Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Second Chance, Stolen to Order

Everything I endeavor to do is so much detritus on the breeze. If I has a second chance, I'd go back to the root. Funny, that's why I wrote this story in the first place.

If you want a free ebook, go to this page and enter the coupon code XF44B. If you feel that I'm worth $0.00, anyway.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Second Mountain

So I bought The Second Mountain by David Brooks. I bought it and I read it (well, skimmed it if we're being honest) and then I took the better part of an hour to write a review.

Amazon wouldn't let me post it. Did you know that Amazon requires you to have made a minimum of $50 worth of purchases in the previous twelve months before you can review anything? I didn't. And I hadn't - I don't use Amazon that much.

I didn't need anything, so I had some stuff shipped to my parents just to get me over that threshold. Insane? Well, so was liveblogging The Second Mountain, but I did that. Then I went to post my review. Again, Amazon wouldn't let me post it. I went to bed, woke up - still rejected.

I sent a message to Amazon technical support, and they promised to get back to me in 24 hours. 24 hours passed, and nothing had changed. I sent another message.

24 more hours passed. I sent another message, and they promised that they would make the needed adjustments.

24 hours. 48 hours. 72 hours. Finally, a week after I finished the book, they unlocked the right to leave a review. Fantastic.

At this point I really don't give a shit. I don't really care about the review any more, it's bullshit, and the book is getting a lot of critical reviews - for real critical, not one-star bombing (those have been deleted already) or three-star "Brooks is brilliant, but this isn't quite his best work" nonsense. No, I'm talking fairly detailed breakdowns like the one I wrote.

But the top review? The top review is positive, and I can't abide by that. So even though it's irrelevant, and even though I can't bring myself to care all that much, I decided to post it. Why not? And if I'm going to post it after all of this, I want to be on top just for a moment. So please, head on over and vote this bastard helpful. Do it because it is helpful and not because it's me. Do it because it doesn't matter, but it's satisfying to jab a blowhard in the eye, if only virtually.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tripping Up the Second Mountain

I don't use Twitter, but hell - it seemed like a perfect venue for this.

You will want to read the whole thread.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 6 - A Declaration of Interdependence

 "A Declaration of Interdependence" is only four points long, but (spoilers) I ramble enough here to justify putting it in its own post. Joys.

1. A good society is like a dense jungle. There are vines and intertwining branches. There are enmeshed root systems and connections across the canopy. There are monkeys playing at the treetops, the butterflies darting below. Every creature has a place in the great ecosystem. There is a gorgeous diversity and beauty and vitality.

David Brooks is awful at metaphor, but this one is downright horrifying. Metaphorically, the "jungle" is seldom used in a positive sense. It describes something lawless and brutal and primitive, nature red in tooth and claw. Most of those playful animals are there to be eaten by something higher up the Great Chain of Being, and indeed this must be so for the good of the biome. Brooks' "good society," then, seems to be one built around an unbreakable hierarchy in which those on the top freely prey on those beneath, and where challenges to the system are unthinkable as they might otherwise unbalance the system and destroy it.

2. A good person leading a good life is a creature enmeshed in that jungle. A beautiful life is a planted life, attached but dynamic. A good life is a symbiotic life-serving others wholeheartedly and being served wholeheartedly in return. It is daily acts of loving-kindness, gentleness in reproach, forbearance after insult. It is an adventure of mutual care, building, and exploration. The crucial question is not, "who am I?" But: "Whose am I?"

Continuing the grim metaphor from the previous point: The term Brooks selects here is "symbiotic," not "mutualistic." Symbiosis just means that two organisms share some common existence, but it does not suggest that both organisms benefit equally or at all. Parasitism is also a form of symbiosis, and there are a lot of parasites in the jungle.

It's a silly thing to notice, but the alternative was a full paragraph about Mr. "Whose am I?" dumping his wife for a newer model and/or links to all of the articles where he seems to be using his column to indirectly make a point to someone in his personal orbit.

