HOW AMERICA GOT MEAN
In a culture devoid of moral education, generations are growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world.
Over the past eight years or so, I’ve been obsessed with two questions. The first is: Why have Americans become so sad? The rising rates of depression have been well publicized, as have the rising deaths of despair from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. But other statistics are similarly troubling. The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. The share of Americans ages 25 to 54 who weren’t married or living with a romantic partner went up to 38 percent in 2019, from 29 percent in 1990. A record-high 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans have never married. More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.
My second, related question is: Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently. Same with gun sales. Social trust is plummeting. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.
We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What is going on?
Over the past few years, different social observers have offered different stories to explain the rise of hatred, anxiety, and despair.
* The sociology story: We’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.
* The demography story: America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country, a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.
* The sociologists are right that we’re more isolated, but why? What values lead us to choose lifestyles that make us lonely and miserable?
* We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.
* A couple of obvious things need to be said about this ethos of moral formation that dominated American life for so long. It prevailed alongside all sorts of hierarchies that we now rightly find abhorrent: whites superior to Blacks, men to women, Christians to Jews, straight people to gay people.
It seems clear to me what is going on. We’re suffering from a decline in social trust brought about by the individualist perspectives of left-liberalism (which dominates our institutions) and the civil rights industrial complex which has brought unprecedented amounts of government intrusion into our lives, incentivized costly litigation, and diminished our traditional understandings of private property, the Constitution, and freedom of association. In addition, we’ve allowed in enormous levels of immigration. Put it all together, and Americans have less in common with each other and feel fewer incentives to bond. Given that the quality of civic life has declined, people isolate, and lonely people tend to be unhappy and mean.
I used to think moral education was where it was at, but then I noticed it didn’t have much of an effect on me nor on other people I knew. Religious transformation also didn’t make much of a difference. What did make a difference was when people got bonded. I noticed that happy people naturally incline towards helping others and those with strong bonds to other people are likely to be happy while those lacking such bonds are always miserable.
Atheists I know with strong bonds are finer people than religious people I know without bonds. It all comes down to bonds. When we live lives embedded with other people, we’re shaped by those ties and we live in a pro-social direction because we don’t want to hurt that which is most precious to us (our bonds).
I wonder if religious people (“religious” means to be a part of an organized way of life) are more at ease with living in community than secular people (“secular” means the absence of a traditional way people organized themselves)? I am sure this depends upon time and place.
As late as 1923, only 2% of children without parental care ended up in adoptive homes, the others going to foster homes or orphanages (Adoption, 2014). And a large chunk of that 2% involved adoptions between related families. These statistics are mirrored by my family tree: whenever children were left with no provider, they would be adopted by an aunt or an uncle or placed in a foster home. In those days, changing your family identity was as unthinkable as changing your religion or nationality.
To deal with the surge of illegitimacy, progressive-minded people now turned toward a seemingly great idea. On the one hand, there were babies abandoned by deadbeat dads. On the other, there were middle-class families with loving homes. Why not transfer these babies from the dads who don’t love them to the ones who can?
The 20th century is littered with great ideas that proved to be not so great. Adoption is no exception. One negative outcome, which could have been foreseen, is that adopted children tend to replicate the psychological profile of their biological fathers. In one study, Gibson (2009) notes:
Adoptees were more likely than genetic offspring to have ever received public assistance, been divorced or been arrested. They also completed fewer years of schooling and were more likely to have ever required professional treatment for mental health, alcohol and drug issues.
This supports other research showing that, compared to genetic children, American adoptees have a higher overall risk of contact with mental health professionals, specifically for eating disorders, learning disabilities, personality disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder… They also have lower achievement and more problems in school, abuse drugs and alcohol more, and fight with or lie to parents more than genetic children…
Dennis Prager advocates the "proposition nation" (a country united by shared beliefs) as well as the "proposition family" (parents and children united by shared beliefs). He wrote: "As a father, my purpose is not to pass on my seed, but to pass on my values."
Prager doesn’t believe the family is a big deal. In a 2005 lecture on Deut. 24:5, Dennis said: “Traditional life in Europe became you are defined by your family but that’s not the way it ought to be. You are defined by you, not by your family. People think family is a big deal. It’s not. It’s a big deal, who are you?”
Prager’s view that we are primarily individuals rather than interconnected members of groups is a modern liberal delusion and finds little support in any traditional perspective on life, including Judaism. In his 2018 book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John J. Mearsheimer wrote:
My view is that we are profoundly social beings from the start to the finish of our lives and that individualism is of secondary importance… Liberalism downplays the social nature of human beings to the point of almost ignoring it, instead treating people largely as atomistic actors… Political liberalism… is an ideology that is individualistic at its core and assigns great importance to the concept of inalienable rights. This concern for rights is the basis of its universalism—everyone on the planet has the same inherent set of rights—and this is what motivates liberal states to pursue ambitious foreign policies. The public and scholarly discourse about liberalism since World War II has placed enormous emphasis on what are commonly called human rights. This is true all around the world, not just in the West. “Human rights,” Samuel Moyn notes, “have come to define the most elevated aspirations of both social movements and political entities—state and interstate. They evoke hope and provoke action.”
