Jay Austin and Lauren Geogehan were two 29-year-old professionals. Both graduated from Georgetown and had high paying jobs in the Washington DC area. Both were political progressives and moral postmoderns. They carried the typical credentials of multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, gender fluidity, religious syncretism, and a bedrock belief that their own culture and traditions had failed them and most of the rest of the world.
They were members in good standing of the parlor socialism that defines today’s power elites.
With all this sophistication, they did not understand the real world. They quit their jobs (sure they could pick them up at some point in the future) and set out on a year of bicycling around the world. They cycled through large swaths of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
They carried no personal protection, assured by a breathtaking naivete that the world would live up to their highest estimations of themselves.
Heading to some of the most dangerous corners of the world against the advice of friends and relatives, they encountered reality in Tajikistan, a wild and ungoverned outback nestled between China on the East and Pakistan and Afghanistan on the south and west.
There, they and two temporary cycling companions from Europe were killed by five members of ISIS who ran them down with a car.
Their naivete had led them to believe that their own countrymen were evil and that the unnamed and unknown “other” was their friend. They disdained the here-and-now of their American lives and romanticized the there-and-then world of their cosmopolitan ideology. Their worldview, based on breezy generalizations about the goodness of nature and their fellow man, especially those somehow different, along with their trendy disparagement of their native civilization, blinded them to the dark lessons of history. Now they are dead.
Where have we heard of this kind of thing before?
I am reminded of Lisa Polito’s 2008 Oregon Quarterly article on the James Kim family’s decision to leave an Oregon freeway for a logging road on a Thanksgiving weekend several years ago. Driving a Saab four-wheel-drive sedan and with cellphones at the ready, wearing fashionable North Face-style shirts and vests, James and his wife Kati mistook their imagined world as the real one. Heading across the Rogue River Wilderness to the Oregon Coast, they became lost as blizzard conditions swept through the area. Days later, the wife and children were rescued, but James Kim died of exposure after they ran out of gas and discovered that much of the world has no cell coverage.
Polito writes that the Kims, like many of their generation and social class who were well to do professionals, were unable to distinguish between Here and There. Her story, titled “Everywhere is Here,” is a cautionary tale for millions today who have no sense of place, lacking what was once a part of mankind’s protective gear: an elemental fear of the unknown.
Timothy Treadwell was another postmodern sophisto who thought it was the height of human consciousness to live among Grizzly Bears. He disregarded warnings of others who had studied bears that he should use precautions. He disdained modern society and the culture that had nurtured and protected him, preferring the company of bears, which he called his “people.”
Quotes from Treadwell’s writings tell how the man thought. “How I hate the people’s [humanity’s] world,” “I’m struggling against civilization itself,” “I’m in love with my animal friends… and I’m very troubled,” and, most telling, “Why is there pain in the world? I’m confused.”
Both he and his girlfriend, Ann Huguenard, perished one October, 2003 afternoon on Alaska’s Katmai Peninsula when the “friendly” grizzlies, among which they had so foolishly carried on their lives, turned on them. In fairness to Ann, she had never trusted the bears, but (like Lauren Geogehan) was dragged along on a risky adventure by a strong-willed man.
There are always those who disregard danger and bring tragedy on themselves and others. But what we see in the cases just cited is something else. It is the repudiation of human experience gained at great cost over long periods of time and a corresponding embrace of an imagined reality based on ideology.
The common thread of all these stories is that they involve people whose lives have been largely spared adversity and penury, who have come to believe that traditional attitudes about the world are somehow mistaken, and who think that their presence in the world is to some extent salvific and therapeutic.
Belief in providence is alive and well on the political and cultural left, but it is a secular providentialism. We are awash in people today whose greatest intent is saving us from the attitudes, beliefs and traditions that have always defined us. Such people seem to hold that they are free from the paranoias and phobias that others of us suffer. They even imagine themselves immortal, which is why transhumanism flourishes among the elites and bien pensant. Having transcended the surly bonds of earth that hold the rest of us in shackles, they float in a zone of intellectual and spiritual superiority that spares them the exigencies of space and time.
Sometimes such ideas and attitudes prove deadly, if not for those who hold them then for those subject to them.