To promise not to work on Wall Street, or swear an oath never to join a tony law firm? To take a pledge upon graduation not to return home to the Upper West Side, Bel-Air, Atherton, Piedmont, or Greenwich?

Is the entire diversity movement a sophisticated effort to ignore class, largely because so many wealthy teenagers now go to schools that charge more than $250,000 for a four-year stint? How can those with certifiable white privilege direct their class animus at others who lack it? And for affluent minorities, is the argument that the son of an Asian-American pharmacist or the daughter of an attorney general of the United States suffers more hurt from racism than does a rural Tennessean from poverty?

It is difficult to calibrate whether protests from Club Med-like enclaves are fueled by the guilt of affluence, or understandable efforts by students to steer curricula and study away from demanding physics or Attic Greek and toward lighter fare such as gender, race, and class courses.

Or does the conundrum reflect surrogate efforts of careerist faculty and administrators who indoctrinate students in order to demand more hiring in the diversity industry as remedies for the very protests they encourage? Or is the angst a highbrow modernist version of swallowing goldfish and cramming into phone booths or Volkswagens—the sort of venting characteristic of exuberant youth? What the protests are not are serious efforts by elites to share their own families’ privilege. Instead they are opportunities to demonstrate their vaunted “concern” and to rail on the cheap at less privileged others.

All these examples reflect to the point of absurdity ideologically-driven fundamentalism. Rail against climate change induced drought without building a reservoir to store water; promote anger at the country one wished to enter and romance for the homeland one wished to flee; and stage protests against privilege from islands of privilege and pleasure.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the newly released The Dying Citizen.

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48 responses to “Fundamentalist Nihilism”

  1. Best I can tell — and AmGreatness’s new layout makes it slightly difficult for me to tell, so forgive me — the last few days of stories here have been:

    • The contradictions of progressivism.
    • A look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
    • A critique of the Obama Administration’s “real” intentions.
    • Worries about campus radicalization in Texas.

    I get it. You guys don’t like liberals. And “standing athwart history, yelling stop” etc. But given that your guy is president, I’m thinking maybe you’d be making the case for his policies? I dunno. If your agenda is “progressivism sucks!” even when a nationalist Republican whose campaign slogan doubles as the title of this website, what do you have to offer?

    Besides tone policing, I mean?

    • Hey Joe,

      You are more than welcome to look beyond the last few days. This site has been consistent in not only critiquing the Left, but it has proffered a litany of policy suggestions for the Trump team. I know that I personally have written several articles that a) offer policy suggestions, b) defend policy choices of the new administration, and c) I have been critical also of some of the Trump team’s domestic policies. I am not alone in this. This website is an excellent resource. Your criticism, I believe, is entirely unfair of the website.

      Thanks you.

    • The obvious explanation, at least in the last few days, is that “your guy” has been very flexible about his policies, so that making a case for those policies requires a heroic degree of fortitude. The latest EO, will doubtless result in some more straightforward cheerleading, which as far as I can tell is the principle purpose of the website.

    • This is currently the best, most considered and informed, most thoughtfully written publication on current affairs that I can find.

      Deconstructing the nonsense which now makes up so much of political discourse is a valuable service. It stops the Lunatic Mainstream (as Mark Steyn rightly terms it) from having the whole field of public thought and utterance to itself.

      The exposure of the fundamental flaws in the Mainstream’s nonsense worldview indicates, of itself, what the sane policies should be.

    • well at least we conservatives didn’t build America’s failed inner cities. Your team did.

      • Cons were compliant in some way – cooperation, acquiescence, or cowardice – or it couldn’t have happened.

      • I think you’ve got three pretty good reasons. But much of their acquiescence and cowardice was focused on not being called “racist.” Outside of Jack Kemp, I don’t remember any other republicans or conservatives trying to help the inner city.

  2. What you have described, professor, is greed and moral narcissism.

    “Why should I worry about water? I have mine!”

    That’s what the coastal elite think even when they express concern about delta smelt.

    “Diversity is our strength!”

    That’s a mindless slogan more likely uttered by all-white sanctuary city dwellers in Malibu than black residents driven from Compton.

    When historians look at the left-wing psychosis of this era they will see past the madness and describe the selfishness. The two percent railing about the one percent and destroying the other 97 percent in the process won’t be remembered fondly.

    • great post, Jack. Though a big Hanson fan, I think your post has a great deal of merit as well and I am saving it.

    • You have it exactly right. It’s not nihilism (Hanson makes no connection to it) – it’s Lib psychosis. Making sense of irrational thinking is not possible.

  3. I don’t know if ‘nihilist’ is the right label for the ‘progressive’ left, but neither for that matter is ‘progressive’. They are if nothing else, regressive, maybe Rousseauian, in their desire to return to an idyllic, unfettered State of Nature. In their studied innocence they remind me of the 19th-century utopians, and latterly the mid-20th-century hippy communes. But I guess ‘nihilist’ describes their ruthless abandonment of centuries of Western history, science, and literature, in favor of vague notions of ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, and some effusive kind of pan-sexuality.

