Friday, April 13, 2018

Intellectual Bubble

Grouchy old Tom Hobbes and smooth-talking John Locke in a quiet, conservative moment. Horse Feathers.

Le tout-Washington is talking about a new book, James Comey's memoir of the events leading up to his firing as FBI director (A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership), so David F. Brooks is talking literature as well, seeing "A Renaissance on the Right": "all the political turmoil is creating a burst of intellectual creativity on the right" in which "Young, fresh writers are bursting on the scene" (getting stuck using the word "burst" twice in a space of 13 words gives you an idea of how fresh David Brooks is) such as Charles C.W. ("Cromulent Whiskers") Cooke, Mollie Hemingway, and James Poulos among other even younger and fresher names I'm not so familiar with, but the youngest and freshest of all is our old friend Jonah Goldberg, entering the field with his own immensely subtitled new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, which might sound better in the original German (Selbstmord des Abendlandes).

Which I'm not likely to be reading any time soon, after the disclaimer with which it begins—

—"I don't believe the assumptions from which I'm arguing here, but I will pretend I do in order to 'guide the reader through a way of thinking about the world' because 'I think persuasion matters.'" That really doesn't work for me.

I don't suppose Brooks has read it either—it's almost 500 pages long—and maybe he should issue his own disclaimer:
This book report assumes that I have read the book in question. The only concession to my own beliefs lies in the word "assumes". I am making this assumption for the purposes of an argument. I have not read this book, but I think it is useful to act as if I had for the argument I want to make...
The book report itself follows Brooks's now more or less fixed format of two thirds explaining how this is practically the best thing he's ever read and a third on how he disagrees with its central hypothesis and has a better one.
Goldberg points out that for eons human beings were semi-hairless upright apes clumped in tribes and fighting for food. But about 300 years ago something that he calls “the Miracle” happened. It was a shift in attitude. For thousands of years, societies divided people into permanent categories of race or caste. But, Goldberg writes, “the Miracle ushered in a philosophy that says each person is to be judged and respected on account of their own merits, not the class or caste of their ancestors.”
No, this isn't the part Brooks disagrees with—neither the suggestion that nothing from the first Mesopotamian urbanization through the 12th-century renaissance, including the Roman empire, the Gupta kingdom, and the Tang dynasty, ever happened, nor the implication that we aren't semi-hairless upright apes any more (obviously when you're Brooks's age you're noticing you are a little more hairless and a little less upright than you used to be). Nor the idea that Bizarroworld conservative Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came from the late 17th century. Actually that was John Locke:
That belief, championed by John Locke, or a story we tell about Locke, paved the way for human equality, pluralism, democracy, capitalism and the idea that a person can have a plurality of identities and a society can contain a plurality of moral creeds.
Or a story we tell about Locke: This book report assumes that John Locke invented human equality, pluralism, democracy, capitalism, written language, beer brewing, and the Pythagorean theorem. The only concession to my own beliefs lies in the word "assumes". Actually I just made this up, but I think it is useful to act as if it were true as a way of guiding the reader through what I believe.

Which is that it's not only good, but it also pays, really well:
It also proved to be the goose that laid the golden egg. Economic growth exploded. The American founding asserted that Lockean ideas are universal. And nothing had ever succeeded like America. Between 1860 and 1900 alone, America’s population doubled and its wealth grew fivefold.
The part Brooks disagrees with is that in attributing the Miracle to just two demiurges, "Locke, who emerges as a rational, calm, pipe-smoking economist, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emerges as a wild-haired, passionately resentful rock star" (in the psychedelic movie version, Ken Russell's Enlightenment), Goldberg gives too much credit to those philosophers' beliefs in individualism and group consciousness respectively, both of which are wrong and lead to each other, since Locke's individualism, which works as the panacea for tribalism, is at the same time the cause of tribalism:
The core problem today is not tribalism [That's so four months ago—Ed.]. It’s excessive individualism, which has eaten away at our uniting faith and damaged our relationships with one another. Excessive individualism has left us distrustful and alone — naked Lockeans. When people are naked and alone they revert to tribe. Tribalism is the end product of excessive individualism.
The only way to stop a bad man with a tribalism is a good man with a tribalism, and a third demiurge, Edmund Burke:
[Goldberg's] conservatism is missing the bonding sentiments of Edmund Burke, and the idea that the little platoon of the family is nestled in the emotional platoon of the neighborhood and the emotional platoon of the nation. Tribalism is not the only way to form a group; there’s also the redeeming and forgiving love of community, and a shared national faith. Goldberg misses the way Hamilton, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt built a national community that didn’t crush local communities but rather reinforced them.
I don't know what to make of "bonding sentiments". I guess the reason every unit at every level of integration is a platoon is that in civil society all the officers are corporals and sergeants.

One of the interesting things that emerges from the discussion, I think, has to do with that, the concept of non-commissioned leadership at every level, making things happen. Goldberg and Brooks both really believe that philosophers and politicians shape society—that Locke created capitalism (rather than all the innumerable Jews and Florentines who had put it together centuries earlier) and Hamilton, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt (only Federalists and Republicans need apply) built the national community—and have no concept of the agency of little people all over the world; are more locked in to the Great Man theory of history than its original proponents were, and unaware that it's been abandoned. They are themselves such gentleman amateurs by conviction that they're unaware that professionals exist.

And the reason there's so little room for conservatives in the academy, perhaps, is that: confused by the dorm-room fervor of their interactions with each other in the intellectual bubble of the right, they think they're already in it, and have no need to buckle down and understand the standards. All the signifiers—Locke, Rousseau, Lincoln, capitalism, individualism, conservatism, communitarianism, float around the room unseizable, and they wave them into one another's faces and believe they're doing the work, without any help from those dirty hippies.

They assume they've mastered intellectual history. They're aware that the assumption is false, technically, but they find it useful to act as if it were true for the argument they want to make, to guide us through the way they think. It's just a game. They don't mean any harm. And then they invade Iraq or blow up the real estate market or take away your health care. Oops! It's because we wouldn't give them professorships.

I'm going over to see what Driftglass did, catch you all later.

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