Thursday, October 11, 2018

Why I Probably Won't Read David Brooks' Next Book

Sitting here in my Chinese apartment, sipping on a cup of local tea (augmented with some additional herbs) and enjoying a square of fine dark chocolate that is somehow cheaper here than it was back home, I can't help but wonder why I bother keeping this blog around. It's served its purpose - enabling me to piss and moan about bad books during a time in my life when I had too much free time - and I struggle to justify its continued existence. Will I ever really use this venue again? Do I really see myself reading through ponderous faux-intellectual conservative tomes in the future? And if I do, wouldn't it make more sense to turn on the webcam and then upload it to YouTube, which has apparently replaced blogs in the domain of people bitching about frivolous political controversies?

All of these things may be true. But David Brooks went and wrote another book. He wrote another book, and soon that book will exist in this reality along with me, and I must decide if I will pick it up.

There are many reasons to say "no" to this, enough that the odds of me touching The Committed Life are basically a rounding error:

  1. I no longer have access to the amazing Lawrence Public Library, so I'd have to pay full price for it, which won't happen.
  2. The blurb on the the Random House page suggests that this is just The Road to Character Redux with a different set of book reports in the middle and perhaps some more pseudo-religious hectoring, so I feel like I've done my duty already.
  3. Regardless of what he thinks or how he's treated by certain sectors of the media, Brooks and his beliefs are not terribly relevant today. I don't care how many think pieces you write, Michael Bloomberg is not going to be President and neither is Joe Lieberman or whatever "centrist" you care to name.
  4. Between a full-time job and my ongoing writing work (including a new, deeply personal project) I'm not sure that I can justify spending the time it would take to read the book, re-read it for material, transcribe the worst parts, and then snark on it. It feels like an unwise use of my time.
  5. Honestly, though, playing video games and downing shots of homemade green dragon might be a better use of my time than reading anything David Brooks has to say.
All very true, and yet we're still here, discussing it.

David Brooks is heir to a particularly old school branch of conservatism. The funny thing about these conservatives is that they insist that they are nothing of the sort - "centrists" or "moderates" or "independents" or whatever they care to call themselves from moment to moment. They insist that they are not conservatives because the modern conservative movement is now controlled by a radical right-wing version of libertarianism that they don't care for. They're not wholly opposed - those libertarian policies still mean more money in their pockets, and who would oppose that - but they've decided that they can do better.

I've penned very long breakdowns of what these guys believe, but you can break it down to one word: anti-modernism. If something is associated with modern society, they're opposed to it - modern economic systems (capitalist or socialism), modern political systems (basically anything post-Enlightenment), modern technology. They adhere to a decidedly anti-democratic belief that there own beliefs are mere pragmatism, beyond politics and correct by default, which must be implemented by a politician who is simultaneously massively popular and yet has no real voter base or ground strategy.

Perhaps the most perfect example of this comes courtesy of Charles Wheelan of Unite America, one of the various vanity projects sprouting up around this conceit. His use of "broccoli and ice cream" as a stand-in really hints at an amazing mindset, one in which voters are squawling children too self-indulgent for self-rule and "independent" politicians are the parents telling the voter-children what to do and making all their decisions for them. Truly, this is a winning message in the current political climate.

Brooks is still the king of this, though, and its visible proponent - he seems to be in proximity to a lot of these vanity projects, after all. I've made plenty of jokes about Brooks and his political beliefs, which in true "centrist" fashion are presented as objectively correct ideas rather than beliefs. As of late, though, Brooks has been avoiding talking about politics (in the sense of policy) and more about society and personal life, though these two are ultimately inseparable. He clearly adheres to something called right-communitarianism, a political philosophy in which 1.) the community is more valuable than the group, and 2.) there is a strict hierarchy consisting of traditional sources of authority.

Sitting here in the homeland of Confucianism - easily one of the world's oldest right-communitarian philosophies - I can easily see the foibles in trying to take an idea built around a homogeneous village of a few hundred and scaling it up to a heterogeneous nation of hundreds of millions. It doesn't matter, though, because he's directing this as individuals and small groups rather than the polity as a whole. In this sense, his philosophy is very similar to what Rod Dreher was selling in The Benedict Option.