[Humans] do not operate as lone wolves but are born into social groups or societies that shape their identities well before they can assert their individualism. Moreover, individuals usually develop strong attachments to their group and are sometimes willing to make great sacrifices for their fellow members. Humans are often said to be tribal at their core. The main reason for our social nature is that the best way for a person to survive is to be embedded in a society and to cooperate with fellow members rather than act alone… Despite its elevated ranking, reason is the least important of the three ways we determine our preferences. It certainly is less important than socialization. The main reason socialization matters so much is that humans have a long childhood in which they are protected and nurtured by their families and the surrounding society, and meanwhile exposed to intense socialization. At the same time, they are only beginning to develop their critical faculties, so they are not equipped to think for themselves. By the time an individual reaches the point where his reasoning skills are well developed, his family and society have already imposed an enormous value infusion on him. Moreover, that individual is born with innate sentiments that also strongly influence how he thinks about the world around him. All of this means that people have limited choice in formulating a moral code, because so much of their thinking about right and wrong comes from inborn attitudes and socialization.
If Mearsheimer is right, and I believe he is, then Dennis Prager and David Brooks are just gurus spouting pseudo-profound nonsense. Compared to the power of genes, imprinting and tribe to shape our behavior, moral education doesn’t matter much.
If you reject the self-referential framework for understanding man, meaning and morality, then you reject the Enlightenment in favor of older group-centered worldviews such as nationalism and religion.
The modern liberal-left perspective is that the individual creates his own meaning and morality. The traditional perspective is that man is inherently dangerous, and that meaning and morality exist outside of the individual and that he should strive to overcome his nasty nature by conforming to these outside objective standards (such as getting an education, getting a job, getting married, and having children).
How did we get to the place where the self-referential perspective is dominant?
Philosopher Charles Taylor explained in his 2007 classic A Secular Age:
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded self—I want to say “buffered” self—and the “porous” self of the earlier enchanted world…
…for the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise within me, the crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them.
—by definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the “mind”; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.
As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me”, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.
When Brooks decries our morally inarticulate world, what is he talking about? We don’t lack for moral articulation. We have smart people articulating right and wrong all the time. What we primarily lack is the social cohesion and social trust to agree on a public morality.
In his work in progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression: On the Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia, philosopher Rony Guldmann writes:
[P]rogressives are “telling you at every turn what you may or may not do, what you should eat and shouldn’t smoke, where you must put your trash, your ‘recyclables,’ even your grass clippings—and all for your own good.”
[L]iberals can “[a]t a drop of a Rolodex… come with a rotating hit squad of well-placed academics ready to pounce and opine upon just about anything having to do with you.” Its “people are trained practically from birth as an instant-response team, the weaklings and the physical cowards who sought the safety of a sinecure instead of the mortal combat of life but who still get the thrill of shooting inarticulate fish in a barrel.” This complaint might seem like yet another obscure and ill-directed grievance or frustration. But what is the “sinecure” enjoyed by liberal academics other than a contemporary iteration of the royal pension that an absolutist monarch bestowed on courtly supplicants, emasculated warriors-turned-courtiers? If these academics are competent to discredit conservatives as easily as one “shoot[s] inarticulate fish in a barrel,” do they not owe their superior eloquence to the conditions that first generated it? These conditions are the peculiarly courtly rationality, the rituals of courtly supplication and manipulation that, as Elias says, came to constitute “the basic stock of models of conduct” that gradually spread “to ever-wider circles of functions”—including those now indexed on the liberal Rolodex…
If conservatives are somehow “primitive,” as liberals accuse, the half-savage relics of past times, this is because their hero-systems are less subtle, and therefore less disguised, than those of the Left. This disguising is precisely what the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity achieves. It allows liberals to spiritualize all the impulses they would prefer to associate with conservatives and thereby indulge them under a veneer of liberal sophistication.
Hence Shelby Steele’s thesis that affirmative action serves as an absolution ritual whereby white liberals beseech militant black leaders to expiate America’s original sin of racism. These leaders have positioned themselves as father-confessors imbued with the power to confer redemption in exchange for suitable political concessions, which liberals are eager to offer. These rituals, explains Steele, are to be expected when “[r]ace is an area in which Americans have been conditioned by a history of painful conflict into a rigid and unforgiving propriety.” Since the 1950s, “[r]ace simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness.”
Steele’s suggestion is that liberals’ “moral seriousness” is the mirror image of what liberals oppose as conservatives’ moral seriousness about sex. The Victorians are reputed to have feared that reference to a table leg risked provoking the thought of the female limb and thus male lust. But if moral traditionalists have sexual hang-ups, then enlightened liberals have racial hang-ups. Liberal race policy—multiculturalism, affirmative action, etc.—has become a “sanctioned path,” as Lakoff says, any deviation from which is seen as an invitation to racist contagion. This is the moral seriousness detected by Steele. With “social justice” being a secularized morality of sin and redemption, any opinion that might so much as resonate with racists (like opposition to affirmative action) will be treated as a violation of sacred taboo, even when it is defensible on non-racist grounds. Liberalism being a hero-system and sanctioned path, even minor violations of anti-racist mores can initiate a downward spiral of sin, which must therefore be cut off at its roots. Liberals too are susceptible to “vague premonitions or erosion or unraveling,” which might be provoked by the slightest perceived softening of anti-racist inhibition. If conservatives refuse to accept liberal race discourse at face value, this is because they sense that the specter of “unconscious racism” is being used to rationalize this liberal race-puritanism as sociological sophistication. Kimball accuses that liberal race discourse offers opportunities to “indulge in… ecstasies of intellectualized liberal shame.” And this is because that discourse is an invitation to bask in emotions that would be decried as unsophisticated and retrograde if expressed in less intellectual contexts on behalf of other causes.
