Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Give me that old-time conservatism, it's good enough for me

Typical symposium, from the Diver's Tomb at Paestum, Campania, ca. 475 B.C.E., or about 60 years before the poet Agathon threw the unforgettable party, after his victory in the playwrights' competition in the Dionysia of 416, that Plato (who wasn't there) dramatized in his great Symposium three or so decades afterwards. Via Wikipedia. You guys on the right get a room, for Apollo's sake!
Shorter David Brooks, "The Age of Reaction", September 27 2016:
The real problem is the crappy conservatives we have nowadays. Conservatives in my time used to be people you could look up to, with positive ideas, moderate but optimistic religiosity like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a humanistic appreciation for progress, and now they're all nothing but a bunch of reactionaries. These kids make me sick.
So he's a kind of meta-reactionary himself, yearning to go back to when the conservatives were the right, clubbable sort. That's after castigating Hillary Clinton on Friday for being mired in the tired ideas of the 20th century.

Obviously I'm psyched about the debate, but everybody's writing great stuff about it, and I was really busy all day, and here's Brooks, and this strange doom of mine to deal with him week after week. There's a couple of laughs coming, in any event.

It's book report day at Brooks's shop. He must have had to file early yesterday afternoon so he could get over to the PBS studio for the Great Debate, where he was needed to deliver such deathless insights as
I do think it is more like a reality show. It’s drama. And especially the undecided voters, you know, they’re not interested in somebody’s — the third plank of the health care plan. This is not going to be Plato’s symposium, not that it’s been that so far.
I should hope not! There's some perverted enjoyment in imagining the candidates reclining shirtless on couches getting progressively drunker as they hold forth on the true nature of love, but I don't think it would work out quite at the Platonic level of philosophical and literary quality, and I think I wouldn't want to see it on television if it did. I'd be much more comfortable just reading about it, thanks, preferably some centuries after it took place.

Not what Brooks had in mind, I don't suppose—not what they were covering when he audited Allan Bloom classes in Chicago, presumably. He's envisaging a kind of Athenian Aspen seminar or TED conference where expressions that sound to Brooks like a Sid Caesar routine—"the third plank of the health care plan"—buzz around the auditorium while he dozes in a rear seat. Didn't the Archons of Athens hold regular symposia with invited guests sharing their research results as they practiced their Athenian democracy? Didn't they have staid, earnest campaigns responding to ordinary folks' questions about whether Athens was or wasn't headed in the right direction and coming up with a lot of areas where they could compromise on taxes or public services or the proper distribution of empathy throughout the body politic? No?

The book he's reporting on, anyway, is Mark Lilla's new collection of New York Review essays, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, which Brooks takes to be a kind of charter for distinguishing between the rude and embarrassing conservatives he doesn't like, like Donald Trump or the Taliban, and those he does, who are generally dead (no, I don't think he gets all the subtleties of Lilla's argument, which I hope to get to in a later post, along with the inevitable disjunction with Corey Robin). The bad ones are not conservatives at all but reactionaries, who

come in different stripes but share a similar mentality: There was once a golden age, when people knew their place and lived in harmony. But then that golden age was betrayed by the elites. “The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.
Soon, they believe, a false and decadent consciousness descended upon the land. “Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening,” Lilla notes. Only the reactionaries have the wisdom to turn things back to the way they used to be, to “Make America Great Again.”
Like when people used to have a more spiritual than materialistic orientation, went to church and joined fraternal organizations, and took care of each other instead of waiting for some cold-hearted government official to take care of them, until they were busted apart and divided by the arrival of meritocracy, pitting us in invidious competition against one another into a pervasive mutual mistrust and alienation. Only David Brooks has the wisdom to point us in the direction of that idyllic conservative past.

If you know what I mean. He's just defined his own pseudo-philosophy as reactionary, the thing he set out to condemn, without even the slightest clue that he's doing it. This is why I can't quit Brooks, you know. He's so all out there, entirely on the surface, without any ability to penetrate his own inner consciousness. He's almost like the Trump of opinion-writing.

Update: Driftglass takes the trouble to tell him his concern about these awful reactionaries is a little more than a day late and a dollar short and his nostalgic nostrum isn't going to help treat the damage he and his kind have caused:
the "best weapon against the reactionary"  is not one more dose of the toxic Imaginary Conservative patent medicine you have been peddling for decades.  

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