Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Brooks's Young Radicals of 1917

Image via SJWiki.

Former New York Times columnist David Brooks ("Is Radicalism Possible Today?") is off on the spoor of an intellectual ancestor again, this time the Progressive-era antiwar activist Randolph Bourne, one the five protagonists of a new book, Young Radicals in the War for American Ideals, by Jeremy McCarter, a former cultural critic for Newsweek and New York Magazine and a former administrator at the Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda's collaborator on last year's best-selling Hamilton: The Revolution on the smash Broadway musical that had its initial run at that same Public Theater, and I hope that all doesn't sound too dismissive, because I'll bet it's a terrific book that we could all benefit from reading (though I learn from the Kindle preview that McCarter writes in a narrative present tense that he's always having to break, which gets irritating at times). Only Brooks doesn't seem to be inviting us to read it as much as telling us we don't have to, since we can get everything we need from his 800-word takeaway.

Which is that of McCarter's five subjects, Greenwich Village journalist-activists of the period around World War I—the Fabian socialist Walter Lippman, the revolutionary socialists John Reed and Max Eastman, the feminist Alice Paul, and Bourne—Bourne represents David Brooks's mild, sunny, and modest Burkean standpoint, a peculiar kind of radicalism that seems to aim at social transformation a hundred and fifty years or so down the line through pervasive individual niceness:

Bourne believed in decentralized change — personal, spiritual, a revolution in consciousness. The “Beloved Community” he imagined was a bottom-up, Whitmanesque “spiritual welding,” a graceful coming together of unlike ethnicities.
Well, that's a first. Randolph Bourne's thinking is maddeningly elusive, as I'm just learning, partly because he focused more, in the pragmatist style, on specific literary or social issues from the inside out rather than the application of large philosophical systems from the outside in in his writing, and partly because he died very young, at 32, in the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918, when he was undergoing a lot of radical change himself, so that it's impossible to say where he was headed, and he's variously claimed by everybody from doctrinaire libertarians to doctrinaire communists, the Mises Institute to www.marxists.com, but I doubt he's ever been enlisted before in the Brooksian project.

My quick provisional sense is that the closest postmodern analogue to where he was at the end of his life, as the US and his pragmatist colleagues marched into the false promise of a War to End War, is the tragic situation of the Chomskyan anarchist, longing for the human decency of socialism but repelled by the apparently intrinsic violence of the state ("War is the health of the state," he wrote, in an unfinished manuscript on "The State" found in a trash basket in the house where he died). His thinking seems to have grown out of the artisanal socialism of Ruskin and Morris and Wilde and aiming toward the aesthetic ideals of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, but so shocked by the dreadfulness of the war that it was radicalizing him into the category of Tolstoy and Gandhi.

It would be nice if Brooks the journalistic esprit of the Iraq War could respond to this, from "The State":
Criticism of the State, objections to war, lukewarm opinions concerning the necessity or the beauty of conscription, are made subject to ferocious penalties, far exceeding [in] severity those affixed to actual pragmatic crimes. Public opinion, as expressed in the newspapers, and the pulpits and the schools, becomes one solid block. Loyalty, or rather war orthodoxy, becomes the sole test for all professions, techniques, occupations. Particularly is this true in the sphere of the intellectual life.
The other big difference in Bourne's approach, his passionate advocacy of immigrants and strangers of every kind against the horrific rigidity of "Anglo-Saxonism", rooted perhaps in his own experience of being alien (his head was misshapen from an obstetrician's mistake with the forceps at his birth, and a bout with spinal tuberculosis at the age of four left him stunted and hunchbacked—all of which Brooks doesn't see his way to mentioning), is similarly not very Brooksian, as in this passage on the English settlement of the future US. from his 1916 essay on "Trans-National America", pretty far from the "City on a Hill" picture Brooks loves to evoke:
They invented no new social framework. Rather they brought over bodily the old ways to which they had been accustomed. Tightly concentrated on a hostile frontier, they were conservative beyond belief. Their pioneer daring was reserved for the objective conquest of material resources. In their folkways, in their social and political institutions, they were, like every colonial people, slavishly imitative of the mother country. So that, in spite of the 'Revolution,' our whole legal and political system remained more English than the English, petrified and unchanging, while in England law developed to meet the needs of the changing times.
Heh. Incidentally, Brooks's attempt to present this view as a tame, urbane let's-do-Thai-tonight cosmopolitanism comes to grief in a funny way, on a bothsiderist rock:
Bourne was the least important radical a century ago, but with his fervent embrace of a decentralized, globalist, cosmopolitan world, he is the most relevant today. He is the best rebuttal to both Trumpian populism and the multicultural separatist movements on the left, who believe in separate graduation ceremonies by race, or that the normal exchange of ideas among people represents cultural appropriation.
Because he can't allow himself to suggest an attack on Trumpish nativism (or racism, if you like, but "populism" is not its name) without calling out some symmetrical error on "the left", he falls into reporting some truly fake news out of the Daily Caller/Breitbart machine: nobody believes in "separate graduation ceremonies by race". Events like this year's Black Commencement at Harvard are in addition to the usual multiracial graduation ceremony, not alternative to it; as a statement by the Business School's Black Student Union declared,
Black Commencement is open to ALL students regardless of race, color or creed. This is not about segregation, but a celebration of the African Diaspora at Harvard. All students attending Black Commencement will also attend other commencement ceremonies.
Also, on the subject of cultural appropriation, it's not always easy for those of us in the power group to know where to draw the line, but it should be clear that for a white person to wear blackface or a feathered headdress isn't "the normal exchange of ideas among people" and you kind of work from there.

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