I read David Brooks bewailing America’s racism and sexism and it hits me — for the normal person embedded in an extended family, his purported racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like are not the opposite of morality, but they are the very basis for morality. This American loves specific people and thus he has an in-group and a hero system and everything he needs for meaning and morality.
For the normie, his primary source of meaning in life comes from his family, friends, interests and community. Racism and sexism and homophobia are bogus book-learning city-slicker judgments for what is normal, natural and healthy — preferring your own hero system to other hero systems. Your average bloke should prefer his children to other children, his family to other families, and his nation to other nations. To do otherwise is to reduce your likelihood of surviving and transmitting your genes.
If you are black or brown or white, and you mourn your group’s relative loss of power in your community, then you are normal, natural and healthy. Why would anyone celebrate losing? Why would anyone be thrilled by the overthrowing of his standards for the good and the true? If you believe in law and order, and you see the post George Floyd America explode in unpunished criminality, why would you love that? If you believe in heterosexual marriage and heterosexual military, why would you celebrate the destruction of what you hold sacred?
The normie gets his hero system from his community and it revolves around his heterosexual family embedded in a coherent people. Therefore he likely rejects same-sex marriage, affirmative action, unchecked immigration, and the civil rights industrial complex.
What the smart set call racism and sexism is the simple recognition that different groups have different gifts. Women, for example, have gifts that men don’t, and blacks have gifts that whites don’t, and so on. An injudicious application of racism and sexism is to publicly curse the shortcomings of groups. Most men have had the experience of being punched in the face and therefore know better than to unnecessarily provoke this. Any man who goes on and on about the perfidy of Jews and the criminality of blacks and the betrayals of women exhibits his lack of the bonds that normally constrain us.
Throughout history, the wise man has often stayed silent about his observations of reality. If you are bent on self-destruction, you might make un-pc proclamations that blow up your life, but if you love some people, why would you do that?
As a convert to Orthodox Judaism, I get my moral commandments from the Torah. When I consult the Jewish tradition, I notice it fails to mention the sins of homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism and racism. No gadol (great Orthodox rabbi) has bothered to write a book against these imaginary evils. I am not greater than the great rabbis. If they see no sins here, nor do I.
I also live in the world outside of the Torah corral, and recognizing that many powerful people do believe in such imaginary sins such as racism, I choose, depending upon circumstance, to stay silent or to mock the false gods of alternative hero systems.
Was the historic American commitment to moral education a cause of American goodness or the product of particular people in a particular place? Did the Torah create Jews or did Jews create Torah? I say both.
Sam Francis said: “The civilization that we…created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
You could say the same thing about the Igbo of Nigeria and the Japanese and the Finns and the other successful people of the world.
Why have Americans become so sad? Brooks writes that “rising rates of depression have been well publicized.”
There is no objective test for depression. Much of ordinary and healthy human sadness is misdiagnosed as depression by psychiatrists as part of their anti-social grab for power, prestige and money.
To the extent that Americas are more sad, this reflects a loss of normal human bonds. My proof? Ask yourself — are Americans who are bonded as sad as those who are not? I don’t think so.
Although the permanency of the loss associated with grief distinguishes it from most other losses, grief need be no different in principle from intense sadness that arises, for example, after the unsought end of a love affair, the news that one’s spouse has been unfaithful, the dissolution of a marriage, the failure to achieve one’s cherished life goals, the loss of financial resources, the loss of social supports and relationships, or the diagnosis of a serious illness in oneself or a loved one. Even the death of beloved pets or celebrities whom one does not personally know can create periods of low mood, low initiative, and pessimism as normal reactions to loss. The DSM ’s own general definition of mental disorder provided in its introduction excludes all “expectable and culturally sanctioned response(s) to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one” from its definition of mental disorder, using grief as the prototypical excluded category. Yet, emotionally painful responses to other particular loss events such as marital, romantic, health, or financial reversals plainly can be just as “expectable and culturally sanctioned” responses as those of bereavement and should therefore fall under the definition’s exclusion as well.
Marital dissolution is perhaps the most common trigger of intense normal sadness that can be severe enough to meet DSM symptomatic criteria for depressive disorder. The intense sadness that follows the loss of romantic attachments has long been a central literary theme. The double suicides of Romeo and Juliet, for example, do not result from mental disorder but from a tragic misunderstanding after the perceived loss of a lover. Other literary suicides, such as Emma Bovary’s or Anna Karenina’s, stem from realizations that the consequences of stigmatized romantic entanglements are inescapable.
Current research supports the intuition that severe losses of intimate attachments naturally lead to sadness responses: in many studies marital dissolution is more consistently and powerfully associated with depression than any other variable. Indeed, rates of depressive episodes that meet DSM criteria are comparable for persons who experience marital dissolution and those who experience bereavement. People who undergo marital dissolution are far more likely to develop first onsets of [depression] over a 1-year period than people who do not.
Another likely reason for maladaptive rates of depression and anxiety among Americans is evolutionary mismatch. We are largely shaped by genes that developed as an adaptation to previous environments. Or as one person put it, we are pre-historic creatures living in medieval institutions with god-like technology.
