Friday, May 20, 2016

The Golden Chain

Barbara Stanwyck in Alfred E. Green's Baby Face (1933), via An Honest Ghost.
Shorter David Brooks, "The Fragmented Society", New York Times, May 20 2016:
I'm so clued in that Yuval Levin name-checks me in his new book, and yet there are things in that sucker even I didn't know, on virtually every page, although all the examples I can think of seem to be things I say myself all the time, like political polarization in Congress seems to be on the rise since its period of decline in 1910-40 and income inequality, diminishing from 1925 to 1970, has also begun to rise, and immigration, slowing from 1910 to 1975, has been going up. These factors, as opposed to the Internet, which arrived later, have caused us to become a fragmented society. Levin argues that our politics are based upon nostalgia for a less fragmented time. Conservatives lament the new lack of social cohesion and liberals complain about the inequality. Both are wrong, in Levin's view, because that's just the way things are nowadays and we can't do anything about it. These phenomena are the downsides of choices we have made for perfectly good reasons, like the desire to enjoy more flexibility, creativity, and individual choice, as when we buy cheap products around the world, and so there's nothing to be done. Therefore what we do will have to be the opposite of what we have done in the past. Unlike the policies of the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations when all this unfortunate fragmentation took place, we will have to adopt subsidiarity, devolving more power and choice from the federal government to local authorities. This is all quite true, but I'd like to say that I disagree with it in part. I think it is important, as we are taking away power from the federal government, that we should also give more power to the federal government, for example by instituting radical new ideas like national service and OMG look at the time and I've run out of space.
Levin's book is The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (Basic Books, 2016), and I don't know if it's as much of a mess as the way Brooks portrays it, although it's inevitable that it should suffer from that cognitive dissonance between the fatalistic declinism of the conservative narrative (nostalgia aside, you can never have it as nice as it used to be) and the need to claim that your prescriptions are going to do the patient some good (you'll be as good as old!)

Brooks's basic argument, that he has thought of a way to disagree with Levin's argument even though Levin mentions him by name, is contained in paragraphs 14-16 of his column:

I’m acknowledged in the book, but I learned something new on every page. Nonetheless, I’d say Levin’s emphasis on subsidiarity and local community is important but insufficient. We live within a golden chain, connecting self, family, village, nation and world. The bonds of that chain have to be repaired at every point, not just the local one.
It’s not 1830. We Americans have a national consciousness. People who start local groups are often motivated by a dream of scaling up and changing the nation and the world. Our distemper is not only caused by local fragmentation but by national dysfunction. Even Levin writes and thinks in nation-state terms (his prescription is Wendell Berry, but his intellectual and moral sources are closer to a nationalist like Abraham Lincoln).
That means there will have to be a bigger role for Washington than he or current Republican orthodoxy allows, with more radical ideas, like national service, or a national effort to seed locally run early education and infrastructure projects.
Why a golden chain? An allusion, perhaps,
to a passage in Homer’s Iliad (i. 19–30), where Zeus says, If a golden chain were let down from heaven, and all the gods and goddesses pulled at one end, they would not be able to pull him down to earth; whereas he could lift with ease all the deities and all created things besides with his single might.
How are there bonds on a chain other than the local ones, link to link? Was there no national consciousness in the US in 1830? If you believe in a national effort to "seed" locally run early education and infrastructure projects does that mean you've endorsed Hillary? Or do you feel that when she said "it takes a village" she didn't mean "a society of empowered local neighborhood organizations" in which "experiments happen" but something still more sinister?

OK, so I'm not taking this seriously. I've had a tough week.

On Brooks being "acknowledged" in The Fractured Nation, he does appear in the Acknowledgments as one of the people with whom Levin has had useful conversations, along with a number of people including Ross Douthat and Scott Winship, but not Jonah Goldberg. Brooks is also mentioned in an endnote on p. 228, where it is suggested that Brooks's The Road to Character supplies "a superb overview of this profound transformation of American attitudes after the war" and some examples that Levin has used in his chapter on "The Age of Conformity", which I can't identify within the limits of the Kindle preview, and Goldberg and Winship are cited there too. But neither Brooks, Goldberg, nor Winship rates a mention in the index, while William F. Buckley, Jr. and "Picketty [sic, at least twice] and Saez", found on the same page of the endnotes, do (Thomas Piketty's name is spelled right in the index), suggesting a complex citation hierarchy distinguishing the works Levin seriously needed to cite and those in which he's merely returning or soliciting some kind of favor. Douthat is a winner in these status stakes, with three endnotes (one with a very long quotation from a column), name (unlike Brooks) in the body text, and indexing as well.

Perhaps that sense of having been taken a notch or two down below the pipsqueak Douthat in the conservative dominance-and-submission rankings explains the strange defiance with which Brooks asserts his independence, in asserting that the diminishing role of Washington, while important, needs to be matched by an expanding role for Washington, just so they know they can't take Brooksy for granted. And the same might go for his insistence on using "fragmented" instead of Levin's "fractured", though it doesn't mean the same thing (Levin does use "fragmented" a single time, though, on p. 3 of the introduction, while the seven instances of "fractured" don't start until p. 77, which is a long way ahead of where Brooks normally stops reading, so perhaps Brooks simply didn't realize that Levin did regard them as two different words).

If a golden chain were let down from Brooks's window and we all pulled as hard as we could, would we be able to pull him down to earth? He certainly wouldn't let the chain down himself to pull us up, in any event.

Update: A little survey from Driftglass of the history of Brooks and Levin offering each other literary blow jobs provides some helpful context.

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