Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Brooks nails it again: There's too much politics in this joint!

Bioluminescence in Vadhoo, Maldives, which won't exist if we don't move faster on global warming, speaking of galaxies of warm places, politics, and both sides not doing it, from msn via Beth Smith at Pinterest.
David Brooks wants to know
How to Fix Politics
I thought it was already fixed, har har har. Isn't that the problem?

No, seriously:
It’s possible to imagine an elite solution. The next president could get together with the leaders of both parties in Congress and say: “We’re going to change the way we do business in Washington..."
But you don't really have to imagine it, because every president does that. It's not even meant as a solution, if it ever was, it's a ritual cleansing. It is startling to realize that David Brooks doesn't know this. Anyway he he's not so dumb as to imagine such a procedure would have a really good chance of fixing things. Though not for the obvious reason that it's never worked yet; rather, because
the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. If there’s truly going to be improvement, there has to be improvement in the social context politics is embedded in.
So somebody has to improve the social context first, and the politics can be taken care of afterwards, or might just take care of itself. Which raises the interesting question of who: who's going to be that somebody? Who's on the social context improvement team? Are we supposed to volunteer, or is there a recruitment committee? We'll be getting back to that periodically in the course of this fisking.
In healthy societies, people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole.
OK, this is the familiar Brooksian territory. Beyond the novel imagery of a "galaxy of warm places", which I find hilarious ("There's beer in the kitchen, over by the Andromeda Cluster, help yourself"), he's just on his usual shtik of nostalgia for the late American 1820s as described by Tocqueville. Politics was better then, as we know from the history of the period from the election of General Jackson to the Civil War. What could go wrong?

I have to say, because I'm not sure I've said it before, I'm pretty attached myself to the concept of multiple and overlapping group identities as a good thing, and I'd even wager pretty confidently that I and most of the people I know have lived it a lot more than David Brooks has, especially those of us with kids as the kids were growing up (of course I have had a relatively privileged existence, but compared to David Brooks I'm a Gansu peasant living in a cave heated with human-dung briquettes). Presumably he had an opportunity to play an active part in his family PTA or the synagogue management, but I can't imagine he ever did it—that would have been Mrs. B's job—or that he ever belonged to a hobby group (woodworking? birdwatching? creative writing?), or showed up for the New York Times softball practice, or had a regional culture of any kind. He loves to lecture everybody about Robert Putnam, but has he ever considered joining a bowling league himself? Me neither, to be honest, there are a lot of places I wouldn't go, but that's not the point.
starting just after World War II, America’s community/membership mind-set gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mind-set. The idea was that individuals should be liberated to live as they chose, so long as they didn’t interfere with the rights of others.
Whose idea was that? Really? Who said, "OK, folks, you can stop joining bowling leagues now, just go fulfill yourselves?" The source he cites, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich in 1981 (which means Yankelovich's New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down), tells a somewhat more complex story, as described in Christopher Lehman-Haupt's review, in two phases, mostly driven by economics: first, immediately after the war, extraordinary prosperity kind of took the motivation out of the traditional "ethic of self-sacrifice", with a countercultural minority (17% of the working population) working actively to define some new ethic outside the drudgery of the rat race and a quieter majority (almost 66%) developing skepticism and a cynical pursuit of self-gratification without an ethical foundation; followed by the oil shocks of 1973,
leaving millions of Americans in a solipsistic quandary. They had their hierarchy of needs, and they had their ideal of a fulfilled self, whatever that might be. But neither needs nor self-fulfillment were apt to pay the bills that were coming in for the growing cost of oil, an expanding list of social entitlements and the decline of the country's industrial productivity.
Yankelovich also seems to blame psychologists and philosophers for the whole thing, which struck Lehman-Haupt as just funny:
it seems unsatisfactory somehow to blame the entire ridiculous self-fulfillment craze on the human-potential movement and such prophets of humanist psychology as A.A. Maslow, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Charlotte Buhler and Rollo May. There has to be more to the rage of self-gratification than ''the fallacy of the autonymous self'' and its popularization by such writers as Gail Sheehy and Wayne Dyer. And if there's more to it than bad philosophy, it isn't going to be so easy to escape.
But Brooks's issue of declining membership in community organizations isn't a part of the story at all, except indirectly, as people alienated by the process found themselves longing for "closer and deeper personal relationships" and a "search for community"  (later interpreted by the sociologist Paul Lichterman, in the 1990s, as a Search for Political Community).

I'd add, to that, that the counterculture itself was always extremely communitarian in orientation, people interested not in atomic selfhood but in replacing corrupt and stupid old institutions with beautiful new ones, communes and co-ops. bands and fan clubs, religious cults and revolutionary cells. And it was principally economic factors that drove the decline of the old organizations, too, in the 1970s, as the high-growth economy vanished in favor of r > g, and people in the working majority found themselves struggling harder than ever just to stay in the same economic place, in the battle to increase productivity—few had time for bowling leagues any more FFS.

