Friday, October 16, 2020

For a pronominal consideration

Georg Baselitz, "Portrait of Elke I", 1969. Via.

David F. Brooks, "How to Actually Make America Great":

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.

Robert Putnam, "with" Shaylyn Romney Garrett, in The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but David Brooks will happily fix that. 

His own use of "I" in his column has diminished by a good 70% since 24 September ("How Faith Shapes My Politics"), when he used it 19 times, to today, when there are only six (excluding four cases of "'I'" in quotes, which is technically not using the word, to refer to himself, but mentioning it, as a word people use). But I digress.

I'd say, judging by what is presumably the same data as Putnam's (Google's NGram Viewer), that the use of "I" underwent a long and gradual decline from 1870 to about 1994, when it suddenly exploded. The choice of 1965 as a terminal point in Putnam's discussion is completely arbitrary, and evidence that the whole argument is basically hackery, I'm sorry to say (I've admired Putnam and his Bowling Alone). 

Also note that the use of "we", far from falling into decline as the "I" underwent its phenomenal rise, seems to have slipped into a kind of shallow U between 1845 and 1996 or so, when it began a more modest upswing of its own. While "you" doubled in frequency from 1980 to 2012, what's up with that? 

I'd say (I love that characteristic Brooksian phrase when he's about to appropriate somebody's observation to make his own different or contrary point) that the famous sociality of Millennials is not about groups but really a phenomenon of intersubjectivity, breaking down into a dense network of I-thou engagements, in which it is never the group but always the Self-Other dyad that is in focus, in chains of mutuality and respect in which the autonomy and worth of each person is recognized by everyone else, in abreaction from the swinish herdthink of Brooks's Generation X.

Or I'd say that what Professor Liberman refers to as "Buzzfeed linguistics", the argumentum ad pronomina, is 90 percent bullshit, after all. It certainly looks as if the revolutionary impetus of the New Journalism in the 1960s to acknowledge that the writer has a point of view and not just an august presence in the ether began to affect popular usage only three decades afterwards, which is pretty interesting (though as Professor Rosen will tell you the "view from nowhere" is still the official journalistic norm), and as if writers' admission of their own ("I") subjectivity really did drag recognition of the reader's ("you") subjectivity along with it, and you might say that makes for better writing—even David Brooks has taken to admitting that he exists in the flesh. But you can't use it for a scientific demonstration that society is becoming more, or less, immoral.

The column in general is some recycling, with Putnam's new book as a springboard, into Brooks's usual pseudo-Tocquevillian argument that voluntary organizations like churches and charities and bowling leagues were what made America great in the 1830s and will make it great again, which isn't interesting at all, but I think I noticed something new about it: a weird blindness to the fact that political organizations (not just parties but also organizations with a political agenda, like trade unions or chambers of commerce) are voluntary too. Tocqueville himself was very clear on the importance of parties in working social change, and one of the things he found most lamentable in his time in America was the decline from the "great parties", Federalists and Republicans, of the turn of the 19th century to the "minor parties", Whigs and Democrats, of the 1830s:

The political parties which I style great are those which cling to principles more than to their consequences; to general, and not to especial cases; to ideas, and not to men. These parties are usually distinguished by a nobler character, by more generous passions, more genuine convictions, and a more bold and open conduct than the others. In them private interest, which always plays the chief part in political passions, is more studiously veiled under the pretext of the public good; and it may even be sometimes concealed from the eyes of the very persons whom it excites and impels. 

Minor parties are, on the other hand, generally deficient in political faith. As they are not sustained or dignified by a lofty purpose, they ostensibly display the egotism of their character in their actions. They glow with a factitious zeal; their language is vehement, but their conduct is timid and irresolute. The means they employ are as wretched as the end at which they aim. 

"I'd say" that today's Democrats have been by way of becoming (or returning to being) a "great party" since the financial crisis of 2008, the so-called identity politics groupings it represents bringing the obligatory "private interest" to the game, while Republicans are increasingly minor.

Putnam and Garrett hold up the Progressive Movement, not as something we could go back to, but as a storehouse of lessons for us to adapt. Progressivism was “first and foremost, a moral awakening.” Muckrakers exposed social evils. The survival of the fittest mentality was rejected. Then it was a civic renaissance. Between 1870 and 1920 Americans created civic organizations at a rate that’s never been equaled. Then it was a political movement. By 1912 all three major presidential candidates ran as progressives: William Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

Who were of course all hideously compromised by their racial insensitivity, however glad we must be for the child labor laws and income tax and other achievements of the time.

You could also say that the "moral awakening" arose with a failure of party politics: the collapse of the original Republicans into a minor party, when they abandoned Reconstruction in the 1870s. Our current condition, by the same token, is perhaps the consequence of a similar failure, going back to the 1970s, when the perturbations of the civil rights movement and the Great Society were jettisoned by the Democrats in a flurry of racial and sexual anxiety, and the Republicans offered less than an alternative. Rage at the Iraq War, income and wealth inequality, environmental degradation, persistent racial injustice and brutality, and now plague have finally begun to yield some politics worth having, and Brooks still hasn't heard about it, and is still going on about bowling leagues.

About two and half years ago I helped found an organization called Weave: The Social Fabric Project that was designed precisely to focus on cultural change. We illuminate, support and connect community builders, Weavers, whose daily lives are oriented around social solidarity, not self. We figure culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them.

I’ve found that about a third of the people I encounter in this work get the power of culture and the importance of culture change, and two thirds don’t really see culture. They focus exclusively on what can be quantified. And yet changing the national mind-set, the values, the norms, is the difficult and necessary work.

LOL, he's not having fun any more in his Aspen project, and people keep throwing statistics at him when he'd rather be pontificating about the Higher Things.

 I think there's actually something to that stuff I was making up above about the pronouns, which is the difference between "left wing self-centeredness" Brooks decries and his preference for an authority-directed group mentality, the dialectic of "I and thou" against the oatmeal of "we", corresponding to the difference between selves jangling and accommodating in a democracy and the pretense of a single will in a republic. 

I'm not sorry he's come out to sort of endorse Biden in recent weeks (that's why I've largely stopped fisking him), but I'm embarrassed by his hopes that his weavery might belong to a small group of people finding a better way to live and changing the national mind-set and literally thinking of Making America Great Again, at a moment when national politics is so fraught and thrilling.

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