Saturday, July 16, 2016

Both sides don't do it? Then we need some new sides!

I think I'm finally getting a fix on what David Brooks has been trying to do with this concept of the ongoing political realignment away from the traditional left-vs.-right polarization to a new polarization between advocates of the "open" and advocates of the "closed" that he introduced a couple of weeks ago.

What it is is, he's coming at last to recognize at some crushed level that both sides in the traditional polarization don't do it—it's been one side doing it all along, and indeed the one in whose defense he's been engaged for the last 30 years or so. The realignment is something he's designing for himself, along with a few other fragile souls like James Traub and, it transpires, Jonathan Haidt (him again, really?), now billing himself as a "moral psychologist", whatever the fuck that is, and Michael Lind. For Brooks it serves as a way to maintain his own self-regard: creating an imaginary political world in which both sides keep doing it, and his magisterial position above it all can remain serene, if a little melancholy, and unshaken.

Like the East German government needing to elect a new people in the 1950s, Brooks needs to construct a new party system, at least inside his head, so his interpretation of it will be true.

There's another column on the subject today, under the headline "We Take Care of Our Own", and the project emerges from its bewildering peroration:

The fact is that both mind-sets have their virtues. The particularists emphasize the intimate love and loyalty that is the stuff of real community. The universalists are moved by injustices anywhere, and morally repulsed by inaction and indifference in the face of that suffering.
The tragedy of this election is that America already solved this problem. Unlike France and China, we were founded as a universalist nation. You can be fiercely patriotic and relatively open because America was founded to take in people from around the globe and unite them around something new.
Unfortunately, the forces of multiculturalism destroyed that commitment to cultural union. That has led to Trump, who has upended universalistic American nationalism and replaced it with European blood and soil nationalism in a stars and stripes disguise.
You see, your rootless cosmopolitans (as Douthat just barely stopped himself from calling us at the beginning of the month) are incapable of experiencing intimate love, loyalty, or real community, sad for us you know, while the rednecks aren't moved by injustice or attracted to those who try to repair it. But the United States constitutionally provides a place where you can be both cosmopolitan and redneck at the same time, or preferably a bloodless neither like Brooks admiring these excitable people from a bemused equidistance.

Takes balls much bigger than Brooks's to accuse France of not being founded as a universalist nation in the week we celebrate the origin of the First Republic and its philosophical climax in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, especially when this year's celebrations were destroyed by unspeakable "particularist" violence (given how late he normally files his copy he probably knew about it too).

I assume he's doing it out of pure ignorance and has no clue how forcefully France has taken in immigrants from a wider and wider net over the centuries, but in the last two centuries asking them to unite around a something new from 1789, an ideal of republican Frenchness, that is much more assimilationist than most Americans would be willing to tolerate. (A similar thing could be said about China, but there the history would have to be taken all the way back to the founding of the Tang dynasty in the 6th century.)

The settlement in the United States, in contrast, has always been that the plures would continue to coexist with the unum, as represented, for instance, by the refusal of the Founders to consider endowing the nation with a national language, and the overwhelming concern of the Federalist authors with the protection of minority populations. We were to be a country of divided and complex loyalties, united in the understanding that our affinities and affiliations were our own business, and this is how, over the long haul, it has developed, with many backward steps when some nativist group became frightened, normally under the influence of demagogues seeking to divide-and-rule the population: frightened of the Native people from forever, or the Catholics in the 1850s, or the freed Africans in the Reconstruction period, or the Asians in the 1880s, or the Anarchists of 1900 and Reds of 1919, and so on more or less all the time.

But Brooks, on the basis of his own experience in the heart of wealthy whiteness, in 1960s Stuyvesant Town and the Philadelphia Main Line in the 1970s, supposes there was some profound long-term resolution where people were only different from each other in a good way, like OK, so they have a lot of different churches, and Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, a whole panoply of different ways of being generous little burghers, and then out of nowhere came the "forces of multiculturalism" to wreck it all and make everybody nervous, hence the inevitable Trump.

Because people used to make an effort to become white, and now they don't even bother, and what's a salt-of-the-earth white guy to do?

Or as Haidt puts it
globalization and rising prosperity have changed the values and behavior of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists.
The main point being that these urban elites, with their bhangra music and sushi and insistence that women complaining about sexual harassment could be talking about something real, not to mention the bl- bl- bl- victims of police shootings, are directly responsible for the rise of Trump. They just made everybody so damn uncomfortable!

I should add that the caricaturing of people in this construction is equally obnoxious on both sides: Just as I object to being treated by David Brooks as someone incapable of experiencing love or community, all those less-educated folks in the mostly white communities making up the opposite group should complain about being treated as incapable of recognizing injustice. That's bullshit too. But the parts he largely refuses to see, or regards as fundamentally inexplicable epiphenomena, the racism and sexism—the failure to recognize that those Others are in fact fellow human beings, and therefore to extend that sense of injustice to cover them fully—are real.

Brooks's title is a Bruce Springsteen reference,
I've been knockin' on the door that holds the throne
I've been lookin' for the map that leads me home
I've been stumblin' on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone
We take care of our own...
Leading Brooks to remark that

In the verses, it’s clear that taking care of our own also means not taking care of people who are not our own, like the victims of Katrina. Suddenly the phrase “We Take Care of Our Own” has an exclusivist, menacing and even racist tinge.
That's literally crazy. Springsteen isn't being subtle here. It's not "suddenly" that the refrain becomes exclusivist, where the singer has already noted good hearts turned to stone and good intentions gone dry, and it's not a "tinge". It's an extraordinary inability to recognize that those "victims of Katrina" are "our own". That they are fellow citizens, that they are part of one wounded community to which we belong, not aliens we ought to be nice to but us.

I have a pretty low opinion of Brooks, you know, but I'm still truly shocked that he can read this lyric pretty carefully and not see this, that he calmly expresses the same view as Springsteen's caricatured rednecks.

In contrast, Tom Friedman—"The (G.O.P.) Party's Over"—practically sounded like me last week, calling for Clinton to win in 50 states, and the Democrats to take the Senate and the House, for the Supreme Court, gun control, infrastructure building, a carbon tax, an improved Obamacare, and a message to bigotry to go away:

The [Republican] party grew into a messy, untended garden, and Donald Trump was like an invasive species that finally just took over the whole thing.
(My setup for the invasive species metaphor was not a messy garden but a toxic waste dump.) He loves that bothsiderism still, alas, but he's noticed that it stopped breathing a while back and doesn't smell too good.

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