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 recently released The Dying Citizen.