    The problem is that this naive idealism, which eschews logic, empirical reality, law, and tradition, has been carried lock, stock, and barrel into the halls of government and academia by the aging hippies of the 1960s and their innocent children. If you can imagine an entire state (larger than most nations of the world) run with all the contradictions and absurdities of a Back-to-Nature commune, you might be close to describing California. It is an insanity that might be entertaining when practiced by a few hundred lost souls on a communal farm in Minnesota, but is courting disaster when it affects some 40 million people.

    /L. E. Joiner

    • William Morris, known for his Arts & Craft designs, was also a British Radical Socialist (not a Fabian), wrote an idyllic utopian novel, “News from Nowhere”, in response the American author Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, where machines do all the work)
      THAT is the utopia imagined by our progressives, from Wilson to the present.
      If only they followed Morris’ lead – he withdrew from politics and created the genre of heroic fantasy, which led to Tolkien, and thus Hollywood…

    • Another example would be the people in California who want to coexist with coyotes and wildcats in urban areas. They want to bring wolves back and even grizzly bears to nature areas.

    • Lib-Leftists are indeed progressive in that they are pursuing the marxist progression. Read Marx, folks, learn something about the way the enemy thinks, what their goals are, and how they expect to attain them. Just because they deny they are marxists doesn’t make it true.

    • Good points, DX4, Hominid,Tricia. There is a certain common theme among the many varieties of progressivism, whether called Utopianism, Communalism, Communism, or contemporary flavors like Environmentalism or Social (even ‘Climate’) Justice, etc. That is a rejection of the value of the individual in society, the principle that informed the Founding of the American Republic, and set it on a course unique among the history of nations.

      All of these ‘progressive’ movements, whether statist or not, suffer from the same malady, namely repression of individual thought and action in favor of collective dogma. There is really no difference in principle between the Stazi of East Germany and the fear and loathing of divergent opinion in American academia. They all aim to suppress the dignity and freedom of the individual in favor of conforming to a collectivity. Wherever you find repression of speech, you will find liberty on the wane, and tyranny on the rise, and the American ideal in jeopardy.

      The nihilism of which Professor Hanson speaks is, I suspect, entirely a symptom of this malady, the strangely comforting affinity for the tyranny of the group. Firm values, empirical thought, common-sense policies, respect for the grounded individual, all of these are anathema to the adherent of collectivist movements, which require only obedience and True Belief—not in any fundamental values, but in the ill-defined aims of the movement itself.

      /L. E. Joiner

  4. Professor Hanson knocks it out of the park again! The hypocrisy of California’s liberal elite would be comical, if it wasn’t so tragic.

  5. As is so very often the case, another succinct and illuminating essay from Mr. Hanson.

  6. I don’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote to the effect that “nihilism and tolerance are the dying gasps of a moribund civilization.”

  7. One of the best arguments for keeping progressivism out of public schools: if they can’t promote any other religion, why does this one get a pass?

  8. The reason the coastal elites don’t care about building new reservoirs is a policy where they have no skin in the game. The little mentioned water policy in California is that during drought (which is 4 out of every 5 years on average) farmers with secondary water rights must fallow their fields in order that coastal cities can have first dibs on imported water. If the Kulak farmers in the Central Valley die of thirst in the process, who cares, because they aren’t the constituency of progressive government. If coastal cities and their economies had to live on their local groundwater supplies (about 30% of their needs) just as farmers have to, they would start building reservoirs. But politicians can instead promote a faith based Postmodern image of California returning to a bucolic Garden of Eden (Eden in Aramaic means ‘fruitful, well-watered’) to urban elites while its rural farmers fallow fields, go bust on farm loans and watch their fields turn to dust bowls. This Stalin-like water policy persists in California and is nihilistic. Hanson, however, doesn’t mention why it is nihilistic or what nihilism is. Nihilism was a doctrine of the extreme Russian Revolutionary Party (circa 1900) that found “nothing” (nihil) to approve of in the established order. And farmers are left with nothingness when their imported water supplies are curtailed. Ironically, there was no drought in California from 2012 through 2015 because a cycle of four dry years and one deluge year is normal. What was abnormal was that California had only about a half year to 1-year of water supplies in storage to handle the typical four year dry cycle.

  9. “Or is the angst a highbrow modernist version of swallowing goldfish and cramming into phone booths or Volkswagens—the sort of venting characteristic of exuberant youth?”

    The angst comes the perception that the jig is soon up for the human race as we know it.

      • We are going to replace ourselves with cyborgs, and fairly soon.

      • You men in jobs? What will happen to all the millions of ‘folks’ who are rendered nonproductive?

  10. Thanks to Prof. Hanson for another on-target analysis. My opinion is that America needs a transformative leader who can put the nation on a better path. Trump is not that leader, although, despite his many faults and weaknesses, he is proving to have the guts to battle progressivism in all its heinous forms. He is also willing to take on existential nuclear-armed threats (N. Korea and Iran) and bring order to the immigration situation after 50 years of neglect and hypocrisy. Perhaps Trump can do the dirty work to get the nation to a point where it is more ready to listen to reason.

