Saturday, May 19

Clock Stoppage

David Brooks, "The Age of Innocence". May 17

DO you find it as curious as I do that David Brooks can trot out three sociologists, or economists-turned-sociologists, to back him up, but is apparently unaware of the existence of historians?
The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.
How many things are wrong with that paragraph, not counting its publication in the New York Times? Should we try to count? Should we start with the standard rejoinder of the American right--home of the Republican party--that we live in a Republic, not a Democracy?

That playground retort--designed, I need not remind you, to cover the anti-democratic inclinations of the Republican party and the man who presumes to explain Democracy to us here--soon turns serious; assuming we're speaking of the Modern, not the Ancient, World, the "people" (funny how fastidious "conservatives" are about avoiding gender-specific collective nouns when the subject is something females were excluded by brute force and religious dogma from participating in) who "pioneered democracy" (horrid construction designed to prove Brooks' point for him without effort) were wealthy aristocrats who intended (and did) to preserve their own advantages above all. The authors of the Magna Carta and the various founding documents of the United States had no intention to share governance with the demos. The real European "pioneers" of democracy were the French, and we know what Brooks thinks of that.

And this is before we get to the idea of European or American democracy as a sort of Ur-sociology experiment. Sheesh. Can Brooks win an argument when victory is not pre-loaded? My guess is we'll never know. (And, look, I'm not gonna go on forever here, however warranted it might be, but this notion that there's some plerophory about human nature at the heart of everyone's political outlook is self-evident bullshit. People are corrupt, incorrigible, ill-bred and unmannered, ignorant, superstitious, generous, humble, brilliant, funny, compassionate, hateful, perverse, and confused. Who denies this? Which "side" in our modern debate has, since Hamilton, portrayed the rabble as criminal, hotheaded, deceitful, and self-serving, while demanding we honor those very qualities in Business? Hmmmm?)
But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.
And which side is it keeps complaining that government isn't sufficiently Business-like?

What is this, exactly, if not a victory lap for having preempted argument in the first place? The "pioneers" of democracy specifically design it to constrain human nature; the system is then corrupted by human nature. So the fault lies with the manufacturer. And leave us mention that here, again, we see that the most accurate definition of "conservative" in contemporary American politics has nothing to do with a stance on the issues so much as with the magical ability to compare different historical periods as though they were everywhere the same, and choose a favorite based on how easily it is simplified into agreement with oneself. Pierce, in reviewing Douthat's new book, noted "He gives the game away right at the outset when he decides that American religious history will begin in or around 1950, which Douthat sees as the high-water mark of mainstream Christian consensus in America." For Brooks our understanding of human nature has devolved since the 18th century. Despite all that sociology research, somehow.

Just imagine the United States having reached this technological point in the 21st century while maintaining the social structures of the first quarter of the 19th.

I sure ain't gonna defend the current state of our politics, but I will mention, yet again in regards to Brooks, that the sainted Al Hamilton, the Nostradamus of Capitalism, never in his life saw a smokestack. And ignoring who does the pandering, who pays for it, and what it buys these days seems sadly lacking in an appreciation of just how venal natural man really is.
Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. Like any normal set of human beings, they command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.
Okay, so who had "Three hundred sixty" in the Words Until Brooks Says "Entitlement" pool?

Even better, who had "Less than 300" in the How Long It Takes This To Go From A Lecture On the Wisdom of Checks and Balances to An Apparent Ignorance of the Concept of Judicial Review? What, exactly, is the wish to run unfettered through the economic system like a privateer if not a desire which has come to be regarded as an entitlement? Or the desire to maintain an armed force twenty times the size, and fifty times the expense, of the greatest theoretical threat? Or to use it to push around tenth-rate, Third World countries. Is "actively pursue foreign entanglements" in the Constitution somewhere? Is "promote the general welfare" not?

Blah blah blah blah Cradle to Grave blah blah Julia. Y'know, the worst excesses of the Gimme Gimme Gimme Don't Tax Me attitude are on the Teabagging right, the home of Keep Gubment Hands Off My Medicare and No Death Panels! Let the Insurance Companies Decide! But even that pales in comparison to the "principled" arguments of people who Got Theirs, Jack, and are only interested in pulling up the ladder behind them because John Locke would have wanted it that way, really.


KWillow said...

Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many [voters] "BANKERS" have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

A shame the comments are closed, I was going to try to post a link to your post, D.R.

(Of course, no prior comment of mine has ever been approved on a David Brooks column.)

Anonymous said...

"Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements."

I have no idea what this sentence even means. I've picked it up and turned it around and examined it from many angles and under strong light and the meaning still eludes me.

Anonymous said...

It used to be that conservatives were prissy cold fish who one could tolerate because they convinced you that the fact that you worked hard and "contributed" to social security and medicare into a special "entitlement" as opposed to "welfare" which was for blacks and drug addicts, which could be cut to get at that awful deficit problem. They are still prissy, but it turns out they hated my entitlements, too. Poor Brooks leads a sad, sad life. Every eighty year old widow he meets who isn't an heiress makes him nauseous now.

Deggjr said...

Having lost a sense of their own frailty, the Ricketts family (owners of the Chicago Cubs) have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs...and consider the delay in providing public funds for the renovation the family's property as a restriction of free speech.