Friday, March 8, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 4 - The Good Life

My plan for this section was to avoid jabbing Brooks too much and instead look at what he's saying in a vacuum. First, it's just better argument. Tu quoque - the fact that Brooks isn't following his own advice doesn't have any direct bearing on whether that advice is any good. Additionally, I want to avoid being a hypocrite myself, as it wouldn't do to mock Brooks for being repetitive and then say the same thing over and over.

There's one problem - this section is pretty much the same thing over and over, with only the occasional flicker of something novel. I pondered a few ways to address this while keeping to a reasonable word could and finally settled upon a system based on an alphabetic code. My arguments are below; I will enter the letter(s) under each of Brooks' point, followed by novel content where appropriate.

  • A. Most of what Brooks says is very generic and anodyne. This is part and parcel of the "Why not plant a tree?" argument used by Sensible Centrist pundits to downplay the importance of political activism and the role of disagreement in a democratic society. The problem is not that this advice is bad, it's that it has little relevance in context. "People should be nicer and not chase after possessions" is good advice in the same sense as "People should exercise more" and "People should save their money" are good advice - sure, in some general sense, but those may not be the solutions to your audience's problems. It doesn't help that "Don't be a materialist" is a line that's been a staple of every self-help guru and newspaper columnist going back a good fifty years, and yet everyone (Brooks included) treats it like a bold declaration.
  • B. Brooks' more specific advice is only truly relevant to the economic and cultural elites. This wouldn't be a problem except that Brooks seems to think that his audience consists of all Americans, not merely the affluent and connected. For example, his advice to seek a meaningful career rather than a high-status one isn't going to mean much for my friends who have to take whatever job is available just to survive, and his cautioning against marrying for status is irrelevant to the vast majority of Americans for whom this is not an option at all. Basically, Brooks is a upper crust lifestyle columnist who thinks he's a man of the people because he's been to Pennsylvania a few times.
All right, let's rock.
1. The relationalist is not trying to dominate life by sheer willpower. He is not gripping the steering wheel and trying to strategize his life. He has made himself available. He has opened himself up so that he can hear a call and respond to a summons. He is asking, What is my responsibility here? When a person finds his high calling in life, it doesn’t feel like he has taken control; it feels like he has surrendered control. The most creative actions are those made in response to a summons.
This is straight out of The Road to Character - from the beginning, in fact, Chapter 2. It's probably meant as a rejoinder to people who lead carefully planned lives (so B goes here), but if you take it literally it turns into an argument for doing nothing but sit around until some external force acts upon you - like a jellyfish. This is the fun of bad writing, you can read it however you want and it's still fair.
2. The summons often comes in the form of love. A person falls in love with her child, her husband, her neighborhood, her people, her calling, or her God. And with that love comes an urge to make promises–to say, I will always love you. I will always serve you and be there for you. Life is a vale of promise making.
A.
3. Or a summons may come in the form of a need. There is some injustice, some societal wrong, that needs to be fixed. A person assumes responsibility—makes a promise to fight that fight and right that wrong.
A funny sentiment, given Brooks' apprehension over activists and activism. He has to say this because there have been some political figures among his Great Men. It seems that in his philosophy, there is bad activism that is just a "moral patch" used by shallow people and good activism which is...well...Dave?
4. When a summons has been felt and a promise has been made, a commitment has been sealed. The life of a relationalist is defined by its commitments. The quality and fulfillment of her life will be defined by what she commits to and how she fulfills those commitments.
A. As opposed to other people who are constantly betraying each other, I suppose.
5. A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is a promise made without expecting any return (though there will be returns aplenty). A committed relationship is a two-way promise. It is you throwing yourself wholeheartedly for another and another throwing himself wholeheartedly for you.
"Returns aplenty" - I guess true sacrifice is only for the poor and the old. Also, how can his writing be both excessively flowery and stultifyingly stiff at the same time?
6. The person makes his commitments maximal commitments. He doesn’t just have a career; he has a vocation. He doesn’t just have a contract marriage (What’s in it for me?). He has a covenantal marriage (I live and die for you). He doesn’t just have opinions. He submits to a creed. He doesn’t just live in a place. He helps build a community. Furthermore, he is not just committed to this abstract notion of “community.” He is committed to a specific community, to a specific person, to a specific creed—things grounded in particular times and places.
B. This was obligatory. Note how hard he's hitting on that "community" aspect, which he never quite defines (yet, anyway).
7. By committing and living up to the daily obligations of his commitments, the person integrates himself into a coherent whole. Commitments organize the hours and the days of a life. A committed person achieves consistency across time. His character is built through the habitual acts of service to the people he loves. His character is built by being the humble recipient of other people’s gifts and thus acknowledging his own dependency. A contract gets you benefits, but a commitment transforms who you are.
Organization and consistency, huh? Really breaking away from that structured upper class life, I see.
