David Brooks, "The Commercial Republic". March 17
I DON'T know if it's just old age, but I've been subject to a vague dis-ease about the abuse of US history that I don't remember being there before. Not that it's a recent discovery or anything; I grew up in a contentious decade where Leftist tricksters were given free rein to convince the young me that the Vietnamese war wasn't being fought for any of the reasons commonly bruited about, that the Cold War wasn't quite the one-sided heroic stand against evil world domination I'd been told it was, that Jim Crow laws were shameful, and the treatment of African-Americans beginning in the 1920s was as brutal as in slavery days, that the story of American labor in general was one of repeated head crackings; there were some bits tossed in there about strings of broken Indian treaties, trails of dead Chinese railroad laborers, support for brutal dictatorships around the globe, and treating Latin America as our personal produce market. Plus the Plej-uh-lee-junce I'd been forced to recite for twelve tax-funded years was a piece of jingoist Boys' Life crap with God crammed into it to improve Ike's reelection prospects. And, as it turned out, the lousy lying bastards had told the Truth, proving you can't trust a Commie, ever.
I mean, I'm more than prepared for the daily onslaught of convenient fictions I've experienced since grade school, but in the past few years I run into things now and then that just give me a little jolt, like it's not the promulgation of easily-accepted Feelgoodism and willful blindness, but it's more like there's a well-financed operation somewhere cranking out continual updates to meet current emergencies, like a 24-hour Jingo-Nut factory filling sandbags for three shifts, five-and-a-half days a week. It's experienced as a sort of positional vertigo, like I'm standing still but the world keeps moving counterclockwise in little jumps.
And what I suspect that is is this: it's the result of hearing sorry-assed faux nostalgists like David Brooks try to reconstruct the thing as though the very act of happy confabulation magically made the long-overdue public revelations about race and war and exploitation (the Sixties™, q.v.) disappear again. Race, war, and exploitation being, of course, three minor matters his Party of Wealth got its collective feet tangled in, losing the ability in each instance to simply tell all the poor people to shut th' fuck up and get back to their duties. Brooks is able, somehow, in 2009, to write about US economic history as though the native American population invited the 15th century Spanish over to help with municipal planning.
I was going to rake Dr. Steele's piece toward the compost pile after Roy brought it to our attention. It's one thing for a man born of mixed black/white parentage in 1946 to grow up to describe himself as a "Conservative" and occupy a race-bombing sinecure at the Hoover Institution; it's quite another for him to act as though what happened to black Republicans in 1964, when he was an 18-year-old college student with a political science major, simply escaped his notice. Goldwater was a prisoner to his libertarian instincts! He rejected the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sadly, and on principle! Yeah, of course he did. Those same libertarian principles were the reason a number of long-time African-American delegates to the Goldwater Convention, refused seating (1964 was the first time post-Reconstruction the Republican convention seated lily-white delegations across the South), left the Cow Palace festooned with principled Republican saliva hockered their way as they left.
But then it took me three passes just to finish the thing, and, worse, its one suggestion for bringing minorities to the Republican party is for minorities to smarten up and realize they should be Republicans. That is, it could have been written anytime between the '64 campaign and now, and whether the modern GOP was at its political apex or in its present unspeakable shithole. There is much calumny available for heaping on nearly any voting bloc's collective hairdo in this day and age. But of all of 'em I would say the African-American voter is the one most notable for not having fallen for a stranger's promise of candy if he'd just get in the car and vote against his own interests.
Odd that while these "principles" that drive the GOP are supposed to be so beneficial to the racially benighted, the quarter-century of Republican rule just passed wasn't able to fully demonstrate those benefits. Just bad luck, I suppose.
We may have mentioned this before, but pace what "Conservatism's" best eight-grade minds have conjured up, "principle" is what the Goldwater Republican party resorted to when brute racism and unchecked robber baronage began to lose voter appeal. And we'll move along after noting that Steele said, after November's election, that "White America has made tremendous moral progress since the '60s... And they've never given themselves credit for that. And here is an opportunity at last to document this progress." By which he meant by voting for Barack Obama, also known as The Guy Who Can't Win, according to the title of a 2007 book by Hoover Institution fellow Shelby Steele. We mention this not to suggest that Shelby Steele is Full of Shit, but so we can reply that Black America has never been given sufficient credit for not murdering the rest of us in our beds at any time over the last 400 years, despite slightly greater provocation than the prospect of sharing public facilities which all those brave White people have stared right in the face for more than a generation without credit. "The women and girls out there know what I'm talking about," as candidate Goldwater used to say.