3. Most of us get better at living as we go. There comes a moment, which may come early or later in life, when you realize what your life is actually about. You look across your life and review the moments when you felt more fully alive, at most your best self. They were usually moments when you were working with others in service of some ideal. That is the agency moment. That is the moment when you achieve clarity about what you should do and how you should live. That is the moment when the ego loses its grip. There is a sudden burst of energy that comes with freedom from the self-centered ego. Life becomes more driven and more gift. That is the moment when a life comes to a point.

This is where I fully break with my earlier promise regarding tu quoque and talk about Brooks himself. This document contains the language of revolutionary life change, but Brooks has never really exhibited such a shift himself. In interviews with Brooks and in his Aspen speeches, he suggests that he realized his "vocation" in childhood and discovered Great Man Theory - the defining trait of his politics - as an undergraduate. The last big shift in his life was moving to Brussels, but he followed that with a quarter-century of opinion writing that, at best, has evolved as much as any organism does over a single generation.

More to the point, Brooks - at least in his public life - has never really been involved in these kinds of big collective projects. No Labels? He gave a few speeches for them, but I haven't seen any evidence that his involvement went beyond that. This Aspen thing? He's not a member of some working group, he's a frontman chosen for name recognition. His television appearances, his columns, his books, his ridiculous college lectures - all primarily individualistic pursuits.

My question for Brooks, then, is "How do you know that these moments of change and collaboration are the best ones in your life if you've never lived them?" But I know the answer to that. Like so many things that are wrong with Our Wonderful Newsmedia, the answers can be found in Tom Scocca's "On Smarm." Scocca writes about a phenomenon of writers that is particularly pronounced among journalists - a tendency for people who achieved success by producing conventional, safe material to advise others to write more experimental, aspirational fare. A generous commentator might argue that this is the old jaded master cautioning his pupils of the hollow victories of worldly success; A more cynical observer might point to that master's recent output and ask "Then why isn't he writing high-order material now, when he has the clout to get it published to a wide audience?" Simple answer - it's a lot easier to talk about leading a better life (and reap the accolades for it) than it is to actually live that better life.

Brooks can talk about rejecting status for meaning all he wants, but actions speak louder than words. If he really wants to exemplify this ideal figure, he doesn't have to be MLK or Gandhi. He can be Bill Watterson, receding from public life at the height of his popularity because he felt that his work was done and there were other things he'd rather do. That's a dedication to vocation - Brooks is a fucking poser.

...Man, how long have I been rambling about this? Better wrap it up:

4. When you see people at the point, you see people with a power that overcomes division and distrust. Distrust is a perversity. No one wants to live in a distrusting place, or be lonely. Distrust comes about because of our own failings of relationship. But love has a redemptive power, Martin Luther King argued. It has the power to transform individuals and break down distrust. If you love a person and keep loving a person, they may lash out at first, but eventually they will break under the power of your care. Division is healed not mostly by solving the bad, but by overwhelming the bad with the good. If you can maximize the number of good interactions between people, then the disagreements will rest in a bed of loving care. When trust is restored, the heartbeat relaxes, people are joyful together. Joy is found on the far side of sacrificial service. It is found in giving yourself away.

And there's "distrust" again - distrust meaning disagreement, as previously established. Reading this passage it occurs to me that Brooks - like most recent would-be political philosophers - defines his beliefs more by what he opposes than what he supports. What does he support? Nice things, friendliness, music and good food, and I'm sure he only left out puppies and chocolate because some people are allergic to those things and thus they are too divisive. By contrast, he's against a lot of things - capitalism (too competitive), socialism (too stifling), democracy (too argumentative), internationalism (too...actually, why does he dislike this one again?), federalism (too centralized) and a whole host of social movements which just aren't his speed.

