SO it turns out that Charles Murray is to the “conservatives” at the Times what Halley's Comet is to a superstitious medieval peasantry.
This is Brooks' second Murray column in two weeks, meaning this one is designed to make it appear that his earlier teenaged crush has been accompanied by the appropriate somber adult reflection on the issues. In other words, it's even worse.
It is, in fact, a near-textbook example of what makes Brooks truly awful: the “I'm a stern-task-master instructor at an exclusive high-school for overachievers” tone, the “comparison” of competing conservative and liberal “philosophies” made up on the spot for the sake of the piece, the ensuing demolition of the liberal philosophy by application of Brooks' iron Fiat, the wholesale larding of a piece--already sporting a fat-to-muscle ratio so high it would cause people in Muncie, Indiana, to goggle in disbelief as it waddled by--with various pop-sociology and -psychology treatises, roughly 90% of which, should the reader go to the trouble of tracking them down, turn out to have been written by economists or political scientists, the backhand assertion that these findings Brooks is sharing with us are universally acknowledged in their fields, or whatever fields they were aimed at, leading us--by process of scientific ratiocination and proper living--to the Economic Republican position. The only thing missing is the “I'm a moderate, and boy do the ‘conservatives’ beat me up over it” simpering (see PBS News Hour, The), absent because he can't pull off that one and the “Newt and Callista Gingrich Endowed Chair of Applied Psychobabble at Southland Mall Community College” tone simultaneously.
To be fair, Brooks does mix it up this time. For reasons of his own the "conservative" philosophy has become twain: a “neocon” philosophy (we abandoned bourgeois social norms) and a “libertarian” philosophy (social programs encourage indolence and baby-poppin'). There must be a distinction here, and a good reason why we're ascribing “major” philosophical lines to groups which did not exist in the 1970s except in some Sociology lab. The 70s! When neocons and libertarians could have “congregated” jointly at a refrigerator box and not been able to link hands around. A congregation of libertarians in the 1970s consisted of two people buying Atlas Shrugged bumping into each other in the college bookstore check-out line and discovering they're in the same Freshman Comp section.
Now, your guess is as good as mine. Is this the typical lazy Reagantot history from someone who came of age in the 1980s, and assumed the past was just like the present, only longer? Was Brooks throwing a bone to Charles Murray, after throwing him a boner two weeks ago? Are we trying to hide what the New Nixon Republican Coalition was actually saying about race and class in those days? Or is Brooks just rewriting a current flap as though it represented Eternal Verities, the better to rhetorically humiliate vast stretches of one's imaginary opponents?
Of course the “libertarian” and “neocon” “philosophies”of “the 70s” immediately disappear from the piece, having co-performed their function as The Only Theory Standing Now That David Brooks Has Razed The Liberal Village. This is part of the Brooks MO: announce the “real belief” behind competing Left/Right opinions (maybe “Center/Right” is more accurate, not that we want to introduce “accuracy” at this late date); spend the next 300 words disputing the liberal philosophy, buttressed by quotes and scientificalism; then declare the liberal philosophy dead by “possibly several” paper cuts. Which makes “conservatism” the winner. And still undefeated heavyweight champ. This is generally stated with a soupçon of ambiguity as to Brooks' personal support, the better to continue peacefully grazing on the prairie margins of PBS and NYT liberalism, which is where congenital simpering and the increasing lunacy of his party have forced him to ruminate.
Here it is in action:
As early as the 1970s, three large theories had emerged to explain the weakening of the social fabric. Liberals congregated around an economically determinist theory. The loss of good working-class jobs undermined communities and led to the social deterioration.
Do we have to go on? I'm sure liberals were in favor of jobs in the 1970s. I trust that they were. Used to be both parties did. I just can't say I remember running into the argument, at the tail-end of the post-war US economic hegemony, that the manufacturing jobs still humming across the Rust Belt were the cause of social disintegration. I remember a lot of liberals talking about the alienation of the working man, or the privileged idiocy behind the anti-environment, anti-safety, anti-regulation, You'll Buy Gas Guzzling Behemoths And Like It attitude of the Big Three, which was just then beginning to bleed market share to smaller, better-built vehicles, and would have finished ceding the future to Japan by the end of the decade. That's the way liberals actually talked in those days, as I recall it.
So the alternative explanation, Mr. Brooks, is that you're somehow trying to fob off some contemporary Democratic argument as the guiding star of the "liberal" point of view, rather than a specific response to the clear, dismal, and beyond-the-help-of-pop-sociology Reagan record. Which, unsurprisingly, owes its popularity among liberals not to the 1970s, but to the latter days of the Clinton administration, when their man's economic record so eclipsed that of St. Ronnie of the Miracles.
Which means there's no value to examining this cornerstone of American liberal thought; but supposing it were actually of vital importance. So what? If you're hungry, do you weigh the competing culinary philosophies of Northern China and Northern Italy, or do you decide what you'd like to eat?
And if there was some value in demolishing a single-clause definition of Liberalism, wouldn't you still be required to, you know, do so? Maybe I'm way off base, Dave; not only do I not take your point on this, I'm not sure you have one. It seems to run:
1) Neo-conservatives (in the 70s!) argued that "the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms led to social disruption."
2) It's still a good idea to finish high school, even if there aren't any jobs.
3) "[E]conomic determinism would be bad enough if it was just making public debate dumber. But the amputation of sociologic, psychological and cognitive considerations makes good policy impossible."
Q.E.D. If I missed some subtlety in the middle there that explains all this, kindly let me know, ℅ this blog.
JUST another word about Murray Worship at the Times Op-Ed Carnival. It reminds me of nothing so much as some winking conjugal scene in Hayes Code Hollywood, where one foot is kept firmly planted on the floor, and the real action is off-screen. Neither Brooks nor Douthat wants to shower in Murray's antebellumisms, but will take just a splash behind the ears; neither wants anything to do with his conclusions, which apparently admit the ungodly hybridization of libertoonianism and religious mania has no more prescription for the doom and Negroes it sees everywhere than do either of those programs alone. This is unacceptable to either man, as they prefer to believe, at least in public, that a good talking to by Pope or Sociology prof might still turn this thing around. Murray seems to exist as way for Brooks and Douthat to demonstrate how quickly they'd point to evidence if by chance they had any.