8. Relationalists prioritize those actions that deepen commitment, build relationships and enhance human dignity: giving, storytelling, dance, singing, common projects, gathering, dining, ritual, deep conversation, common prayer, forgiveness, creating beauty, mutual comfort in times of sadness and threat, mutual labor for the common good.
A. B. Apparently Brooks thinks he needs to tell his target audience to enjoy music, conversation and food. This is where we are, apparently, a man getting lots of money to write a book where he advises people on how fun dancing is. But do the members of the upper crust really need to know this? I thought all those folks ever did was go to dinner parties and chat.
9. The relational life is an open adventure. There are always ups and down, the forces of impersonalization warring against the forces of personalization. What matters is how you serve relationships through the ups and downs. It’s in the how. The profundity is in the adverbs.
I genuinely have no idea what this paragraph is about, although "the profundity is in the adverbs" is one of the worst sentences I have ever read. It scans clumsily, sits in the paragraph awkwardly, and really should have been deleted hastily had the editor not approached her work so glumly and been in a hurry to drink aggressively.
10. A committed life involves some common struggles.
A one sentence topic paragraph. Bravo.
11. It is, for example, a constant struggle to see people at their full depths. In the business of daily life there is the constant temptation to see the other person as an object and not a whole. There is the constant temptation to label and generalize. There is the constant temptation to reduce people to data and to see them as data points. You can count apples with data. You can track human behavior in the mass. But there is something that is unique and irreplaceable about each person that data cannot see. The relationalist tries to see each individual as a whole person—as a body, mind, heart, and soul.
A. Something of a funny sentiment from a man who has given speeches on behaviorism as recently as 2016, but there I go, attacking Brooks again. As to the argument...Brooks really seems to believe that most Americans are literally sociopaths. If people are scrutinizing each other as sets of data points, then they aren't shallow, they're robots. If this is how Brooks sees the world, then it would explain a whole lot.
12. There is the constant struggle to communicate well. At every moment there is either a depth of communication or a shallowness of communication. The relationalist seeks conditions that will make communication deep and pure. This is hard because there’s something in ourselves that eludes our ability to communicate it. There is something proper about modesty and the slow unveiling of one’s self. To achieve I–Thou communication, even to glimpse it, the relationalist sits patiently as vulnerabilities are gradually revealed. She offers safety and respect. Sometimes what is deepest is related in the form of myth, story, and music. When communication fails or is corrupted, the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier says, I suffer a loss of myself.
My first thought was "a writer and pundit who thinks it's hard to communicate? Wow, you sure picked the right vocation." My second thought was a question - does The Second Mountain have a guide to communicating? Really? With all that "calling" talk, I assumed that Brooks was trying to get his readers to break out of a structured life, but it seems like his ideal life is still highly regimented.
13. There is the constant struggle to live as an effective giver and receiver of gifts. There are millions of people around us whose lives are defined by generosity and service. Personal being, Mounier continues, is essentially generous. But our society does not teach us how to be an effective giver of gifts. The schools don’t emphasize it. The popular culture is confused about it.
So...I'm guessing that "giving gifts" is more in that Christian sense of sharing one's talents than it is about literal present giving. I'm going to assume that, anyway. How is the "popular culture is confused about it", exactly? To Brooks, it seems, there is a wrong way to be generous, much like there is a wrong way to be an activist. My guess is that there's a paragraph to explain that, probably with frequent use of the word "institution" and at least one Burke quote.
14. It is a constant struggle to see life through a moral lens. The practical workaday world primes the utilitarian lens. Consumerism calls forth a self that is oriented around material pleasure. Money has an anonymous power and tends to render the person on the other side of a transaction invisible. Workplace rivalries and modern politics require armored individuals—human tanks with no exposure. The effort to fight the utilitarian lens and see daily life through a moral lens is a hard and never-ending struggle.
B (I guess?). He really does think that the average person is a sociopath, doesn't he? This is, in part, the de rigeur "Partisanship is out of control" bit that's in every unreadable centrist book, but it mostly takes off of Brooks' assumption that we are all "hyper-individiualistic" actors slitting each other's throats in a winner-take-all scramble for promotions at work. Maybe the members of the American overclass really are that monstrous, but I assure you that most people do not approach every interaction with the intent of maximizing utility. Many of us aren't even in a position to be that cynically calculated, and rivalries? Really? This mindset that assumes that all Americans are in an unceasing competition to destroy each other is the same one that tells you that Americans need to be told that music and dancing are fun.
15. These struggles are not against other people. The line between ego and soul runs down the middle of every person. Most of us, from time to time, buy into a workaholic ethos that leaves us with little time for relationship. Most of us, from time to time, hue to a code of privacy that prevents us from actually knowing the people who live right nearby. Most of us live with technology that aims to reduce friction and maximize efficiency. Relationship, though, is inherently sticky and inefficient. Most of us, daily, slip back into self-absorption, succumb to the hunger for status, and have to recognize that and dive back into relation.
B. And again with the assumption that everyone is so status-obsessed that we neglect to...hold on, what's that in the fourth sentence? "hue to a code of privacy"? "Hue to"?