* Contemporary developed societies are the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous that have ever existed, so we might expect that their citizens would have low levels of fearfulness. “Hasn’t one of the central accomplishments of modern civilization,” Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendson asks, “been the overall reduction of fear, by nighttime electrical lighting, insurance policies, police forces, standing armies, the destruction of predatory animals, lightning rods on churches, solid locked doors on all buildings, and thousands of other small designs?” Indeed, rates of violence seem to be at their lowest in recorded history. In addition, life spans of unprecedented longevity mean that few people need to fear dying before old age. Moreover, amounts of economic security greatly exceed those typical of eras before the post-industrial period. Nevertheless, current community surveys reveal extraordinary high rates of anxiety disorders.
* Like our preferences for highly caloric foods, the statistically most common disordered fears, which seem unreasonable and irrational in modern environments, nevertheless result from natural human emotions. Our current fears do not correspond to actual dangers in present situations but seem understandable as reactions that were passed down to us as part of our biological inheritance of fears that did make sense in the prehistoric past.
* Infants also display much social anxiety. The power of inherited fear of strangers is shown by the fact that infants universally develop this fear when they are about 8 months old and can leave their mothers under their own power, an adaptation that makes evolutionary— if not current— sense. Studies show that infants as young as age 3 months prefer faces of their own race compared to those of other races, as demonstrated by heightened amygdala activity. Fears of strangers that underlie many forms of social anxiety thus seem biologically primed. “The temptation to see the other as hostile and subhuman is always present,” according to geographer Yi-Fu Tien, “though it may be deeply buried.”
* Humans are not promiscuous because they and their sexual partners naturally become jealous when their relationship is threatened by additional sexual involvements. Jealousy thus functions to protect monogamous bonds, to deter sexual infidelity, and to signal a potentially adulterous partner that he or she should refrain from entering a new relationship. According to classicist Peter Toomey, “Jealousy is the glue that holds the sexes together—for the benefit of the family and the survival of the species.”
* If Darwin was correct in asserting that emotions emerge because of their adaptive functions, then normal grief, as with normal sadness more generally, should have three essential components: It should arise in a specific context, after the death of an intimate; its intensity should be roughly proportionate to the importance and centrality to one’s life of the lost individual; and it should gradually subside over time as people adjust to their new circumstances and return to psychological and social equilibrium. Grief processes can also be pathological when grief emerges in inappropriate circumstances; features extreme symptoms such as marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupations, suicidal ideation, or psychotic symptoms; or persists for extraordinarily long periods of time.
* Heterosexuality is such a bedrock evolutionary principle that Darwin never mentioned same-sex erotic behavior.
Do you know which American cities demonstrate the highest rates of social trust? The whitest cities. Close-knit community is in inverse proportion to racial diversity noted Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who was so upset by the results of his study that he didn't publish it for a decade and only then with a pro-diversity spin. Putnam found that Los Angeles, the most racially diverse of America's cities, had the least trust, meaning that people in such a racially mixed community tend to pull their heads in, go out less, cooperate less, and watch more TV. By contrast, the whitest cities had the most neighborliness.
Steve Sailer (highly regarded by psychometricians) asked in 2007: "Can you guess which two cities lead the list of top 50 metropolitan areas in terms of the highest percentage of adults volunteering for charity? And which two cities came in last?" Lilly-white cities Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City came in first, while diverse cities Miami and Las Vegas came in last.
Multiculturalism doesn’t make vibrant communities but defensive ones…
Putnam’s discovery is hardly shocking to anyone who has tried to organize a civic betterment project in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. My wife and I lived for 12 years in Chicago’s Uptown district, which claims to be the most diverse two square miles in America, with about 100 different languages being spoken. She helped launch a neighborhood drive to repair the dilapidated playlot across the street. To get Mayor Daley’s administration to chip in, we needed to raise matching funds and sign up volunteer laborers.
This kind of Robert D. Putnam-endorsed good citizenship proved difficult in Uptown, however, precisely because of its remarkable diversity. The most obvious stumbling block was that it’s hard to talk neighbors into donating money or time if they don’t speak the same language as you. Then there’s the fundamental difficulty of making multiculturalism work—namely, multiple cultures. Getting Koreans, Russians, Mexicans, Nigerians, and Assyrians (Christian Iraqis) to agree on how to landscape a park is harder than fostering consensus among people who all grew up with the same mental picture of what a park should look like.
The high crime rate didn’t help either. The affluent South Vietnamese merchants from the nearby Little Saigon district showed scant enthusiasm for sending their small children to play in a park that would also be used by large black kids from the local public-housing project.
Exotic inter-immigrant hatreds also got in the way. The Eritreans and Ethiopians are both slender, elegant-looking brown people with thin Arab noses, who appear identical to undiscerning American eyes. But their compatriots in the Horn of Africa were fighting a vicious war. Finally, most of the immigrants, with the possible exception of the Eritreans, came from countries where only a chump would trust neighbors he wasn’t related to, much less count on the government for an even break. If the South Vietnamese, for example, had been less clannish and more ready to sacrifice for the national good in 1964-75, they wouldn’t be so proficient at running family-owned restaurants on Argyle Street today. But they might still have their own country.
In the end, boring old middle-class, English-speaking, native-born Americans (mostly white, but with some black-white couples) did the bulk of the work. When the ordeal of organizing was over, everybody seemed to give up on trying to bring Uptown together for civic improvement for the rest of the decade…
But what primarily drove down L.A.’s rating in Putnam’s 130-question survey were the high levels of distrust displayed by Hispanics. While no more than 12 percent of L.A.’s whites said they trusted other races “only a little or not at all,” 37 percent of L.A.’s Latinos distrusted whites. And whites were the most reliable in Hispanic eyes. Forty percent of Latinos doubted Asians, 43 percent distrusted other Hispanics, and 54 percent were anxious about blacks.
Sociologist Linda S. Gottfredson wrote: "Humans are not promiscuous altruists, of course, but favor persons genetically similar to themselves."
How effective is training in kindness when compared to the natural inclination of being kind to people you regard as part of your in-group? I am not aware of any evidence that training in kindness has much of an effect.
Brooks writes: “We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.”
So what is your starting point for understanding how people work? For the liberal, people are primarily individuals with inalienable rights. For the conservative, people are primarily members of families, tribes and nations with at least as many responsibilities as rights. Which perspective do you think will be more effective at moral formation?
Fairness/justice developed from “[t]he long history of alliance formation and cooperation among unrelated individuals in many primate species,” which “led to the evolution of a suite of emotions that motivate altruism, including anger, guilt, and gratitude,” all of which promote the reciprocity and non-zero-sum alliances that social primates need in order to survive. Liberty/oppression is likewise an evolutionary solution to the problem of social cooperation. This foundation “evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate, bully, and constrain others.” Aggressive, domineering behavior by an alpha male or female can trigger this foundation, eliciting the righteous anger necessary to mobilize the group against would-be bullies.
[Jonah] Goldberg writes that liberals “place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold,” idealizing Kennedy’s “’action-intellectuals” who “yearned to be supermen, a Gnostic priesthood imbued with a special knowledge of how to fix society’s problems.” The conservative intellectual disavows all such ambitions, however. He wields his intellectual advantages, not to badger and scold the American people, but to expose the badgering and the scolding for what they are… Feminism is just another form of liberal elitism, one more arena on which the anointed mock, scold, and intimidate the benighted under the deceptive veneer of enlightenment, progress, and liberation…
[C]onservatives suspect that it is precisely by way of this amorphous, all-purpose benevolence that Nurturant Parent morality invites endless manipulativeness and intrusiveness cloaked in the mantle of respect for the individual’s highest potentialities. Indeed, this respect is merely another tool with which the anointed badger and scold the benighted, a cudgel used to subtly underscore the deficiencies of those who have not attained liberalism’s higher consciousness. Just when will someone have displayed a morally adequate level of curiosity? How broad-minded must we be and with respect to what? Anyone can always be found lacking on these fronts, as falling short of the “high standards” that liberals in their optimism urge upon us. The ecumenical open-endedness of liberal values just means that they can always be implemented according to parochial imperatives. Having been disguised in lofty abstractions like “awareness” or “sensitivity”, they need never be openly announced, and so can never be checked.
According to David Brooks:
Moral formation, as I will use that stuffy-sounding term here, comprises three things. First, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness. How do we keep our evolutionarily conferred egotism under control? Second, teaching basic social and ethical skills. How do you welcome a neighbor into your community? How do you disagree with someone constructively? And third, helping people find a purpose in life. Morally formative institutions hold up a set of ideals. They provide practical pathways toward a meaningful existence: Here’s how you can dedicate your life to serving the poor, or protecting the nation, or loving your neighbor
How many people do you expect to get their meaning in life from serving the poor or protecting the nation or loving your neighbor? That doesn’t seem realistic.
Where do we get our cues about what is good and noble? From our community. Writes Guldmann:
The liberal elites believe they stand above a retrograde conservatism because they believe their Enlightenment ideals liberate them from the various “hero-systems” to which conservatives remain beholden. Hero-systems are social teleologies, systems of collective meaning-production, and liberals see conservatives as compromised by an atavistic attraction to these relics of a benighted pre-modernity. However, the conservative suspicion is that liberalism is a hero-system in disguise, a hero-system that stays concealed behind a secular façade of enlightenment, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. Liberals may wish to see themselves as promoting ordinary human fulfillment shorn of any higher metaphysical aspirations, but conservatives perceive that liberalism is unbeknownst to itself motivated by a religious impulse and spiritual ideal that plays itself out through the medium of ostensibly secular goals. Liberalism is a hero-system that disguises itself as the transcendence of all hero-systems.
David Brooks writes:
For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions. Its Founding Fathers had a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it (even while validating that low view of human nature by producing a document rife with racism and sexism). “Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.”
If such flawed, self-centered creatures were going to govern themselves and be decent neighbors to one another, they were going to need some training. For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education. In 1788, Noah Webster wrote, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” The progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1909 that schools teach morality “every moment of the day, five days a week.” Hollis Frissell, the president of the Hampton Institute, an early school for African Americans, declared, “Character is the main object of education.” As late as 1951, a commission organized by the National Education Association, one of the main teachers’ unions, stated that “an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values continues to be a top priority for education.”
A major difference between the left and the right is in their view of human nature. All right-wing politics begins with a negative view of human nature, while the left takes a positive view. If people are basically good, you don’t need moral education.
David Brooks make some good points, including:
These various approaches to moral formation shared two premises. The first was that training the heart and body is more important than training the reasoning brain. Some moral skills can be taught the way academic subjects are imparted, through books and lectures. But we learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture—a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect.
The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste: An objective moral order exists, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order.
Then he adds:
A couple of obvious things need to be said about this ethos of moral formation that dominated American life for so long. It prevailed alongside all sorts of hierarchies that we now rightly find abhorrent: whites superior to Blacks, men to women, Christians to Jews, straight people to gay people…
Furthermore, we would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long, rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism.
