Saturday, November 18, 2017

David Brooks thinks a new national narrative is his mother

David F. Brooks clinging to the conservative interpretation of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Image via Simply Psychology.

Funny thing happened to David F. Brooks on the way to writing his column on the Republican tax bill, which is what the URL ( suggests it was meant to be: he got lost in the woods of a completely new argument, beginning with the great British psychiatrist John Bowlby:

John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, which explains how humans are formed by relationships early in life, and are given the tools to go out and lead their lives. The most famous Bowlby sentence is this one: “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”
Actually that's not the case, though it may not add up to a Radio Yerevan joke: first of all, the last word of the quote (from his 1988 collection A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development) has a parenthesis in it, "figure(s)" (along with definite articles with "cradle" and "grave"), and as we'll see that's not a trivial mistake.

(He drew the quote from his own The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, 2012, quoting not from Bowlby but Louis Cozolino, The Science of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, 2006, where it shows up with the same incorrect text as a chapter epigraph; Brooks calls it Bowlby's "most famous sentence" because he doesn't know how to find out where it originally comes from.)

Nor does attachment theory (I'm drawing for this on the extremely perspicuous account at the Simply Psychology website, which I recommend) explain how humans are formed by relationships and given the tools to go out and lead their lives. It explains, rather, first of all, why: the evolutionary meaning of the "imprinting" instinct discovered in the 1930s by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz (in the famous experiment where he divided a big clutch of greylag goose eggs just on the point of hatching between himself and an adult goose, and found that his newly hatched goslings immediately began following him in exactly the same way the goose's hatchlings followed her, treating him in all respects as if he were their mother); the infant in all sorts of more complex species has an instinctive need to form an attachment to a single individual, most typically the mother, and the instinct is adaptive because it provides the infant with a single secure base from which it can explore the world and return when things get stressful out there in a cybernetic or control-theoretical pattern.

Attachment theory nicely distinguishes between the attachments that form you and the things you then do for yourself. The relationships that form you are mostly things you didn’t choose: your family, hometown, ethnic group, religion, nation and genes. The things you do with your life are mostly chosen: your job, spouse and hobbies.
This is not what attachment theory does at all. It distinguishes that single ("monotropic") primary attachment from all the others, chosen or not; that's why "figure(s)". And indeed Bowlby's infant does to some extent "choose" the figure, not necessarily the one who provides food but the one who provides interaction, care and responsiveness (and the older person continues to choose friends and lovers in a way that is in some sense modeled on this primordial attachment). The other things, such as family, hometown, and religion, are not attachments in Bowlby's sense at all, though the identities, ethnic and linguistic and national, could be thought of as prefigured in Bowlby's concept of an equally innate fear of strangers. (I wonder if Brooks really feels an emotional attachment to his genes or if he just lost control of his sentence there.)

Through most of American history, our society was built on this same sort of unchosen/chosen distinction. At our foundation, we were a society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights.
Yep, we're back in Brookslandia, and the ascribed rather than achieved "covenantal" attachments, a concept that makes no sense; because joining a covenant is in fact choosing, something the early Puritans were very conscious of, with their insistence that baptism did not make a person a member, only "conversion" around the age of 14. The covenants of which colonial New England society was composed were all about choice, from the signing of the Compact on the Mayflower onwards, and models for the achievement of democracy. The "liberty" they celebrated in the beginning wasn't in contradiction to the covenant either, but part of it: it was the liberty to practice their "Nonconforming" faith in a way to which everybody in the community was expected to rigidly conform to.

I could go on, but you know what he's going to do already, complain about the decay of the "covenantal" institutions, under pressure from the excessive demands for "individual" "liberty" from the Bothsides (leftist demands to have lots of sex and rightist demands to hoard their money:

The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.
This delicate balance — liberal institutions built atop illiberal ones — is now giving way. The big social movements of the past half century were about maximizing freedom of choice. Right-wingers wanted to maximize economic choice and left-wingers lifestyle choice. Anything that smacked of restraint came to seem like a bad thing to be eliminated.
If the flexible institutions are really "on top" of inflexible ones, how is that a delicate balance? It's the stablest kind of structure there is. The hippie demand for sexual freedom was always tied to the most serious possible idea of restraint: "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody". Not the Goldwaterite freedom of capital though. The parties in this somewhat imaginary debate wouldn't have said restraint needed to be eliminated: the rightwingers wanted the hippies to restrain their lusts, at least until they had accumulated some wealth, and the hippies wanted the rightwingers to restrain their rapacity and violence.

Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.
Broken families are at all class levels (how's the new Mrs. Brooks?) and opiate addiction is too, though poorer people are (much) more likely to fall into illegal opiate use as they have less access to doctors who will write them prescriptions, less likely to maintain a stable life with the drug use because they don't have jobs, and so on. Who's going to write that "unifying national narrative"? The whole story—warmed-over Burke or Oakeshott—gets more and more vacuous every time he tells it.

Another famous experiment in the research feeding Bowlby's attachment theory was that of Harry Harlow, who (in a cruel study that would now be considered unethical) raised rhesus monkeys, some with their mothers, some in social isolation or with peer groups, and some with pairs of dummy "mothers", one rigged with a feeding mechanism and the other with a warm terrycloth body covering that a baby could cling to, and found that the latter group formed attachments to their cloth "mother", and exhibited some peculiar behavior, excessive fearfulness and social incompetence, though not as peculiar as the ones raised in isolation, who were self-harming wrecks.

It strikes me that David Brooks is the intellectual equivalent of one of those monkeys in the last group, with his artificial but somehow comforting single idea, to which he runs, in his timidity, from every excursion.

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