"HUE TO"?!?!?!?

You slack-ass motherfucker, never talk about "vocation" again! EVER! You want to know what commitment to something looks like? Huh? It's editing the first five pages of a manuscript twenty times because one tiny error and everyone will reject it. It's running it through word analysis because you're afraid you might be a bit repetitive (yes, Dave, for most writers that's a bad thing). It's sweating over sentences, dialogue, character description, not just for errors but for writing that's too blunt or too trite or too flowery. And it's doing this even after someone has the good grace to request to see it because it's never good enough for you.

...Sorry, I seem to have lost focus there. Are we almost done?
16. The relationalist life is an evolving conversation between self and society. It’s always balancing tensions and trying to live life in graceful balance.
"Balance." Meaning that once again, Dave has found the center and claimed it for his own.
17. The relational life is a challenging life but ultimately it’s a joyful life, because it is enmeshed in affection and crowned with moral joy.
I promised I wouldn't, but he's inviting me in - how do you know it's so joyful, Dave? You're not following it. You never have.

I wanted to analyze this from a purely philosophical standpoint, but there's just not that much to say. This might be good advice in another time and place...I don't know, Japan in the 80s, or maybe even the U.S. during the same period, but what's the relevance now? It's really easy to mock that "music is fun and food is good" bit, but it's there because Brooks assumes that the average person is so dedicated to building status that he ignores those things. These days, if someone is working such long hours that he doesn't have time to enjoy life, it's less likely that he's gunning for that big promotion and more likely that he's trying to pay his rent or cover someone's medical bills.

That's the thing - Dave keeps discovering these "great" pieces of advice that are common sense to most people. How many people need to be told that it's good to have close friends? Or to love your spouse? Or to help out your neighbors if they need it? I can think of a few explanations. Either David Brooks genuinely believes that we are a nation of Patrick Batemans and we're just fortunate that we're not tripping over the bodies when we walk down the sidewalk; or the upper class really is like that and Brooks knows something we don't; or Brooks has found out that he can get money and accolades for absolutely anything.

The most generous read I can give is that Brooks is trying to address those people who've led highly planned and structured lives, telling them that there's more to life than work and brown-nosing, and the rest of us just got pulled along for the ride. Even then, though, his advice is not that they shed the structure, but merely tweak it a bit. It's places like this where you can really see how Rod Dreher has influenced Brooks as of late.

Next time: "The Good Society."

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 3 - The Process of Becoming a Person

A prelude: Two years ago, Brooks did an Aspen speech that pretty well laid the groundwork for this book. It's here, but I really recommending not watching that as it is stunningly boring, with such a high concentration of quotes that even Brooks seems a little bored by it. However, it does show the evolution (such as it is) of this section, which is about changes.
1. The central journey of modern life is moving self to service. We start out listening to the default settings of the ego and gradually learn to listen to the higher callings of the heart and soul.
I was actually wondering about this myself - The Second Mountain is, like The Road to Character, a self-help book masquerading as a political treatise, but so much of the hype centers on something both Brooks and I have observed rich people doing - spending their later years seeking some kind of meaning. I would actually read a book that was more a study of this phenomenon, but Brooks is presenting it as advice, which, uh...if this is natural and people are doing it anyway, why do we need to buy your book?
1. Much of modern social thought, drawing on thinkers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and modern economics, sees human beings as fundamentally selfish. Children, Freud wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.” Most of modern thought was written by men, and often a certain sort of alpha men, who did not even see the systems of care that undergirded the societies in which they lived.
Yep, two first entries - Aspen has a formatting error that no one's caught yet. Anyway, this is the first head-on condemnation of modernism we've seen, but probably not the last. As with Dreher and a lot of conservative writers, Brooks' philosophy rests heavily on prelapsarian dogma. He doesn't go as far back as Dreher, but name-checking Hobbes means that the Fall was at least a few hundred years ago.
2. Relationalism asserts that human beings are both fundamentally broken but also splendidly endowed. We have egoistic self-interested desires, and we need those desires in order to accomplish some of the necessary tasks of life: to build an identity, to make a mark on the world, to break away from parents, to compete, create and to shine. Our savage impulses to dominate, rape, murder and destroy are written across the annals of history. But relationalism asserts that there are other, deeper parts of ourselves. There are motivations that are even stronger than self-interest, even if they are more elusive. There are capacities that can tame the savage lusts and subdue the beasts that remain inside. At the deepest center of each person there is what we call, metaphorically, the heart and soul.
That "broken but splendidly endowed" line sounded familiar, so I did a few searches, and...well, it was in The Road to Character, but dates at least back to a column he wrote in 2015 that was dedicated to hyping The Road to Character. He really did write the same book twice, didn't he? And I know I'm making too much of this, but here's the thing - I'm always afraid I overuse phrases, so I run every manuscript through text analysis to find weaknesses. That's too much effort for Mr. Vocation Matters, though.

