Saturday, March 10, 2018


Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros, from a 2014 production by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium of Philadelphia.

A funny thing happened to David Brooks on his voyage last month into the heart of Millenniality: he sapped himself with a blackjack, stole all his money, and left himself for dead in a gutter ("Understanding Student Mobbists").

Or, putting it another way, when he went on his
little tour in which I gather millennials for interviews and ask them what they have faith in and how they are going to lead us in the years ahead
he apparently forgot to ask them the stuff he really wanted to know, or was too shy, and decided that the best expedient was to make up his own answers. He literally admits to this fabrication:

Students across the country continue to attack and shut down speakers at a steady pace, from Christina Hoff Sommers to Jordan Peterson. I confess that I find their behavior awful. My gut reaction is that these student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.
But empathy is the essential character trait for our moment. So I thought it might be a good discipline to try to see things from the students’ perspective — to not just condemn or psychoanalyze them but to try to understand where they are coming from. So here goes.
I would begin my stab at understanding by acknowledging that I grew up in one era and they grew up in another. I came of age in the 1980s.
He wouldn't just condemn them, though obviously that's the best place to start, he'd also try to understand them, once he's finished condemning them, and not just because he felt like it but as a kind of discipline, like wearing a cilice, because he's always up for making himself a better person, no matter how painful it might end up being. But his method of understanding them is eccentric: instead of asking them about their perspective, he begins with a lecture on his own perspective, in about five paragraphs, and then goes on to tell them, or us, for another eight paragraphs, how their perspective is different, and, of course, wrong. And then winds up condemning them some more anyway (using "mob" or "mobbists" or "mobbism" five times in the course of the column). I knew this wasn't going to end well.

Brooks's explanation of the difference between his perspective and the imaginary Millennials he's been working with (since the real ones he spoke to at Harvard and Yale and Chicago and Davidson wouldn't give him any decent quotes) relies on the thinking of "Scott Alexander", a psychiatrist and blogger who for some reason has chosen as his pseudonym the name of  composer of a series of three books known as "the Rhinoceros books" that are to the standard thematicized self-help book what Loudon Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" is to folk music. Except that Wainwright was trying, not without some success, to be funny, and Alexander is not:

They have never been out of print. I'd like to point out that Eugène Ionesco wrote a play (Rhinocéros, 1959) in which more or less everybody turns into a rhinoceros by the end, and it is not a good thing, although it's an extremely good, I'd gladly say great, play. (Originally I thought the two Alexanders were the same person, thanks to The Brett for pointing out the error.)

Brooks has mentioned the pseudonymous "Alexander" before, as one of his list of "individual beacons of intellectual honesty today", alongside Tyler Cowen and Caitlin Flanagan. Today's idea, at any rate, is from his blog, and a post explaining why every sort of leftism is wrong in terms of a distinction between "conflict theorists" and "mistake theorists".

Back when Brooks was a young man,

sophisticated people in those days wanted to be seen, to use Scott Alexander’s term, [actually not Alexander but a Redditor going by no_bear_so_low, as Alexander properly notes] as mistake theorists. Mistake theorists believe that the world is complicated and most of our troubles are caused by error and incompetence, not by malice or evil intent.
But nowadays young people are constantly tempted to become conflict theorists:

In the conflict theorist worldview, most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity, but by malice and oppression. The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful.
Or as Alexander himself puts it, "whenever existing governments are bad, Marxists immediately jump to the conclusion that they must be run by evil people who want them to be bad on purpose." Thus David Brooks ties himself to the Dr. Spock–ish view that nobody's really evil (just a couple of months ago he was criticizing the great philosopher of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for having "probably an insufficient appreciation of human depravity"), and I start really tuning out, because it's clear that he really doesn't care what he's saying as long as he's saying the people he dislikes are wrong. What makes them wrong—intrinsic wickedness or inadequate information—is of secondary importance and changes from week to week.

I will add that actual Marxists, if there are any such people and you want to keep hanging out with this formulation, would be best classified as interest theorists, who believe that people tend to act in the interests of their class, neither because they are evil nor because they are stupid but because that's what they know. That normal people intend to be good but have a limited sense, ascribable to their place in the web of socioeconomic relations, of what good is, unless they learn to think critically and try to understand other points of view. And that if governments do bad things to me, it is probably in the context of the effort on the part of the powerful to do good things for the people they love and identify with; they simply aren't thinking about me as a person at all.

For example, if David Brooks doesn't think it's a problem he should be writing about that high school children get murdered with semi-automatic rifles, or that the families of immigrants are being torn to pieces because the immigration authorities can't find enough criminals to meet their detention and deportation quotas, or that people of color have been massively deprived of the right to vote in recent years, but is deeply, deeply worried that Christina Hoff Sommers and Jordan Peterson could be deprived of a speaking fee once in a while just because some college kids dislike them, that's not because he's a bad person or an incompetent writer (not to say he isn't both, but it isn't analytically important) but because his class interests and those of Sommers and Peterson are precisely aligned.

It's the tiny class of people who are paid to assert that social problems should be solved calmly and judiciously, and with a wry sense of humor, by people who have no investment, economic or emotional, in them:

Debate is essential. You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning. Basically, we’re all physicians standing over a patient with a very complex condition and we’re trying to collectively figure out what to do.
Precisely because that's Brooks's own interest—what Brooks himself is paid to do too, and to model for the edification of the public.

And because he's never learned to think critically, and thinks he can learn how others feel by lecturing them about it (Brooxplaining), he can't see what an incredibly trivial problem it is. How deeply, deeply unimportant it is whether the seniors at some nice college get to hear his commencement address ("... And then they came for the campus speakers, and there was no one left to speak for them!") or not.

If I could talk to the students I’d try to persuade them that mistake theory is a more accurate and effective way to change the world than conflict theory, but I probably wouldn’t persuade them.
If he could talk to them? I thought that was his project this semester, talking and listening. He's written two columns about it already! What's wrong with him?

My guess is that those "interviews" have started going badly, and Brooks is starting to feel he's being conflict-theorized himself. Oh dear.

Martin makes an effort to take the thing seriously. I also liked the take by Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate.

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