Friday, January 4, 2019


Buster Keaton in Convict 13, 1920, via.

It's David Brooks, speculating, from his home on one of Saturn's most popular moons, what human beings on Earth might be like these days, now that Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela have all died ("The Morality of Selfism"). He suspects some of them are probably self-absorbed:
You probably want to be a good person. But you may also be completely self-absorbed. So you may be thinking, “There is no way I can be good if I’m also a narcissist. Isn’t being good all about caring about other people?”
If David Brooks were completely self-absorbed, which he probably isn't, he'd probably worry about it. It could interfere with his project of being a good person by caring about other people, which is essentially what being good is all about, as in the well-studied cases of Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa,  and Nelson Mandela, probably. But according to his anonymous sources, there are all sorts of people on earth at the moment who don't react this way. It makes him so mad he can't stop himself from being a little sarcastic about it!
But how wrong you are!
We live in a culture of selfism — a culture that puts tremendous emphasis on self, on self-care and self-display. And one of the things we’ve discovered is that you can be a very good person while thinking only about yourself!
David Brooks doesn't really think you can be a very good person while thinking only about yourself. That's the sarcastic part. David Brooks actually believes good people, like Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela, do care about other people, whether or not they are self-absorbed. Whereas on Earth, there is now probably a culture in which people either have false ideas about being good or else don't care whether they're good or not, and thus put tremendous emphasis on self. It's probably tremendous: not just a modest amount of emphasis on self but all the emphasis on self you can imagine, and David Brooks can imagine an awful lot of that. He doesn't necessarily have a clear idea of how you'd go about measuring how much emphasis on self there is in that culture, but he's confident that if you did it you'd be amazed at how much it is. Off the charts!

Although in fact, when he comes to think about it, being a good person isn't actually a matter of caring about other people; it's actually a matter of imitating famous people in history, who may well have cared about other people—they probably did—but that's not the point. The point is that in order to be a good person you need to think about dead people, not so much caring about them as measuring yourself against them. Are you as honest and brave as Abraham Lincoln? Are you as faithful to a standard of being a good person as Mother Teresa was, or attempted to be? (I guess the implication is that Mother Teresa, too, probably devoted herself to thinking about dead people against whom she could measure herself, but it's not revealed which people were involved.)
Back in the old days people thought morality was about living up to some external standard of moral excellence. Abraham Lincoln tried to live a life of honesty and courage. Mother Teresa tried to live up to a standard of selfless love.
But now we know this is actually harmful! In the first place, when people hold up external standards of moral excellence, they often make you feel judged. These people make you feel sad because you may not live up to this standard. It’s very cruel of them to make you feel troubled in this way!
Now he's getting sarcastic again. The contemplation of this culture of selfism is probably to blame. He doesn't really think that it's bad for people to hold themselves up to external standards of moral excellence. Au contraire! He's always telling people to do that, and in particular the external standards offered by historical men and women like Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa, or maybe minority members like Nelson Mandela, not that David Brooks is recommending any of that identity politics. What he really means is that in the culture of selfism, people probably don't like thinking about Abraham Lincoln or Mother Teresa because that makes them feel inadequate when they're thinking about themselves, whereas they want to feel good when they're thinking about themselves, even though from a moral viewpoint they shouldn't be thinking about themselves, probably, other than in that style of comparing themselves to their various historical models. They probably don't actually say to their moral instructors, "Thinking about Abraham Lincoln makes me feel troubled, it's cruel of you to insist on it." That's just David Brooks's way of expressing how he feels about the way people nowadays don't make an effort to emulate Abraham Lincoln. It's as if they were saying that kind of thing, and that's what makes him so mad.

He might feel better if he would think about Abraham Lincoln himself. That's always calming for you, David. Thinking about Abraham Lincoln never makes you feel inadequate. Why don't you just put on the audio of the Second Inaugural and lie back with your eyes closed and a hot towel on your forehead?
The second problem with these external standards is that they are very hard to relate to. People are always talking about how Nelson Mandela came out of prison and tried to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s all very well and good for Nelson Mandela, but what does this have to do with your life?
That's sarcastic again. David Brooks probably hasn't heard people complaining that they haven't been to prison and therefore you shouldn't expect them to try to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation. What he probably means is that although he himself has never been to prison, he makes an effort to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation twice a week, when he advises us all to join a single centrist party that will just be good, instead of all these pushy identity politics and socialism and populism thingies, except when he's writing about something different, and yet nobody appreciates it. And practically nobody else ever tries to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation at all. Instead, they just mock him. What's up with that?

Worse yet, such people are so selfish they'll shop at farmers' markets, probably because it gives them a tingly feeling. It's a disgrace!
One great thing about meaning is it’s all about the emotions you yourself already have. We say that an experience has meaning when that tingly meaningful feeling wells up inside. Picture yourself shopping at a farmers market where everything’s locally grown. Do you feel the tingly meaningful feeling welling up inside? Of course you do!
What's wrong with people? Would Abraham Lincoln go to a farmers' market?
So now you are probably wondering what you can do to get the tingly meaningful feeling inside. Well, this is a four-stage process.
First, you want to feel indignant all the time. Back in the old days morality was about loving and serving others. But now it’s about displaying indignation about things that other people are doing wrong.
Here, the sarcastic aspect is that he doesn't really think it's a good idea to display indignation about things that other people are doing wrong.
Second, you want to make yourself heard. You want to put up a lawn sign that says, “Hate is not welcome here” or wear a T-shirt that says, “Stop the Violence.” By putting up a lawn sign that everybody else in your neighborhood already has, or wearing that T-shirt that all of your friends already wear, you are taking a stand and displaying who you are. 
In this case, in reality David Brooks doesn't think folks ought to make a lot of noise about what they believe instead of devoting their time to loving and serving others.
The fourth thing you need to do is condemn bad people. If somebody says something new or bad, you need to get on your phone right away. You need to tap the parts of the screen that will make it obvious that you are the sort of person who will not stand for bad people saying bad things.
And he's obviously deeply against condemning bad people. He would never do this himself, at least not by name. I certainly do wonder who he knows that belongs to that cruel bad person–condemning culture of selfism, whether it's his ex-wife (she's just the kind of thoughtless person who might go to a farmers' market without any regard to other people's needs) and children, or Dr. Krugman, or all the people who leave comments on his columns or the new wife or what.

I left out the third thing, didn't I? That's because it's in a bit of a different world than the others:
The third thing you want to do is tell your story. It wasn’t easy to come up with feelings as good as your feelings. You had to go through a lot. You want to inspire others by sharing about yourself. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is talk about yourself a lot.
David Brooks seems exactly like a member in good standing of the culture of selfism, doesn't he? He's indignant all the time, expresses his judgments as loudly as possible, and never stops condemning bad people, though he often leaves you guessing who he's talking about. But on this one he's pretty rigorous; he almost never says a word about where he came up with his feelings, except for that one time when he happened to spend enough time at home that he noticed his kids playing in the yard. He never tells his story at all, but expresses his views as an entirely disembodied voice with no experiences at all, or in allegorical terms through the lives of the great men and women and minority members, or occasionally in this language of sarcasm. I don't know whether it's because he's aware that he's unqualified to hold any opinions on the matters he wishes to talk about, or because he thinks about himself constantly and doesn't want anybody to know. That might explain a lot.

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