World War N

Getty/Eduard Muzhevskyi

World War N is a fight against nihilism, the belief that power is the only thing that really matters.

N stands for nihilism, the notion that life has no objective or implicit meaning, purpose, or value. Nihilism denies the existence of and possibility of any sense of morality, and erases the very notion of universal truths, norms, rules, or laws. Nihilism reduces humanity to atomized individuals without intrinsic worth.

Life for the nihilist is all against all: person against person, peoples against peoples, nations against nations, and humans against nature. The goal of the nihilist is power: political, economic, social, religious, etc. Truth and decency have nothing to do with and are actually antithetical to the quest for power.

Watch President Trump spout endless lies and slander at his press rallies. He isn’t ignorant, nor is he playing “four–dimensional chess” with his opponents. He is simply affirming that truth is a lie and lying creates the only truths he needs. Nihilism.

Listen to Rush Limbaugh explain to his listeners that the President doesn’t believe the lies he spouts but is simply “throwing gasoline on a fire here, and he’s having fun watching the flames.” Nihilism.

Watch ex-police officer Derek Chauvin stare blankly into a smartphone camera as he crushes the life out of George Floyd. He isn’t angry or frightened; he displays no emotion at all. He is murdering George Floyd nonchalantly as a matter of course, and as he does so he demonstrates what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Nihilism.

Watch rioters and looters destroy the economic infrastructure of the people they claim to care about. These aren’t acts of justice, or even expressions of hate and frustration. These are empty gestures, performative acts of outrage fueled not by systemic racism but by a desire to tear down anything others have built up, to throw gasoline in the real flames of racial injustice just for the fun of watching civilization burn. Nihilism.

Watch Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade) admit on her deathbed that she didn’t hold the anti-abortion stance with which she is associated but was paid by anti–abortionists to perform as if she did: “I took their money, and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say.” Nihilism.

Watch Amy Cooper change the tone of her voice on a 911 call to convince the operator that a black man who asked her to obey the law and put a leash on her dog was threatening her life, when in fact by making this claim to the police she was threatening his. Nihilism.

Pay attention to the New Hampshire man with COVID–19 who attended a party knowing he could infect others with a virus that has taken over 100,000 lives and will take many more. Nihilism.

While these examples all come from the United States, nihilism is a pandemic no less global that COVID–19. If we are fighting a world war against COVID–19, we must fight a no less global war against nihilism: World War N.

Nihilism strangles truth, integrity, and morality. With nihilism there is no concern for the life of others because life itself is of no concern. Yet resisting nihilism may be deceptively simple.

The first principle of such resistance comes from the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909–1943), “Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” Don’t fight nihilism with irony, satire, or snark. This only works when there is a generally accepted reality, and nihilism denies even the possibility of such a reality. Don’t fight nihilism with violence; this only proves the nihilist notion that power is all that matters and, as Mao Zedong wrote, “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

The only way to resist nihilism is with love: an active confrontation with self and other, person and planet, that reveals and nurtures the intrinsic worth of every living being. Think of Jesus. Think of Gandhi. Think of Dorothy Day. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Think of the last person who actually saw you as a human being, an end unto yourself, rather than a means to an end of another. Think of your dog.

Nihilism leaves no room for love. Make room for love and you put nihilism in retreat. Make room for anything less and nihilism has already won.

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