Friday, March 23, 2018

Brooks is Asking This Sincerely

Hannah Arendt in the US, 1944. Photo by Alamy, via The Guardian.

Dsvid F. Brooks, "Speaking As a White Man", which sounds hilarious, of course, because we all know David Brooks isn't speaking as a white man but as the raceless and genderless voice of pure reason, a kind of Ken doll of the mind (even the passionless multicentenarians of 32,000 years from now in Shaw's Back to Methusaleh are divided into He-Ancients and She-Ancients, but Brooks thinks it's so obtrusive to insist on one's gender as if you thought it might make a difference, and really not very genteel to force on other folks the possibility that you might possess a dick), just wants somebody to answer a simple question:

How much are you in control of your own opinions? I ask this sincerely because, as you’ll see, I’m trying to think this through and I’m not sure how.
No, he's not asking this sincerely because, as you'll see, it's not the question he wants to explore, he's thought it through already, and he knows exactly how he wants to approach it.

What he really wants to know is how he can stop people from insisting that they are black, or gay, or Zoroastrian, and insisting that that gives them a right to say they know something he doesn't know and challenge him, because it makes him feel bad. And his chosen way of addressing it is to complain that the blacks and gays and Zoroastrians of today, unlike those of the good old days, have adopted the belief that your opinions are entirely dependent on your identity and that nobody can have thoughts that are not black or gay or Zoroastrian or white man's thoughts and that must explain why they keep telling him to shut up.

Or something.  I'm just trying to read this through and I'm not sure how.

If you go back to the intellectuals of the 1950s, you get the impression that they thought individuals could very much determine their own beliefs. People like Hannah Arendt and Irving Howe believed that if you stood alone and researched carefully and hard, you could transcend your own background and render independent and objective judgments about society.
That's one of those things that sounds as if it must be true, isn't it, although if you give it some thought it's hard to imagine how Brooks could have found out, through careful and hard research, as if there's some interview—"Miss Arendt, do you think you can transcend your own background?" "You bet I can, sweetie! I stand alone!" And by the way, what exactly are you suggesting was wrong with her background?

As a matter of fact, I just happen to have Irving Howe right here with me, talking about another New York intellectual of the 1950s, in a wonderfully rich Dissent essay of 1969:
The youthful experiences described by Alfred Kazin in his autobiography [Referring to Starting Out in the Thirties, 1965, not New York Jew, 1978] are, apart from his distinctive outcroppings of temperament, more or less typical of the experiences of many New York intellectuals—except for the handful who involved themselves deeply in the radical movement. It is my impression, however, that Kazin’s affectionate stress on the Jewish sources of his experience is mainly a feeling of retrospect, mainly a recognition that no matter how you might try to shake off your past, it would still cling to your speech, gestures, skin, and nose; it would still shape, with a thousand subtle movements, the way you did your work and raised your children.
The mostly Jewish New York intellectuals of the 1950s (that's who Brooks means by "the intellectuals of the 1950s", but he doesn't want to give them any of that yucky ethnic and geographical specificity, it's just not quite decent) did indeed include plenty who wanted to somehow get outside their Jewishness, especially through the universalism of leftist politics—that was part of their background (City College in the 1930s) too:
In the thirties, however, it was precisely the idea of discarding the past, breaking away from families, traditions, and memories which excited intellectuals.
The Jewish immigrant world branded upon its sons and daughters marks of separateness even while encouraging them to dreams of universalism. This subculture may have been formed to preserve ethnic continuity, but it was a continuity that would reach its triumph in self-disintegration. It taught its children both to conquer the Gentile world and to be conquered by it, both to leave an intellectual impress and to accept the dominant social norms. By the twenties and thirties the values dominating Jewish immigrant life were often secular, radical, and universalist, and if these were conveyed through a parochial vocabulary, they nonetheless carried some remnants of European culture.
What is clear from both Southern and Jewish writing is that in a society increasingly disturbed about its lack of self-definition, the recall of regional and traditional details can be intensely absorbing in its own right, as well as suggestive of larger themes transcending the region. (For the Jewish writers New York was not merely a place, it was a symbol, a burden, a stamp of history.) Yet the writers of neither school have thus far managed to move from their particular milieu to a grasp of the entire culture; the very strengths of their localism define their limitations; and especially is this true for the Jewish writers, in whose behalf critics have recently overreached themselves....
Sartre’s brilliant essay on authentic and inauthentic Jews left a strong mark. Hannah Arendt’s book on totalitarianism had an equally strong impact, mostly because it offered a coherent theory, or at least a coherent picture of the concentration-camp universe. We could no longer escape the conviction that, blessing or curse, Jewishness was an integral part of our life, even if—and perhaps just because—there was nothing we could do or say about it. Despite a few simulated seders and literary raids on Hasidism, we could not turn back to the synagogue; we could only express our irritation with “the community” which kept nagging us like disappointed mothers; and sometimes we tried, through imagination and recall, to put together a few bits and pieces of the world of our fathers.
None of which is to say that they couldn't "determine their own beliefs"—they could and did, vociferously, mostly by reference to violent quarrels with each other (nothing more Jewish than that), but all found that they couldn't escape their identity ("transcend" is so deeply the wrong word here) if they sometimes wanted to. And learned if they were lucky not to want to escape it but to cherish it (perhaps in something like the way David Brooks will be telling us to cherish our traditions and rituals sometime next week when he's pushing a different talking point) even as they sought to interact and sometimes fuse with other kinds of identities, socialist, or Modernist, or Buddhist, or what have you.

