David Brooks' Odd Blindness
I suppose we all see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, but David Brooks' peculiar oped "Party of Strivers" in the New York Times Friday, concerning the putative -- I guess you could call it libertarian -- selfishness of Republicans at the Tampa convention, is worthy of examination, not so much because of Brooks, but because of what it reveals of the zeitgeist.
Brooks should appreciate that since he made his reputation describing the zeitgeist some years ago in Bobos in Paradise. Now he seems to be a victim of it. Here's Brooks:
On the one hand, you see the Republicans taking the initiative, offering rejuvenating reform. On the other hand, you see an exhausted Democratic Party, which says: We don’t have an agenda, but we really don’t like theirs. Given these options, the choice is pretty clear.
But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.
Hello, where were you, David? On Thursday evening, one after the other private citizen came forth to testify to Mitt Romney's extraordinary personal charity and deep community spirit. I have never seen anything like it at a convention, Republican or Democrat. I don't know if you would call it Burkean, but you would certainly call it eminently decent and highly laudable. The culmination was Ted and Pat Oparowsky of New Hampshire who recounted how much time and attention the young Mitt Romney gave their son, a child he did not know, when the boy was dying of cancer.
Party of strivers? Well, maybe David was on the phone to his editors while these folks were speaking or just got bored because they were mostly anonymous and not glamorous Upper West Side Paradise Bobos of any sort.
Okay, that's mean. After all, Brooks has facts to back up his position:
Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.
But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.
Let's start with the poll. The problem is that most intelligent people wouldn't know how to answer it because it should be obvious that both are true -- you're responsible for your own fate and circumstances can affect you. Not rocket science, as they say. So like many polls, it doesn't tell you much, particularly whether Republicans are heartless strivers ripped from the pages of Ayn Rand. In fact, as I'm sure Brooks well knows, conservatives have long been known to be much more generous in their charitable giving than liberals. Yes, as has been pointed out, that equals out some when you exempt religious charities, but only some. (Red state Utah leads the nation in charitable giving with blue state New Hampshire at the bottom. Joe Biden, as usual, is another matter.)
Greedy strivers? Not so simple is it? And then we come to the problem of the poor waitress with two kids Brooks refers to. What do the Republicans have to offer her since she's not about to move to Sunnyvale, California, and rock that start-up?
Well, it couldn't be more obvious given the current situation -- EMPLOYMENT!
(As for the warehouse worker, his best hope for a raise, as Brooks must realize, is an economic revival. Ditto the worker with obsolete skills. Pace Solyndra, we've already seen what happens when the government gets involved. Greedy strivers indeed are the only ones who get rich -- but they happen to be Democrats.)
So why is Brooks writing this swill? I met him briefly and, as far as I can tell, he's a nice guy and certainly a good writer.
The answer is that he's not so very different than the waitress he describes. He's got a job and he wants to keep it. As the resident conservative at the NYT he can only go so far in telling the truth. If he went further, he'd risk unemployment (not to mention diminution of status). Consciously and unconsciously, he writes with a gun to his back or, perhaps more accurately, a fog machine blowing across the back of his brain and up through his occipital lobe while some barely heard hypnotic voice recites "remember not to go too far... remember not to go too far... contradict... contradict...."
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the same editorial page of the New York Times, Paul Krugman (or facsimile) bloviates on with no equivocation. The message -- the one the newspaper eminently seeks to convey -- is that liberals speak their (correct) ideas forthrightly while conservatives understand they must temper what they say. After all, conservatives have only a very small part of the truth. David Brooks is the (hopefully) unwitting conveyor of this message. He helps the New York Times do its work and is an integral part of it.
It's worth observing as carefully as possible how this happens, because Brooks is far from the only one with that fog blowing up his occipital lobe. It's an epidemic. And it could be fatal to the future of this country as we move into the election.
(Artwork based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)