So maybe it's worth a minute to take the briefest of glimpses at this before dismissing it outright. Here's the publisher's copy:
Most of us, over the course of our lives, will make four big commitments: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.
These are straight out of The Road to Character. "Spouse and family" is from Chapter 7 (the one that sounded like it was written by a robot), "vocation" is Chapter 2, "philosophy or faith" is...really the whole thing, but Chapter 4 is probably most on point. As to "community," you can find the goods in this chapter, which isn't in Brooks' book at all but in Rod Dreher's. That's what this whole project sounds like, a collision between The Road to Character and The Benedict Option. Joy.

One could easily mock the source of this advice. This is a divorced man married to a much younger former subordinate, who does his job poorly and doesn't like it all that much but keeps doing it because it's an easy gig, who admires other people's faith but lacks the courage to commit to one for himself. This mockery has been done in other venues, with more venom and wit than I care to muster at the moment. It's not really my style, anyway. When I take apart someone like Brooks, I like to approach it on an intellectual level that the subject rarely deserves.
We have taken individualism to the extreme degree--and, in the process, we have torn the social fabric in a thousand different ways. The path to repair is through making deeper commitments.
Yeah, that's Brooks all right. As you may recall, Brooks spent The Road to Character (or at least the non-stolen parts at the beginning and end) laying out a downright dystopian worldview in which people (young people mostly) were growing ever more shallow and self-interested, pulling the whole of society into a moral abyss in which the Kids These Days treat each other as obstacles in a ravenous struggle for status. He achieved this by compressing three generations into one enormous cohort and then cherry picking through six decades' worth of studies, ignoring anything that didn't fit his conclusion. This is how he treats his own "vocation," mind, and he's going to teach you to be just as diligent in your own doings.
We live in a society, Brooks argues, that celebrates freedom and choice, that tells us to be true to ourselves, to march to the beat of our own drummer at the expense of surrendering to a cause, rooting ourselves in a neighborhood, and binding ourselves to others by social solidarity and love.
Let's break these down and go one at a time:

Surrendering to a cause. I really feel like Americans don't have a problem with this right now. His complaints about lack of civic engagement in The Road to Character were really just bad timing, but trying that argument after 2016 is willful blindness. Of course, David Brooks - like any Humpty Dumpty - has the right to simply change what words mean, something he did in the last book when he rather neatly dismissed social service as "a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life."

Rooting ourselves in a neighborhood. This is pure Dreher, with the wringing of hands over people who move to the Big City and lose themselves. As a man living overseas, my immediate reaction is to say "fuck you, Dave" in as many ways as I can dream up; I really don't feel that I'm more shallow or callous for choosing not to live in western Kansas my whole life. Brooks seems to view voluntarily relocating as a betrayal akin to leaving one's spouse. There's also the whole debate over whether a remote/virtual community constitutes a "community" but I already hashed this out with Dreher, so...fuck you, Dave.

Binding ourselves to other by social solidarity and love. I just don't feel that we have a problem with this, and Brooks never proved otherwise. "Inhumanly manipulative and cold" just isn't among the common KTD stereotypes of the moment - we stereotype them as too sensitive, too engaged in solidarity. Perhaps Brooks' upper-class world is full to the brim with outright sociopaths (in fact, given the recent news cycles I'd say there's a good chance), but that's not the world at large.

Moving up a bit:
...He gathers their wisdom on how to choose a partner, how to pick a vocation, how to live out a philosophy, and how we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose.
How to choose a partner. Apparently in the world of the upper class, they don't just fall in love, go on a bunch of dates and then get hitched. Per Brooks, they get married to people who can advance their careers, and he assumes the rest of us are the same way. In Chapter 7 of the previous book, he suggested (over the course of five positively inhuman pages) that the purpose of love is to achieve some sort of personal betterment. I might suggest that choosing a partner based on those metrics is just as cynical as choosing for money and status. Either way, you are treating a human being as a means to an end.

How to pick a vocation. Again, most of us don't have the privilege to pick a job based on meaning. That's not even an option. I'd love to commit to writing full-time and honing the craft, but I'd be a very hungry man. The status vs. meaning dichotomy is another upper class problem Brooks projects onto the United States as a whole because he is out of touch and doesn't know better.

How to live out a philosophy. I struggle somewhat to reconcile this with Brooks' belief that holding strong political beliefs is a mistake and one must be a "trimmer." I feel like I am very deeply committed to a philosophy and Brooks insists that this is "tribalism" and very dangerous. Should I commit to a belief and remain firm no matter what, or should I bend and twist with the changes?

How we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose. I did wonder about this, because reading through this, all I could think of is all the potential conflicts in Brooks' perfect world. What if your philosophy is Catholicism and you opt to enter a monastic order? What if your vocation entails traveling to places in crisis, spending extensive time away from home? That's not what he means, though, and judging by the conclusion to The Road to Character I can't expect an answer.

The outcome of all this predictable. In the previous book, Brooks insisted that it's impossible to be a good person on your own, that you need structure and even shame to accomplish anything of merit. To be an individual is to be ruthless and greedy and cynical almost by definition. It is to grasp for glory with both hands, to treat other human beings as resources or obstacles, and ultimately to become less human. Bold arguments from Brooks, and hard to reconcile with the actual character of the youth of the nation, or even his own vision. After all, Brooks' ideal future as laid out in his writings is hardly egalitarian. He sees people as serving beneath a local elite who do receive wealth and status but apparently don't enjoy them, or at least don't enjoy them publicly where it might induce ambition among the Happy Peasants.

I'll probably never have anything to do with The Committed Life because, ultimately, the problems within are going to be the same as any other book on How to Live. By assuming that there is only one way to be fulfilled, all of these books rely on a lack of imagination and (ironically in this case) empathy, assuming that one's own experience of life is the only one. This being an advice book, I'd also feel compelled to ask a question that makes me a little uncomfortable: Has David Brooks changed his own life in accordance with the teaching within? The wisest teachers live their own lessons, after all. But Brooks has always been a master projectionist when it comes to his ideals. He found no lasting happiness in the pursuit of unearned status, so it's time for the rest of us to find our hairshirts and cords. Mr. Brooks will, of course, continue to bask in praise over his "brilliant insight" - but I'm sure he doesn't enjoy. It's just part of a commitment he made.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Let Me Bleed A Little For You

This post isn't about politics or literature. I'm burrowing through layers of censorship to write of a secret I've kept, however poorly. It is posted here only as proof of what happened.

The boy in this picture is named Tim Huang, or Huang Haozhe. I was told that I should keep this photo a secret from everyone but my parents. I have chosen not to for reasons I will discuss a bit later, but first I want to give some context as not all of you are familiar with this.

The one moment I'll always remember is the night I received an unexpected phone call shortly after I'd visited Tim on his second birthday. The call was from Tim's mother, but all I could hear was wailing. When the mother at last spoke, she told me that Tim had been crying out my name for almost an hour and she hoped that I could calm him down. I spoke to the boy, and he immediately fell silent. He'd missed his friend and wanted to know that I was there. I sang to him a bit and he fell asleep. Even in the short time I'd spent with him, we had bonded - this much I could feel on that dismal night.

I started getting regular calls after that, video calls mostly. The mother wanted me to sing for Tim, or read to him. He would often ask for me, and I was more than happy to answer any call he sent me. This became a ritual of sorts - I'd hear from them at least once a week, often two or three times. I didn't delude myself that I'd ever be with the mother, though I still loved her. All I cared about was Tim. It was a strange relationship, but as an adoptee myself I'm no stranger to close emotional relationships to non-blood relatives. What did I care who his biological father was? He felt like my son. I loved him like he was my son.

And then the calls stopped, the messages no longer returned - and the lies came out.

Tim is the son of one Huang Ye - known to me as Audrey - and her ex-husband. The ex was a terribly abusive man who has harassed her to this day. Huang Ye is also an ex of mine, having left me shortly after I proposed marriage under circumstances I've discussed at length elsewhere. When she reached out to me in early 2015, she'd been dragged along to the United States, promptly served with divorce papers, repeatedly lied to as part of a particularly nasty plot on the part of her husband to, essentially, steal the boy. I've spoken about this at length, including my involvement in getting the two of them untangled.