As with Whitman earlier in the week, but even more so, I can't stop quoting this stuff, which is so pregnant and complex and removed from the complacent assumptions of somebody like David F. Brooks (who has transcended his background in precisely the way a kosher-slaughtered chicken has transcended flesh-and-blood existence).

We don’t think this way anymore, and in fact thinking this way can get you into trouble. I guess the first step was the rise of perspectivism. This is the belief, often traced back to Nietzsche, that what you believe is determined by where you stand: Our opinions are not guided by objective truth, because there is no such thing; they are guided by our own spot in society.
What do you mean, "we", white man? The 1950s New York intellectuals Brooks personally got to know 25 years later, William F. Buckley, Jr., and his circle, lived in the belief that they had no backgrounds to transcend, but had been born, thanks to good breeding, directly into a kind of relaxed and pleasant transcendence—it was other people, who needed to overcome their failure to have been born that way, such as Kristols and Podhoretzes (and presumably eventually Brooks himself). Hardly anyone has ever said to her- or himself, "I need to transcend my background," Generally we tell ourselves that somebody else should. Hold that thought.

Perspectivism may often indeed be traced back to Nietzsche, but Nietzsche himself (trained as a classics scholar) traced it back to Plato's criticism of it in the Protagoras in the 5th century B.C.E., and the
statement that, "Man is the measure of all things", interpreted by Plato to mean that there is no absolute truth, but that which individuals deem to be the truth. Although there is reason to question the extent of the interpretation of his arguments that has followed, that concept of individual relativity was revolutionary for the time, and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside human influence or perceptions.
That, and Nietzsche's echo of it, note, describes individuals unable to agree on a single truth, not tribes. I think the ideas of involuntary group perspectives belong especially to Romanticism, from Herder (for "völkisch" identity) through Marx (for class interest), well before Nietzsche as well. For those thrown into a panic by the thought that they will never be in possession of the objective truth, there's a well-known set of 20th-century prescriptions in the falsificationist philosophy of Karl Popper, especially useful for thinking about physical science and based on the idea that we can agree objectively on what's not true and continue to narrow down the options; and in social life the concept of intersubjectivity, or the search for truths that are not objective or "transcendent" at all, but immanent in the negotiation between subjects, what Hannah Arendt has called "the in-between space" where "all human affairs are conducted" (watch for that, it's coming back).

Then came Michel Foucault and critical race theorists and the rest, and the argument that society is structured by elites to preserve their privilege. Beliefs and culture are part of the structure elites use to preserve that inequality. This led, in the common parlance, to the assumption that your beliefs are determined by your group’s privilege or lack of privilege, by where your group is within the power structure.
I get an uncomfortable feeling like the first half of this myself sometimes, especially around Pierre Bourdieu's ideas on language, in which the focus on power really compromises the value of the whole argument, given that what you do with language, from making love to writing books about sociology, is so much broader than that (Brooks, in contrast, cites Bourdieu without knowing that Bourdieu is the prime example of that thing he hates).

But I also think it's useful to ask how cultural institutions of the very general type (kinship and marriage, rank hierarchies, etc.) are used to maintain power structures. It's important to understand that this operates to a great extent below the level of consciousness, and on a fairly narrow spectrum—you're not talking about all a person's beliefs. In the simplest and most obvious Marxian example, for instance, if you own a factory, you're likely to believe with complete sincerity that trade unions are bad and import duties should be high, and if you work in a factory you're likely to have the honest opinion that taxation should be progressive and overtime should be generously compensated. Whether you accept the concept of the Trinity, or agree that chunky peanut butter is better than smooth, is not so clearly affected by these factors.