Oh, and if certain words in there popped out at you, and you found yourself saying "He's not going to write about rape, is he?" in a mortified whisper, well...you might want to skip entry 4.
3. The heart is that piece of us that longs for fusion with others. We are not primarily thinking creatures; we are primarily loving and desiring creatures. We are defined by what we desire. We become what we love. The core question for each of us is: Have we educated our emotions to love the right things in the right way?
Just a reminder that this man was giving speeches on behaviorism and neuroscience as recently as 2016.
4. The soul is the piece of us that gives each person infinite dignity and worth. Slavery is wrong because it obliterates a soul. Rape is not just an assault on physical molecules; it obliterates another soul. The soul yearns for goodness. Each human being wants to lead a good and meaningful life, and feels life falling apart when it seems meaningless.
And there it is, "an assault on physical molecules" that "obliterates a soul." I will leave analyzing the lack of taste here as an exercise for the reader.
5. A child is born with both ego and heart and soul on full display. But for many people, around adolescence, the ego begins to swell, and the heart and soul recede. People at this age need to establish an identity, to carve a self. Meanwhile, our society tells adolescent boys to bury their emotions and become men. It tells little girls that if they reveal the true depths of themselves, nobody will like them. Our public culture, normalizes selfishness, rationalizes egoism, and covers over and renders us inarticulate about the deeper longings of the heart and soul.
Oh sweet mercy, why is this so badly written? The latter half is pretty stock gender studies stuff you might hear from any number of liberals (you know, the ones who are As Bad As Trump), but that first few sentences..."the ego begins to swell"? Is this a fucking first draft? Also, teenagers don't have souls? Citation Needed?
6. But eventually most people realize that something is missing in the self-interested life. They achieve worldly success and find it unsatisfying. Or perhaps they have fallen in love, or been loved in a way that plows open the crusty topsoil of life and reveals the true personality down below. Or perhaps they endure a period of failure, suffering, or grief that carves through the surface and reveals the vast depths underneath. One way or another, people get introduced to the full depths of themselves, the full amplitude of life. They realize that only emotional, moral, and spiritual food can provide the nourishment they crave.
"The crusty topsoil of..." Oh, forget it. Anyway, this is from the Aspen speech. There, alongside hollow material success, he includes a series of things that might lead to a revelation of the hollowness of modern life, including the death of a child. He put that next to the ennui of having too much money and not enough to do. This man is claiming that other people have no souls.
7. When a person has undergone one of these experiences, which can happen at any age, she is no longer just an individual; she has become a person. Her whole personhood is alive and engaged. She has discovered, down at the substrate, her infinite ability to care. Relationalism is a worldview that guides and encourages us as we undertake this personal transformation, surpassing the desires of the ego and taking on a bigger journey.
Again, this is from the Aspen speech. While he does include that "any age" caveat there, he more specifically claims that this usually happens at age 30, at which point one starts to seek meaning. So what happens when we map that back onto Brooks' life? When he was in his 30s, he was in Brussels doing the closest thing to legitimate journalism he's ever attempted. Apparently, being the Dave Barry of the Republican donor class was more spiritually fulfilling than that.
8. The movement toward becoming a person is downward and then outward: To peer deeper into ourselves to that place where we find the yearnings for others, and then outward in relationship toward the world. A person achieves self-mastery, Maritain wrote, for the purpose of self-giving.
So you go inward to go outward, and that's how you avoid being outward focused. Right.
9. An individual who has become a person has staged a rebellion. She rebels against the individualistic ethos and all the systems of impersonalism. Society tells her to want independence, but she has declared her interdependence. Society says we live in a materialist reality, but she says we live in an enchanted reality. Society tells her to keep her options open, but she says, No, I will commit. I will root myself down. Society says, Try to rise above and be better than; she says, No, I will walk with, serve, and come in under. Society says, Cultivate with the self-interested side of your life; she says, No, I will cultivate the whole of myself. Society says build your own identity; she says I build my identity by honoring my relationships. Life goes well only when you are living with the whole of yourself.
I don't know why Brooks loves this particular literary device - you know, the thing where each sentence starts with the same word for six consecutive sentences - but he sure does. I wonder where he stole it.
10. The relationalist doesn’t walk away from the capitalist meritocracy, the systems of mainstream life. But she balances that worldview with a countervailing ethos that supplements, corrects, and ennobles. She walks in that world, with all its pleasures and achievements, but with a different spirit, a different approach, and different goals. She is communal where the world is too individual. She is more emotional when the world is too cognitive. She is moral when the world is too utilitarian.
And there's the rub - you don't have to give anything up, you don't have to change your life, you just have to tweak your outlook a bit. Quite the "revolution" you boys at Aspen are fomenting. This is another clear influence from Dreher, who spoke the language of monasticism but then opted to stay in the filthy modern world after all. And why not? What makes these guys angry about liberals and leftists is that those are the people telling them that change must come, to them or to society. One writing books for people who fear change will not receive great reviews if that book advises change.

