A Less Obvious Consequence of Darwinian Materialism
In trying to understand the cultural ramifications of Darwinist materialism, we tend around here to focus on the most obvious things: a widespread delusory picture of nature and how it works, academic bullying and media intimidation, ethical monstrosities like pseudo-scientific racism and eugenics, and the like. But the poison goes much deeper, affecting broadly dispersed areas of modern life.
Materialism acts as a corrosive not just of religious belief but of all meaning that we might care to see in our existence. Human beings require meaning. We are built -- designed -- to crave it. Starved of significance in a world that we are told is entirely indifferent to us, a materialist culture like ours needs to somehow distract itself, avert its attention from the void. We do this in many ways, and a perceptive blog column in the New York Times by Tim Kreider notes one that seems increasingly pervasive.
It's the addiction to busyness.
If you live in America in the 21st century you've probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It's become the default response when you ask anyone how they're doing: "Busy!" "So busy." "Crazy busy." It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: "That's a good problem to have," or "Better than the opposite."Where does this come from? Obviously from the creeping "dread," as Krieder puts it, that if we stop for a moment, turn off the noise of modern life the and constant distraction provided by smartphones, the Internet, TV, and the rest, we'll be confronted by the danger of realizing how empty we feel.
It's not as if any of us wants to live like this; it's something we collectively force one another to do. Notice it isn't generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It's almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they've taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they've "encouraged" their kids to participate in. They're busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they're addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn't allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d'Ãªtre was obviated when "menu" buttons appeared on remotes, so it's hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion.I'm convinced that much the same explanation lies behind what our friend and Discovery Institute colleague Michael Medved calls "the Do Something Disease": the equally addictive idea in the political realm that government must always be on the lookout for something to do for us or to us.
It's never good enough to let people make their own decisions, for good or bad, as repositories of personal moral responsibility. If there's a consumer out there still foolish enough to go around buying jumbo-size sugary beverages, there's a mayor or a city council that's not doing their vital, irreplaceable job by dashing the soda from his fat hands and saving him from himself.