Friday, December 31, 2021

Brooksy New Year

Happy New Year!

Updated 1 January.

Death of Mimì. English National Opera, don't know the date or cast.

David F. Brooks, winding up the year in his traditional way with the annual presentation of the "Sidney Awards", not a red carpet ceremony by a list of magazine article recommendations, oddly dominated this year by human interest stories, tales of personal obsession productive and unproductive (a man loses his son on 9/11 and becomes a 9/11 truther; a man who was sexually exploited as a young teenager now studies "rooms occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell"; a novelist receives a fan letter from a convicted murderer and, convinced he's innocent, puts her own life on pause in a crazed crusade to get him out of prison), but among the more typically Brooksian choices is a piece by a former research assistant of his at The Times, April Lawson, in a magazine, Comment ("Public Theology for the Common Good"), edited by another former research assistant of his at The Times, Anne Snyder. 

Snyder, of course, is also Mrs. Brooks, as well as

Director of The Philanthropy Roundtable‘s Character Initiative, a Fellow at the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism [now known as the Urban Reform Institute, with our and Brooks's old friend Joel Kotkin serving as executive director, wouldn't you just know it], and a Senior Fellow at The Trinity Forum. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in philosophy and international relations from Wheaton College (IL).

while Lawson was a co-founder and Associate Director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, which Brooks founded for the Aspen Institute in early 2019 only to be forced to abscond from it when BuzzFeed revealed that Aspen was paying him six figures for it even as he puffed it up in his Times column, as well as puffing up Facebook's participation in it in remarks for which Facebook seemed to have paid him as well (see my report on this from last March, apparently at the same time as Snyder's book, The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal was issued by The Philanthropy Roundtable, $14.95 in paperback, sorry I didn't get to this when we were all planning our end-of-year donations, as I'm sure the suggestions from this incestuous web of do-gooding are completely sensible and not at all self-serving).

And Lawson is now Director of Debates at Braver Angels, a Weavy nonprofit (not connected to the Aspen Institute as far as I know; but praised in print by David Brooks as early as Feburary 2018), devoted to bridging the distance between Red and Blue, and her essay, "Building Trust Across the Political Divide", retails what she's learned in a couple of years conducting debates on Braver Angels principles: everybody must be sincere, everybody gets to speak, and everybody always addresses the chair, as a way of avoiding the pitfalls that generally afflict such efforts, largely, as Lawson says, because they are generally run by liberals:

The vast majority of leaders, funders, and participants in the bridging field are Blue, and this imbalance dictates the approach taken to depolarization

And Brooks expands:

Most bridge-building efforts are funded by and staffed by people on the Blue (left) side of the political spectrum, and many of these people are unaware of how their unconscious assumptions come across to Reds. For example, many Blues assume that the way to bring people together is to have conversations that stress our common humanity, that celebrate tolerance, empathy and diversity.

Reds hear: You’re going to empathize with my feelings, but you’re not going to engage with my substantive points. You value ethnic, racial and gender diversity, but you won’t value viewpoint diversity, especially when it is outside your moral framework. You want to converse, but you come into the room assuming that if I could be taught what is true, I’d be educated into Blueness.

So Lawson is going to show us how much better these encounters would work if the Reds designed them instead, as for some unexamined reason they almost never do—I have no reason to suspect she knows she's doing this, but she herself identifies herself as a "Burkean conservative" down toward the end of the piece, and the Braver Angel answer is a format that corresponds better to Red predilections as she sees them, in favor of substance over emotion and of recognizing conflict over commonality: as a "debate", that is, a formal conflict, but one that presents a diversity of views beyond the simple yes or no to a specific proposition, by opening the floor to everyone. 

And she claims it's been mad successful:

This form of debate has spread like wildfire, particularly on college campuses and online. We have served about fifteen thousand people since the pandemic began, across approximately two hundred Braver Angels Debates on campuses, in local communities, and in nationwide debates. It is particularly popular with Reds and with college students.

(Yes, dogmatism, self-righteousness, and a desire to shout the other guy down under controlled conditions in which they won't be judged for it are characteristics many Reds and college students display—the students mostly grow out of it. Way to call out the immaturity of your base, April!)

Also, ironically or not, after abandoning that tiresome liberal idea that the bridging activity should serve to make people conscious, in a "Kumbaya" moment, of how much they really share—

a paradigm that teaches us to love one another because we are fundamentally the same is not just intellectually insufficient, it seriously handicaps the depolarization field, because Reds sense its leaders’ and activities’ unspoken ideological presumptions and choose not to engage

—Lawson boasts that her technique makes people conscious, in what certainly sounds like a "Kumbaya" moment, of how much they really share:

vast swaths of common ground are revealed. On immigration, racial justice, and other highly controversial topics, people are astonished to discover that they mostly agree. They immediately ask for ways to follow up and act on this discovery.... An older woman said after her first Braver Angels Debate, “This is what I’ve been waiting for. We can talk to each other. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Suggesting, for one thing, an answer to the question neither Brooks nor Lawson asks—Why is it that Reds don't normally engage in such things as leaders, funders, or participants? It's because they don't want to, or at least believe they don't want to, until they're tricked by some benevolent Straussian deception into doing it. The liberal error is just being too open about it.

And the moral isn't very reassuring. The wealthy opera goer dissolving into tears at La Bohème, when the hippie poet's girlfriend dies of TB in spite of the collective's strategy to save her life by hooking her up sexually with a wealthy nobleman and his access to warm clothing—too late!—hasn't learned anything about class inequities and their murderous effects on poets, girlfriends, and collectives in the course of the evening; he or she has merely been affirmed as having a beautiful soul. The Braver Angels client who bursts into tears when some nice young person tells her she's not necessarily a racist probably hasn't learned anything either. Sorry to be cynical about this.

I've been working on dignified, respectful, and substantive encounters with conservatives on Twitter for nine or ten years now, often memorialized on this page under the "For the Record" rubric, and I'm telling you now the key characteristic of the Red person in such a debate is a desire not to learn anything, at almost any price, most typically with the Gish Gallop maneuver of changing the subject every time a learning experience gets dangerously close, always "just asking questions", rarely or never trying to contribute substantive matter themselves—or just fleeing. It looks to me like emotion, not substance, that rules the response. And aren't you showing a little of that contempt toward your rural and less-educated audience that you habitually attribute to me? 

I'm starting to think the rightwingers have been hiding under Murc's Law ("only Democrats have agency") long enough. Why do I have to invite them, and do all the worrying about the rules of engagement to make sure their feelings aren't hurt? If they want a debate, why don't they invite me? And ask me how I feel about the rules? (Twenty paces, armed with Googles—and kill the open mic format, which, as in a presidential town hall, seems designed to prevent the development of a sustained coherent argument.) I value plenty of moral viewpoints outside my own moral framework, I'm a trained anthropologist for heaven's sake, ready to talk to anybody around the world, but I have no reason to trust you, with your references to Christianity and liberty that fail to relate to the concepts I cherish. I don't believe your protestations. Do something to make me feel as if the debate is being held in good faith—

At Braver Angels we have found that it’s consistently easier to recruit Reds to debates than to workshops (although Reds rate the workshops highly when they can be persuaded to attend). In some cases we’ve also found it easier to recruit strong progressives to debates, although results are mixed.

—do something to make it less mixed; try to make it about something other than making rightwingers feel good about themselves. My New Year's resolution is to wait for an invitation. But not an invitation from anyone associated with character, fabric, or weaving, because that association is starting to look not just conflicted but seriously corrupt.

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