You can’t have a society without hierarchies, racism and sexism. You can just pretend to transcend these primal drives.
[E]mphasizing moral formation meant focusing on an important question—what is life for?—and teaching people how to bear up under inevitable difficulties. A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard.
A hero system teaches people what matters in life. Ernest Becker wrote in his 1973 book The Denial of Death:
The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system cuts out roles for earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest, the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.
It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that lasts three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible…
You get a good feeling for what the self “looks like” in its extensions if you imagine the person to be a cylinder with a hollow inside, in which is lodged the self. Out of this cylinder the self overflows and extends into the surroundings, as a kind of huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag, a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape, with boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book, and the amoeba screams with soul-searing pain.
Usually we extend these pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly things; our selves are cluttered up with things we don’t need, artificial things, debilitating ones. For example, if you extend a pseudopod to your house, as most people do, you might also extend it to the inventory of an interior decorating program. And so you get vitally upset by a piece of wallpaper that bulges, a shelf that does not join, a light fixture that “isn’t right.” Often you see the grotesque spectacle of a marvelous human organism breaking into violent arguments, or even crying, over a panel that doesn’t match. Interior decorators confide that many people have somatic symptoms or actual nervous breakdowns when they are redecorating. And I have seen a grown and silver-templed Italian crying in the street in his mother’s arms over a small dent in the bumper of his Ferrari.
We call precisely those people “strong” who can withdraw a pseudopod at will from trifling parts of their identity, or especially from important ones. Someone who can say “it is only a scratch on a Ferrari,” “the uneven wall is not me, the wood crack is not me,” and so on. They disentangle themselves easily and flexibly from the little damages and ravages to their self-extensions….
A cluster of phenomenally successful books appeared in the decade after World War II, making the case that, as Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote in Peace of Mind (1946), “thou shalt not be afraid of thy hidden impulses.” People can trust the goodness inside. His book topped the New York Times best-seller list for 58 weeks. Dr. Spock’s first child-rearing manual was published the same year. That was followed by books like The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). According to this ethos, morality is not something that we develop in communities. It’s nurtured by connecting with our authentic self and finding our true inner voice. If people are naturally good, we don’t need moral formation; we just need to let people get in touch with themselves. Organization after organization got out of the moral-formation business and into the self-awareness business. By the mid‑1970s, for example, the Girl Scouts’ founding ethos of service to others had shifted: “How can you get more in touch with you? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” one Girl Scout handbook asked.
This change reflects the growing dominance of the left-wing perspective among those who control the cultural means of production.
Psychology’s purview grew, especially in family and educational matters, its vocabulary framing “virtually all public discussion” of the moral life of children, James Davison Hunter, a prominent American scholar on character education, noted in 2000. “For decades now, contributions from philosophers and theologians have been muted or nonexistent.”
What’s really going on here is that the ethos of religious reform (Protestantism) became secularized, as Guldmann explains:
Whereas the secular realm was formerly seen as a necessary compromise with a fallen world, a sphere in which violence, license, and disorder were simply unavoidable, that realm had now become pervaded by a renunciatory ethos. The religious and the secular became increasingly separated at the level of formal doctrine in the sense that political rule became decreasingly reliant on theological justifications. But the two spheres increasingly converged on the level of social practice and ethos, on the level of the “overall human make-up.” With the religious becoming worldly and the secular becoming renunciatory, the old oppositions of the medieval period softened or collapsed, fusing into a this-worldly, secularized asceticism. In a sense, secularization meant the transformation of Christianity from an avowedly unrealizable ideal to an actively enforced practice. The theological rationales lost their credibility. But what was officially lost here was unofficially compensated for at the level of the overall human make-up, which translated the theology into the very structure of human agency.
“Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy,” the psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind. When you are raised in a culture without ethical structure, you become internally fragile. You have no moral compass to give you direction, no permanent ideals to which you can swear ultimate allegiance. “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” the psychiatrist (and Holocaust survivor) Viktor Frankl wrote, interpreting a famous Nietzsche saying. Those without a why fall apart when the storms hit. They begin to suffer from that feeling of moral emptiness that Émile Durkheim called “anomie.”
When I read that paragraph, I primarily think about the loss of community that accompanied civil rights legislation. This topic is explored in Christopher Caldwell’s 2020 book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties:
The reforms of the sixties, however, even the ones Americans loved best and came to draw part of their national identity from, came with costs that proved staggeringly high — in money, freedom, rights, and social stability. Those costs were spread most unevenly among social classes and generations. Many Americans were left worse off by the changes… The scope for action conferred on society’s leaders allowed elite power to multiply steadily and, we now see, dangerously, sweeping aside not just obstacles but also dissent.
At some point in the course of the decades, what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more. The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible — and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave — it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation…
Over time, more of the country’s institutions were brought under the act’s scrutiny. Eventually all of them were. The grounds for finding someone or something guilty of discrimination expanded. New civil rights acts — notably the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — brought new rights for black citizens and new bureaucracies to enforce them.
Civil rights transformed the country not just constitutionally but also culturally and demographically. In ways few people anticipated, it proved to be the mightiest instrument of domestic enforcement the country had ever seen…
Black people, and the most zealous among the civil rights activists of all races, saw whites as having entered a guilty plea in the court of history, and thus as repudiating the moral posturing on which the good name and the good conscience of their constitutional republic had rested.
According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil.
