Friday, May 22, 2020

David Brooks Urges Us to Tighten Up

Ah, what's up, Brooksie ("The First Invasion of America")?
I was an American history major in college, back in the 1980s.
I’ll be honest with you. I thrilled to the way the American story was told back then. To immigrate to America was to join the luckiest and greatest nation in history. “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America, and every American knew it,” Henry Steele Commager wrote in his 1950 book, “The American Mind.”
He was an undergraduate and his bibliography was already 30 years out of date.

Because the practice of American historiography utterly changed in the two decades after David Brooks's birth, as Jonathan Wiener explained at the 1983 meeting of the Organization of American Historians (published in 1989, putting both Eric Foner and Sean Wilentz, Marxish and un-Marxish, at the head of the acknowledgment footnote):
During the sixties, a new generation of scholars, a new intellectual community, formed itself out of its own experiences and concerns—notably the civil rights and antiwar movements. Among the prominent members of that community were historians who developed a critique of, and an alternative to, the ways American history had been constructed. Some intellectual leaders of the group made self-conscious use of Marxist theory, organizing their work around issues of class relations and ideology. The majority did not, but all took those issues seriously. In general radical historians have focused on issues of exploitation, domination, and oppression; they have argued that existing patterns of domination are not natural or immutable, but rather have historical origins; thus they can be abolished. In seeking those historical origins, they have focused on ordinary people rather than political elites, on groups rather than individuals, and on human agency rather than on abstract or general processes of change...
Brooks, of course, discovered the existence of ordinary people literally a week ago, but even old Commager, who got his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1928 and was always a true New Deal liberal internationalist even when he was seemingly unaware of the existence of people of color and poor people in 1950*, was powerfully affected by these developments, drafting in 1976 a ringing rejection of "exceptionalism" in the form of a palimpsest on Jefferson's founding document, a Declaration of Interdependence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (and women) are created equal; that the inequalities and injustices which afflict so much of the human race are the product of history and society, not of God or nature; that people everywhere are entitled to the blessings of life and liberty, peace and security (and dignity) and the realization of their full potential; that they have an inescapable moral obligation to preserve those rights for posterity; and that to achieve these ends all the peoples and nations of the globe should acknowledge their interdependence and join together to dedicate their minds and their hearts to the solution of those problems which threaten their survival....
WE AFFIRM that the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the weak by the strong (also known as rankism) violates our common humanity and denies to large segments of society the blessings of life, liberty and happiness. We recognize a moral obligation (and a dignitarian imperative) to strive for a more prudent and more equitable sharing of the resources of the earth in order to ameliorate poverty, hunger and disease.
 *The word "poverty" appears five times in the 460 pages of The American Mind and the word "Negro" six. On the other hand Commager really was an ardent New Dealer, fought hard against McCarthyism and for the civil rights movement from as early as the late 1940s, denounced the Vietnam War and the crimes of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, opposed judicial review against industrial regulation and favored it on behalf of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and claimed the CIA violated the Constitution by keeping its budget secret. 

Brooks, in contrast, apparently learned nothing about this in his four years at Chicago and still doesn't know about what was happening then and has generally continued to happen in American history departments through the subsequent four decades of his adulthood, which he himself spent largely in a Reaganite intellectual bubble, following historical research only in its lowest manifestation as Great Men pop biography. Though he's learned recently that inequality exists, in the course of his own work in humility studies (which included glimpses of a few Great Women such as George Eliot, Dorothy Day, and Frances Perkins), he still hasn't learned that society can do anything about it, other than that the wealthy could direct their tax-deductible charity giving a bit more productively.
Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide [and the four centuries, 16th through 19th, of white people invasion out to the Pacific with which the history and the genocide both begin].
But here’s what has struck me forcefully, especially during the pandemic: That whole version of the American creed was all based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.
Well, except for the invasion of 1812 when British troops burned down the capital, and the flu pandemic of 1918-19 (which arose in the US but that didn't stop yellow journalists from calling it "Spanish"), and the continuing prevalence among certain classes of certain ethnicities that the United States was literally being threatened and invaded all the time, by Spanish forces on the Atlantic side and British from the north and eventually Russians on the Pacific, and even more by German Sunday-drinking socialists in the years after 1848 or opium-addled dog-eating Chinese, or drunken and congenitally idiotic Irish, or anarchist Italian bomb-throwers, or Communist Jews who might take over the banking system, you get the picture, helplessly lazy shirkers who would nevertheless steal your jobs, sallow-skinned hordes of an underclass that would conquer and take over your upper-class institutions. Far from feeling immune to foreign invasion, the US gradually closed itself off almost entirely between 1881 and 1924, and remained closed until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, infinitely more frightened of invasion than, say, Belgium, which was under more or less continual attack and regular occupation for six and a half centuries, from 1300 to 1945.

