January 12, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 448

Empty Vessels Looking To Belong

January 12, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez and Yigal Carmon*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 448

According to a poll conducted in late 2022, most young Americans are not proud to live in the United States.[1] Thirty six percent of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) were proud, while only 16% of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) expressed similar feelings. If the poll is to be trusted, a majority of Americans under the age of 40 are, at best, extremely ambivalent about the United States. Generation Z is also the least religious American generation yet, with historic highs in people who are not religiously affiliated (34%) and highs in those who consider themselves atheists or agnostics (18%). A full 50% of Generation Z believe that traditional gender roles are outdated, and 21% identify themselves as LGBTQ+, also a historic high. They are also an anxious and depressed generation.[2] Not surprisingly, when they do vote (most of them do not), these younger American voters lean left. Here we see tangible evidence of a shift away from those older norms of identity – national identity or patriotism, religious faith, and the traditional family. America is changing. The Western world is changing, with North America seeming to move fastest.[3]

And while the West is only a minority of the world's population, the West's cultural, economic and media weight is far greater than its population, its obsessions and neuroses inevitably looming large on the world stage whether the rest of the world wants to or not. As the old identities of the West dissolve, it is not clear what can remain or what will emerge. The greatest passions of the moment seem to be sexual, racial, and therapeutic rather than religious, political, or economic. We seem to be, as the great Anglo-Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman noted, in an interregnum between the ending of the old ways and the beginning of the new, with this interregnum being an age of permanent uncertainty. Modernity inexorably pushes forward, leaving the old certainties behind, but with an unclear destination.[4]

For writer Katherine Dee, our late liberal interregnum has "a nihilism problem," where, for many, neither civilization nor society nor even life seem to have much meaning:

In the swirl of confusion, nothing has meaning. Meaning is elusive. Nihilism – the rejection of the possibility of meaning – is the water in which we swim and the darkness that has enveloped our way of life in ways we haven't even begun to comprehend.[5]

It is hardly surprising that to be modern and liberal in the West seems to also be mostly childless, as birth rates plummet worldwide, but especially in the most advanced economies of the West (plus East Asia). Confusion does not seem to be conducive to reproducing, to large families, or to looking towards the future. And the great irony about a modern world that dissolves old identities is the ceaseless search for new ones, as new frontiers we didn't even know existed are transcended. Just beyond the current frenzied ventures in gender lie enticing new fields such as hallucinogenic research and human brain-machine interfacing.[6] And as long as the technology and wealth of the American empire is intact, there seems to be no end in sight to the appetite for experimentation.[7]

Sometimes the search for identity can go from bad to worse, whether it be children lamenting having mutilated themselves in bouts of sexual experimentation, the bleak nihilism of American teenage mass shooters, or Westerners desperately shopping for new racial or religious identities. California teen detransitioner Chloe Cole, who had her breasts removed at the age of 15, compares the transition surgery of minors to Nazi medical experiments.[8] There are apparently at least 72 genders to choose from, as well as more than a few cases of white people in America seeking to reinvent themselves into higher-status Black or Indigenous personae.[9]

The challenges are not limited to the West. Urbanization and modernity have been major social challenges in the developing world for decades, and particularly destructive to traditional societies uprooted by rapid change. In Israel, the country's Bedouin population has experienced massive upheaval as they are settled in new towns built in the Negev. Faced with a disruption in their traditional lifestyle, poverty, and crime, many have embraced political Islam as a safe haven in times of uncertainty and upheaval. Proof of this is the large number of mosques that have been built during this accelerated process of urbanization. The Bedouin, who historically have not been characterized by devout Islamism, are mentally crushed by this process, during which they are losing their way of life and their identity. As a result, they cleave to Islam to hold them together from within.

Where it can maintain any sort of real vitality and solidity in the face of our liquid future, traditional religion (or new faiths) will remain somewhat of a refuge from such nihilistic darkness. Ours is a metaphysical dilemma and it requires metaphysical responses. It seems hard to be a centrist when the center does not hold, when the middle ground of supposed liberal reason is excavated out from under you. But one of the risks of opposing the zeitgeist by finding supposed refuges that seem the furthest removed or most intransigent from the spirit of the age is that of extremism.

The controversial, resolutely anti-modern former kickboxer turned misogynist influencer Andrew Tate, now under arrest for human trafficking in Romania, recently described Islam , to which he recently converted, as "the last religion, the last one, because no other religion has boundaries which they will enforce. If you will tolerate everything, then you stand for nothing."[10] Europe-based Islamic reformer Hamed Abdel-Samad, in contrast to Tate, sees contemporary conservative Islam as increasingly "dwindling."[11] Tate seems to have taken a faith journey, if you can call it that in such a singular personality, that went from nominal Christian to Romanian Orthodox to Islam.[12] Still, to be Amish or Benedictine or Chasidic is also to be in clear contradistinction to an unmoored world. But then so is being a white supremacist or a jihadist.[13]

In the United Kingdom, Gen X (she was born in 1968) Sally-Anne Jones went from nominal Christian to punk rock to witchcraft and alternative lifestyles to not just converting to Islam but to becoming a highly successful recruiter for the Islamic State.[14] Less than a decade ago, tens of thousands of other Westerners, both converts and cradle Muslims, were motivated to leave the West and seek to emigrate to ISIS territory, where their lives were in constant danger.

More recently, in 2018, 17-year-old Corey Johnson of Jupiter, Florida decided to become a Muslim by watching ISIS videos and reading the Quran, though he seems never to have actually interacted with a live Muslim. Johnson seems like a Generation Z poster boy for our time – no father, "above-average intelligence but delayed maturity, autism, and severe mental illness," depression, prescription medications, stalking on social media.[15] For the supposed sake of Islam, he stabbed a 13-year-old boy to death and attempted to kill two other people one night during a sleepover. Before Islam, he had been infatuated with Hitler and Stalin, with white supremacists. He supported the Oklahoma City bombing (which took place five years before he was born). He had a swastika on his Facebook profile. During his trial in November 2021 in Florida, his defense attorneys described him as an "empty vessel looking to belong."[16] Despite expressing remorse, he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 21.

In this new age of fervid identity seeking, the state in the West and many legacy institutions, their own foundations shaken, are mostly either absent or, in many ways, seeking to be relevant by promoting the latest thing. Many will be swept along with the latest enthusiasm, the last mirage, which will constantly need to be reinvented and repackaged to give the impression of progress. The Cult of the New will be regularly appeased. Others will often feel that they are on their own, redundant or alienated, alone before the winds of rapidly accelerating change, alone before the darkness. In them will remain the spark of authentic rebellion. Instead of seeking utopia, the imperative will be a search for communities which seem to offer safe harbor – or the illusion of a safe harbor.

* Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI; Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1], January 9, 2023.

[2], October 16, 2021.

[3], January 9, 2023.

[4], uploaded January 29, 2012.

[5], June 10, 2022.

[6], January 3, 2023.

[7], January 5, 2023.


[9], February 16, 2021.

[10], August 10, 2022.

[12], January 9, 2023.

[13] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 446, 'Allahu Akbar' – 'Allah Is The Greatest' – A Jihadi Battle Cry, January 11, 2023.

[14], October 12, 2017.

[15], January 14, 2022.

[16], January 14, 2022.

Share this Report: