David Brooks has long vacillated between culture mode and political mode and sometimes he splits the difference, as he does here.
When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments. Everything is shaped on a deeper level, through the parables, fables and myths that our most fundamental groups use to define themselves. . . . If politics is going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality.
Like me, and ironically like the late Andrew Breitbart, Brooksie mostly ends up in places where culture trumps politics. That is the case with this column. And so I am sympathetic with it for the most part. I don’t doubt that various cultural ailments can and do drive political passions, with the passionate not always fully aware of the cause of their discontent, or why politics in the end does not work as the salve they would like.
That said, it would be nice if Brooksie were a little more balanced in his analysis. True, when he gets all abstract about it he says that idolatry can arise on both left and right as a result of the fraying of the cultural fabric. But when he discusses the matter in concrete terms the anomie is happening in middle America and the morbid symptoms are seen among Trump supporters. Is it too much to ask Brooksie to level with his own sophisticated audience that they are in this thing too?
Indeed a case can be made that many of the ailments afflicting middle America have come at the hands of smartypants who are willfully blind to the effects of their own actions and preferences on others. Am I mythologizing too much to suggest that, to put it crudely, globalists do not give two shits about deplorables? Some of the anomie felt in middle America is surely related to the perception of being sidelined, neglected and disrespected.
And what is the reaction of Brooks’s Times readers to all this? Double down on afflicting the uncomfortable and go into high dudgeon panic mode 24/7. There’s a lot of myth visible here, too. Let’s hear you, Brooksie, describe to your own readers in your best reasonable prose the extent to which their actions are driven by unseen demons.
All well and good to pine for moderation–the winning side always calls for that when they have their foot on your neck. I await the day that Brooksie-think meets Bannon-think to hash things out. Civil Wars–even ones fought out with ideas and on paper–have a way of bringing people together. C’mon Brooksie, you can do it.
Brooks can never understand things because he has a fundamentally flawed view of life:
“If politics is going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality.”
Ummm, no. That is completely wrong. The myth of equality rots everything it touches. Social hierarchies are normal and healthy, and that’s why myths generally are exactly NOT about “equality” but about heroes and gods. Because we’re not equal. If you think “equality” is a desirable goal (even a possible one), then you are crazy or stupid or, I suspect in Brooks’ case, disingenuous and deceitful. For Brooks, “equality” is just the nice word he gives the hammer he uses to bash down the Deplorable whites he hates so much. Do we REALLY think Brooks thinks he and his cohorts are “equal” to Mestizo lawn mowers, Ethiopian cab drivers or good old boy bass fishermen? Of course not. He’s just full of crap.
I disagree. The founding myth of America is based on equality. “All men are created equal…” The goal since has been to expand that myth to apply to an ever broader citizenry (women, blacks, immigrants, etc). It’s been quite successful, however, belief in it and the American idea in general is faltering. That’s a problem. What Brooks is suggesting is that we better either fix it or replace it, because society needs an agreed upon set of beliefs and myths to operate peacefully.
We can go on about what equal means in the Declaration versus today, and about whether inequality is intrinsic to any myth worth its salt. But I do agree with JV that “society needs an agreed upon set of beliefs”, at least in a rough way, perfect consensus on clear ideals never really being possible but rough consensus on fuzzy ideals being a good and useful idea. But I think too that Brooks is being disingenuous, and that his idea of agreed upon myths is like that ever-promised national conversation on race: let us tell you what you should think.
The country is divided in a serious way so one can fairly be pessimistic about a fair conversation about these things. That’s why I semi-joked about squishing together Brooks and Bannon. There are areas of neglected overlap. Nature abhors a vacuum but there are powerful forces invested in that vacuum not being filled.
How would you even go about creating new national myths these days? That seems like an easy thing to advocate but extraordinarily difficult to actually accomplish. There’s no British Empire to rebel against these days, and Brooks National Greatness Conservatism (not to be confused with Make America Great Again, Brooks is way cooler than that) of the early 00’s, with its dream of some grand national project to inspire us all, didn’t amount to much but a lot of dead Iraqis.
We have lived in an era over the last few decades characterized more by consumption than crisis, as even Mr. Brooks would have certainly acknowledged in his earlier manifestation as a junior-league Tom Wolfe. As such he ought to acknowledge in his new manifestation as a junior-league Walter Lippman that securing that new national myth is not a matter of shopping for one at the local mall, though that is how we are likely to see it.
There’s that old saying by Rahm Emanuel about not letting a good crisis go to waste. That’s not really that much of a danger. When you find yourself in a real crisis you seldom have the luxury of being choosy about how to optimize it. You need to get past it, which is why it is a crisis. We will get a new national myth in good time–and in bad.
How would you even go about creating new national myths these days?
Old, enfeebled, and increasingly embattled white male patriarchy brought low by The Lightworkers, an Axis of Equity comprised of POCs, LGBTs, Arch-Feminists, Cowed Husbands, Cat Ladies,,and spiritually woke Wall Street Wizards.
Isn’t that the scaffolding of the new national myth?