Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Brawling Alone

Thanks for the shout-out, Tengrain!

Une Excursion Incohérente (The Panicky Picnic) by Camille de Morlhon Segundo de Chomón, 1909, via SilentOlogy.
Shorter David Brooks, "The Movement Mentality", New York Times, March 1 2016:
What America needs now is more Trotskyists. And Birchers, Objectivists, Larouchists, Lovestonites, Burkeans, Mugwumps and Muggletonians, Socialist Workers, Socialist Laborites and laborist socialites, Social Creditists, Diggers and Levelers, leaflets and magazines, and meetings in college lunchroom alcoves, and admiring girls watching me win debates against my hapless opponents. It's the American way! You educate yourself by joining a cult! Not with that so-called "critical thinking".
I'm pretty sure he's not plagiarizing at all today but working from memory, though not his own:
Eighty years ago engaged students at City College in New York sat in the cafeteria hour upon hour, debating. The Trotskyites sat in one alcove and the Leninists sat in another, and since the Trostkyites were smarter and won the debates, the leaders of the Leninist faction eventually forbade their cadres from ever talking to them.
He's misrecalling somebody else's—Irving Kristol's?—memories of decades before he was born, or he wouldn't be saying "Trotskyite" and "Leninist" for the correct "Trotskyist" and "Stalinist" ("Trotskyite" was a term of insult, and of course Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Lovestonites all claimed to be the true heirs of Leninist thinking), and while Alcove no. 2 was indeed dominated by doctrinaire Stalinists, Alcove no. 1 had a bewildering variety of grouplets, according to Kristol, including a dozen or so each Trotskyists and Norman Thomas socialists, and
the Social Democrats (or "right-wing socialists") who actually voted for F.D.R., and the "revolutionary socialists" who belonged to one or another "splinter group" – the Ohlerites, the Marlinites, the Fieldites, the Lovestonites, and the who-can-remember-what-other-ites – which, finding itself in "principled disagreement" with every other sect, had its own little publication (usually called a "theoretical organ") and its own special prescription for achieving real socialism. In addition, and finally, there were a handful of "independents"-exasperating left-wing individualists who either could not bring themselves to join any group or else insisted on joining them all in succession...
Or more likely Seymour Lipset, who includes the detail of the Stalinists not being allowed to talk to Trotskyists:
The Stalinist or Communist alcove was known as the Kremlin, and the one next door, inhabited by a variety of anti-Stalinist radicals--Trotskyists, Socialists, anarchists, socialist Zionists, members of assorted splinter groups--was called Mexico City in honor of Leon Trotsky's exile home. Proximity, of course, led to shouting matches, even though the Communists forbade their members to converse with any Trotskyists, whom they defined as fascist agents.
It wasn't about winning and losing "debates" between opposing camps but paranoia; in practice, if my own memories of a similar atmosphere in the 1970s are anything to go by, true believers on all sides didn't talk a lot across the boundaries. What I get from Kristol is that the Trots were not so much "smarter" than Communists, debate winners, as more cultivated and literary, which I think is probably quite true as far as it goes.
It feels like people clumped themselves into intellectual movements more 30 years ago than they do today. 
Well, duh. Thirty-odd years ago you were a college student, in a lively department at a pretty good school, and now you telecommute for the New York Times, socialize with tired people in your own age and social classes, and don't generally do anything.

I doubt the situation is any different, really, today, other than through the advent of ethnic and gender diversity as a factor (Kristol mentions that the Harlem campus was all-male in the 1930s, which I totally did not know, and so Jewish that there were Italian-American Trotskyists who thought they should take on Jewish pseudonyms) and the growing importance of intersectionality issues, which Brooks hates because they're so divisive, and he really hates divisive, except when he doesn't, of course. It's very odd to see this noteworthy conservative criticizing entrepreneurship and advocating collectivism, on the intellectual plane:
 today we live in a start-up culture. There’s great prestige in being the founder of something, the lone entrepreneur who creates something new. Young people who frequently say they don’t want to work in some large organization are certainly not going to want to subsume themselves in some pre-existing intellectual label. The Internet has changed things, too. Writers used to cluster around magazines that were the hubs of movements. On the Internet, individual posters and tweeters are more distinct, but collectives of thinkers are less common.
A kind of political Bowling Alone problem.

What he's up to here is a curious nostalgia for an experience he probably never had himself; I expect he was one of the careerists in college, knowing about all the fissiparous political and artistic activities but busy himself laying up résumé points and contacts for the future, most famously old Mr. Buckley, and pretty old before he found himself participating in cult life, in the staid and rather luxurious variety found in Buckley's East Side townhouse:
When I joined National Review at age 24 I joined a very self-conscious tradition. I was connected to a history of insight and belief; to Edmund Burke and Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham. I wanted to learn everything I could about that tradition — what I accepted and what I rejected — as a way to figure out what I believed.
The intellectual tradition of Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan! (I wonder if Irving Kristol ever realized how very low he had fallen, with Richard Nixon and Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick and David Gergen as his disciples.) And the bizarre idea that disciplining yourself into the straitjacket of somebody else's beliefs is the way to discover your own.

The key is when he identifies the enemy:
Today universities teach “critical thinking” — to be detached, skeptical and analytic. Movements are marked by emotion — division and solidarity, victory and defeat.
I'm lucky in that one of those conversion moments for me—white-hot all-night reading—and one that has stayed with me the most was to a radical skepticism, Karl Popper's falsificationist epistemology, so that skepticism and passion to me are not at all mutually exclusive.

But it's surely also the case that critical thinking was taught in his Chicago in the 1980s as it was in my Buffalo in the 1970s and at CCNY when Irving Kristol was there (at the very highest level, which is how they garnered all those Nobels in physics and biology as well as the famous literary critics—there was a lot there besides socialism, important as that was). And it's very odd of Brooks to think that what the faculty teaches accounts for what the students feel or fail to feel; critical thinking is in the classes, movement-joining outside among your peers. There weren't any professors in those alcoves.

It's a nostalgia, in any case, for what Brooks himself never got around to feeling,and the thing he's constantly on about nowadays, the thing that "radiated" from his character-ful heroes, passionate commitment in an impassioned community, with its intense solidarities and quarrels, love affairs and stormy breakups, manifestoes and manifestations. (I don't think he's at all fooled, the way the National Review rubes seem to be, by the Scaife- and Koch-funded simulacra of these things in the conservative movement, or by Aspen and TED conferences either.) And disguising it from himself by projecting it on everybody else. I want to tell him, David, the kids are all right.

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