Tuesday, September 15

Don't Be Humble. You're Not That Great.

David Brooks, "Greatest Generation, Kanye West, The Sixties, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah". September 15

OKAY, first, that mock title is unfair, as it implies that Brooks has lost or abandoned his talent for hiding his wingnut stenography behind the bland, the faux-genial, and the pseudo-learned. The real title is "High-Five Nation", and it's one of those columns Brooks seems to crank out quarterly which combine his sidewalk sociology, "moderate" social "views", and conviction that we'd all be a lot better off if those people out there were more orderly, like Markets. And--what distinguishes this form from its more familiar cousins--he does so without referencing Burke or some genuine popularizer of sociological or psychological expertise (I kid!) whose article or book he just tumbled onto.

And two things happen when you read one of them--okay, three, if you count nodding off--namely, you go along agreeing with him in a sort of general, Andy Rooney-without-the-boffo-delivery sort of way, and, two, you wait for the payoff which never arrives, but which, you realize at some point--maybe even some time after you finish the thing--just sorta seeped out, or is dribbling down your metaphorical leg.

Let's just take a moment here to express anew our love of Glenn Greenwald, who said, last week:
This is why I have very mixed feelings about the protests of conservatives such as David Frum or Andrew Sullivan that the conservative movement has been supposedly "hijacked" by extremists and crazies. On the one hand, this is true. But when was it different? Rush Limbaugh didn't just magically appear in the last twelve months. He -- along with people like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bill Kristol and Jesse Helms -- have been leaders of that party for decades. Republicans spent the 1990s wallowing in Ken Starr's sex report, "Angry White Male" militias, black U.N. helicopters, Vince Foster's murder, Clinton's Mena drug runway, Monica's semen-stained dress, Hillary's lesbianism, "wag the dog" theories, and all sorts of efforts to personally humiliate Clinton and destroy the legitimacy of his presidency using the most paranoid, reality-detached, and scurrilous attacks.

Toss Brooks in with Frum and Sully and you've got three Reagantots--okay, two Reagantots and a Lady Thatcher impersonator--born in the Sixties, but before they became The Sixties, who either never noticed who they were sharing a party with, or who found some sort of excuse for ignoring it in public.

Just bear that in mind as Brooks takes us on an imaginary journey to the land so favored by "Conservatives", the Land Just Far Enough Away That Most Listeners Won't Quite Catch You Lying About It. Everything Brooks says should be accompanied by a label that reads Caution: When It Counted This Man Was Practically Indistinguishable From The Rabid Bigots He Tries To Disavow. As opposed to Sullivan, whose label would read "Was Indistinguishable".
On Sunday evenings, my local NPR station airs old radio programs. A few weeks ago it broadcast the episode of the show “Command Performance” that aired the day World War II ended. “Command Performance” was a variety show that went out to the troops around the world.

On V-J Day, Frank Sinatra appeared, along with Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.

Now, nothing wrong with the sentiment, but we've already begun to ask ourselves whether Brooks is too young to remember the controversy over The Wall, too incurious to have wondered about the Soviet-heroic statuary at its base, too concerned with suburban mores to have followed the hubbub over the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit, and actually oblivious to the bulk of the members of that party he's aligned himself with the past quarter-century, with its Flag Burning amendments and $1M victory in Iraq parades and forty-year rear-guard action against the hippies who spit on returning Vietnam vets? Th' fuck named everything that couldn't run away after Reagan?

(Meanwhile, speaking of imaginary histories: audiences in 1945 were well aware that Sinatra was the object of considerable derision for his 4-F classification, that Grant had been vilified for not returning to Britain when it entered the war, and so might've kept the braggadocio to a minimum in any event; Durante, Barrymore, and Crosby were too old, and Burgess Meredith had only recently returned from an Army Air Force stint. They had all seen sacrifice, destruction, and loss, and the senselessness of two World Wars. They were solicitous of the feelings of the GIs who'd been going through this for four years, who'd've thrown away a trunkful of medals to have one buddy come back to life, of the thousands who had already returned, largely the wounded, and of the millions who would come home shortly to families anxious about how they'd re-adapt. They remembered what had happened to the Bonus Army a dozen years before. Maybe they behaved with greater decorum in those days; maybe that was even beginning to extend to African-Americans to some degree. Maybe they were less susceptible to, and less subjected to, obfuscation of political realities. And maybe they weren't just social automatons, but people who had a lot of reason to be somber, and enough knowledge of war and its aftermath not to be mindless cheerleaders.)
And there was something else. When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

Why is it always necessary to add "provided you were White and Male"?
But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.