Working with Audrey was very painful for me, but what surprised me was what I felt toward Tim. I never thought I wanted kids, and yet I relished the time I spent with him. The first time, I was left to babysit while Audrey made a critical appointment - he cried at first, but then fell asleep nestled against my chest. That was when I decided that I was going to be part of his life. I offered to move to Arizona to be closer to them, but Audrey told me not to. I would be in the way, she said, and besides she didn't have time for a boyfriend. In lieu of that, I decided that I would travel to Arizona for the boy's birthday every year. This was not cheap, but it was important for me. I wanted to have that bond.

That's when the calls started to change. I no longer heard from Tim every week - it was once a month if I was lucky, and they were very terse calls. I would call Audrey, but she would simply ignore me, always telling me that she was too busy. In the meantime, I had to live by her rules regarding what I was allowed to reveal. During her divorce, I was never to post pictures of her or of Tim under my name - fair enough, that might be a risk. But this didn't stop once she was a free woman again. She told me that I was never to show the above picture to anyone but my parents, and I was never to put it here. I didn't understand why, but she was insistent. I was always to remain silent and off-camera when she recorded Tim so - I assumed - she wouldn't have to explain my presence to her parents.

All of this hurt me, not the least of which because I didn't understand it. Yes, her parents didn't like me - didn't like Americans much at all - but surely I'd earned some credit after everything I'd done for their daughter and grandson? But I shrugged it off as one of those cultural elements that I'd never truly understand. The lack of calls was worse, but I believed her when she said she didn't have time.

Since arriving in Hefei, I have continued to try and call her and been rebuffed every time. She does send an occasional message, trying to be friendly - very cursory, never saying anything about Tim. But the last message stung me deep, not for what she said but for the profile picture next to it. It was Audrey with a man I believe to be her boyfriend - the one she doesn't have time for. That she's seeing someone is not my concern. That she lied about it hurts a lot more. But the bad part is that this other man is holding Tim.

In a picture posted to the internet, breaking the rules that Audrey had set for me - the man she once credited with saving her son.

I've long since given up any hope of understanding Audrey's behavior towards me or fathoming what I can only imagine is her shame regarding me. I'd ask, but she'll only lie. Instead, I've opted to cut her off entirely. She'll find a way to contact me again, if not now then in a year or two when she's suffering from another of her bad decisions and has decided to run home. I don't care about that. I do care that, by all appearances, I became Tim's surrogate father - the positive male figure that he needed - and after all my efforts and sacrifice, Audrey has chosen to replace me with another. Tim will never remember my name or my face, or know any of the things I did for him and his mother.

But that relationship was real, even if Audrey has decided to pretend like it never happened. That's why I'm posting this picture over her stated wishes. It's not to hurt her. If I wished to do that, I could have written about those lies I told on her behalf, or spoken about the nature and extent of our physical relationship, or revealed certain disturbing things that she said during the divorce. I will not do this. I post this merely as proof that this relationship existed, even if no one remembers it but me. It is a weeping wound that still throbs every day, a reminder of what I could have had but for fate. I don't know how long it will take me to get over this. Maybe I never will.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Swan Song Part II - The Game (Or, What Do These People Even Believe?)

We've spent a lot of time railing against the scourge of bothsiderism, that insistence that Both Sides are symmetrical in their awfulness and bear comparable weight for every social problem we have, with the right answer inevitably lying in some hypothetical spot in the middle. Most of the authors I've featured here have been bothsiderists/Sensible Centrists/Very Serious People/whatever else you care to call them, and I've learned a few things from reading their horrible books and columns and peeking in on their doomed projects du jour and tearing it all apart. In the interest of proving that I've gotten something out of all of this, here is my final report.

Bothsiderism: The Basics

So let's start off with the obvious: Bothsiderists are to the right of center. This shouldn't be a shock to anyone who's familiar with this terminology; "Sensible Centrist" is a misnomer, although it does reflect how they view themselves (but we'll get to that). Most of these pundits got their start writing for conservative opinion journals or working for the Reagan or George W. Bush administrations before realizing that the "conservative" label was holding back their careers and identifying as a "moderate" or "independent" was much smarter. It's funny how so many independents appeared in elite media circles after the Dubya White House imploded in 2007, isn't it?

