Thursday, May 31, 2018

David Brooks as Rorschach Test

The New York Times's columnist David Brooks is like a Rorschach test for Americans' view of politics. He equally pisses off conservatives and liberals alike. Conservatives because he refuses to pay obeisance to Donald Trump. Liberals because he pines for a mythic past that never was. His latest column doesn't disappoint. It's a Rorschach test that both sides can criticize. Let's unpack.

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club. Then we smashed all that.
Source: David Brooks.
Was that good or bad for society? Which side do you think Brooks is going to come down on?
We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.
Source: David Brooks.
He's starting to reveal his hand. He mocks the new system by equating egalitarianism with "bluejeans everywhere!" and social consciousness with "recycling!" Then he plays his trump card.
You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.
Source: David Brooks.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Brooks asserts that things were better when "white male Protestants ruled the roost." Now things suck. By implication, it's the new meritocracy and its values of intelligence, autonomy and diversity that are at fault for today's messed up society. And responsible even for Donald Trump himself: "The older establishment won World War II and built the American Century. We, on the other hand, led to Donald Trump." That "we" is doing a lot of work.

What's wrong with Brooks's neat view of history? Just about everything. The American Century wasn't built by the "older establishment." It was built in the face of the blue bloods' fierce opposition. For that story, we have to turn to a source other than David Brooks.

"I welcome their hatred." — FDR, referring to the bankers and businessmen.
In 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking a second term as president of the United States. Having assuming the office in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt had stabilized and reformed the banking system, put millions of unemployed people to work building public infrastructure, and created Social Security to bring millions of elderly citizens out of poverty. The reforms, known collectively as the New Deal, were popular with the majority of citizens. But by the next presidential election year the bankers and businessmen were pushing back hard. Although Roosevelt came from a privileged background, he was despised by many in his social class. Unfazed, Roosevelt boldly proclaimed in his famous campaign speech of October 31, 1936: "I welcome their hatred!"
Source: Open Culture.

Back to Brooks and his gauzy view of history.
The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.
Source: David Brooks.
Brooks paints the blue bloods as putting community before self, and sees that as good because it's his own community. He himself is a product of the white, male Protestant community that the blue bloods built and supported. Jews, Catholics, women, blacks, browns, Asians, gays, etc., need not apply. The blue bloods built community, their own community, through exclusion. Brooks grew up with it and it was good.

Brooks then concludes with a surprise twist. He provides, in typical David Brooks fashion, a fuzzy remedy for everyone who wants to find something to like in a David Brooks column.
The meritocracy is here to stay, thank goodness, but we probably need a new ethos to reconfigure it — to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.
Source: David Brooks.
Thank goodness. The left can keep its meritocracy. The right can keep its ethos. All reformed in some undefined way that leads to a common national purpose. Who can possibly object to that?

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