David Brooks, "Human Nature Redux", New York Times February 18
Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don't even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.Oh, great, a reductio ad absurdum of Rousseau. This is the sort of blue-flame insight you get when you spend all your weekends discussing political philosophy with the rest of the Republican party. The best part of this Sunday's David Brooks column is that our favorite lazy-day pundit mixes things up a little and actually waits until the end of his 800 words to name-check Burke Hayek & Hobbes, LLC.
(By the way, this thing answers my question about how you got a half-credit for Brooks' course at Duke. That was apparently a compromise between those who thought it should be one credit and those who thought one credit should be taken away.)
Would it, I dunno, be too much trouble for Brooks to check his paycheck and note that he's not writing for the easily-satisfied Weekly Standard subscriber? Just once I'd like to see him use Burke as the basis for an argument instead of as the premise for the Op-Ed version of a sitcom.
This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led, first of all, to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying. It contributed to romantic revolts against tradition and etiquette. Whether it was 19th-century Parisian bohemians or 20th century beatniks and hippies, Western culture has seen a string of antiestablishment rebellions led by people who wanted to shuck off convention and reawaken more natural modes of awareness.
Or, to put it another way, the guys who were getting laid in high school in the late 70s while David was forced to come home to practice the accordion were just stupid trend followers with no sense that Western Civilization Herself was at stake and I hate them all.
Okay, okay, I'm sorry. The whole "poor potty training" and "bad case of Led Zep Envy" stuff has been popping up too often lately, but who's supposed to be taking these guys seriously anymore, let alone bothering to think up rational rebuttals to their Mass Public Emotional Meltdown?
It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves.
In education, it led to progressive reforms, in which children were liberated to follow their natural instincts. Politically, it led to radical social engineering efforts, because if institutions were the source of sin, then all you had to do was reshape the institutions in order to create New Man.
Plus--and maybe worst of all--those sandals that people used to make out of old tires. Oh, and macramé.
And the interobang.
If Brooks wants to take Burke n' Hobbes, or an entire klatch of screw-loose Randians, or Peanuts as his guiding principle it's his business, but whether he can construct a simple argument is ours. There's that odd disconnect, where the correctness of one's position is never held to the flame, and the litany of ills engendered by Not Agreeing With Him which is apparently supposed to persuade by virtue of its frightening appearance in print. Exploring free love? Is this supposed to fill you with dread or convulse you with laughter?
I don't understand how you can have a Survey of Western Philosophy discussion of the topic without evincing a passing familiarity with Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, (reminiscent of what a reviewer once said of the philosopher Harry Connick, Jr.: that it is one thing to sing yesterday's standards, but quite another to act like the existence of Bob Dylan has escaped your notice). And I don't understand how you can argue it from a generalized sense of walking-around human smarts or a reading of human history that rises above the disinterested. What, for example--apart from the peculiar nostalgic longing to have thinly-clad, cocoa-colored natives call one "Sahib"--is the argument for Victorian sexual ethics? Civilization? The sexual mores of the Ancient Greeks and World-Bestriding Romans would make a porn star blush, and if I recall their contributions to Western Civilization are generally regarded as the more important.
Progressive education? The simple response, pertinent to the whole "argument", for that matter, goes something like this: David, if the Golden Age was such an Eden, why did anybody leave? Why reform perfection? Would we all be better off with six years of rote memorization, followed by turning anyone who couldn't cut it out to work the fields? Pfui. Progressive education, by its very nature, is results oriented; the idea that children are now, or ever were, turned loose on the first day of elementary school to discover their own education is pure malarky, and I say that as someone whose own public education ran from post-Sputnik hysteria to early 70s groovy relevance.
[What an odd tickle for provoking endless "conservative" coughing fits Education is! It even affects "conservatives" like Brooks, who proclaim themselves more enlightened than their Bronze Age cohorts on the Right. What an odd reversal it is for people who insist that I, e.g., come up with a plan for extracting us from a miserable idiotic failure of a war I counseled against in the first place, when their entire educational program seems to be a) salute the flag after the morning bell and b) make everybody's test scores go up. But then our test scores are down (sorta) compared to Old Europe, where there's precious little flag saluting except when the Fascists march through immigrant neighborhoods, and where the suggestion of "presenting a balanced picture on evolution" (see below) gets you locked up for observation. And the end result (openly or cryptically championed) is the elimination of public education for all but the poorest of the poor in favor of the self-policing Private Sector. But what does privatization mean if not Progressive-style, pragmatic, follow-the-latest-trend and offer-the-glitziest-package education? Where the supposed Competition Ethic takes hold of education schools do not become more "traditional". Trust me on this: Indianapolis has the worst case of charter-school disease in the nation. Yes, there is a recently opened college-bound, Greek- and Latin-based charter in town; good luck getting one of the 150 seats if that's what you wish for your child. In the meantime, competition has not encouraged the public schools to go Back To So-Called Basics. It's encouraged them to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the howling wind of the Advertosphere. Last year the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools actually proposed creating an Athletic Magnet High School before paramedics snuck up behind him and hit him with a hypo. The Anything for a Buck ethos may adequately fill the need for cheap consumer electronics and readily available English discipline sessions, but it's not exactly the key to maintaining propriety.]
And social engineering? I haven't been able to find that "Why I Became a 'Conservative'" book, praise the Lord. Big Literature's marketing strategy over the past decade, where every Anti-Fluoridation Nut with Regerny's switchboard number turned up on a table just inside the front doors at Barnes & Noble, may be at an end, but I'm not gonna jinx it by saying so. Any road, Brooks thoughtfully trots out his Road to Damascus moment--the pinning of a pair of Freshman Donkey ears on his liberal Rod Stewart shag by none other than Milton "A Nobel for Jimmy Carter? That's so politicized!" Friedman--at least quarterly. So we have to ask, "Just what is the attraction of all the "Conservative" Sci-Fi Dystopian Lingo? When you were a liberal, Dave, was World Domination real big on your agenda? Are you really arguing that FDR (or TR, for that matter) was some sort of zombie time-traveler from the French revolution? How do you get to be forty-five years old and still talk like that? Especially when you're a New York Times columnist with a strong minor in Ignoring or Excusing the Worst Excesses of the Religious Right who happens to be engaged in writing a column which could only be described as advocating political engineering (or maybe "anti-social engineering), if in fact that's any sort of distinction. (Is laissez-faire capitalism Apollonian?)
There are three things I've come to expect from a couple years' reading of his Sunday columns: that despite his professions of love for the traditions of Western Civilization Brooks is at best haphazardly tethered to its rules of punctuation; that nearly every week will result in an Oh My God moment:
Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.
to which nothing whatsoever will suffice as a reply; and he has absolutely no idea how to end a column:
And here's another perversity of human nature. Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism's deepest truths.
It was, if I recall my own college days correctly, Edmund Husserl who once said, "What the fuck was that?"