Maybe he goes into more specifics in the book. It's possible that I'm totally wrong about the book, which won't be out for weeks and lacks even a few sample pages. Perhaps it's not just another set of book reports and is instead the overarching discourse on society that he's been building toward for his entire career. The reason I doubt this (aside from it being David Brooks) is that this list is the conclusion of his book, not the opening. This isn't an executive summary of his arguments, it is his argument in total, and there's just not much here aside from bland platitudes meant to soothe an audience that's wary of change and fearful of argument.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Relationalist Manifesto p. 5 - The Good Society

Apologies for the lack of hot, hot David Brooks takedown action, but a lot of things got in my way. My VPN straight-up died for several days, denying me access to Blogger. When I came back, I tried to write a post and blogger ate most of it because it suddenly decided not to save my drafts. Between that and trying to make progress on my actually important projects, it's been a struggle to finish this thing, but we're back for the moment.

So having laid out what's wrong with you in the first half of this thing, Brooks is now going to tell you what you can and should do. Brooks isn't going to give any policy recommendations as much as he's going to argue that they're unnecessary. Instead, he's going to push for something that I've previously called the "Why Not Plant a Tree?" strategy, the approach of addressing all problems through the safest, least controversial, least impactful means possible. It's a staple of "centrist" thought, and now we're going to get Brooks' version.

Brooks' ideal socio-political system was realized in 2002. He's never said this directly, but if you read between the lines - the rambling about unity and "common myths," the disdain for dissent and discussion, the acceptance of frictionlessly powerful elites - and it becomes pretty clear. His goal here is to find a way to recreate that age without the need for terrorism, with the solution lying in some synthesis between his own The Road to Character and Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.

1. As T. S. Eliot observed, the chief illusion of modern political activity is the belief that you can build a system so perfect that the people in it do not have to be good. The reality is that democracy and the economy rest upon a foundation, which is society. A society is a system of relationships. If there is no trust at the foundations of society, if there is no goodness, care, or faithfulness, relationships crumble, and the market and the state crash to pieces. If there are no shared norms of right and wrong, no sense of common attachments, no yearning for racial justice, then the people in the market and the state will rip one another to shreds as they vie for power and money. Society and culture are prior to and more important than politics or the market. The health of society depends on voluntary unselfish acts.

Here, we begin to transition from Brooks' analysis of people on an individual level (namely that we're all basically monsters) to his analysis of people on a social level. The imagery is still pretty grim - the nation is but a cage of fiends, and without something to stop us we will "rip one another to shreds as [we] vie for power and money." And yet, what we need are "voluntary unselfish acts," and how do we manage that when we're all fiends? Of course, with Brooks it's always easy to guess - in previous works he expounded on his theory that it's impossible to be a good person without "institutions," a theme he echoed in that speech I posted last time.

2. In this day and age, our primary problems are at the level of the foundations. They are at the level of the system of relationships. Our society is beset by ever-higher levels of distrust, ever-higher levels of unknowing, racism, prejudice and alienation. One bad action breeds another. One escalation of hostility breeds another.

3. The call of relationalism is to usher in a social transformation by reweaving the fabric of reciprocity and trust, to build a society, as Dorothy Day put it, in which it is easier to be good.

The refrain in these two points is pretty common among Sensible Centrists, this notion that our only real problem is some abstract interpersonal glitch. Here, Brooks calls it "distrust," while others (including Brooks, elsewhere) call it a "bubble" or "tribalism" or "hostility" or what have you. The simplest way to understand this is that to the elite media figures who occupy this position, our worst (and, indeed, only) problem is disagreement. If we all agreed, everything would be fine.

4. The social fabric is not woven by leaders from above. It is woven at every level, through a million caring actions, from one person to another. It is woven by people fulfilling their roles as good friends, neighbors, and citizens.

Enter the paleoconservative argument for "small government," rephrased for a new generation - or is this a step beyond? Sensible Centrists generally dislike the idea of policy solutions to public problems, and Brooks in particular has suggested that his ideal system features a largely symbolic federal government. Later, we'll get a glimpse at what Brooks thinks the government should be allowed to do.

