Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What I've Learned, and David Brooks (Perhaps) Still Hasn't

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Among all the major right-wing voices of America's mainstream journalistic establishment, David Brooks is perhaps the most difficult to pin down. Ross Douthat is a millennial Christian conservative--smart, pop culture-friendly, lacking in the hang-ups of the Jerry Falwells and Ralph Reeds of decades past, but often lacking in their constancy as well. George F. Will was once a genuinely provocative and insight commentator, but his aristocratic Tory rigor has long since crumbled into Republican party hackery, with only the occasional glimmer of his old wit. But Brooks? The man is often sloppy with his facts, clumsy in the way he injects broad and simplistic sociological or historical reflections into narrow and detailed policy arguments, and condescending in a cloyingly liberal way (which in some ways is worse than Will's noblesse oblige, which at least used to have some real elitist dignity to it). For all that, though, he's a serious man, who can't help but look at the passing scene and connect what he sees to serious concerns--and the connections he makes are usually worth reading.

Brooks has made it absolutely clear that he considers the now-all-but-inevitably election of Donald Trump as the Republican party's presidential candidate to be catastrophic--for the party, but also for the country as a whole. (For the record, Douthat and Will have been contemptuous of Trump as well.) But in a column last Friday, Brooks did something a little unusual for him: he apologized, sort of.

This election--not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also--has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century. This declinism intertwines with other horrible social statistics. The suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high--a sure sign of rampant social isolation. A record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach. And for millennials, social trust is at historic lows.

Trump’s success grew out of that pain, but he is not the right response to it. The job for the rest of us is to figure out the right response. That means first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata--in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

We’ll probably need to tell a new national story....I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today....

We need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together. The author R. R. Reno has argued that what we’re really facing these days is a “crisis of solidarity.” Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism.

It is admittedly a little rich to see a man who made his name exploring (many would say exacerbating) ambient class and cultural divisions in American society, and connecting those divisions with a story of the American polity which ultimately--in a shoulder-shrugging sort of way--embraced the idea that people (middle-class and better ones, that is) could and should find a degree of virtue and happiness by just making their own bourgeois worlds for themselves, talking now, in the face of the possible total collapse of his preferred political party, of a "new national story." But I should give him some credit. Brooks has spent the past few years thinking and writing about character and society. His civic-republican and communitarian side has always been clear, but too often his invocations of community seemed somewhat boutique and nostalgic, something that liberal individualists needed to remember and be inspired by and perhaps sometimes feel vaguely guilty about abandoning, but never as a way to explore or critique liberal individualism or American-style late-capitalism itself. To see him write here about ripping himself out of his professional demographic is hopeful, to say the least.

But perhaps not much more than that: hopeful. Because towards the end he writes:

[A]t the community level we need to listen to those already helping. James Fallows had a story in The Atlantic recently noting that while we’re dysfunctional at the national level you see local renaissances dotted across the country. Fallows went around asking, “Who makes this town go?” and found local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that give, say, high school dropouts computer skills. That solidarity can be rekindled nationally. Over the course of American history, national projects like the railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and the NASA project have bound this diverse nation. Of course, such projects can happen again — maybe through a national service program, or something else.

Fallows years-long investigation into America's cities (which is much more complete than the short summary article Brooks's references) does indeed make the case--a case I completely agree with, by the way--that the best kinds of innovation, conservation, and conversation are taking locally, not nationally. But even for Fallows, the lesson of his observations don't challenge his commitment to the centralizing myth of American life, that everything outside of the overarching collective consciousness of America's destiny or way of life must be preparatory or supplementary, not constitutive. So perhaps it's not surprising that Brooks, in recognizing that he needs to get out into the diverse local communities of our country and consider the reasons behind political responses which he doesn't understand, still ends with an expected nationalization of the resources he hopes to discover.

