Opinion: Digging deeper into Stamford’s ‘hellhole’

The city of Stamford.

The city of Stamford.

Tyler Sizemore, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

I previously called Stamford a cultural hellhole and the article attracted a variety of responses ranging from full support to condemnation. Some of these responses focused specifically on the proposal for the Glenbrook Community Center or historic preservation in general. I’m not interested in relitigating that issue because it’s not only boring but it’s also not the point. Truthfully, my point may have been lost because the published piece was a combination of two separate thoughts. One about my disappointment in Stamford’s arts scene, and another about my frustration with our local governance’s dysfunction. I think these two points are related, and I hope to clarify that now.

Stamford’s problems are not unique to Stamford. They are replicated all over the country. This is best represented by the several comments I received from people who’ve moved out of Stamford and discovered an identical mindset in other places in the country (or even internationally). The problem is a mindset of pervasive negativity about the direction of a community’s future. This is more than a difference in politics. It is a moral issue that is tightly intertwined with the beliefs of this faction I refer to as citizens against virtually everything (CAVE people). You can see the issue in how people responded to my article.

The most illuminating response was from de facto CAVE people leaning into the identity as a CAVE person. This includes Stamford’s president of the Board of Representatives Jeff Curtis, who doubled down on this description both on social media and elsewhere.

The first concession is they don’t disagree with the characterization of their views as being “citizens against virtually everything.” Nowhere in Curtis’ response does he suggest I have somehow misunderstood or unfairly equated his views with something he doesn’t believe. He has exactly two critiques. One, he says all the things I suggest Stamford needs we don’t need (or have already), and two, he believes he and others like him “deserve respect.” Which is to say, CAVE people don’t mind if you interpret their views as innately obstructionist, regressive, and negative — they only cares if you have the gall to tell them these views are unacceptable.

The second concession is the admission that the views of CAVE people have been intrinsically linked with their identity — even though the attributes of a CAVE person are not linked to immovable or unchangeable features. Any individual could take a conservative approach to new proposals without being explicitly negative or obstructionist and they would not be a CAVE person. It is not necessarily their views, but choosing to take an approach that is negative, obstructionist, and hateful. This approach is something they could simply choose not to take if they believed doing so had any value. But they don’t because they can’t. This combination of entitlement and pervasive negativity is who they are now. Demanding respect while refusing to engage any tangible new ideas does not refute my article — it proves it (thanks!).

You won’t see me taking a victory lap though, because this exchange with Stamford’s CAVE people has proven how damaging this phenomenon is to our community and the world. This is the phenomenon that seeps its way into every policy or issue and it actively makes us miserable. This phenomenon is worse than merely opposing new housing, or bike lanes, or zoning changes. It is a phenomenon of people choosing to embrace nihilism — the belief in nothing at all.

My concern for nihilism is not unique. Over the past decade a spree of writers and political thinkers have identified nihilism as the driving factor of all modern divisions. The first was 19th century philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche who wrote about it extensively before he had a mental breakdown and died. Again, this is not a political disagreement. It is a moral issue. You can prove this because left-leaning and right-leaning thinkers have come to the same conclusion.

Tara Isabella Burton is a young, Sanders-supporting, former Vox journalist who wrote a book in 2020 named “ Strange Rites.” In the book she argues human beings need a belief system to function, which was traditionally provided through organized religion. Burton says if people do not follow a religion, then they will recreate one with other things. She defines belief systems as something that provides meaning which explains why the world is the way it is, purpose which prescribes what an individual should do with their life, ritual to reinforce these two things, and a community that shares these beliefs. Burton argues — quite convincingly — that we have misunderstood the West’s declining religiosity. We believed our society was leaving religious belief, when in reality we have been recreating religion with other things.

What are these other things? Much of it is fandom. Harry Potter, “Star Trek,” Marvel movies, or alternative lifestyles such as Wicca just so happen to provide the meaning, purpose, ritual, and community people need. But the final chapters of the book are where things take a dark turn. Because these fandoms are nothing compared to the true new religions of our time: politics. Left-wing politics — featuring purity and damnation concepts through cancel culture; and right-wing politics — featuring bizarro communal sermons through fringe communities like Q Anon and Donald Trump rallies. The problem is politics was never designed to be a meaning maker. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we have recreated Christianity without any of the good parts (like forgiveness or redemption).