I had to move on from whatever Circle Hell is reserving for Steele, though, when I made the mistake of reading today's Brooks. It's one of those fainting spells the man experiences when there's no pressing GOP taking point for him to denature:
Over the centuries, the United States has been most conspicuous for one trait: manic energy. Americans work longer hours than any other people. We switch jobs more frequently, move more often, earn more and consume more.
This energy was first aroused by abundance, by the tantalizing sense that dazzling wealth was available just over the next hill. But it has also been sustained by a popular culture that celebrates commercial ambition. From Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, through Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale, up until Donald Trump and Jim Cramer, popular figures have always emerged to champion the American gospel of success, encouraging middle-class people to strive, risk and make money.
Okay, so my first reaction--and likely yours, too--was what? does Brooks have some sort of hitherto unrevealed personal connection to Jim Cramer that's about to hit the headlines? Jim Cramer? Jim Cramer, American fucking folk hero, like the Donald, Horatio Alger, and Speedy Alka-Seltzer?
And my second was, y'know, this is the guy who, just in the recent memory of someone whose memory is all but shot, has suggested that Hamilton specifically designed the US banking and monetary system for the express benefit of 19th century robber barons and late 20th-century multinational corporations, and who just got done eructing the idea that there's never been any class-based unpleasantness in American history never ever ever, uh-uh, no siree.
Okay, so I've been a curmudgeon pretty much since age 8, except for the period between 15-23, when that was superseded by hormones and other chemicals. As such I am more than fully, I am fully and painfully aware than a sizable number of my fellows seem to require large, permanent, and imposing mental structures whose single function is to convince them that All is Light, Airy, Positive, Fun, and Loving as a New Pup. I do not say I understand this, not that I believe any of them, only that the appearance is there and it is guarded ferociously in many cases. I have never been able to figure out what is supposed by such folk to be lurking on the Other Side, unless it is themselves as a Manson girl. I'm unapologetically unpleasant, perpetually gloomy, and I've got a grievance list forty-years long, yet I go into a museum, or the wilderness, or even a cathedral and drink in their Beauty, not look around for something to deface. I have never once looked at a Caravaggio and wondered how enlightened Italians continued to fall for all that Jesus shit. No. This America: Good n' Plenty! may be prevalent, but so are Tarot readers, and they sell copper bracelets for arthritis at the drug store.
Further, is anyone really supposed to believe that Horatio Alger is on David Brooks' bedstand?
This gospel gets dented during each of the nation’s financial crises, but it always returns with a vengeance. The late 19th century was a time of economic turmoil. Yet it was also a time when this commercial creed was preached most fervently. Andrew Carnegie published “The Gospel of Wealth.” Elbert Hubbard published “A Message to Garcia,” which celebrated industriousness and ambition and sold nearly 40 million copies. The Baptist minister Russell Conwell traveled the country delivering his “Acres of Diamonds” sermon to rapturous audiences more than 6,000 times....
The Great Depression suppressed economic activity, but not the commercial spirit. In the middle of it, Dale Carnegie published “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which promised imminent success and went on to sell more copies than any other book to that point but the Bible. The stagflation of the 1970s didn’t discredit capitalism. It gave rise to the supply-side movement and the apotheosis of the entrepreneur.
Okay, so Brooks has already demonstrated his capacity for wishing away any historical unpleasantness that might tend to cost his party votes; is he also oblivious to the fact that one can stand upon any of those fervent rallying points of Damned Good Positive American Energy and spy the inevitable crash ahead? The one that would flush all of Carnegie's positive thinkers, Alger's shoe-shine lads, or Bernie Madoff's elite marks downstream like the Johnstown Flood, and similarly, because we equated political freedom with the right of wealthy people to build dangerous contraptions free of evil government regulation, provided we ourselves had a dry seat well upstream? Bullshit. The argument never was about whether our poor, put-upon, unloved Free Markets could turn a tidy sum given the unfettered right to act, government financial assistance where required, or demanded, and a 150-year legal travestiment of the Fourteenth Amendment which held it to protect corporations, but not the people it was written about. Yes, rapine is frequently efficacious, and you can find a greedly little sucker willing to say anything for a buck on nearly every streetcorner. The argument was, in 1932, 1978, or 2008, what the rest of us are supposed to do to keep from being washed away in all this frothy Freedom Goodness? Because that point always comes, and somehow the Little Guy is always waiting for it in his underwear, because some rich guy had a real good positive reason for needing the pants.