Saturday, September 26, 2015

A sour, overgeneralized, and intellectually sloppy sense of alienation

Edwin Levick, immigrants on Atlantic liner ca. 1906, Library of Congress, via Smithsonian Institution.

David Brooks writes ("The American Idea and Today's G.O.P.", New York Times, September 25 2015):
One of the exceptional things about American exceptionalism is the exceptionalism of American conservatism. While conservatives in other countries are essentially reactionary, yearning for an idealized past, American conservatives are retroactionary, afflicted with a nostalgia for an endlessly receding future. This goes back to the very beginnings, when those who settled, founded, and built America, not necessarily in that order, understood that our country had no history, and that only by forging a path into the future would we be able to acquire some.
Thus founding figures like Alexander Hamilton realized early on that American history, when it finally did arrive, would be the best history ever, thanks to all the effort we put into creating it, while religions like that of the Puritans, concerned with eschatology, whatever that is, looked to America as what Lincoln called the "last, best hope" of evading, exceptionally I guess, the Last Judgment. No, that's not what I meant. I'm afraid I left my shining City on a Hill in the sock drawer, and there's nothing for it but to move on to Herman Melville.
Herman Melville, indeed, wrote in his novel White Jacket that “The Past is the textbook of tyrants; the Future the Bible of the Free. Those who are solely governed by the Past stand like Lot's wife, crystallized in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking before.” This is why I continually urge people not to study history but instead to listen to anecdotes about the virtuous people of the past such as Frances Perkins and A. Philip Randolph. It's the exceptional thing to do.
People like Ann Coulter and Donald Trump, on the other hand, envisage history not as something we are gaining with the passage of time but something we are losing, as we get older and increasingly deaf. Especially when if you don't press 1 for English you could be assaulted at any moment by the unfamiliar sounds of Mexican, Muslim, or Chinese, though I doubt this actually happens. I myself have an assistant to screen my calls just in case, and I don't see why Coulter and Trump and conservative voters in general don't just do the same. You can put it on expenses.
In this way, such people are turning the concept of American exceptionalism on its head. They are literally destroying American exceptionalism even as they seek to preserve it. The tenuous grasp people have on what American exceptionalism is will likely snap, and it could be lost forever, in the mists of time.
Moreover, the Coulter approach will not win any votes, as the majority increasingly turns out to be composed of people who may or may not press some other number, and indeed vote for some other candidate than the one that refers to them as rapists and murderers, which sounds unwelcoming. But the main thing is that there is nothing conservative about being afraid that too many foreigners will pollute your language and your way of life. You simply don't let them into the country club, except as groundkeepers, busboys, caddies, and the like, and there's no problem.
Obviously there's some overlap between me and Brooks on the immigration issue, which makes it a little complex making fun of him. That is, I think US immigration controls as they have grown over the past century or so are excessive, making it too hard for people to come here legally with the result not that they don't come, that's impossible, but that they form communities with no regular status, and there needs to be some mechanism to regularize it, when there get to be 11 million of them, and I don't care if you call it "amnesty"; and Brooks thinks, well, um, well, he thinks whatever Marco Rubio thinks at the moment shouldn't stop Rubio from getting the Republican presidential nomination, and let's not talk about it too loudly, and Trump, and Coulter, and Dr. Ben Carson are really ill-mannered.

Or as the real Brooks puts it, this time not parody, in some of his most dizzyingly bad prose,
Instead the pessimism grows from a sour, overgeneralized and intellectually sloppy sense of alienation. It is one thing to think Democratic policies are wrong. It is another to betray the essential American faith and take a reactionary attitude toward life. This is an attitude that sours the tongue, offends the eye and freezes the heart.
Coulter and Trump certainly offend the eye but is that really relevant?

I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out where Brooks got that Melville quote, and it turned out he got it from himself, in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (back when he used to want to be more funny than angry; nice review at the link), which is where he originated, as the title suggests, that argument about how America's "exceptionalism" is the retroactionary way our past is always in the future. He was trying to make it look as if he had actually read Melville's White Jacket back then too, but on the following page or so he references a book, Rites of Assent by Sacvan Bercovitch (1993) that cites the Melville passage, and then there just happens to be a different book by Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (1978), that cites it in almost the form Brooks uses in 2004 and on Friday.

If you want to know what it all means, go ask Driftglass (spoiler: it's about Brooks claiming as ever that when the GOP went insane he was just an innocent bystander and had nothing whatever to do with it). 

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