Next time: Wait, this part has 17 bullets?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 2 - Relationalism

Continuing with the book advertisement/manifesto for David Brooks' Aspen project, we have the Gallant to the previously submitted Goofus ideology, which bears the clumsy name "relationalism." Really, Dave? What you're talking about has a name already - communitarianism. I've heard you use it, even. If I didn't know better, I would swear that this was some shallow attempt to grab cheap glory by claiming to have discovered something that political scientists have been discussing for decades.

Whatever, let's just get this out of the way.
1. The revolution will be moral, or it will not be at all. Modern society needs a moral ecology that rejects the reigning hyper-individualism of the moment. We need to articulate a creed that puts relation, not the individual, at the center, and which articulates, in clear form, the truths we all know: that we are formed by relationship, we are nourished by relationship, and we long for relationship. Life is not a solitary journey. It is building a home together. It is a process of being formed by attachments and then forming attachments in turn. It is a great chain of generations passing down gifts to one another.
"Revolution" - for God's sake, you guys are curating video clips. In any case, this sets up the next set of points spelling out the basis for something that is entirely distinct from the many, many forms of communitarianism chronicled in academic circles and by contemporary journalists. Most interesting to me is the last line, the "great chain of generations," a word choice that recalls the medieval philosophical construct called the great chain of being that envisioned all life as a giant hierarchy with God at the top and dirt at the bottom. Humans were in the middle but, to steal from Orwell, some were more equal than others.
2. The hyper-individualist sees society as a collection of individuals who contract with one another. The relationalist sees society as a web of connections that in many ways that precede choice. A hyper-individualist sees the individual as an self-sufficient unit. The relationalist says, A person a node in a network; a personality is a movement toward others.
Again, this is absolutely an argument against capitalism - not "consumerism" or "unbalanced capitalism," but the very idea of an economic system built on competition. Don't worry, Dave has more Commie-off later in the list.
3. As a child, each person’s emotional and spiritual foundation is formed by the unconditional love of a caring adult. Each person’s personality and character is formed by the dance of interactions between herself and a loving adult. “We” precedes “me.”
Unlike Brooks, I've never given a speech on behaviorism (Twice!) so all I have is what I've read, but I'm pretty sure that this is scientifically bullshit. The development of empathy is a process with many steps. For example, to feel bad for another person's pain, you must first understand that others feel pain like you do, attributing your own experiences to them - a trait known as theory of mind. Infants simply don't possess this understanding from birth. We're all born knowing only ourselves and other things come with time. I've heard actual experts on early childhood development say that children pass through a phase of understanding that we would call sociopathy if held by an adult.

Maybe I'm dead wrong - after all, this man was paid to give speeches on science.
5. The best adult life is lived by making commitments and staying faithful to those commitments: commitments to a vocation, to a family, to a philosophy or faith, to a community. Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts.
You have no idea how hard it is not to swing with all my might at these slow pitches.
6. Relationalism is a middle way between hyper-individualism and collectivism. The former detaches the person from all deep connection. The latter obliterates the person within the group, and sees groups as faceless herds. The relationalist sees each person as a node in a thick and enchanted web of warm commitments. She seeks to build a neighborhood, nation and world of diverse and creative people who have made commitments in a flowering of different ways, who are nonetheless bound together by sacred chords.
And here's the Commie-off, the obligatory prayer to the God of Bothsiderism. I must point out one amazing line - "thick and enchanted web of warm commitments." It reminds me of Megan McArdle's "oceanic pity," but unlike McArdle I don't think this is attributable to a lack of empathy as much as it is a lack of talent.
7. Relationalism is not a system of ideas. It is a way of life. Relationalism is a viewpoint that draws from many sources, from Edmund Burke and Martin Luther King, Jr., from Martin Buber and Dorothy Day and Walt Whitman, from Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Martha Nussbaum, and Annie Dillard to Gandhi and Josiah Royce.
"Not a system of ideas," i.e. not an ideology. People with ideologies are wrong and stupid; we have common sense, we're above that. So were all these people whom I will pretend would have supported me. And yes, of course Burke is on this list, and putting him next to MLK (a socialist, mind) is really special.
8. The hyper-individualist operates by a straightforward logic: I make myself strong and I get what I want. The relationalist says: Life operates by an inverse logic. I possess only when I give. I lose myself to find myself. When I surrender to something great, that’s when I am strongest and most powerful.
So what, exactly, have you given, Dave?

Next time: How to become a person.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 1 - Hyper-Individualism

Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in...And here I was thinking that I had a nice list of very good excuses not to read The Second Mountain by David Fucking Brooks, and here the Aspen Institute posts what's sure to be the best part of it on their website for free. We all know that the center of the book is going to be borderline plagiarism and recycled content, the bookends are the only parts anyone will actually care about, and here someone goes and spoils the ending.

