Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Brooks: The Dualist Duellist

Charles Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Vagabond (1916).

David Brooks preaching against the "Culture War", but not in favor of peace:

Let’s Have a Better Culture War

Really? Let's put our money where our mouth is, Brooksy, what the fuck do you mean by that?

He means in the first place that he's sick of the old one because it's a laughingstock:

The recent fight over transgender bathrooms represents the reductio ad absurdum of the culture war.... the culture war has devolved into an overpoliticized set of gestures designed to push people’s emotional hot buttons.
So the problem with the ongoing war in the first place is that it isn't a real war: it's been continued by other means, "overpoliticized", and it's become more symbolic than real, made up of "gestures".

It's between those who "defend traditional values" on the one side and those who don't on the other. And one side seems to be fighting ineffectively while the other side isn't even paying attention:

some defenders of traditional values are addicted to sideshows that end with the whiff of intolerance.
"Whiff stands in the corner, stiff," my dad would have said.

At the same time, the larger culture itself has become morally empty, and therefore marked by fragmentation, distrust and powermongering.... Rather than fighting endless losing battles over sexual identity, we need a better culture war. We need a new traditionalism.
So the same parties as the old one, "defenders of traditional values" against the "morally empty", as the rest of us are called. Note the richly propagandistic character of the language. I don't call myself morally empty, and I don't call Brooks a "defender" either: it seems to me that he and his side (whether or not it's imaginary) are the aggressors here. I'm not saying "we" "need" a "war" of any sort. I think everybody should be free to practice and value the traditions they care for, as I practice and value mine, as long as they don't hurt anybody. I'm not interested in fighting. What do "we" "need" a "war" for, exactly?

We argue about cultural and moral matters in the first place because we care about our characters and the characters of our children. We understand that a free society requires individuals who are capable of handling that freedom — people who can be counted on to play their social roles as caring parents, responsible workers and dependable neighbors.
Does he really think arguing about cultural and moral matters started as an odd effect of the "free society"? That society became free on or about 1776, say, and some Enlightenment-era David Brooks said "we" had better start arguing about morals so the kids wouldn't get out of line? Does he think the uncaring and the irresponsible never existed until religious freedom brought them on?

For that matter has he ever heard of real wars of religion, down to the 17th century? The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Glorious Revolution 40 years later are where "free society" officially begins in Western history. We argue the way we do today because it's an alternative to killing each other that works better for everybody.

And we take care of our own kids and their moral development, leaving you to do the same with yours in whatever way seems best to you, as long as it doesn't become some kind of danger to the community (like refusal to vaccinate) or to vulnerable individuals and groups within it (like discrimination against transgender persons), when society, in the form of its democratically created political institutions, may step in to intervene. And it's a horrible mess, because we don't agree easily on what's dangerous or who's vulnerable, but it's still better than the Thirty Years' War.

And what are your weapons?

the opening assertion of a new traditionalism — that we’re not primarily physical creatures. There’s a ghost in the machine. We have souls or consciousness or whatever you want to call it.
Cartesian dualism! (I guess you can kiss your Buddhist traditions goodbye, because the Cartesian crusade is not putting up with it.)

Deployed how? First, the dualists will take over the education system:

If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers.
Then it's the scientific community, criminal justice and the State Department:

We’d see cloning and the death penalty as reckless acts that tamper with something mysterious. When we talked about foreign policy we’d talk not just about our material interests but also about what purpose we’ve been called to play in history.
It's going to be a formal element of our foreign policy that "we" have been "called" (by Whom? or What?), though perhaps not chosen, a sentiment of course that was long ago lost to Americans, maybe sometime around 2007 (the opponents of the Iraq War were those soulless materialists, I guess, when they failed to realize the United States mission of bringing whatever or Whatever to the benighted Orient, but Brooks never explicitly talks about that any more, so who knows?).

That casual-looking tossing together of a generalized issue of "cloning" with a specific reference to capital punishment, by the way, does two jobs: superficially, it asserts the utterly nonpolitical character of Brooks's program—see? we've got right stuff and left stuff!—and at a deeper level, it conveys the specific kind of dualism he has in mind (condemning "cloning" and capital punishment in the same breath is a conservative Catholic's seamless-garment tactic).

Indeed, Rome is all over this discussion:

We would comfortably tell [young people] that sex is a fusion of loving souls and not just a physical act. We’d celebrate marriage as a covenantal bond. We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.
(Between this and the shameless lifting from Father Spitzer, discussed over the weekend, I'm now pretty well convinced he's getting received into the Church.)

Anyway, dualism will inform everything society does after "we" have seized control. You couldn't possibly worry about the treatment of prisoners or the condition of the unemployed without appealing to Brooks's philosophy:

what are we doing to a prisoner’s soul when we throw him in solitary? Can we really tolerate having so many people falling out of the labor force and unable to realize the dignity that comes with steady work? In what ways do our phones lead to attachment or isolation? When is shopping fun and when is it degrading?
When shopping is degrading, you need to stop!

I think what makes me the most insanely enraged in this whole discourse is that implication that only people with his, or the Catholic church's, metaphysical views are even capable of thinking about moral issues or ever do, or that just because I don't accept that my mind is connected to a slab of ectoplasmic slime I am therefore a person whose only ideas of what is right are based on what is economically advantageous to me. How dare he? I don't call him morally empty! Well, I do, but only because he's a plagiarist and an unrepentant warmonger and an utter dick, not because of his religious or irreligious opinions, whatever they are.

But much more broadly, his political views aren't just insulting to me and mine, they're also dangerous.

We’d also need a new political science. The old one was based on the model that we’re utility-maximizing individuals, seeking power.
Actually the old political science takes off from Aristotle's heroic faith in the goodness of political collaboration:
Every state is as we see a sort of partnership, and every partnership is formed with a view to some good, (since all the actions of all mankind are done with a view to what they think to be good). It is therefore evident that, while all partnerships aim at some good the partnership that is the most supreme of all and includes all the others does so most of all, and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association. 
And never forget it.

When Brooks deplores politicization, what he's really deploring is democracy; over the Aristotelian give-and-take of public life he longs for Platonic-Augustinian rule of the "best" (aristoi), the philosopher kings, which will issue edicts on morality instead of arguing things out. He's calling for a dualist dictatorship, though he's such a fool you don't really notice:

A core task of communities is to arouse and educate the loves, to widen and deepen the opportunities for love and to appraise people by how well and what they love. Our culture is overpoliticized and undermoralized.
Thank you for loving! I'm afraid it's not quite up to the standard we look for when we're passing out the tax credit, but keep trying. There's a culture war on, you know!

Update: Driftglass screams at a bunch of the stuff I missed.

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