Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Don't stultify my fabric, bro!

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923).

David Brooks on "The Age of Small Terror":
On New Year’s Eve some friends and family members had a drink at a bar in Tel Aviv. The next day a gunman shot up the place, killing two people and wounding at least five. When I heard about the shooting I was horrified, of course, but there was no special emotion caused by the proximity 16 hours before.
Friends and family members of whom? Where was there no special emotion? Whose proximity? He's not actually trying to hide the fact that he has friends and relatives in Tel Aviv, he's more trying to hide the fact that he exists at all, as a specific human being with a body and a family and particular emotions of his own. General David Brooks and his general emotions are focused on the big picture:
These days, we all live at risk of random terror, whether we are in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston or Fort Hood.
I.e., wherever there are Muslims, apparently, but I'll get back to that.

He's lying, obviously, for some reason; he must have felt a special emotion. You're not at risk of random terror in Tel Aviv, or not supposed to be! This kind of thing never happens! I certainly thought of my nephew in Tel Aviv and his mother and his wife and their baby though I've never been there and have no idea what bars any of them go to (I guess the baby probably doesn't go to bars at all). How could Brooks not say "OMG my ex-wife was in that bar just the day before!" Or whoever. In fact he did say it—he made it his lede. And then he turned around and denied it. "Of course David Brooks the public intellectual was horrified, but David Brooks the human didn't feel a thing." Why would he do that?

Simple answer: because he has a cork in his ass. It's not something he's conscious of, for heaven's sake, it's a spillover from his repression that emerges in spite of him, because he's such a terrible writer.


It's not just Muslims, of course:
In Israel, there’s the wave of stabbings. In this country we have shooting sprees in schools and in theaters. In cities there are police killings. In other places there are suicide bombings. This violence is the daily diet of the global news channels.
It's the parenting shortage, most likely, wouldn't you know it.
Many of the attacks have religious or political overtones. But there’s always a psychological element, too. Some young adults have separated from their parents but they have not developed an independent self of their own. In order to escape the terror of their own formlessness or insignificance, a few commit to some fanatical belief system. They perform some horrific act they believe will give their life shape, meaning and glory.
But it's always kind of like Muslims, in one way and another, except I guess when the police shoot you.
Creeds like radical Islam offer the illusion that murder and self-annihilation is the noblest form of sacrifice.

Anyhow what he really wanted to talk about was Trump. The biggest problem with the Era of Small Terror is that it leads inevitably to Trump, which is a bad thing.

The argument goes like this: there are two kinds of liberalism, see—
philosophic Enlightenment liberalism.... the basic belief in open society, free speech, egalitarianism and meliorism (gradual progress)
—and "partisan liberalism", which is I believe the basic belief in open society, free speech, egalitarianism and meliorism, the belief that progress is possible, whether or not it's gradual, AKA the liberalism of the Enlightenment that actually took place in Western European history. Brooksy sticks in that unidiomatic "gradual" to confound it with what he really means, conservative liberalism, the Edmund Burke kind, that Burke took up after his "real, if cautious, meliorism degenerated into a superficial fear of the mob".
Frank O'Gorman, Edmund Burke (Routledge, 2004).
(Burke was also the very definition of a partisan Liberal, or rather Whig, as Dr. Johnson complained.)

Anyhow, Small Terror makes people understandably anxious (like Burke in the face of the terror of the Bastille mobs who liberated political prisoners and said very rude things about the Queen), with an "unfocused corrosive uneasiness", and this leads them to challenge the conservative liberal order all over the world, supporting a closed rather than open society on both sides (of course):
parts of the left embrace closed trade policies and parts of the right embrace closed cultural and migration policies
(because it's obviously the fear of suicide bombers that leads Joseph Stieglitz and Bernie Sanders to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while your rightwingers were always friendly to different cultures until those dratted Mooslims slaughtered the Charlie Hebdo staff, I mean that just stands to reason). And some of them even
look for strongmen who will close borders and stultify the demographic and social fabric.
Don't stultify my fabric, bro!

Hence Trump. It's not even Christian, wails Reverend Brooks:
It’s too soon to tell if the Republican Party will have fewer evangelical voters this year, but the tenor of debate has certainly been less Christian — less charitable, less hospitable to the stranger.
(I can assure you if Trump gets the nomination and Evangelicals stay home from the polls it won't be because they haven't got a charitable stranger-friendly candidate, because that's what's known in common parlance as a Democrat. They'll be staying home because they suspect Trump doesn't hate gay people very much. But you knew that.)


So what's a conservative liberal to do?
It’s up to us who believe in open society to wage an intellectual counterattack.
Not too open, of course:
You can’t beat moral fanaticism with weak tea moral relativism.
Rather, we should borrow an (uncredited) idea from Isaiah Berlin, that of value-pluralism, or the belief that a complex community can exist in which there are ethical values that contradict each other and yet are equally valid; only in a special funhouse Brooksian version in which each of us can adopt a whole set of contradictory values for her- or himself:
The pluralist is committed to a philosophy or faith, but also to an ethnicity and also to a city, and also to a job and also to diverse interests and fascinating foreign cultures. These different commitments balance and moderate one another.
Especially those fascinating foreign cultures! I'm personally committed to being fascinated myself, so I'm not sure if I should be mocking Brooks here, but no, he's got it wrong (go ahead and read the damn Wikipedia article if you want to know why, but it's basically because Brooks can't imagine the difference between the meta-ethical approach from outside particular ethical commitments with which Berlin is working and the kind of simple-but-flexible catechism Brooks would like to be taught). He's got it completely wrong, obviously, and he wouldn't be able to tell the real thing apart from moral relativism if it knocked him down in the street and stole his watch, and it's not going to defeat Trump in any case, though I appreciate Brooks's interest in doing that.

It's not an intellectual counterattack that will defeat Trump, or his counterparts like Cruz or Rubio or Christie or Huckabee that sound a little less obtuse and violent, either (Brooks is so partisan he can't see how the same they are, and inveighs against Trump as if he were the source of the evil rather than a symptom). It has little to do with the equal-opportunity militant terrorism of the past year or two and everything to do with the racial terror fomented in our country since the Civil Rights Act and Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964.

It's nice of Brooks to be interested in the struggle, but what it's going to take is going to be altogether too vulgar for him, some serious partisanship. If Republicans can't do it, Democrats will have to.

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