Okay, so you all know this I'm sure, but Brooks is involved in some Aspen nonsense called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. To these cynical eyes, this appears to consist of a bunch of think tank types tracking down do-gooders who've been helping their communities for ages, claiming they constitute a "movement," giving that movement a name and then taking all the credit. A bit offensive, perhaps, but there are certainly more destructive things that rich people can do with their excess money, and it's not like I'm among the few thousand movers-and-shakers in the target audience for this thing.

The only thing I care about here is the "manifesto" that is just the last chapter to The Second Mountain. It takes the form of a list - hey, just like the one that ended The Road to Character! Boy, Mr. Vocation Matters is really pushing the envelope. It's long, too - well, not by manifesto terms, but it is about 75 points spread across 7 sections totaling around 5800 words. I plan to do a breakdown of each of these (I might combine the shorter ones), but keeping in character with the author, these will be shallow dives.

So a little recap: I've wasted a disgusting amount of time trying to figure exactly what Brooks' ideal world looks like. What I've landed on so far is an upscaled right-communitarian system in which towns and neighborhoods are ruled over by local elites in a top-down manner while a largely symbolic national government spends its time creating cultural myths to bind the tens of thousands of little autonomous communities together. So basically it's the Zhou dynasty, which did keep it going for a long time before they all killed each other - but hey, every system has its problems. We'll see if I'm right as we advance.

Ready? Okay, the first two sections are I guess his first principles, identifying the Goofuses and Gallants in his worldview. In the first section, "Hyper-Individualism," we meet our Goofus:

1. There is always a balance between self and society. In some ages the pressures of the group become stifling and crush the self, and individuals feel a desperate need to break free and express their individuality. In our age, by contrast, the self is inflated and the collective is weak. We have swung too far in the direction of individualism. The result is a loss of connection—a crisis of solidarity.
This is definitely his first principle, the idea that we're all monsters. The next eleven points are clarifying what he means by this, so I won't dwell here.
2. Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism says “I belong to myself and no one else.”: Hyper-Individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: “What can I do to make myself happy?”
Is this really the "reigning ethos of our day"? Brooks doesn't offer proof for any of his assertions - I assume those are in the beginning of the book, which I can only imagine is as much a factual trainwreck as the first chapter of The Road to Character.
3. Hyper-individualism rests upon an emancipation story. The heroic self breaks free from the stifling chains of society. The heroic self leaves home and community and finds himself by looking inward. The self stands on its own two feet, determines its own destiny, secures its own individual rights. Hyper-individualism defines freedom as absence from restraint.
This really reminded me of that weird bit at the end of The Road to Character where he went on about the tradition of giving a copy of Oh, the Places You'll Go! to recent high school graduates and opted to interpret that not as a message to be confident in the face of a scary world, but as a message that you're better than everyone else. Therein lies the problem with having a model to examine the world - if you're not careful, you wind up seeing patterns where they don't exist.