The Manichaean tribalism of politics appears to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be awash in a culture of hyper-individualism. But these days, people are quick to identify themselves by their group: Republican, Democrat, evangelical, person of color, LGBTQ, southerner, patriot, progressive, conservative. People who feel isolated and under threat flee to totalizing identities.
Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.
Politics also provides an easy way to feel a sense of purpose. You don’t have to feed the hungry or sit with the widow to be moral; you just have to experience the right emotion. You delude yourself that you are participating in civic life by feeling properly enraged at the other side. That righteous fury rising in your gut lets you know that you are engaged in caring about this country. The culture war is a struggle that gives life meaning.
Politics overwhelms everything. Churches, universities, sports, pop culture, health care are swept up in a succession of battles that are really just one big war—red versus blue. Evangelicalism used to be a faith; today it’s primarily a political identity. College humanities departments used to study literature and history to plumb the human heart and mind; now they sometimes seem exclusively preoccupied with politics, and with the oppressive systems built around race, class, and gender. Late-night comedy shows have become political pep rallies. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily during the pandemic because people saw a virus through the lens of a political struggle.
This is not politics as it is normally understood. In psychically healthy societies, people fight over the politics of distribution: How high should taxes be? How much money should go to social programs for the poor and the elderly? We’ve shifted focus from the politics of redistribution to the politics of recognition. Political movements are fueled by resentment, by feelings that society does not respect or recognize me. Political and media personalities gin up dramas in which our side is emotionally validated and the other side is emotionally shamed. The person practicing the politics of recognition is not trying to get resources for himself or his constituency; he is trying to admire himself. He’s trying to use politics to fill the hole in his soul. It doesn’t work.
The politics of recognition doesn’t give you community and connection, certainly not in a system like our current one, mired in structural dysfunction. People join partisan tribes in search of belonging—but they end up in a lonely mob of isolated belligerents who merely obey the same orthodoxy.
In other words, a hero system is a biological necessity.
All group identities, with a few Christian exceptions, tend to denigrate out-groups. The stronger your in-group identity, usually, the more you fear out-groups.
I am not sure why Brooks believes that psychically healthy societies fight over the politics of distribution. He must assume his particular hero system is a transcendent truth.
The politics of recognition is just another hero system inherited from one’s community.
Why do “[p]olitical and media personalities gin up dramas”? Because they get status and money from appealing to popular hero systems.
In 2008, Dan Shelley, former news director and assistant program director at Milwaukee’s WTM radio, wrote for Milwaukee Magazine:
…talk show hosts…are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.
To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.
The enemy can be a politician — either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough. It can be the cold cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media…”
A public intellectual doesn’t have to take the easy road. He could instead explain that different hero systems are more or less adaptive to different situations.
The 2013 book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, noted:
[T]he political left has been associated with support for equality and tolerance of departures from tradition, while the right is more supportive of authority, hierarchy, and order. [T]he right has been associated with religious and social orthodoxy, the just, and the good, while the left has been associated with the opposite…
Evolution is the process of species adapting to their environments and, because the environment itself is a moving target, the process is never ending. Evolution is not a destination but a temporary and sometimes lagging accommodation to environmental realities that existed at a certain time. If the environment shifts again, evolution will begin to move in a different direction, so no genetically based political predisposition is rightly viewed as more or less evolved.
…existence in hunter-gatherer societies prior to the advent of mass agriculture was short and filled with a remarkable range of threats. Selection pressures in such environments would likely favor individuals with higher degrees of negativity bias, who approached novel situations with caution, who were loyal to their group, and who were suspicious of the tribe over the hill. These would be the individuals most likely to avoid danger given that they would be less likely to open themselves up to situations in which they would be vulnerable. Such individuals would be responsive and attentive to threats. Given the evidence presented in the previous chapters, they would also have been the individuals who, in a modern mass polity, would display conservative political predispositions.
Our best guess is that in the rough and tumble of the Pleistocene, individuals who tried new things, opened themselves up to members of other tribes, and had little to no negativity bias were rare—it simply seems a losing long-term strategy in the face of all the dangers swirling about. Social units relatively isolated from threats for long periods of time might have permitted some protoliberals in the mix, but most hunter-gatherer groups would likely have needed to keep a constant eye on the horizon and maybe even on the next hut. These were likely conservative societies in the sense that they did not often make big changes in the way they did things and those genetically inclined to take chances, to go through life marching to their own drummer, were probably selected against…
Most people in the developed portions of the world today simply do not have the same constant, life-threatening worries that existed in the distant past. As a consequence, people today can “expand their circle” of social contacts and ethical concerns beyond family and tribe to people far away and perhaps even to animals. Not everyone will take this opportunity, and the absence of strong selection pressures will encourage tremendous variation in genetically influenced predispositions toward what in modern mass-scale societies is called either liberalism or conservatism. Liberalism may thus be viewed as an evolutionary luxury afforded by negative stimuli becoming less prevalent and less deadly. If the environment shifted back to the threat-filled atmosphere of the Pleistocene, positive selection for conservative orientations would reappear and, with sufficient time, become as prevalent as it was then…
We believe that traits such as orientation toward out-groups, openness to new experiences, and a heightened negativity bias fit more naturally with social than economic issues, and we tend to agree with Congressman Weaver that economic positions are typically secondary. He points out that “ethnocentrics do not give a fig for individual rights” and sees the connection between conservatism and free market principles as a relatively recent development…
Conservaton is, for some people, the perfect place to live… People dress predictably and nicely. Conservatonians are a bit cliquey; they don’t take to outsiders much and are especially wary of the residents of the only other town of consequence in the county: Liberalville.
