Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer vocation, continued

Auguste Rodin at work, filmed by Sacha Guitry in 1915. I bet David Brooks would be wondering why he looks so crabby instead of "radiating joy" and never holds any press conferences. Image via Hyperallergic.
So, picking up from where I left off yesterday, Brooks ("Why America's Leadership Fails") is back in his depressive phase. On Friday he was all
But America’s economic success is like our Olympic success, writ large. The nation’s troubles are evident, but our country has sound fundamentals.... the biggest threat now is unmerited pessimism itself, and the stupid and fearful choices that inevitably flow from it.
Now he's like

We’ve clearly had a failure of leadership in this country. The political system is not working as it should. Big problems are not being addressed.
A failure in respect to what in particular? How should the political system be working? Which big problems does Mr. Burkean Modesty wish to see addressed? It's funny, in Friday's happy column, he had ten paragraphs of actual facts, more or less accurately reported, to back up his cheerful assessment, but for today's gloom not a word to explain what's making him so upset all of a sudden. It "clearly" happened, but he's not telling us what it is. He's like a pissed-off spouse: "If you ever thought about anybody but yourself you'd know what it is."

He can't describe it, but he wants to join the debate on where it came from:

But what’s the nature of that failure? The leading theory is that it’s the corruption: There is so much money flowing through Washington that the special interests get what they want and everyone else gets the shaft. Another theory has to do with insularity: The elites spend so much time within the Acela corridor that they don’t have a clue about what is going on beyond it.
Oh, really. If you're talking about Congress, those people are out of the Acela corridor 230 days a year. They're still spending all their time raising money, but they're mostly in their districts doing it, and if you think all the corruption is in DC, you really need to get out beyond the Beltway yourself, or at least read something outside your comfort zone once in a while, because it's out in the state capitals where special interests get what they want; in Washington nobody really gets anything, especially since the federal legislature has been in an advanced state of petrifaction for the last six years.

Moreover many national legislators are very well aware of what constituents want and need (essentially, the 2016 Democratic platform with the word "Democrat" removed, because that makes some of them nervous). The main reason they don't do anything about it, beyond Mitch McConnell's celebrated 2009 oath to never permit Barack Obama a victory regardless of whether it would benefit the nation or not, is the gerrymandering of the House, assuring a Republican majority, and one that is more worried about their own voters in the primaries (which favor the crazier Republicans on the one hand, and the duller Democrats on the other) than all the voters in the general election, and afraid to vote for any legislation at all other than pretending to repeal Obamacare two or three times a month.

There’s merit in both theories. But I’d point to something deeper: Over the past few decades, thousands of good people have gone into public service, but they have found themselves enmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.
There's really something there, in what Marcuse and Adorno called "the administered society", in which political and cultural work become subject to the same alienating forces as industrial production even as management becomes separated from ownership in all spheres, so that, for example, educational service can become so dominated by filling out forms, attending meaningless meetings, appeasing the political terrors of the supervisor, and so on, that a teacher feels there's no time left for the hot human interaction of teaching. The same kind of thing happens all over the place, like in the production of books and music, and no doubt it happens on a huge and distressing scale in government as well.

But it's not something David Brooks knows anything about beyond the pure intuition of his own personal misery—he's literally too ignorant to realize the difference between sociology and self-help books, and he's blinded by his position of absolute privilege. Clinging like a limpet to his patch of rock on the op-ed page and the teevee schedule, with no motivation left other than fear of being adrift, he's part of the problem.

Thus the perverse misunderstanding of Clinton,

Hillary Clinton seems to have been first inspired by a desire to serve children, but over the decades walls of hard-shell combativeness formed.
Speaking of hard shells, David Brooks should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, but I digress. Walls aren't for combat, they're for defense, and to whatever extent she's walled herself (given the stupidity and relentless focus on the trivial of the Washington political press corps, it's no wonder she'd rather not do the press conference, preferring to talk to one reporter at a time) it's always been to protect her ability to practice the vocation.

By the way, there's something startlingly sexist in that formula, "a desire to serve children". As far as I know, she was inspired by the same political-cultural ferment as everybody else in the generation who was inspired at all, between the civil rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War, with civil rights being the most salient, and children coming into it in the first place because that was the civil rights job she got, with Marion Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund—but the work itself was fighting dirty techniques to evade racial integration. And she's never worked at "serving" children, like a pediatric nurse or a kindergarten teacher, not that there's anything wrong with that, but at transforming existing institutions and creating new ones and making them serve children, together with other people (See more on this from our friend Bethesda 1971). That is, she's always been a vocational politician, not a nurse or a teacher, even during the long 1980s and 1990s when she did it specifically as the spouse of an elected official (but refusing to bake cookies) instead of getting elected in her own right, and if you listen to what she says, instead of what Maureen Dowd and Mara Liasson say about her, you'll notice that she still is.

People with a vocation mind-set have their eyes fixed on the long game. They are willing to throw themselves toward their goals imaginatively, boldly and remorselessly.
Precisely. She's crazy rich, she's got a nice house, she's almost 70, and yet she continues to be fixed on this improbable future, of being our woman president, as she has been for decades. She never quits. Her severest critics would definitely approve of "remorseless", and I wouldn't object to it either.

As the poet David Whyte once put it, “Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself … losing all sense of our own voice, our own contributions and conversation.”
He used the same quote in his Hemingway column of April 26, but left out "like marriage", which certainly makes it funnier.

He doesn't know anything about Marcuse and Adorno, as I was saying, and he doesn't blame the social structures of late capitalism for the way politicians seem alienated from their work, but individual careerism and ambition. Indeed there is a problem like that, but it's one of human nature, not the special conditions of the opening millennium,  and it's not something that happens to everybody, but only to people in positions of privilege—to people like Brooks.

Unconsciously, he does know himself, as his shabby, unguarded prose keeps revealing:

People who operate a career mind-set, on the other hand, often put self-preservation above all. Nothing gets done because everybody’s doing the same old safe rigid thing.
Ooh, Davy, have you ever met anybody like that? He seems to think he himself used to be a vocational idealist, full of passion and commitment, who somehow got sidetracked, instead of a careerist hack from the start, though, and he ends with this odd sort of plea to Clinton to pull him back:

If Clinton is elected, maybe even she can remind us that we’ve all developed these bad habits, that most of us secretly detest the game we’re in and the way we are playing it.
It would be an act of amazing bravery if she could lead people to strip away all the careerist defense mechanisms and remember their original vows and passions.
Note the 149th career use of "amazing/amazingly", continuing the extraordinary streak of four times in the last three columns.

But, "Even she"! Can anybody tell me what exactly he's trying to get her to do? It sounds to me as if there's a picture in his head of her going publicly nuts like Howard Beale: "It's all bullshit, people! I've just spent my life as a careerist defending my own status and never done anything for others, and I detest this game and the way I'm playing it! Don't be like me, folks, strip those defense mechanisms away! Get back to your original vows and passions!"

He's not only incapable of understanding what she's been up to for her whole life, he's incapable of understanding that those "original vows and passions" could be connected to helping justice roll down like water, and probably don't include helping David Brooks overcome his neurotic apathy and dread, which is the big problem government has been failing to address, according to him.

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