As for the statement more generally, I suppose it is accurate, although Brooks has again chosen to look at everything here in the most negative light possible. I can't see how independence (which, in American society, traditionally leads to starting a family) is inherently selfish, but that's just a difference of perspective.
4. In this way, hyper-individualism gradually undermines any connection not based on individual choice—the connections to family, neighborhood, culture, nation, and the common good. Hyper-individualism erodes our obligations and responsibilities to others and our kind.
Holy shit, he stole this from Rod Dreher. I told you they basically believed the same thing, didn't I? All right, maybe it was just laziness (look who we're dealing with), but this is still a logical overlap between Brooks' mushy "pragmatism" and Dreher's not-quite-theoconservatism - a reflexive assumption that anything old is good and anything new is dangerous.
5. The central problems of our day flow from this erosion: social isolation, distrust, polarization, the breakdown of family, the loss of community, tribalism, rising suicide rates, rising mental health problems, a spiritual crisis caused by a loss of common purpose, the loss—in nation after nation—of any sense of common solidarity that binds people across difference, the loss of those common stories and causes that foster community, mutuality, comradeship, and purpose.
So much to unpack here, and so little evidence provided. Some of this stuff is obvious - the "deaths of despair" he's referencing here are not caused by a shift in some abstract notion, but in the decline of the American manufacturing sector and the loss of both the income and identity that went with those jobs. The "common stories" thing is kind of a running joke about how Brooks seems to think we should replace Congress with a summit of poets or some such. You can hack this one down yourself, I'm sure.
6. The core flaw of hyper-individualism is that it leads to a degradation and a pulverization of the human person. It is a system built upon the egoistic drives within each of us. These are the self-interested drives—the desire to excel; to make a mark in the world; to rise in wealth, power, and status; to win victories and be better than others. Hyper-individualism does not emphasize and eventually does not even see the other drives—the deeper and more elusive motivations that seek connection, fusion, service, and care. These are not the desires of the ego, but the longings of the heart and soul: the desire to live in loving interdependence with others, the yearning to live in service of some ideal, the yearning to surrender to a greater good. Hyper-individualism numbs these deepest longings. Eventually, hyper-individualism creates isolated, self-interested monads who sense that something is missing in their lives but cannot even name what it is.
So it's funny that Brooks is so terrified of socialism, because this is basically an argument against capitalism. The argument for capitalism is that it harnesses the power of self-interest and is therefore superior to any system that requires universal virtue to function. Brooks plainly hates that argument, viewing it as immoral. This goes well beyond his previous claims about success eroding morality and is, instead, a critique of a whole system that could have come out of a critical theory seminar. Of course, Brooksianism is incompatible with any system devised in the last thousand years, but I find this interesting all the same.
7. Hyper-individualism thrives within the systems of the surface. Consumerism amputates what is central to the person for the sake of material acquisition. The meritocracy amputates what is deepest for individual “success.” Unbalanced capitalism turns people into utility-maximizing, speeding workaholics that no permanent attachment can penetrate.
...And here's Brooks taking it back, lest anyone think he's a Commie. His insistence that his problem is with some specific form or type of capitalism; this is sheer bullshit, as capitalism is built around competition and therefore any form would be anathema to him. But of course, it's worth remembering that, historically, the opposite of "capitalism" was not socialism but monarchy, which shows us where he's headed.
8. The hyper-individualist finds himself enmeshed in a network of conditional love. I am worthy of being loved only when I have achieved the status or success the world expects of me. I am worthy of love only when I can offer the other person something in return. I am what the world says about me. In the end, hyper-individualism doesn’t make people self-sufficient and secure. It obliterates emotional and spiritual security by making everything conditional. It makes people extremely sensitive to the judgments of others and quick to take offense when they feel slighted.
"Conditional love" is a term you hear used to describe the parenting style of people with narcissistic personality disorder, a deficit of empathy that causes them to view their children as extensions of themselves. This keeps up the theme of Brooks assuming that the average American (and the average Westerner more generally) is a clinical narcissist, which is an amazing claim given how little evidence he offers.
9. Hyper-individualism directs people toward false and unsatisfying lives. Some people lead an aesthetic life. They see their lives as a series of Instagram experiences which may be pleasant, but which don’t accumulate into anything because they are not serving a large cause. Some people become insecure overachievers. They seek to win by accomplishment the love, admiration, and attachment they can’t get any other way, but of course no amount of achievement ever gives them the love they crave.
The obligatory fist wave at The Kids These Days With Their Darned Smartphones And Their [INSERT CURRENTLY POPULAR SERVICE HERE]. Note: I'm pretty sure Instagram is not the site du jour, actually.
10. When you build a whole society on an overly thin view of human nature, you wind up with a dehumanized culture in which people are starved of the things they yearn for most deeply.
That could be true, but how does that bear on us?
11. The uncommitted person is the unremembered person. A person who does not commit to some loyalty outside of self leaves no deep mark on the world.
My obligatory comment about how, by his own standards, Brooks isn't committed to much of anything.
12. Hyper-individualism leads to tribalism. People eventually rebel against the isolation and meaninglessness of hyper-individualism by joining a partisan tribe. This seems like relation but is actually its opposite. If a healthy community is based on mutual affection, the tribalist mentality is based on mutual distrust. If a healthy community is based on an abundance mindset, the tribalist mentality is based on a scarcity mindset—we’re in a zero-sum struggle of all against all, threat is everythywhere. If a person in healthy community delights in difference and celebrates other people’s loyalties, the tribalist seeks to destroy other loyalties. It is always us versus them, friend or enemy, destroy or be destroyed. Anger is the mode. The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and animosity. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.
Everything in this enormous paragraph is recycled and has been addressed elsewhere. I'll only comment that I have never understood how it is that one gets from "I'm only in it for me" to "For the good of the volk!" - really feels like there should be a few more dots here. Also, I'm just copy-pasting this, so any errors are on the Aspen Institute site (and presumably in the book, so I hope the editor didn't drink too much).

Next time: We meet Gallant.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Brief Update on Whatever David Brooks' Book is Called Now

Oh, has it been three months since I declared my intention to never read David Brooks' new book? My, the time does pass, and with it comes change. In particular, two things have changed about the book.

One: A new title. When we last met, this book had the uninspiring title The Committed Life. A month or two ago, it acquired the more interesting and more perplexing title The Second Mountain. We'll get into what the hell that means in a bit.

Second: With the title firmly decided, it finally has a cover:





Okay, I'm joking. This is not the cover of The Second Mountain, but rather a cheap mockup that I hacked together in GIMP in fifteen minutes as I waited for the tea to finish. This is the kind of thing I would have put on one of my self-published novels and been quite proud of, but for a professionally published book it's obviously sub-par.