Okay, sorry; I sorta glossed over that bit of sociologicalistic double-talk earlier. But, sheesh. Is it that it's impossible to look this sort of thing up once you're indoctrinated with it, or is it that arguing this way is the best you've got? The overwhelming urge to experience something approaching stability was, in the late 40s and 50s, a perfectly understandable impulse for a population which had experienced two world wars and the most serious economic depression in the nation's history. How does that make stability, and the concomitant social conformity of the era, some sort of default condition? Labor had been fighting Capital for the preceding seventy years (a history Brooks has already denied ever hearing about). People rushed from the farms to the cities in the first quarter of the 20th century. Everybody in the Fifties thought we'd be driving atomic cars and eating food cooked by robots in a decade, too. And they thought Milton Berle was funny. God help us if that's the default setting for the human condition.
Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine. Before long, self-exposure and self-love became ways to win shares in the competition for attention. Muhammad Ali would tell all cameras that he was the greatest of all time. Norman Mailer wrote a book called “Advertisements for Myself.”

And how, aside from all those weekend idylls spent discussing Burke with like-minded "classical liberals", does this always come to be the story of how people with vaguely dissatisfying personal habits ruined it for everybody?

Mailer was on Leyte. You weren't. I guess he had as much right to reject his social milieu as you have now to bemoan the loss of its cardboard advertising display. Ali was a product of the Jim Crow South. You weren't. Cameras weren't trained on him because he was some species of free-range Megalomaniac. They were on him because he was the heavyweight champion of the world, and, arguably, the greatest ever. His (comic) persona served him well, even if it occasionally got the better of him, and is hardly distinct from, say, Dizzy Dean's in the 30s or Jack Johnson's in the first years of the century.

And, really, is the cult of Celebrity really the fault of the people who carve out fifteen-minute slices, or the mass-market media that force-feeds them to us? If Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Jon and Kate, and Octomom faced execution by lethal injection based on a simple majority vote, how many do you suppose would survive? How much of their antics is in fact the work of professional publicists, publishing concerns, and media conglomerates? Y'know, David, a more cynical devotee of praeteritio than myself might ask why it's always the icons of the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war, and their dirty hippie associates, who're responsible for American's Loss of Faith-Based Obeisance, while the avatars of Televangelism, the Op-Ed columnist proponents of Entrepreneurial Heroism, in fact the whole, neon-lit, whirling edifice of the abiding American Monomaniacal Quest for Short-Term Profits, get off scott-free?
This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live. And from this vantage point, a display of mass modesty, like the kind represented on the V-J Day “Command Performance,” comes as something of a refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world. It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.

But not as funny as the fact that this comes from someone who routinely lionized George W. Bush for the concept of perpetually warring civilizations at the same time he was managing to lose two wars to countries with no military forces. Y'know, sometimes it feels like the urge to memorialize everything Murican has a tinge of self-hypnosis to it.

10 comments:

Julia said...

Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine.

Well, alrighty then. I guess the revolution will be televised after all.

Of course, it'll be Glenn Beck's revolution, which started out as capitalist routine, and it will be televised on Fox, Rupert Murdoch's epic unregulated political contribution.

Revolve on that, you pathetic epicene dick.

Anonymous said...

Show us how, Mr. Brooks, we should regenerate that humility and resourcefullness so demonstrated by the "greatest generation" you seem to mysteriously know so much about.

Get your puffy little white ass off the tv and wipe that now famous name off your identity and go get a real job.

Instead of wondering why everyone around you is lazy, lying scum, stop being one and you might find your present existence a little more meaningful.

At least you might not be tempted to rewrite history you know nothing about.

ckc (not kc) said...

It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.

...and yet, mere humility, whatever its value, will not make actual achievements any more extraordinary

ckc (not kc) said...

(i.e. "Don't be humble, you're not that great". Way to restate the post title, in a less pithy way - sheesh!)

map106 said...

Nor will bombast...

But, OT, and from one stickler to another, have we given up on the correct formulation of comparatives and superlatives in modern writing? Is everything now "more" and "most"?

'Cause that sentence should be:

...nation's mood was at its humblest when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.

Did I miss the memo?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brooks' collected essays should be titled The Banality Of Comfort.

Marion in Savannah said...

Taking a page from Bobo's playbook, MoDo is cluching her pearls on the fainting couch today bemoaning the lack of civility in the country. Given some of the rancid tripe she's produced over the years she's an authority...

heydave said...

Hey, here's thought: people haven't really changed to a measurable degree since... ever. It's just that with the Intertubes and stuff, everyone can see what an asshole you are, Mr. Brooks.

Brendan said...

Wish I had something clever to add, but I don't.

Just wanted to say: awesome. If the NYT had any stones, they'd run your Brooks rebuttals right on their op-ed page.

Brendan said...

Oh, and also? Let's play ...

Guess. The. Source!

David Brooks is unequalled [sic] as an observer of middle-class American social mores.

(h/t: Jim, in comments on Balloon Juice, where you can find a link to the answer.)