Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Oppressions of David Brooks

17th-century English print via May Morning Oxford.
So it looks like David Brooks ("The Retreat to Tribalism") went to this lecture Jonathan Haidt gave, "The Age of Outrage", at the Manhattan Institute last November. It was a big deal, Haidt was wearing a tux, and said that society is like a maypole, or kids dancing around a maypole, but in an especially odd way:

Imagine three kids running around a maypole, forming a chain with their arms. The innermost kid is holding the pole with one hand. The faster they run, the more centrifugal force there is tearing the chain apart. The tighter they grip, the more centripetal force there is holding the chain together. Eventually centrifugal force exceeds centripetal force and the chain breaks.
No, that's Brooks; Haidt just has an ordinary pole. Brooks's mistake is funny, too, because Haidt unlike Brooks knows exactly what a maypole is and uses the image more than once to make what I think is a kind of Straussian argument about the value of religion: gods are maypoles, the ribboned ones where at the end of the dance the maidens have twisted a colorful pattern around the pole as a byproduct, and in the same [?] way the worship of the gods "weaves" or "binds" the members of the community together, into a social coherence that's just as valuable as a newly decorated pole, though that seems a little confused: are the community members the ribbons, which are indeed bound together, or the maidens, who aren't, but move to some other activity when the dance is over?

Anyway with this pole it's the three kids who constitute the community, and the centripetal force that makes them hold tighter on to each others' hands is typically the wartime threat of external enemies, and what makes them keep running faster is the media, immigration and diversity, and the deadly dialectic of the "more radical Republican party" and the "new identity politics of the Left", which is different from the old identity politics of the Left, operated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which brought people together, because of the "high social trust" that existed in the Jim Crow era—

it won’t be easy to go back to the common-humanity form of politics. King was operating when there was high social trust. He could draw on a biblical metaphysic debated over 3,000 years. He could draw on an American civil religion that had been refined over 300 years.
And that biblical metaphysic too; for instance, Dr. King could refer, as Lincoln did, to angels, which nobody nowadays does, or to asking God to hold back the sunset to make time for a late-afternoon battle, as Joshua did when he slaughtered the Gibeonites, although I don't think Dr. King did mention that one. Also, according to Haidt, Dr. King has been replaced in the leadership of identity politics by undergraduates in the humanities programs at six or seven mostly very expensive colleges—
It’s schools such as Yale, Brown, and Middlebury in New England, and U.C. Berkeley, Evergreen, and Reed on the West Coast. Are those the places where oppression is worst, or are they the places where this new way of thinking is most widespread?... students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.
These besotten young people have somehow attained a power over society exactly opposite and equivalent to that of the Republican party dominating all three branches of government! And between the two of them we are all being hurtled into tribalism, which is terrible, although it is also, according to Haidt, what humans are genetically destined to. (Speaking of everything being about power, that's the way it is when you're being ruled by psychopaths, sadly, as I was saying the other day; of course the psychopaths and their enablers would rather you didn't talk about it.)

Or perhaps the centrifugal force that pulls our little dancers apart (I almost typed "pole dancers") is, as the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner suggests in his 1995 The Temptation of Innocence: Living in the Age of Entitlement, excessive individualism, which may seem strange, since individualism is not the central figure of tribal life as anthropologists understand it. The way it works is that because our individualism forces us to take responsibility for our own identity, happiness, and success.

In societies like ours, individuals are responsible for their own identity, happiness and success. “Everyone must sell himself as a person in order to be accepted,” Bruckner wrote. We all are constantly comparing ourselves to others and, of course, coming up short. The biggest anxiety is moral. We each have to write our own gospel that defines our own virtue.
The easiest way to do that is to tell a tribal oppressor/oppressed story and build your own innocence on your status as victim. Just about everybody can find a personal victim story. Once you’ve identified your herd’s oppressor — the neoliberal order, the media elite, white males, whatever — your goodness is secure. You have virtue without obligation. Nothing is your fault.
And thus we are increasingly divided into the hostile tribal camps of those who all have the same identity (white, Christian, heterosexual, anti-abortion, anti-tax, anti-foreigner) and those who all have different identities (including white and nonwhite, Christian and other, het and homo, etc.), often intersecting in the same individual.

Or wait a minute, isn't that a little tautological? Isn't every social group necessarily composed of people who either have the same identities or different ones?

It is, children, and that is why you can draw it as a conclusion from a wildly different set of premises, whether it is the senseless analogy of children dancing around a pole until they fly off like moons from an exploded planet; the false equivalence of a large and powerful political party running a country with several hundred slightly priggish 20-year-olds scattered around it; or the cockeyed concept of a social process in which tribalism is the result of not being tribal enough to meet the needs of David F. Brooks. As I was taught in logic class some decades ago, you can draw a tautological conclusion from any premises whatever, true or false:

Haidt and Bruckner are very different writers, with different philosophies. But they both point to the fact that we’ve regressed from a sophisticated moral ethos to a primitive one. 
No, they jointly point to the fact that the declinist narrative all these people push is a vacuous proposition paired with a melancholy sense that we're all going to hell and maybe we need another war. The melancholy is perhaps real and not just a privileged pose (speaking of everybody being able to find a personal victim story, I wonder if Haidt and Brooks think they're being oppressed by students, though it's hard to imagine how Haidt experiences intersectionalist tyranny at NYU's Stern School of Business, or Brooks from the future think-tank machers studying in Yale's Grand Strategy program), but the idea they're selling is empty. It isn't even wrong, it's just stupid.

Speaking of virtue without obligation and nothing being your fault, I think Driftglass would like a word here on the subject of David F. Brooks, the New York Times columnist who has never acknowledged an error.

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