5. Whenever I treat another person as if he were a stereotype, I've ripped the social fabric. When I treat another person as an infinite soul, I have woven the social fabric. Whenever I lie, abuse, dismiss or show easy contempt for a person, I have ripped the fabric. Whenever I see someone truly, and make them feel known, I have woven the fabric. Whenever I accuse someone of corruption without evidence, I have ripped the social fabric. Whenever I disagree without maligning motives, I have woven it. Whenever I ignore the legacy of racial injustice, I rip the fabric; whenever I acknowledge the brute facts of the past and try to rectify them, I weave it. The social fabric is created through an infinity of small moral acts, and it can be destroyed by a series of immoral ones.

Leaving aside the meat of this point (which is ample, fatty and rancid), I'd like to take a break from analyzing the content and look at the writing. I've occasionally played up great dismay at finding some small yet glaring error in someone's writing, but it's not because I actually care about things like dialogue tags or slightly mangled aphorisms. Rather, I'm told that editors care about those things and that I should care as well, and that if I leave such a trivial error in then it's my fault that I was rejected. I'm angry at such things because they would be mortal sins in my own writing but personally, I don't give a shit.

This passage, though? This I care about. This is a nightmare paragraph.

At first glance, this is another fine example of Brooks' fondness for willful repetition, but it's actually worse than that. Read carefully and you'll see that this is another Goofus-Gallant comparison, with the sentences switching back and forth between "ripping" and "weaving." If you didn't notice that, that's okay - blame Brooks. This whole paragraph scans really badly. Readers tend to skim over long sections of text, which is why we teach people to structure persuasive passages in specific ways. That's why the first sentence of a paragraph gives the topic of the paragraph - it greatly increases ease of reading.

So what is the topic of this point? A person reading quickly might read the first sentence - Whenever I treat another person as if he were a stereotype, I've ripped the social fabric - and think "Ah, Brooks is lecturing those distrustful people" and skip to point six. In doing so, he completely misses the comparisons which are the meat of this paragraph. And even if he tries to read the whole thing, he still might get lost - the positive and negative sentences start the same way, which makes it very easy to lose your place or skip something. It's a serious readability issue.

There are several possible fixes. He could have moved the last sentence to the beginning, which is clearly where it belongs. He also could have split this into several smaller points consisting of one matched pair of rip/weave statements. My gut says that this was how it started, but there was a serious eye-roll risk when people saw four of these things in a row.

6. Personal transformation and social transformation happen simultaneously. When you reach out and build community, you nourish yourself.

Then I saw this and wondered if he'd referred to relationships as "nourishing" before, and he has - but only a few times in this piece, and in more than one context. It feels less like a motif and more like a sign that he wrote this over a fairly long period of time and never went back over it. He has a "great" idea, leaves the manifesto idle for a few days, then has that same "great" idea again. A lot of writers have this problem, especially when editing. I can't tell you how often I've inserted a killer line into a chapter during a rewrite, only to discover in a few minutes that the same line was already in the text a page or two later. This is why a reread is always a good idea if you care about the craft.

David Brooks does not care about the craft. His writing is artless, unclear and bloated because he has little interest in developing his "calling" now that he's already established. This is why I'm giving him shit over that "vocation" line. He can't see his own flaws through the unearned praise he gets.

7. The ultimate faith of relationalism is that we are all united at the deepest levels. At the surface we have our glorious diversity. But at the substrate there is a commonality that no amount of hostility can ever fully extinguish, that no amount of division can ever fully sunder.

"Glorious diversity" is such an affluent white suburbanite turn of phrase, isn't it? You can see here a bit of Brooks' longing for that new golden age of 2002-04. It's sort of paradise as envisioned in 2000's-era corporate marketing materials - people in a variety of hues all agreeing on the greatness of their institution. No disagreement, no hostility...except for those people who do disagree, but they're enemies anyway.