I used to be right there with him--or, rather, I used to be where he was, attempting to wrap my thinking about civil society and community and culture around nationality. I don't dismiss entirely those arguments I used to get into, more than a decade ago; I still reject the bottom-line libertarian identification of the state, even when it arguably serves as democratic expression of a national body, as a majoritarian, coercive instrument, and never an empowering one. There really is a sense, I think, in which anyone who takes the political (not to mention the Christian) value of egalitarianism seriously, as I do, needs to engage in at least a little abstraction, and be able to broadly see people as citizens, not just neighbors and not-neighbors. But Brooks was all of that idea at one time: conceiving as citizens (and the taxes they pay, and the service they do) as being ever enlisted into various nationally, culturally, and morally-shaping projects. There is evidence that he's learned to connect--or at least to respect those who connect--his conception of community to something more local (he's even at times sounded almost like a Porcher!). But as the above column shows, Brooks hangs on to his ideas pretty tightly.

What killed off that idea for me? Well, as I just admitted, it hasn't died entirely--but I am far, far less willing today to write about the imperative of community, tradition, conservation, and sustainability, in terms which presume that it is the American state, or the nation as a whole, that serves as the proper venue by which said imperatives must be realized. Reading James C. Scott (and others) on anarchism, particularly in connection to what the "anarchist squint" can tell us about city life, has been a huge part of my change in thinking here. Reading (and sometimes being chastened by) some smart libertarian thinkers has influenced me also. And so has been my own reconsideration of communitarianism, and my internalization of the fact that the best, most lasting ideas which came out of that philosophical and ideological movement tended to point towards actual lived communities, not culturally or ideologically "imagined" ideal ones. (Maybe Brooks needs to go back and re-read his Tocqueville in light of the last 20 years.)

But most of all has simply been involving myself in the struggles of my own city of Wichita. By really getting involved in politics and activism and reform movements in a particular place--which, I suppose, might be included in Brooks's wish to break out of his usual professional demographic--one's eyes can't help but be opened, I think, to the reality of the teaching, serving, innovating, organizing, building, and preserving which happens amongst people who actually share physical space, who actually interact together over food or projects or plans, who adapt to actually changing circumstances, and not solely to arguments on the internet. That's the sort of energy which America's communities are harnessing. To leap from there, as Brooks clumsily does, to solving America's political and structural breakdown on the highest levels (and what can be higher than the race for the presidency?) is to misunderstand the shared enthusiasm and felt needs and experienced familiarity which generated the energy in the first place.

No, I think Brooks needs to learn that the answer to America's multiple dysfunctions will almost certainly have to involve many diverse answers, answers which operate locally in response to larger conditions that, however wonderful it might be to address them holistically, almost certainly cannot be in our present condition, because the structures of discourse, information, and consensus, both politically and technologically, have changed--they're faster, more expensive, more divided, and less friendly to compromise than they were only a generation ago. (Brooks is right about the decline of civic trust.) Should those structures be challenged, set back to what they used to be, at least as much as possible? In many ways, I would agree there is nothing more important. But such broad efforts--overturning Citizens United, rebuilding the grass-roots infrastructure of political parties, prying the distancing meritocracy away from our schools, revivifying participatory democracy, generating smaller supply chains for most goods, getting people off their damn iPhones and into town meetings--may well depend upon local efforts at connection and experimentation, on creating locally enriching cultures through our churches and neighborhood associations and places of work, ones which are not simply reflections of (and thus often magnifications of) media-conveyed or generated agendas which can undermine collective efforts by situating us all demographically before they can even get underway. In a place-bound community, the possibility exists for genuinely shared interests which transcend abstract groupings of individuals of a certain class or ethnicity or race, and allow, instead, for actually effectual ones. That, far more than some new national service program, is likely to do the kind of healing Brooks is wishing for.

Of course, for those who don't see American individualism as at all a problem, but rather something to be celebrated and magnified, any talk of community, whether national or local or anywhere between, always implies a fascistic moralism or coercive planning or both, and so for them even the humbled, localized version of Brooks's argument I'm talking about is just a cover for tyranny. They're wrong, I think, but that doesn't mean we don't incorporate them into the conversation. After all, they live in our places (or we live in their places) too.

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