Here's the real cover:




Much better.

Now, I have been keeping tabs on this book, which is to say I check the Random House page about once or twice a month. I have no intention of reading this thing in total, but I do still have the Earnest Lazyman option of reading the first 10% for free on Amazon. I'd say that this is unfair, but on the contrary, it may be the most honest way to read the book. The Road to Character was 90% wasted space - people who cited it focused mostly on the opening and closing chapters which contained Brooks' argument and ignored the rehashed book reports in the middle that only served to justify things that Brooks already believed. It may just be a time saver.

So the new title, um...what the hell is the second mountain? When I first saw this, I immediately thought of the "seven mountains of culture" that form the basis for what was once called Dominionism, but that's certainly too much of a commitment for Dave. However, it appears that the description on the Random House page has changed slightly. I failed to save a copy of the old version, so I don't know how much of this is really new and how much I just missed, but let's take a look anyway.

Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know exactly why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. 

If I needed proof that Dave was writing (or at least overseeing) his own copy, well, here it is. Many authors subconsciously favor certain words, and Brooks loves the word "radiate." In fact, I wondered at first glance if this was a recycled line, and it is - there's an extremely similar sentiment in The Road to Character:

Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy.

I included a longer chunk of this quote to demonstrate that he was pledging to show you how to be one of those radiant people in The Road to Character as well, so yes - it looks like he really did write the same book twice, the sign of a man who cares deeply about vocation. The questions are twofold: Could The Second Mountain actually be worse than The Road to Character, and will it receive the same degree of praise from the onanists who celebrated it before?

I also gave you the whole thing to demonstrate just what a bad writer Brooks really is - flat, dull, repetitive, lifeless, etc. But if he's bad with words on a sentence-to-sentence, he is truly rotten when he tries to write larger sentiments. I've touched on the awfulness of his metaphorical constructs before, and we're going to see a great example here. It's time to explain the two mountains:

Life, for these people, has often followed a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. 

So far, this is trite but fine. There's a long history of using mountains as symbols of ambition, and climbing them as analogous to worldly success or victory. The idea that people "climb mountains" - seeking wealth and status and such - only to find it hollow certainly sounds like Brooks.

They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain. And so they embark on a new journey. On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.

And now I'm lost. This is an analogy that falls apart on several levels.

  1. This is just the whole "resume virtues and eulogy virtues" thing again. That was probably the most popular bit from The Road to Character, getting quoted everywhere. I actually saw it in an artist's statement in Lawrence, Kansas, and I wanted to find that artist and shake him until his admiration for David Brooks tumbled out of his head. I can understand Brooks wanting to recapture that lightning and gather those accolades again (even though I know there's some overrated public intellectual who argues that a virtuous man shouldn't even want that), but there's something funny about seeing a man retreading old ground in a book alleging to teach you the value of vocation. Then again, walking in a circle is a pretty good metaphor for Brooks' entire career, if you think about it.
  2. If climbing a mountain is a metaphor for worldly ambition, then climbing a higher mountain (the same thing, only presumably harder, with a bigger reward at the end) is a metaphor for greater worldly ambition. You start a company, get a lot of money, find it doesn't make you happy, so you...start another company, but a bigger one, with grander ambitions. That's obviously not what Brooks is going for, but that is where the analogy takes you. And this would still work with Brooks' destination...except he seems to think that the next mountain is the good mountain, that this is the one that's going to make him fulfilled. In this analogy, he's seeking to glorify himself further, which is probably unintentional honesty.
  3. Mt. Everest is higher than Mt. Denali, but I'm sure that there are differences in the ascent beyond the former being, presumably, harder. Nevertheless, they are both mountains and thus require comparable skills and entail comparable challenges. Brooks is using two mountains to represent things that are meant to be entirely different. Why is Denali "self-centered" and Everest "other-centered"? If climbing a mountain is "self-centered," then shouldn't the "other-centered" challenge be something else, like...I don't know, deep sea diving? Circumnavigating the globe? Walking the length of the Grand Canyon? Something that's the opposite, demanding a different skill set. Again, it doesn't make sense as an analogy.
  4. And then, y'know...there's all the other stuff about how most Americans aren't narcissistic, compulsive status seekers who are sabotaging their fellow climbers in a mad scramble for glory like Brooks seems to think, but I've feel like we've touched upon that a number of times, so I'll skip it.
The rest of it is what we saw before: Learning how to surrender to a spouse (whom you'll one day dump for someone younger), a vocation (which you'll keep for the easy paycheck long after you've ceased caring), a faith (which you refuse to talk about lest someone judge you), and a community (which you praise even as you spend your entire adult life living elsewhere). There's no sample yet, but clearly Brooks is continuing to deteriorate as a writer, so I'm actually expecting less now. Maybe we'll take a cursory glance at this thing in April (conveniently enough, just about the time my current contract expires) or maybe not. Don't hold your breath; we'll see.