On a particularly cold Autumn day, I stood on a street corner in a small North American town. It was windier and chillier than normal, and hardly conducive to the kind of procrastinative loitering typical of Southern Europe — but the Sun was unusually bright, and when its warmth caught my face I knew what the moment demanded. I lit a cigarette and let the Sun toast me as best it could. Whistling old Christmas tunes, I watched as three desperate souls hurried past me in three different directions.
All three walked quickly. They maintained a nervous gait, as if trying to angrily injure the ground with each step. Hands in pockets, their backpacks hoisted high and tight so that they were leaning inwards. Their eyes never met mine, because their peculiar postures kept their lines of sight directed firmly downwards two meters ahead of them. All three had white earphones firmly implanted into their heads. All three became separate again as quickly as they had become close.
For a moment as they walked away, I felt as if I had witnessed something of supreme importance, even though I didn’t know what it was. Breath firmly bated, balanced somewhere between contemplation and bewilderment, I then finally exhaled a knowing chuckle: I had just witnessed social alienation!
Exhortations on the dangers of social alienation (or atomization, or isolation, if you prefer), are hardly limited to the Right. Slate, among other things, relates a statistic that “loneliness” has doubled among Americans since the 1980’s. The Los Angeles Times says “People who are socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely, regardless of their underlying health issues…” Social alienation – the term I will stick with – is hardly an invented problem for traditionalists and Luddites, yet its manifestations are poorly articulated by the secular clerisy and its implications even more poorly.
The most recent vogue seems to be to describe problems of social alienation in relation to, or as a result of, social media and technological advances. The Slate writer in the previously linked piece only implicates new technologies as causes of social alienation. Her personal anecdote about loneliness begins with a coast-to-coast relocation, but she doesn’t overtly identify her move as a culprit. It is easy to see why technology attracts the most blame – throw a stone through Times Square and you’re more likely to break someone’s iPhone than someone’s skull (at least, you’ll break both).
Yet technology alone cannot be blamed for social alienation – iPhones and Facebook accounts do not force themselves on unsuspecting socially integrated people in the middle of the night in a dark alleyway (or frat-house, for the feminists out there). The three atomized individuals who passed by me and my street corner made a conscious choice before they began their journeys across town not to care for the bustle and noise of their homes and fellow citizens. If a fellow citizen was whistling holiday tunes, they would not know. If songbirds sang today, they would not know. If a cry for help rang out from behind a building, they would not know. Since they had made a conscious decision to notice nothing but their feet and the two meters of pavement in front of them, they would hardly know anything about their surroundings at all. Ought one not feel a chill realizing that pop music might get in the way of rescue after an accident or attack?
Where does one typically shove in the earphones and ignore reality? On airplanes? Public transport? Yours truly, who strives to be socially integrated rather than alienated, typically only turns on the iPod on international flights, surrounded by cranky foreigners. I recall one particularly interesting transatlantic flight, wherein I was sandwiched between a number of uniformed American soldiers returning from Iraq on one side, and a number of bearded Muslim scholars of some sort attired in traditional Islamic garb on the other. Yes, in such a situation, I would imagine the healthy response to be alienating oneself from the particular social situation, and inputting the earphones. Yet what does it say about Western society, then, that self-imposed isolation by technology, even while in public, is the norm? Frankly, it says that the average Westerner has come to expect to meet cranky foreigners in daily life outside the home.
I see the roots of social alienation in the political policies enacted by government functionaries steeped in the ideologies of materialism, globalism, internationalism, secularism and socialism. From small Italian city centres swarming with Bangladeshi families to sprawling German cities filled with loitering Africans, the doctrines of diversity, multiculturalism and mass immigration have never been proven so harmful yet been so devoutly implemented anyway. While the precise source escapes me, I recall one German identitarian remarking that, above everything, what bothered him most about immigrants was how loud they were compared to Germans – boomboxes, shouting matches, loud conversations; all these disrupted the rhythmic lulls of native German life. In such a situation, why not atomize? Choice of music in, “vibrant” “multicultural” life out. This has become the default situation, seemingly, from Seattle to Stuttgart.
International industrial capitalism certainly plays a role too – the modern world is unique in the way it prompts people to move from city to city, or even country to country, in search of a paycheck. A growing class of rootless cosmopolitans certainly doesn’t positively affect the average social alienation of a society. Yet, the most flagrant gestures of inward, anti-social movement do not stem from periodic relocation. It is not just that citizens fail to invest money in their local communities, or fail to establish long-term clubs or businesses or relationships due to their nomadic modern lifestyles. Rather, they have opted not to invest even their eyes or ears in their surroundings. Modernity has turned the public sphere into a 3:00am Bangkok—Kabul flight with a crappy airline, and the Cathedral reassures us this is a great improvement on our societies of old.
On a recent trip to Germany, I spent an afternoon exploring the streets of my hotel neighborhood and killing time in the cafés and bars therein. In the few free hours I had, I remember noticing an animated Greek couple, an angry Serb yelling into a mobile phone, a visibly intoxicated (and possibly retarded) Russian, a Turkish kebab vendor who couldn’t affect a German “r,” and a surly blonde German waitress, covered in tattoos, who served me my coffee. (The café bathroom had an ANTIFA sticker on the door). The stream of native Germans, whom I passed on the street, silent and unobtrusive, failed to make an impression on me. I can’t remember how many of them wore earphones.