Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Man and His Brain

Former New York Times columnist David Brooks  ("Getting Trump Out of My Brain") introduces an interesting psychological theory you might call neo-Cartesian, in which he sees the human self as a disembodied thing lurking in the ether but the brain as a sort of self in its own right, and a difficult personality making for conflicts between the two of them:

Last week The Washington Post published transcripts of Donald Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders. A dear friend sent me an email suggesting I read them because they reveal how Trump’s mind works. But as I tried to click the link a Bartleby-like voice in my head said, “I would prefer not to.” I tried to click again and the voice said: “No thanks. I’m full.”
So poor Brooksy can't cognize anything because his brain's on strike. Here's a howdy-do!

For the past two years Trump has taken up an amazing amount of my brain space. My brain has apparently decided that it’s not interested in devoting more neurons to that guy. There’s nothing more to be learned about Trump’s mixture of ignorance, insecurity and narcissism. Every second spent on his bluster is more degrading than informative.
And I can totally see that being a problem (161st career use of "amazing/amazingly" in his Times column, incidentally). Even though it clearly hasn't affected his work, since instead of writing about these things he just keeps recycling the same old garbage anyway. And besides, he never uses his brain for writing columns. That's according to him, not me:

But I thought I might try to listen to my brain for a change. That would mean trying, probably unsuccessfully, to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.
(I wonder if his brain knows that "phenomena" is the plural...)

But sounds like an idea! Maybe Brooks could use the fascinating things Trump says and does to discuss the effects his presidency might be having on the nation! Maybe he could take the opportunity to write a column about the impact of current politics on human life, like it could be important or something. Good thinking, Brooks's brain! Listen to it, Brooksy!

How much permanent damage is he doing to our global alliances? Have Americans really decided they no longer want to be a universal nation with a special mission to spread freedom around the world? Is populism now the lingua franca of politics so the Democrats’ only hope is to match Trump’s populism with their own?
OK, that's a start. That's not exactly where I'd go with it. I was thinking more of things like the forthcoming terrifying National Climate Assessment, created by scientists from 13 federal agencies and confirming that recent decades have been the warmest in 1500 years, caused mainly by greenhouse gas emissions, and that recent extreme weather events are indeed connected to global warming, conclusions in dramatic conflicts with the policy agenda of Trump and his EPA head Scott Pruitt, who seem determined to make things worse; and the fact that scientists leaked it out of fear the White House would try to suppress it. Or the apparent push toward war with North Korea, though I'm still hopeful that the generals have successfully taken over security management from the presidency and those noises emanating from the golf club in Bedminster are just noises. Or—

These sorts of questions revolve around one big question: What lessons are people drawing from this debacle and how will those lessons shape what comes next?
No, I thought, like, you're the opinionator, why don't you draw some lessons from this debacle?

For example, let’s look at our moral culture. For most of American history mainline Protestants — the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and so on — set the dominant cultural tone. Most of the big social movements, like abolitionism, the suffragist movement and the civil rights movement, came out of the mainline churches.
Yes, he's going to do the same column he's done four or five times a year for as long as I've been reading him, addressing our long-term moral decline since Brooks was in kindergarten, and everything in our nation was morally perfect, with Mommy and Daddy fully in charge and little David confident of his own rightness.

Trump is nothing but an illustration of what he's been saying all along:

A nation guided by that ethic would not have elected a guy who is a daily affront to it, a guy who nakedly loves money, who boasts, who objectifies women, who is incapable of hypocrisy because he acknowledges no standard of propriety other than that which he feels like doing at any given moment.
Trump's extraordinary hypocrisy is in fact becoming a legend, based on the uncanny way his tweets of past years accuse everybody and his brother, generally falsely, of bad behavior that he is openly committing right now. He does announce standards of behavior for everybody in the world, from keeping your weight down to not taking bribes, and asserts, falsely, that he follows them, and gets very angry when people disagree on that. It's extremely interesting that Brooks doesn't see this, as if that picture of somebody sitting in judgment over everyone in the world and refusing to contemplate his own conduct were something of which Brooks just can't conceive.

But Trump's only a brief interruption in his career of riding that little circular track around his repertoire of Victorian complaints. He's decided to go ahead and write the column without the brain after all.

Driftglass was able to squeeze more juice out of this lemon than I was; not enough to make some actual lemonade, but a nice spritz for a strong drink of some kind.

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