Burton isn’t alone. Michel Houellebecq is an unapologetic right-wing author based in France and potentially the most problematic person on the planet. His 2015 book “ Submission ” is explicitly racist and Islamophobic but comes to the same conclusion as Burton. Without any sense of meaning or purpose, human beings “submit” to the first thing that comes along to replace it.

These pseudo-religions acquire vast membership because people are realizing en masse they don’t subscribe to historical belief systems. Some go further and say you can’t believe in anything. This was another phenomenon predicted by Nietzsche, who said if you abandon traditional belief systems then the only belief left is belief in your own personal power. Although, I think the modern variant is closer to what Christopher Lasch described in his 1979 book “ The Culture of Narcissism ” where he alluded to a generation of Americans becoming prestige-seeking husks with no morals or ethics undergirding their pursuit of status.

Before I close the loop on this point, it’s important to note it is completely understandable so many Americans doubt the future has anything good waiting for us. Some generations are living through what must feel like an extended “Twilight Zone” episode. The prosperity and security of the 1980s and 1990s seemingly evaporated in the dust of the World Trade Center towers. Since then, we discovered our global economy was essentially fake, since it was easily susceptible to an elaborate Ponzi scheme that tanked the livelihood of millions of Americans in 2008. We never really resolved the pain that came from that global financial crisis and things haven’t been getting better. Pensions lost, ever-rising property taxes, health care inaccessibility, a developing stratified society, political corruption, racial tensions, social propaganda, and all of that made worse by a global pandemic — which we can’t even agree how bad it was or continues to be. The trajectory of the past few decades is simply insane.

So, I get it. Much of the world has suffered a credibility collapse and many have chosen to cling to what they know — their local community as it was before all this happened. It’s not surprising this group is deeply resistant to any chic political movement claiming to fix anything — even if it offers free ponies. Especially when these ideas are championed by political leaders who somehow have completely skipped all the misery the rest of us have experienced. It’s traumatizing.

But my empathy for these people ends when they decide their pain and frustration is their new source of meaning and purpose. In the handful of conversations I’ve had with defenders of CAVE people, I’ve challenged them to put forth an alternate vision for Stamford. If they don’t like my ideas, give me another option. They simply cannot do it. Much like a depressed person explaining why they’ll never be happy, these people effortlessly tie every issue — from government spending to bike lanes — to a nihilistic belief the world is irredeemably corrupted, and nothing can or will get better. This is a viewpoint that has been adopted by the younger generations — who now have the highest records of drug overdoses, suicides, mass shootings, and other disturbing acts of self-annihilation. If you suggest to these people their defeatism is part of the problem, they reliably transition to a nativist argument: “Who are you to question anything? You’re not even from here. Why don’t you go back to ‘where you’re from?’” This is the “no belief but in themselves” manifested in local politics. The only valid view is their own.

These people are acting out a religion of nihilism. They gain meaning by believing the world is corrupt. Their purpose is to oppose everything because nothing has any value. They commit to the ritual of attending every town hall and airing out their grievances over and over and over again (this is why they always shout down solutions, because they’re not there to make things better). Through all this they develop a community of fellow travelers charging our community off a cliff. I imagine they do all this because it’s better than feeling completely powerless to the changing world, but you can’t do these things every day and not expect to end up as a miserable person. Indeed, nihilism is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage (that’s a rephrasing of a David Foster Wallace quote on irony, which is a similar concept).

I wrote my original article because this problem is present in every conversation about the future of our community. Some significant portion of our residents don’t believe we have a future. That’s why they can’t propose one. They can only talk about their pain from the past. This is what depressed people do.

So, that’s my challenge to anyone who sees themselves in my description of CAVE people. I challenge you to talk about the things you want, rather than what you don’t want. I challenge you to assemble coalitions for progress rather than reactionary mobs whenever you’re bored. I challenge you to think of the future, rather than the past. This is not a difference in politics. Nihilism exists in every generation, demographic, and political camp. This is a difference of morality. Either you see the value of building a future, or you don’t.

If you do, great. We can figure out the details.

If you don’t, no one is under an obligation to placate your extended depressive episode. If you’re so happy about being a CAVE person, then stay in a cave.

The choice is yours.

Arthur Augustyn is a Stamford resident, marketing professional, and freelance writer. He previously served as director of communications in Mayor David Martin’s administration and deputy campaign manager for Mayor Caroline Simmons’s 2021 mayoral campaign.