To be fair, most of these "independents" are not doctrinaire movement conservatives - they only agree with Republicans on 90% of all issues. In practice, they are conservative on all issues except for those areas where liberals are obviously winning. They were ahead of the curve on LGBT issues (although they're still not sure about transgender issues), hold some kind of mushy, halfway-there environmentalist stance on climate change, and generally don't exhibit the xenophobia of the sweaty GOP masses. Move beyond those mostly social issues and into the realm of fiscal or international policy and they're pretty hardline conservatives.

In the past, I've suggested that bothsiderists are a people obsessed with avoiding conflict, and this aversion to controversy is their primary motivator. When No Labels released a policy guide that they had literally focus tested, it seemed to back that up. But lately, I've been questioning this. If they really wanted to be popular (or at least not unpopular), they'd keep moving to the left, but they haven't. If anything, this recent obsession with "identity politics" and their constant complaints about college students, transgender activists, and unruly minority types suggest that if anything they're trying to pull back to the right, using the insanity of the current White House (and to a much lesser extent, the Congress) as a cover.

If bothsiderists aren't just paleocons trying to get a seat at the popular table, then is it possible that they have an ideology all their own? I think so, and while that worldview is still fundamentally conservative, it is quite distinct from what we would consider "conservatism."

American Aristocracy

I established in Part I that one of the central beliefs in the Club is that the affluent are superior to the underclasses for reasons aside from money - that indeed, money isn't even the critical difference between the two. This is central to the elite worldview, but it's not the whole thing. Studying the thoughts of the bothsiderist and his allies, I've winnowed the ideology down to nine basic tenets:

  1. A declinist worldview in which (regardless of tangible progress) some notion of morality and civility is in decay;
  2. A general disdain for politics, particularly for grassroots activism aimed at fixing specific problems;
  3. A noblesse oblige-like view that social elites ought to take charge of the underclasses, whom they view as unable to manage their own lives;
  4. An extreme skepticism of utopian ideas, resulting in a view that all "serious" policy is zero-sum and must be considered in terms of winners and losers;
  5. A defensive respect toward "institutions," namely the military, organized religion, "the family," and the media;
  6. A consequent fear of other influential organizations, especially those involving the internet;
  7. A belief in the need for a strong national identity that replaces all other "identities" in the political sphere;
  8. A perception of strong political beliefs as "orthodoxies" passed on solely through indoctrination, and therefore not worth engaging;
  9. A consequent view of their own political beliefs as rational/pragmatic/common sense policies that are in some way beyond partisan politics.

If you had a mind to, you could refine this even further. For example, let's winnow it down to what bothsiderists view as our main problems:

  • Lack of unity/civility
  • Lack of humility as seen in insufficient deference to tradition/one's superiors
  • An unwillingness to sacrifice
We could play this game all day, but you get the point.

Does all of this seem vaguely aristocratic to you? Especially in light of the last post? To me, it sounds like the cries of the old noble class in the waning generations of the birthright system, bemoaning the rise of money and the growing power of that gaudy peasant capitalist class.

The complaints from our betters are different only in context - the sentiment is the same. Social media (or blogs back in the day) is evil because it gives power to ignorant peasants who don't know how to properly wield it. People agitating for their own interests are practicing "tribalism" - they'd be better served if they just quieted down and let more neutral minds do what's good for everyone. And "populism" - whatever the fuck that even means from moment to moment - is the absolute worst because it means that the peasants think they're able to make decisions for themselves.

Bothsiderist pundits are upset because they don't have the influence they feel they should have. That's a weird thing to say given that half the books I read contain fawning, ebullient praise of David Brooks. Yes, he has a tremendous amount of influence...among other elites. The hoi polloi clearly don't give a shit what he has to say. There was a time (possibly a mythical time) when "public intellectuals" held a lot more sway over the voting habits of the simple, humble folk, but they're just not listening anymore. Perhaps if we all humbly read more popular autobiographies, then "WWDBD?" wristbands would surge in popularity.

