It is the interaction of this consumer society with post-orthodox America that so fascinates Wolfe. He cites Nietzsche, who after reporting the death of God in 1882 delivered a prophesy of the next 200 years. “He predicted,” said Wolfe in 1996, “that the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining.” World War I, World War II, the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction — that crazy German had a point.
And Nietzsche made a second prediction.
Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century ‘on the mere pittance’ of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of ‘the total eclipse of all values’ (in The Will to Power). This would also be a frantic period of ‘revaluation,’ in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says, ‘Thou shalt’ or ‘Thou shalt not.’
The total eclipse of all values, the great revaluation — hard to deny we are living through them both, with one-fifth of the population, including one-third of adults under 30, affiliating with no religion, with scientism and environmentalism and superstition encroaching on religious ground, with the collapse in the distinction between genders, the marginalization of traditional social roles, and the corresponding proliferation of reactionary movements seeking the authentic pasts of nation, of sect, of race, of tribe.
Here is where Wolfe finds his material. We hold doggie yoga classes while selling fetal brains. We denounce global warming from conferences we arrive at by private jet. We recite the hosannas of diversity while suppressing opposing views. We release prisoners even though the communities most likely to be harmed by such a policy are the majority-minority neighborhoods we profess to care so deeply about. We inhabit a continent of poses and struts and vanity and incompetence. It’s a thick soup of the absurd, the frustrating, and the maddening.
Meanwhile Wolfe observes, detached and amused. “The Republican Party as now constituted is obviously too stupid to survive,” he wrote to a friend in 2000. “What is to be done? Of course, that was Lenin’s line and the only lucid one he ever wrote.” He goes on:
The answer is nothing. America’s position is unassailable. We are the imperial Rome of the 3rd Millennium. Our government is a CSX train on a track. People on one side (the left) yell at it, and people on the other side (the right) yell at it, but the train’s only going to go down the track.
Wolfe is right. Probably Nietzsche too.