Friday, August 25, 2017

David Brooks is stardust. David Brooks is golden. David Brooks is billion-year-old carbon.

Photo by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS, via National Geographic. Talking about preserving it when our EPA is run by a tool of the agents of pollution and greenhouse gas production is dreary policy and politics, isn't it? Let's make it into a deep-sounding allegory instead!

Verbatim David Brooks, "This American Land":

These days I often ask people what percentage of our nation’s problems can be solved through policy and politics. Most people say that most of America’s problems are pre-political. What’s needed is a revival of values, fraternity and a binding American story.
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that David Brooks often asks people what percentage of our nation's problems can be solved through politics and most of the respondents say that most of America's problems are pre-political?

Answer: David Brooks refuses to release his visitor logs, so we can't ascertain for sure.

Today we have some entirely original thinking from David Brooks as 1950s New York intellectual, armed with quotes from Thoreau and Whitman and aiming at the Great American Summary Statement. I'm trying to imagine how stressful it is to have a conversation with him:
BROOKS: Say, Yas, just offhand, what percentage of our nation's problems can be solved through policy and politics, would you say?
YAS: Uh.
BROOKS: I mean, I'd say not that many.
YAS: Well, um, sure. I mean the question would be, what other means are you talking about? What's your no-policy, no-politics approach to national problem solving? Who's in charge?
BROOKS: I don’t know all the ways that revival of spirit can come about, but even in the age of the driverless car and Reddit, I suspect some of the answers are to be found in reconnecting with our ancient ideals and reconnecting with the land.
YAS: Oh. Ah. Reconnecting with the land. To be sure.
BROOKS: So I can chalk you up for revival of spirit, and fraternity, and a binding American story?
I guess if we all belonged to the same fraternity, that would be a binding American story. Though I think fraternities are probably like synagogues, and a big part of the pleasure of belonging to one is taking satisfaction that you don't belong to that other one which is really no good, so that a kind of politics gets into it. You don't need elections to have politics, you know. They didn't have any elections in the Qing dynasty but they had politics up the ying yang, so to speak. They have politics in the business offices where private citizens often go to work. David Brooks would know too if he ever went to his office, and met Dean Baquet in the men's room.

Actually he's thinking of three fraternities, provided by the miraculous fact that America has so much nature that it can supply everybody with ideals, unlike Brazil, say, or Indonesia, or Canada. That's the biggest thing nature does, really, or did, back in the day:

The biggest thing nature did was offer ideals. Different Americans came up with different character types for how to engage with nature. Each type offered a model for how to live an admirable life.
According to one type, character was forged by tilling the land; according to another it was forged by being tested by the land; and in another it was formed by being cleansed by the land. These types wove together to form the American mythos.
Thus Wendell Berry came up with the ideal of the Steward, the yeoman farmer who tills his land. I'm not making this up. Henry David Thoreau came up with the ideal of the Pioneer, who is tested by the land, or as Brooks explains it "the person who pushes against the wilderness and develops skill, courage and virility.... the daring innovator who ushers progress by venturing to the edge of the known"—

“Life consists with wildness,” Thoreau decreed. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest-trees.”
(although Thoreau's actual program there, from his essay "Walking", which ran in the middle of the Civil War in the June 1862 issue of The Atlantic, is not so much about choosing a pioneering or innovating career as going for a hike in the woods, which he liked doing for four hours a day, leaving him little time for progress-ushering, though plenty for writing and hanging out with his Concord friends).

And then John Muir and Ansel Adams came up with the idea of the Elevated Spirit, who is cleansed by the land, who "slips off the conformist materialism of commercial society and is both purified and enlarged by nature’s grandeur."

In this way it seems that nature has supplied Americans with not merely a bunch of fraternities but an elaborated class system of Steward peasants, Pioneer entrepreneurs, and Elevated Spirit intellectuals. This seems to leave little room for workers, but they can probably pick up inexpensively produced but sturdy ideals from an Elevated Spirit,

an awakened soul [who] often comes back singing with Walt Whitman, filled with electric love for the enlarged individual, celebrating the infinite variety of life, feeling part of an endless and ancient web of connections: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,/and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,/I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,/By the love of comrades.”
Making old Whitman sound remarkably sinister in this context, like an ecstatic Joel Kotkin planning to plant America's wilderness with one love-filled coast-to-coast suburb. Inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks indeed. ("By the manly love of comrades," for this is one of the Calamus poems, though there's no reason to think Brooks would be doing that on purpose, or even know about it.)

Coming next week: More modesty. 

No comments:

Post a Comment