An implication of all of this is that democracy has come under threat precisely because we've stopped listening to Very Serious bothsiderist types. Some pundits love to make doomsday predictions about the end of democracy, based on evidence as nebulous as "incivility" or as concrete as a garbage poll of college students presented by Even the Liberal Brookings Institution. We wouldn't have this civility problem (the worst problem we as a nation have, according to affluent white men) if the voters would just listen to the adults like they did in the Good Old Days. They are sincere about wanting democracy, but not American democracy, which has been an ugly and rancorous affair for over two hundred years. The ideal system is one in which we privilege the children to speak and listen to them, but never defer to them - something more like Hong Kong democracy.

But Where Does "Both Sides" Enter Into It?

That's a very good question, as tenets #8 and #9 don't quite fit in with the ones above them. There's a very notable uptick in bothsiderism any time conservatism takes a hit in the public eye, so the most obvious explanation is that it's all about saving face. There's certainly truth to that, but I think the notion of symmetrical badness actually stems from the ideology itself.

As you might guess from the "no labels" and "country over party" rhetoric, bothsiderists like to place themselves above mere politics. The best explanation for this appeared in the middle of Tom Scocca's epic-length 2013 article "On Smarm":

The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm. Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given...
...In this, as in so many other parts of contemporary politics, members of the self-identified center are in some important sense unable to accept opposition. Through smarm, they have cut themselves off from the language of actual dispute. An entire political agenda—privatization of government services, aggressive policing, charter schooling, cuts in Social Security—has been packaged as apolitical, a reasonable consensus about necessity. Those who oppose the agenda are "interest groups," whose selfish greed makes them unable to see reason, or "ideologues." Those who promote it are disinterested and nonideological. There is no reason for the latter to even engage the former. In smarm is power.
This is a dead-on description of the bothsiderist agenda. Your ideas on policy are ideological, my ideas on policy are ideological, and their ideas on policy are the rational ideal for what a government should be. The goal of the bothsiderist is not to move the much-referenced Overton Window, but rather to narrow it. But rather than promote their own beliefs (which aren't of interest to most of the peasants), they work the other way and strive to depict beliefs outside of their own as radical, dangerous, selfish, short-sighted or thoughtless. And this leads me to #8.

Coincidentally, a perfect example of this popped up as I was writing the first part. As with so many awful political articles, it first appeared in Politico. Either you've already seen it or you'll recognize the style very quickly:

On a recent March morning, as a nor’easter walloped an idyllic Brooklyn street with snow, members of the Park Slope Food Coop ambled inside, shopping for bargains on broccolini and organic wheatgrass. I was here under somewhat false pretenses, as a reporter from out of state to tour the co-op—the truth, but not the whole truth.
At the door, a young blond woman told me I wasn’t welcome to roam a single organic-mango punctuated aisle unless under the supervision of a co-op member. She instructed me to take an elevator upstairs, where I would find a customer service desk. There, I met several members. I told them I had traveled here to take the political temperature of Clinton Country. This place, I explained, seemed to be the epicenter of liberal consensus.
6,000 words of this, folks. Adam Wren, the author, claimed it was "satire" when people called him out on it. Like Yastreblyansky, I'm willing to believe him, but only in that sense that the author still  believes that what he's writing is accurate on some level.

Broad stereotypes like the ones in that article live on in part because they are very useful to bothsiderists. Articles like this, with their japes about "bubbles" and presumption that, in Yas's words, that "all 66 million of us lived within three miles of the Brooklyn Bridge," make it easier to depict divergent ideas as mere orthodoxy.

Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, didn't I get my ideas from a "bubble" on the Upper East Side? Some of that article rings true - the regular trips to co-ops and farmer's markets for organic produce, the multicultural educational programs with teachers carefully selected to represent the whole spectrum of human diversity. The cocktail parties, too - not that I ever partook, but I remember listening to in-depth conversations on the plight of the poor and American imperialism. It was the same thing I heard from my teachers and relatives and, down the line, other kids. No one ever explicitly stifled conservative thought, but it was silently muted through the gag of acceptable discourse. Was I really given a choice to make up my own mind when every pair of lips spoke in the same voice?