There's an amusing little contradiction: on the one hand
There’s been a sharp rise in the number of people who report that they have no close friends to confide in.
But on the other,
As Marc J. Dunkelman writes in his compelling book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships — their family and friends.
Which is it? And what's your source on the first one, Davy?

But he's off explaining that the problem is in the "middle-ring" relationships, the bowling league ones, that no longer exist, in which people ought to be hanging out and bonding with people they disagree with politically.
But Americans spend less time with middle-ring township relationships — the PTA, the neighborhood watch. Middle-ring relationships, Dunkelman argues, help people become skilled at deliberation. The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.
Which is, for Brooks, the cause of vicious partisanship in our decayed polity:
With middle-ring memberships deteriorating, Americans have become worse at public deliberation. People find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world. They report being optimistic or pessimistic depending on whether their team is in power. They become unrealistic.
But then that's the thing. Those "middle-ring" connections are precisely the ones, in general, where you don't talk about politics, or religion, or talk about them with particular caution. I suppose Brooks really doesn't have many such relationships, since the closest thing he has to a workplace is in the TV studio or the lecture hall, among people who expect him to be talking, or at least thinking, about politics all the time.

The non-political mid-level identity groupings, in contrast, were never places for the conduct of public deliberation; they're for avoiding it. The idea that you'll be chatting in this deeply reasoned and attentive way with Justin's mom at Little League practice about possible ways to shore up the Social Security trust fund, or respectfully exploring different views over whether it's right to restrict abortion rights at that volunteer fire department, is just not based on real-life experience.

Of course there have always been mid-level identity groupings that are political, local political clubs and trade union halls, chambers of commerce, fraternal and benevolent organizations and the like, though these have long been deteriorating too, under the same economic pressure, and in the case of unions under political pressure as well, at least in some states.

Brooks probably doesn't think very highly of them anyhow:
With fewer sources of ethnic and local identity, people ask politics to fill the void. Being a Democrat or a Republican becomes their ethnicity. People put politics at the center of their psychological, emotional and even spiritual life. This is asking too much of politics. Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.
And so we come to the actual technique for improving the social context so that we can improve politics: we should start by dumping the politics!
If we’re going to salvage our politics, we probably have to shrink politics, and nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within. We probably have to scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far.
Bringing us at last to the answer of the "who" question: It's "we", i.e., David Brooks and his friends.

They're going to come around and shrink our politics to a more appropriate size; they're going to nurture our thick membership web (thick members in the galaxy of warm places, always in need of nurturing, starting to sound a little bit off-color, as my grandmother would have called it).  David Brooks and his friends are going to scale back that wicked culture of autonomy he was warning us about last week. Perhaps he'll get to telling us how he plans to accomplish these tasks in the coming weeks.

It's truly funny how Brooks seems to have forgotten his discovery in late March that he doesn't know anything about America—as Driftglass puts it in very high Driftglassian style—
Remember about ten minutes ago when Mr. David Brooks of the New York Times suddenly noticed he was really terrible at his job and had fucked up very badly and didn't know a damn thing about what was going on in his own country?  And then promised his employers that he would immediately rectify this situation by boldly leaving the cozy bubble of the Acela corridor and boldly cross the dangerous demographic seas to Working Class Skull Island where he would boldly capture the Terrible Truth about the Real America and bring it back to New York in chains!
—and has gone back to lecturing us again!

One last thing: it's true that those mid-level social institutions are in trouble, and that you can connect this to the epistemic closure of Trumpery, because the most endangered institutions are those proper to the less educated white population, with no factory-floor jobs, no unions, no softball teams or charity food drives, Internet porn and megachurch for entertainment and spiritual succor, and a general lack of intellectual resources other than the Web.

But the cure for that is more politics (as in Lichterman, referenced above), not less.

I happen to have Alexis de Tocqueville right here with me, and that's what he says:
Politics give birth not only to numerous associations, but to associations of great extent. In civil life it seldom happens that any one interest draws a very large number of men to act in concert; much skill is required to bring such an interest into existence; but in politics opportunities present themselves every day. Now, it is solely in great associations that the general value of the principle of association is displayed. Citizens who are individually powerless do not very clearly anticipate the strength that they may acquire by uniting together; it must be shown to them in order to be understood. Hence it is often easier to collect a multitude for a public purpose than a few persons; a thousand citizens do not see what interest they have in combining together; ten thousand will be perfectly aware of it....
In their political associations the Americans, of all conditions, minds, and ages, daily acquire a general taste for association and grow accustomed to the use of it. There they meet together in large numbers, they converse, they listen to one another, and they are mutually stimulated to all sorts of undertakings. They afterwards transfer to civil life the notions they have thus acquired and make them subservient to a thousand purposes. Thus it is by the enjoyment of a dangerous freedom that the Americans learn the art of rendering the dangers of freedom less formidable.

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