Also, consciousness of these things is asymmetrical: if a person has privilege, he's less likely to be aware of the relation between his status and his relevant beliefs (picking up from Wikipedia):
Some academics highlight a pattern where those who benefit from a type of privilege are unwilling to acknowledge it.  American sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the state of having privilege as being "like running with the wind at your back", unaware of invisible sustenance, support and propulsion.
[Peggy] McIntosh wrote that most people are reluctant to acknowledge their privilege, and instead look for ways to justify or minimize the effects of privilege stating that their privilege was fully earned. They justify this by acknowledging the acts of individuals of unearned dominance, but deny that privilege is institutionalized as well as embedded throughout our society. She wrote that those who believe privilege is systemic may nonetheless deny having personally benefited from it, and may oppose efforts to dismantle it.
But you're likely to be much more sensitive in those areas where you're the one who lacks privilege, whether you're a young black man afraid of being killed by a rogue police officer or an old white fascist afraid of being laughed at by someone of any race who's better educated than you.

This is not anything new, though the language of "privilege" has been pretty clarifying for some people (including college students from wealthy backgrounds confronted with the asymmetry for the first time, in an environment where they're thrown together with the unprivileged scholarship students—some of whom may take the discovery in a really annoying way, because guess what, they're college kids).

Irving Howe, or Sidney Hook before he turned conservative, could easily have told you the basic story without any appeal to fancy French theory. Brooks, as an extremely well-paid white educated male in his 50s, and especially unwilling to look into his heart—I don't think I've seen anybody more anxious to not have an identity in my life—can't see it at all and gets upset when he's told about it.

Which is all today's column is about, really. It's "Na na na na I can't hear you!" repeated 800 times. Hence,

Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?
Now, when somebody says that I always wonder, What does that mean? After you’ve stated your group identity, what is the therefore that follows?
As before, no, he doesn't wonder at all what it means, because if he did for ten or twelve seconds, he'd realize that the speaker is saying, "I may have experienced something you haven't experienced, and understand something you don't understand." Not "my tribal identity controls what I think" but "my experience informs what I think".

But on the other hand his tribal identity does in a manner of speaking control what he thinks, or rather his aggressive identity-lessness does, just because he's working so hard to remain unaware of it. His anger arises from the fact that he's being told that he has a (privileged) identity of his own, that he's a white male, and because instead of asking himself why he's uncomfortable he wants to ask why they're making him uncomfortable—a classic case of blaming the messenger.

I’m a columnist and I’m supposed to come to a conclusion, but I’m confused.
Our whole education system is based on the idea that we train individuals to be critical thinkers. Our political system is based on the idea that persuasion and deliberation lead to compromise and toward truth. The basis of human dignity is our capacity to make up our own minds. One of the things I’ve learned in a lifetime in journalism is that people are always more unpredictable than their categories.
But the notion that group membership determines opinion undermines all that. If it’s just group against group, deliberation is a sham, beliefs are just masks groups use to preserve power structures, and democracy is a fraud. The epistemological foundation of our system is in surprisingly radical flux.
But nobody thinks, even the most determined Marxist, that group membership determines opinion, except in this particular limiting instance of the privileged person who refuses to consider whether he could be afflicted by it or not—and only because he refuses, which you don't have to do (you only have to acknowledge, simply, that you might be insensitive sometimes to how others have been affected by experiences you haven't had, and try to do better, and listen).

He's not at all consciously confused, though. He's in a cold rage over something (those kids he spoke to on his Voyage into the Heart of Millenniality?) and trying to mask it with this air of befuddlement. He's angry because someone has wounded his amour-propre, his sense of himself as above all these roilings and unpleasantnesses, a calm, reasonable, unprejudiced observer, who's transcended all that shit. They're telling him he's an interested party. I can't say he knows he's being accused of allowing his thoughts to be controlled by the identity he denies having, but he feels it, and he's projecting it (I almost typed projectile-vomiting it) right back, as hard as he can.

Brooks would do well to read some Hannah Arendt, speaking of 1950s New York Jewish intellectuals, from the "Introduction into Politics", written in German in the later 50s and never published until 2005, on the error of political thinking that refuses to recognize our differences and insists on treating everybody as one big family:

(See how Plato slips in there again, wrong as ever, for Brooksian reasons.)

And as long as we're up, the error of political thinking that Brooks has been besieging us with even longer, the demand that we should change the people instead of changing the institutions:

You could learn a lot from those New York intellectuals, but only if you start with the recognition that you don't know and may not have listened carefully enough. Here endeth the lesson.

No comments:

Post a Comment