I recently read Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, a classic of 19th century Russian literature. One of the story’s chief dynamics, which remains familiar today, is what happens to families after their children are transformed by the pursuit of higher education. In this case, the sons returned to their traditional and provincial families, but they had become cynical nihilists during their time in university, contemptuous of the Christian faith and lack of sophistication of their parents.
The liberal-minded parents, having praised the value of education mostly to secure social advancement, have no real answers to their sons’ newfound beliefs, or rather lack thereof. One of the fathers says to his brother, “You and I are behind the times, our day’s over. . . . I did so hope, precisely now, to get on to such close intimate terms with [my son] Arkady, and it turns out I’m left behind, and he has gone forward, and we can’t understand each other.”
While the novel was set in a different country more than 150 years ago, contemporary America has many of the same characteristics: namely, the widespread belief in liberal progress, coupled with a romantic account of youth and change. This all means that many parents are reluctant to stand in the way of their children. Having embraced the ethic of “live and let live” and remembering their own parents’ traditionalism as a grating inconvenience, they lack a vocabulary to say to their kids that you will not be a transsexual, you will not mutilate yourself, you will get a job, you will go to church, and the like.
Of course, children are being influenced in a particular direction; the recent explosion of strange fads like transexualism is not self-generated by young people. The people running the public schools, the media, and, of course, the universities all conspire to push young people in a particular direction and to substitute their own authority and their own moral code for that of more conservative-minded parents.
There is also an important structural factor at work. As children became more of a “luxury good” rather than an “economic asset,” kids’ and society’s narcissism has exploded. Remember the cretins whose wealthy parents were bribing college admissions officers so that the kids and the families could obtain the stolen valor of an elite education? This is all in the same spirit as the “social media influencer” and the perfect selfie on Instagram, a worldview that prioritizes glamor and image over substance and duty.
This brings us to the case of the recent mass shooter in Highland Park. Like all of these killings, it was horribly familiar—at once, banal and terrifying. In the aftermath, there have been discussions of gun control, mental health, and the shooter’s politics, but all of these inquiries ignore the elephant in the room. Anyone untouched by today’s dominant reality-defying ideologies can take one look at this kid and see something is wrong. He is an obvious lunatic, who has been allowed to act out his lunatic tastes and interests, and he is one of the legion of such lunatics our society produces now with some regularity.
He also meets all the criteria of an objective loser: unemployed, not in school, an unsuccessful singing career, and more than a few brushes with the law. His failures were enabled by his parents, who apparently placed him on a pedestal. Like so many of these cases, there was not one, but rather 100 warning signs before the shooting that everyone, including his parents, ignored.
The shooter had earlier shown suicidal ideation and threatened to kill his whole family. The cops were called and, at that time, took his knives, but he was not arrested. Not too long thereafter, his dad cosigned a license to permit the son to become a lawful gun owner in Illinois. (This is required in Illinois if the buyer is under 21.) The parents either did not know or did not care that their occasionally suicidal and homicidal son had amassed a small arsenal in the apartment which they provided for him.
This is all madness. I understand parents love their kids no matter what. But here mere self-preservation should have had some influence. More important, if the father had some objective frame of reference, he would have realized his son was becoming a danger to himself and others. Instead, the dad cannot even muster enough shame to recognize his own role in this horror show.
This blindness to reality is simply a microcosm of the breakdown of authority in society more generally. In the desire not to be judgmental, many parents neglect the most essential task of parenthood: the transmission of values and character. This requires belief, including a belief in one’s authority. Without authority there is no authentic parenthood. True parenthood requires the black-and-white judgments and corrections to guide a young person into responsible adulthood.
This crisis of authority manifests in other ways. It is one reason the Left is essentially powerless in the face of its own radical caucus, including the militants of antifa. Since the whole leftist belief system is built on criticizing the past as an unending story of oppression, those who take this more seriously are given a pass, as they are seemingly more authentic. If the past is worse the further one proceeds into it—a corollary of the belief in progress—then as between parents and children, and the old and the young more generally, the youth always have an advantage in rejecting and rebelling against any limitations.
Merely recognizing the problem will not solve it. You can’t summon belief from unbelief, nor resurrect tradition simply by recognizing the costs of its absence. We live in an age of narcissistic nihilism, and pointless violence is simply its most dramatic manifestation.
God help us.