Actually, the above paragraph is a total lie.

...Well, let's call it "satire."

In reality, I grew up in western Kansas in a small town that served as a trial balloon in the effort to get "intelligent design" into schools via Of Pandas and People. We had textbooks with "Only a theory" stickers in the front and teachers who warned us not to take the Lord's name in vain when getting our grades because this was offensive to Christians. There were kids who told lynching jokes (because it was so outrageous) and, after 9/11, some of them even talked openly about how we should be killing more Arabs. There was even a lovely group of football players who threatened a kid because they thought he was anti-American.

There was no "liberal orthodoxy" or "blue bubble." I considered myself a Republican (if only because all the teachers were) until I took a political position test in the 8th grade that revealed that I really far to the left. No indoctrination, just the same life experience that shapes anyone's personal philosophy.

But as far as the bothsiderists are concerned, I can't exist, nor can the millions of others just like me. Their philosophy is based on the notion that their own beliefs (which they view not as "beliefs" but as basic facts) are the default and people only hold those other, wrong beliefs if they've been inducted into some radical orthodoxy. Everyone is born seeing the logic in small, sensible government with technocratic "pro-growth" policies and efforts to promote marriage as the sole fix for poverty, and only constant brainwashing from the moment of birth can change that.

If my beliefs resulted from my own rationality, morals, and personal experiences, then they are legitimate; if I've built a case from those beliefs, then they are worthy of engagement. If, on the other hand, my beliefs stem from some faith-like orthodoxy, implying that I've never thought about them, then they are illegitimate and much easier to dismiss. Thus, to the bothsiderist, ever belief outside of their own narrow center-right selection of preferred policies can be ignored - not because those policies are wrong (which they assume anyway) but because the people espousing them are not being Sensible. It's the ad hominem attack turned into a whole philosophy that, ironically, accuses others of being excessively negative and hostile.

But then again, a radical and inferior peasant like me would say that.


Thanks for sitting through all of this nonsense. If you're interested in keeping up with whatever bullshit I try and accomplish down the line, I have a Twitter account that I'm sure I won't abandon inside of a month.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Swan Song Part I - The Club (Or, Why Do These People Keep Getting Hired?)

The short version is that I'm going to be headed out of the country very soon, which neatly cuts off my access to cheap and guilt-free sources of fisking fodder. In these last few idle days, I'd like to synthesize what I've learned from this little project of mine. As it turns out, it dovetails with some things the bloggerati have been discussing as of late.

For example...what the fuck is with all these rancorous assholes getting hired on at respectable publications?

Kevin D. Williamson


The most recent - and arguably most controversial - upward move was the hiring of angry dog and National Review writer Kevin Williamson to The Atlantic. Now, I don't have a lot of respect for this particular publication these days (that kind of faded out once they decided to host Megan McArdle's cooking videos), but it is still a masthead with a very long history in American politics and culture.

Williamson is an odd choice for The Atlantic. True, the #NeverTrump brand (Motto: "Just because you're destroying the country, it doesn't mean you have to be crass") is very valuable these days, but Williamson's selection is still a stumper. He's not very high profile, for one. He's also a jerk - a jerk in real life (as he amply demonstrated in that notorious cell phone throwing incident) and a bigger jerk in his writing. There is, of course, his comments on executing women who get abortions and his bizarrely racist bit of creative nonfiction concerning East St. Louis. Those are the pieces that have generated the most outrage and the most head-scratching, but there's a third piece that's also commonly referenced but doesn't generate as much of an emotional response.

