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The Pot Calling the Kettle David Brooks

December 4, 2011

Davis: You’re just standing there telling me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?

Kermit: That’ll work.
-Treme, “Do You Know What It Means”

My current bête noire, David Brooks, is at again. Just lately Brooks has gone off the deep end of asshole–on Occupy Wall Street: “[Their] theme . . . allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves”–but it’s his emergent obsession with what he insists on calling “morality” that has me going. I first noticed it on September 13. Writing about the results of a Notre Dame study into the morality of young people today, Brooks said:

[T]he results are depressing. It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery. . . . What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues. The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas. . . . In the rambling answers . . . you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so. . . . The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

This, for Brooks, is a catastrophe, and yet I might not have noticed had that not also been the day after the Republican presidential debate at which Michelle Bachmann attacked Rick Perry for once suggesting that preteen girls be vaccinated for HPV. Beneath a thin skein of bogus libertarianism and complete nonsense about mental retardation, her argument was moral: It is wrong for unmarried teenage girls to have sex. (I can’t bring myself to talk about her “reasoning,” by which we would not tell children about seatbelts because it would lead them to exceed the speed limit.) HPV, by the way, causes cervical cancer, which kills 4000 U.S. women per year. Widespread vaccination would lower that number by 70%, which is 2800 more women alive at the end of each year, and so the juxtaposition is delicious. One could not ask for a more vivid example of what so many young people find distasteful about morality as a concept. It leads to efforts like Bachmann’s, which amount to attempted mass murder.

On November 15 Brooks sings the same old tune. In a perceptive discussion on the psychological blindness that kept Joe Paterno and others from doing more about child rape at Penn State, the culprit is this same lack of morality:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged [our penchant for self-deception]. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

“Moral systems” is an obvious cipher for religion, and other conservatives like Bachmann do away with ciphericality altogether. Brooks’ claims for religion are so patently and preposterously false that I can hardly rouse myself to respond. In Brooks’ “centuries past” religion not only condoned but anchored elaborate rhetorical defenses of: serfdom; slavery; colonization; genocide; rape; the brutal subjugation of women; forced observance; the persecution of dissent; and monarchic despotism. Omitting these facts hollows his claim past the point of uselessness, and it’s not as though as he’s unaware of them. That one of our two most respected conservative commentators (although is George Will still relevant?) could trot out this garbage explains why the Occupy Movement considers the media part of the spiritual, if not the economic, 1%, and it has its analog on the left in Hendrik Hertzberg’s pitch-perfect condescension.

On this line of analysis, central to contemporary conservative thought, the loss of religion in turn is a metonym for a widespread breakdown of institutional and epistemological authority: We have suffered, the argument goes, by the triumph of a liberalism that not only disrespects our past but has acted to destroy our collective faith in the patterns of action and belief that make us who we are. Conservatism, in this sense, is a state of mind, and by this definition I, too, am a conservative. It’s why I am against gun control, national healthcare, and the designated hitter.

But the link between this conservative temperament and specific public policies has been demolished in the last century by an incredibly broad assault in virtually every area of intellectual inquiry: economics, where Keynes’ introduction of multiple equilibria and animal spirits shattered economic naturalism; physics, where the quantum theory and relativity posit radically counter-intuitive understandings of the physical world; literary studies, where poststructuralism revealed the unitary text as a myth; philosophy, where Wittgenstein and Kuhn demonstrated the historically contingent nature of meaning and truth; and most of all politics, where the New Left showed that large institutions, be they public or private, serve their own propagation above all else. Conservative “thought,” such as it is, has never offered anything like a counter-argument to this radical destabilization. It quotes Burke on liberty, wisdom, and virtue, and Buckley on standing athwart history, but has no response to what it reviles as relativism aside from “But it can’t be so!” It makes no arguments. The kids in the Notre Dame study whom Brooks so disparages are the children of this massive intellectual shift. They didn’t come from nowhere and for no reason, and they are not wrong.

In this distinction between the conservative temperament and public policy the specter of Sixties counterculture looms above all. Brooks’ conservative temperament induces in him a visceral disdain for the Occupy Movement’s appearance and tactics. His prose fairly drips with it. There is nothing wrong with this, and to some extent I share that gut response, as I have said. But in the aftermath of the relativist (the label is no epithet to me, and I wear the mantle proudly) assault there is no justification for understanding what is, in essence, an emotional response as a moral judgment. Doing so is not just wrong or illogical; it causes massive problems in public policy, as Brooks demonstrates in his recent column on the problems in the euro zone, wherein he explains why countries like the U.S. and Germany are rich: “It’s because many people in these countries . . . believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible.” This is not even a moral question; formulating it as such, with the implicit contention that working hard is better than not, makes Kermit Ruffin somehow immoral for pursuing another, stoned, way of life. Even if it were a moral question, though, framing it as such gets in the way of good public policy:

Over the past few decades, several European nations, like Germany and the Netherlands, have played by the rules and practiced good governance. They have lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values. Now . . . Germans are being browbeaten for not wanting to bail out Greece, where even today many people are still not willing to pay their taxes. They are being browbeaten for not wanting to bail out Italy, where future growth prospects are uncertain.

Surely Greece doesn’t see it that way, and because David Brooks or Angela Merkel says it’s so carries negative weight with them, who matter greatly if the problem is actually going to be solved. Brooks and Merkel can have their “good values”–all you have to do is say they’re yours–if you don’t care about solving problems, but that is not what public policy is about. Brooks seems to realize this along the way and grows confused, finally concluding that “in a crisis, you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do; you do things that violate your everyday values.” If that’s the case, the handwringing that came before was less than pointless; its only effect can be counter-productive. It also makes his precious values, which are supposed to be the arbiters of our behavior, irrelevant. Like Socrates’ gods, if they can’t do that job then they can be done away with.

This dynamic is all over our political landscape–in abortion, foreclosures, healthcare, trade, the social safety net, foreign aid, financial regulation, everywhere–to ruinous effect. The question most often asked and point most often argued, particularly by conservatives, is moral. Even if the difficulties answering that question weren’t epistemologically insuperable, it is the wrong question to be asking. The always and forever right question is how and whether it makes our society better, not righter, and its people healthier, happier, and wealthier, now and into the future.

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