  11. ‘How many pundits, academics, social engineers, economists, politicians and individuals consider a fundamental of their lives in this present time?

    That it is thanks to the ordinary American citizens who “put their money” and their lives “where their mouths are” that millions of peoples world wide live in ease, prosperity and relative safety from predatory and murderous other peoples.

    During the past century and particularly the past half century with the Pax Americana they assured the birth, growth, and development of the most important “product” that makes humans different from other animals.

    Human brain power. Created anew, grew, developed BECAUSE the “material” essential to it was not destroyed in fruitless wars.

    Wars initiated and executed primarily to display certain egomaniacs’ power of life and death of “The Lives of Others”.

    And because there were Americans AND others of western liberal nations described by George Orwell as “rough men” , The Americans protection with treasury and blood of relative peace for almost a half century. Until some of those privileged in that peace decided to FUNDAMENTALLY transform the nation” that assured that peace. For reasons best known to them but as a fraternity who despise People / The People. W

  12. They’re hot tub nihilists, Victor, where it’s safe and sane to bestow meaning on the world while calling the world existentially meaningless, provided it’s the unwashed bigoted coal miner’s son that does all the meaningless existential killing, bleeding, and dying to bring meaningless meaning, dignity, and liberty to meaningless Muslim Omar and Jamal and by way of spreading meaningful “gay married” Beavis and Butthead’s life style to exotic if barbaric Kabul while toking and soaking away in progressive Silly Con Valley. In a brief moment of liquid lucidity among his altered states and algorithms, Beavis said, “Bummer, man. Hey, Butthead, pass the joint over to Jamal before he self detonates.” But Butthead was too late, BANG, and the vintage redwood hot tub with soaking Beavis and Butthead and Jamal was no more, deleted, kaput.

  13. A few observations:

    #1. “Progressivism” or “Modern Liberalism” is actually regressive and illiberal. It seeks to reduce individual liberty while increasing state power, turning back the clock on centuries of progress on human rights. It promotes racial/class/gender warfare while advocating racist, redistributionist and sexist policies.

    #2. Progressivism/Modern Liberalism is essentially a secular religion which relies on faith in dogma, the great good of government and the evils of economic/individual freedom, while ignoring the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Government is their God.

    #3. “White privilege” is a racist doctrine used to justify racist policies.

  14. No, not nihilism, nor narcicissm.

    Rather simple True Belief: religious certainty & fervor; this the New American Inquisition, the Progressive Elite, the new Torquemadas.

    They simply know. No need for argument or proof when Truth is itself so readily apparent: “Why this is the Drought, nor are we out of it. Why this is Racism, nor will it ever end. Why this the vatted KoolAid to juice our Higher Ed Curricula. Why these are those we Always Oppress (in systemic & insidious ways), even as they clamor to come in!”

    This is not an embrace of Meaninglessness; rather this is to embrace the Singularity which is the Greening of Progressive Utopian, Radically Egalitarian, Wholly Inclusive & highly Existential, moral Relativism. Things are So because We Say They’re So.

    Obviously, then, in order to rid ourselves of this corruption which haunts us still we must Put You to the Question(s): Do you believe a man who thinks himself a woman really is a woman? Do you believe that America really is an oppressive, racist, misogynistic hell hole? Do you believe “1 in 5” women are raped on our college campuses — officially making the Quad the “worst place on earth to be a woman” (surpassing the Democratic Republic of the Congo — former title holder)? Do you believe in Social Justice? Do you believe in Inclusivity? Do you believe in the Power of Diversity? Do you think Quality a White-Privileged Leftover of Repression?

    More to come.

    Be careful how you answer, the Mobs of Middlebury are right outside your door.

    • I tend to agree with you, “bigly.” In the 1976 fall semester, I was one of 16 or so students at an Ivy League university in a seminar required, with a thesis and other items, for the Honors degree in History. The seminar dealt with historical writing & the theories behind it. Among other authors, we read Marx. During the Marx discussion, 4 of the students self-identified as Communists. As the discussion wore on, one of them said, “Communism is what was, what is and what will be.” When I heard that, I was convinced that for committed Communists and other similarly committed leftists, Communism & leftism was a religion. I think my classmates’ statements reflect what Dr. Hanson refers to in the environmentalism context as “ideologically-driven fundamentalism” as in fundamentalist religion.

  15. Excellent illustration of the absurdity of the progressives.

    • Federalista, shill for nihilistic progressive hypocrisy.

  16. In addition to nihilism (which BHO made mainstream Democratic dogma), the Democrats are the ultimate Reactionaries, desperately trying to stop time and keep everything just the way it was when they were twenty-three years old.

  17. A lot of the college protests sound like the protesters were raised on stories of the old, “heroic” days of Vietnam and civil rights protests, and want to relive those “glory days.”

  18. I must hand it to VDH, his skill at identifying and calling out societal BS is of the highest level.

  19. Another VDH article of clarity and brilliance. “…protest against privilege from islands of privilege and pleasure.”