How much integrity does David Brooks demonstrate? David Zweig wrote for Salon June 15, 2015:
The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book
Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist’s new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods
For at least the past four years David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, TV pundit, bestselling author and lecture-circuit thought leader, has been publicly talking and writing about humility. Central to his thesis is the idea that humility has waned among Americans in recent years, and he wants us to harken to an earlier, better time.
One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong…
What makes the case against mere catastrophic sloppiness is that, oddly, Brooks had the luxury of a fact-checker. Unfortunately, due to the expense, it’s rare for writers to have dedicated fact-checkers outside of high-end magazine journalism…
Why would someone with this level of prestige and influence be so woefully sloppy in his reportage — or worse? Imagine yourself for a moment as an Op-Ed writer for the most influential newspaper in the world; you get paid huge sums of money for a string of bestselling books, you entertain and enlighten live crowds at your lectures, you get paid to spout your opinions on TV. I don’t know what it would do to my head if I had the level of influence that Brooks has as a writer and cultural commentator. Perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested, maybe Brooks is just glib.
Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t even matter whether the passage was fudged on purpose or not. Perhaps to be so careless shows the same degree of culpability, and condescension toward the reader, that willful manipulation does.
A few years ago, journalist David Brooks wrote a celebrated article for the Atlantic Monthly, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” in which he examined the country’s cultural split in the aftermath of the 2000 election, contrasting the red states that went for Bush and the blue ones for Gore. To see the vast nation whose condition he diagnosed, Brooks compared two counties: Maryland’s Montgomery (Blue), where he himself lives, and Pennsylvania’s Franklin (a Red county in a Blue state). “I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is,” Brooks wrote of his leisurely northward drive to see the other America across “the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters.” Franklin County was a place where “no blue New York Times delivery bags dot driveways on Sunday mornings … [where] people don’t complain that Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny,” he wrote. “In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing.”
Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism’s most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.
There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to Amazon.com sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”
“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.
“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America’s most literate cities doesn’t necessarily agree. Among the study’s criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.
“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series’s highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)
Brooks could be dismissed as little more than a snarky punch-line artist, except that he postures as a public intellectual — and has been received as one.
…Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it. Barone relies on election returns and public-opinion data as the basis for his research; Frey looks to the census. But Brooks takes their findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy.
…I CALLED BROOKS TO SEE if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn’t see it when I was there, but it’s true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”
I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That’s totally unethical,” he said….
I asked him about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. “This is dishonest research. You’re not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter,” he said. “Is this how you’re going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do ’em, I know ’em, how one starts, but it’s just something you’ll mature beyond.”
In 2013, the Times columnist David Brooks, then in his early fifties, divorced his wife of twenty-seven years, Sarah, and moved into an apartment in Washington, D.C. The personal crisis that ensued overlapped with a spiritual one. He was writing a book called “The Road to Character,” offering guidance, through biographical case studies, for how a person might engage in moral self-improvement, and two of the chapters made examples of Christian lives: St. Augustine’s and Dorothy Day’s. His correspondence with a young research assistant, a Christian woman named Anne Snyder, grew intense. Brooks was a practicing Jew, if one on the downslope of belief—his wife had converted and then become more Orthodox than he—and Snyder, in elegant memos and correspondence, worked to persuade him that his account of Day’s sense of Christian grace missed the sublime core.
…He eventually realized that he was in love with Snyder and confessed his love to her. (Eventually, they married; this, presumably, is what Alexander Portnoy’s parents so feared.) In the last third of the book, Brooks describes an interesting and irregular progress toward New Testament ideals, and, by the end, he sounds like a Christian, even if he isn’t quite ready to describe himself as one.
…He describes a childhood in which a secular Jewish home life intersected with an Episcopal school and summer camp (“I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on the earth or the most Jewy Christian, a plight made survivable by the fact that I was certain God did not exist”), and, although he acknowledges that religious conviction seizes some converts suddenly and powerfully, his own experiences “have all been more prosaic and less convincing.” He relates the moment in Penn Station when he suddenly saw all the commuters as souls, and the one in Aspen, when he felt a sensation “like the sound of a really nice car door gently closing.” It’s “fair to ask, Did I convert?” Brooks writes. Not exactly. His religious awakening made him “feel more Jewish than ever before,” the cultural feeling now undergirded by a spiritual one. But, “On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew.” Here the secret and interesting book, the memoir of conversion, slides into the advertised, pedantic one, about the importance of virtue. Brooks writes, “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like.”
…The bait is that the book is about us; the switch is that it is about him. “This is ultimately a book about renewal,” Brooks writes, but the story he tells is so centrally about one experience of renewal that it offers little guidance to the rest of us.
* You could do worse than the TV show Yellowstone for wisdom about life:
* “Until they find a cure for human nature, a man must stand with his people.”
* “Mister, I don’t know you, but if you’re wearin’ that brand, you must be a bad man.”
* “Should is a useless word, almost as useless as hope.”
* “A man who puts a hand on a member of my family never puts a hand on anything else.”
* “No one has a right. You have to take a right, or stop it from being taken from you.”
* “Lawyers are the swords of this century. Words are weapons now.”
* “It’s the one constant in life. You build something worth having, someone’s gonna try to take it.”
* “All men are bad, but some of us try really hard to be good.”