But then Brooks seems to be getting his information from Michele Gelfand in Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (2018), not a historian but a self-styled "cultural psychologist" (PhD in social psychology and "organizational psychology" which smells to me of biz school) and TED talker—he names, but doesn't link, the book, suggesting he's lifted some language from her as well as ideas, but I don't feel like doing a Plagiarism Watch, because she's not very reliable either: as Neil Gross wrote in a review for The Times, complaining that she comes down too hard on one side of a pointless debate between "culturalists" and "materialists",
The problem is that — in spite of the context she provides for how norms developed in the first place — Gelfand routinely ignores materialist explanations for the various phenomena she considers. Sure, would-be strongmen can and do exploit voters’ fears of instability and change [as exemplified by the "tight" culture of Egypt in its 2014 presidential election]. But another crucial element in explaining why Sisi, Egypt’s former minister of defense, won 96 percent of the vote is that the military, determined to maintain its grip on the country and to keep billions of dollars in foreign aid flowing, banned the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, after deposing Mohamed Morsi, the inept but democratically-elected Islamist president who followed Mubarak in office.
Other examples are even more glaring, as when Gelfand accounts for limited upward mobility in the United States by pointing to the ostensibly tight culture of the working class, incapable of the flexibility needed to find a place in the new economy. She writes as though the hoarding of resources and opportunities by the wealthy was not a huge part of the story.
Also, in addition to not being a historian, she's not an anthropologist, and her concept of "national cultures" ranked on a scale of "tightness" and "looseness" will not go down very well in my intellectual neighborhood. It's even worse in Brooks's cartoon version, where he steps on a rake:
Gelfand wrote a book called “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers.” We Americans have been rule-breakers, the classic loose nation.
Suggesting that the "tight" American "working class" must not be Americans.

Anyway, his thesis is that we all need to tighten up now, in the face of a pandemic coming "smack in the middle of a crisis of confidence, a crisis of authority, plus social and spiritual crises all at once." And of course that means tightening up in a Brooksian rightward sort of direction:
...economic resilience will be more valued than maximized efficiency. We’ll spend more time minimizing downside risks than maximizing upside gains. The local and the rooted will be valued more than the distantly networked. We’ll value community over individualism, embeddedness over autonomy.
Something lovely is being lost. America’s old idea of itself unleashed a torrent of energy. But the American identity that grows up in the shadow of the plague can have the humanity of shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with an understanding of the precariousness of life and a fierce solidarity that emerges during a long struggle against an invading force.
"Economic resilience" linking to Marco Rubio's neo-Trumpist defense of "the workers" against "the Chinese Communist Party" plot to monopolize supply chains and selfishly keep all their masks when they need them, which proves that the mask shortage in the US wasn't Trump's fault and that the US still needs more minimum-wage factory jobs even though four months ago we were at under 4% unemployment. "The local" meaning authority devolved from the international and national "networked" levels to the local elite, "rooted" meaning authority wielded by white people who aren't from somewhere else. Against individualism not in the Goldwater anti-Federalist sense but anti-autonomy, on which please see Alfie Kohn's beautiful post ("Out of Control: Taking Liberties With Autonomy During a Pandemic") from yesterday:
Autonomous people experience their actions as authentic, integrated, willingly enacted. But that doesn’t mean they see themselves as separate from others or in opposition to the larger culture. This critical but often-overlooked distinction helps us to make sense of the finding that a need for autonomy is experienced even by people in collectivist societies.3 Selfish individualism, by contrast, is not an ineluctable feature of “human nature.” Rather, it represents a corruption of our need to have some say over what happens to us.
"Humility" as a matter of course, but also a "fierce solidarity" between the local oppressors and the local oppressed because we're all facing the invasion together, though it's the oppressed who seem to be doing most of the dying.

A couple of weeks ago I was warning you against Trump's use of the war metaphor to excuse his own failures. Now I'm telling you about a more sophisticated manipulation in which Brooks works to dump the conservative myth of rugged American individualism in favor of an alternative rationale for the basic plan of retaining power for the wealthy. Because for all the fervor with which conservatives cry "Freedom!" they never really mean it except in a limited extent for themselves, for those who already exercise power. And the same is true with the cry for "Community!" when that's on the upswing.

The fact is that most of us don't need to sacrifice our autonomy to confront the pandemic: we're already staying at home if we can, and sheltering in place and washing our hands, and making donations, and urging the government to do more for those who can't. It's the Brooksian ideology, and I might as well be saying the Republican party, its president and most of its governors and local agents, and its principal funders working the astroturf reopening demonstrations, that is confronting it so badly, and that needs to find the spirit of sacrifice and humility that the rest of us are already endowed with, and a feeling of solidarity with the rest of us, a recognition of what Commager called our interdependence.

And it doesn't matter whether the virus came from some other country or not, any more than it did in 1918, because that's not the problem. And it doesn't matter whether our national culture is tight or loose, because there's no such thing: we have a complex nest of overlapping cultural institutions, intangible institutions I mean, from kinship systems to religious and civic beliefs including many that most of us share, no doubt, but that's not a problem either: it's a source of resilience in the real sense, and it evolves as it evolves, not through planning and Brooksian exhortation. The urgent problem is that our democracy really isn't working at all well, and we're stuck with a really bad political leadership getting in our way instead of listening and helping. Brooks doesn't even know he's propagandizing for them, self-awareness isn't one of his strengths, but he's not helping at all.

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