Can the Left Be Happy?

A crucial moment in the development of modern left-wing culture arrived some time in 2013, when Ta-Nehisi Coates, reading books about the ravages and aftermath of World War II by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, realized that he didn’t believe in God.

“I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Coates wrote for The Atlantic then. “I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos … I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

I apologize for pinning so much on one writer’s existential crisis. But it’s fair to describe the author of “The Case for Reparations” and “Between the World and Me” as the defining pundit-intellectual of the late Obama era, the writer whose work on race and American life set the tone for progressivism’s trajectory throughout the Trump years and into the great “racial reckoning” of 2020 (by which time Coates had made an enviable escape to fiction).

And in his crisis of faith, his refusal of optimism, you see the question that has hung over left-wing culture throughout a period in which its influence over many American institutions has markedly increased: Does it make any sense for a left-winger to be happy?

The left-wing temperament is, by nature, unhappier than the moderate and conservative alternatives. The refusal of contentment is essential to radical politics; the desire to take the givens of the world and make something better out of them is always going to be linked to less relaxed gratitude, than to more of a discontented itch.

But the 20th century left had two very different anchors in a fundamental optimism: the Christianity of the American social gospel tradition, which influenced New Deal liberalism and infused the civil rights movement, and the Marxist conviction that the iron logic of historical development would eventually bring about a secular utopia — trust the science (of socialism)!

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