Friday, June 27, 2014

The spiritual boom-and-bust cycle

After the War a Medal and Maybe a Job, antiwar cartoon by John French Sloan, 1914. Digitally restored. Via Wikipedia.
David Brooks seems to have decided that he's married to us now, and of course it's a bad marriage, that is he's really upset about something but he won't tell us what it is, like, "If you really cared about me you'd know." It seems to have something to do with our never helping out with the democracy spreading:
When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing.
Henry, did you take delivery on that load of democracy we were supposed to bring down to the lower forty?

Or maybe his feelings were hurt by Mark Lilla in the New Republic, who is a little bit patronizing over the recent democracy-spreading project Brooks was involved in:
I am beginning to feel some sympathy for those American officials who led the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq ten years ago and immediately began destroying existing political parties, standing armies, and traditional institutions of political consultation and authority. The deepest reason for this colossal blunder was not American hubris or naïveté, though there was plenty of that. It was that they had no way of thinking about alternatives...
Brooks replies, with some asperity, that thinking about alternatives would have been heretical:
Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems — autocracy, mercantile despotism — and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.
Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint.
O ye of little faith! We're supposed to believe in the march to universal democracy not because of any evidence that it exists, but because it's our American religion, not an ideology but as Lilla himself says a "dogma"! It's in the Bible!
On the other side [from collectivism] was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.
Lolwut? In the hands of the masses and dispersed to whom? And how via checks ("check" in American political theory is a denial of power to some agent, not a check written on your balance in the power bank)?

But if we're in a spiritual recession, that might suggest we are crashing out of a spiritual bubble, where we were maybe vested too heavily in some over-leveraged democracy-spreading futures that turned out not to be backed by anything. Like from Ronald Reagan's victory over collectivism to George W. Bush's mission accomplished in Mesopotamia. Perhaps we'd be better off now if we'd hedged our portfolios with some of those socialist municipal bonds.

Personally I don't see democracy quite the way Brooks does, as inextricably tied to dog-eat-dog struggle in a capitalist economy, in opposition to ideals of equality and the dread "rational planning". It's extremely un-Burkean or un-Oakeshottian or immodest to assume the universal validity of Reagan's understanding of democracy for all times and places. I think equality is half of democracy, at least as important as liberty, and possibly more so—there's no necessary limit to equality, but liberty must end, as we are supposed to know, where the other guy's nose begins.

And in that sense I might be more aligned with Lilla, who sees the problem of our time as an ill-considered, unchecked, dogmatic libertarianism on the right (compromised, of course, with that biblical morality—a commitment to freedom of money, not of life) and some of the self-denominated left (what I would call the dudebros) as well; at least if Lilla would address the equality question, which he never does, as far as Dr. Google can determine from a quick check.

I was very annoyed at Brooks's quoting from a leftist I'd never heard of, Leon Samson, as having said in the 1930s that
Americans never went in big for socialism because they already had a creed, which made them happy, gave them work and made history meaningful. “Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism,” Samson wrote, “and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear. ... The American does not want to listen to socialism because he thinks he already has it.”
He should have gotten this from a 2000 book by Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States; from the first chapter, of course, which I can get online, but he uses a bit of it that they didn't have. So he must have taken it from some fuller version, of which the best I can find is in a source Brooks couldn't possibly have looked at very carefully or at all, Michael Denning's radical reinterpretation of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1998). Perhaps he found it in a student paper and used it without crediting it by seigneurial privilege.

He gets his quote's meaning entirely wrong, as you'd expect: Samson wasn't suggesting that the American worker didn't need socialism because Americanism provided him with everything he needed. He was complaining about how the conservative dogma of Americanism misappropriated socialist vocabulary, falsely claiming to have created a classless society already. As Lipset and Marks comment,
Samson noted that conservatives, Republicans, and businessmen, whom he preferred to quote to illustrate his own observations, adopted language, concepts, and goals for American society which in Europe were voiced only by socialists. Writing in the early 1930s, he pointed out that Herbert Hoover took Europe as a negative model, saying that in America, "we resent class distinction because there can be no rise for the individual through the frozen strata of classes."
What might be politically exciting at the moment, which seems both to Brooks and Lilla so intellectually fatigued and impoverished, is how more and more Americans are coming to realize the emptiness of those claims and to understand how the ruling class betrayed American ideals to reconstitute themselves as an old-world aristocracy.
Matt Bors, May 30. The whole strip is here.
I couldn't find out much about Leon Samson except that he wrote a good deal, was born around 1896 or 1897, and got busted as a Columbia student in anti-draft protests in 1917, alongside Emma Goldman, which is kind of cool.

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