8. Relationships do not scale. They have to be built one at a time, through patience and forbearance. But norms do scale. When people in a community cultivate caring relationships, and do so repeatedly in a way that gets communicated to others, then norms are established. Trustworthy action is admired; empathy is celebrated. Cruelty is punished and ostracized. Neighborliness becomes the default state. An emergent system, a culture, has been created that subtly guides all the members in certain directions. People within a moral ecology are given a million subtle nudges to either live up to their full dignity or sink to their base cravings. The moral ecology is the thing we build together through our daily decisions.

9. Rebuilding society is not just get-togetherism, convening people in some intellectually or morally neutral way. There has to be a shift in moral culture, a shift in the definition of the good life people imagine together.

"Moral ecology" is definitely a recycled phrase from The Road to Character. He loves using "moral" as an adjective for everything, perhaps because he thinks that you have to use the word moral to be moral - remember when he made that argument? Good times.

These two points and the next are the most important ones in this section, for we see the definition of Brooks' ideal society, and it's actually fairly radical. In his utopia, problems are primarily solved through social pressures and morality plays - we won't need all those filthy government initiatives if everyone was nice, dammit. At first brush, this sounds oddly anarchistic (specifically, social anarchism), but anarchism is rooted in the belief that people are innately good and Brooks doesn't believe that. Historically, conservatives used the everyone-is-evil presumption to justify exercising more control over people's lives, so how can Brooks use the same argument in defense of less control?

The answer to this conundrum lies in the works of Rod Dreher. Unlike those biographies that he almost certainly skims to look intelligent, I believe that Brooks read The Benedict Option cover-to-cover and was really inspired by it. His recent obsession with "localism" and neighborhoods obviously comes from Dreher, and it's likely that this pseudo-anarchism has a similar source. Dreher, who fears the "secular" government, imagined that you could build an ideal society around an institution (namely, a church) and you wouldn't really need so much government. Brooks merely lifted that idea and incorporated it into his own, much mushier beliefs. He doesn't want less control, he just wants a different power structure.

10. The state has an important but incomplete role to play in this process. The state can provide services, but it cannot easily provide care. That is to say, the state can redistribute money to the poor, can build homeless shelters and day care centers. It can create the material platforms on which relationships can be built. But the state can't create the intimate relationships that build a fully functioning person. That can only happen through habitual personal contact. It is only through relationships that we become neighbors, workers, citizens, and friends.

Finally, we have the government's actual role in all of this. Brooks hates talking about policy, and this bit of vapor is still more detail than we usually get. For the record, Brooks recently wrote a column where he went into even more detail. The original post broke down this column, but there's just not much there - a collection of paleocon compromise positions (e.g. non-striking "worker's councils" instead of unions), faux-pragmatic centrist hobby horses (e.g. the "let's pay to move them all to North Dakota" bit, which seems like it contradicts the whole localism thing, but whatever), and typical non-specific mush.

The most interesting bit was a statement about letting neighbors judge each other. The original post ended with a spiel about that, but then Brooks wrote another column that pissed me off more than they usually do so I'll probably end up rolling that into its own post. Suffice it to say that Brooksland isn't exactly "unified" - his dream world is a nation broken up into a hundred thousand HOAs ruled over by local elites, all held together by a modern noblesse oblige and a common national myth and overseen by a primarily symbolic federal government, the Congress reduced to a panel of philosophers and storytellers keeping all these new fiefs from invading each other.

But it is even this extensive? Rod Dreher is a man who talks in miles but acts in inches, and Brooks is the same way. He isn't actually calling for any big changes in the government, certainly nothing that would change his own life (which he clearly finds satisfying). In true conservative fashion, he wants everything to stop, move back a few step and stay there. True, he'd like it if the peasants were more deferential to their betters, but he'll be happy if they just stop agitating.

David Brooks isn't an anarchist anymore than Rod Dreher was. Brooks still envisions control, but he rejects a codified system in favor of informal, de facto control based around tradition. If you don't believe me, well...wait a month, I'm sure Ross Douthat will tactlessly pen a column openly expressing all of this. I suspect that he's been reading from Brooks' book collection and typing out the notes in the margins by mistake.