Ostensibly, it's an anti-Trump piece, but most of the vitriol is aimed at poor rural whites. Here's one of the most frequently cited chunks:
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization.... Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.... nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.
Just before the election, he wrote another piece that followed in very much the same vein, but cut out any pretense of being about Trump at all:
...most likely, your problem is not that you are suffering from schizophrenia or (though this is more likely) a debilitating addiction. Maybe you had a rough upbringing. Maybe, like most of us, you’d be in a better place in life if you were a little bit smarter, taller, better-looking, disciplined, and oriented toward the future. But there isn’t a government program that is going to change any of that.
Free markets — which is to say, the economic networks that emerge when people are left free to pursue their own ends and interests — are good at many things, and one of the things they are terribly good at is sorting. Companies know who their most productive people are and which of the firms they work with provide the best results; and, though it is more art than science, they are pretty good at figuring out what characteristics those valuable workers and partner firms have.
In short: Sorry your life sucks, but there's nothing we can or should do.

Most commentators reading pieces like this are trying to come up with reasons why he was hired if this is what he was bringing to the table. They're asking the wrong questions, though. Williamson wasn't hired in spite of this content but because of it. In fact, it's my opinion that it was his bashing of poor folks that was what made him eligible to join the Serious Journalism Club in the first place.

A bold statement? Sure, but it explains pretty much all of them.

Megan McArdle


If you wanted to demonstrate just how dim, cruel and lazy Megan McArdle is, well, she's certainly given you plenty of material. Here's a whole article full of McArdle idiocy, written in honor of her promotion to the Washington Post. The author of that piece set aside plenty of space for McArdle's disdain of the poor and yet he didn't get all of it. He missed this classic take:
As I wrote in an op-ed for the Daily that came out today, it's all too common for well-meaning middle class people to think that if the poor just had the same stuff we do, they wouldn't be poor any more (where "stuff" includes anything from a college education to a marriage license to a home).  But this is not true.
Let's leave aside that, on other occasions, McArdle had pushed "marriage makes you rich" arguments that completely contradict this. This statement is absurd on its face. Being poor is the state of not having much money; if you acquire more money, then under this definition, you are no longer poor. Liberals gave her plenty of shit over this.

But the key here is under this definition. What if McArdle is following another definition, one under which wealth is not actually the principle component of class?

Unlike some other recent wingnut affirmative action hires like Williamson and Bret Stephens, I know quite a bit about McArdle because I've read her horrible book and analyzed it for this very blog. Those of you who followed that series might recall the advice given within was highly inconsistent. The premise of the book - as spelled out in no less than the title - is that people need to be encouraged to take big risks and fail and try again, and this is so important that society needs to entirely forgive these failures. However, this principle only describes about half of the book. In the other half, we learn that risk is very, very bad, and that people must be taught to avoid it at all costs through strict adherence to procedure and swift, harsh discipline when they deviate.

The only way to reconcile those two threads is to assume that they comprise two very different sets of advice intended for two very different sets of people. The first group - the one for which she prescribes freedom and forgiveness - are highly creative, motivated and intelligent, people whose ideas are needed to grow the economy. The second group - for whom she prescribes regimentation and punishment - are dull-witted, self-centered and impulsive, a servile and childlike people. The key point comes in the final chapter, in which McArdle sings the praises of easy bankruptcy law, but only for the first group:
Bankruptcy lawyers shouldn't be criticizing Dave Ramsey; they should be thanking him. It's people like him, encouraging debtors to pay off as much as they can, who make it possible for us to maintain the easy bankruptcy laws that give relief to the clients of the consumer groups and lawyers who complain about Ramsey's message.
One set of people gets to just walk away from their mistakes, while the others are expected to drain their bank accounts, sell their homes, sell their goddamn body parts to pay for their mistakes. It's important that they sacrifice everything to keep the system upright so that their betters can be free to take important risks without sacrificing at all.

Obviously, the first group is much farther up the economic food chain than the sweaty peasants, and they don't need discipline and regimentation because they are just so much smarter and more moral than their lessers. Given that, is it possible that McArdle is operating under a definition in which the upper class is an objectively superior class of people?

And what if this definition is more widely accepted than any of us thought?

Even the Liberal Brookings Institution


The genesis for this post - well before any of this nonsense broke - came a few weeks ago at the Lawrence Public Library. I was in the new nonfiction looking for something I could read while walking back to my apartment and my eyes fell on the book Dream Hoarders by some aristocratic twit from the Brookings Institution. It's a slim book and, by my standards, light reading. Look at the jacket copy and you can probably guess why it appealed to my sensibilities:
It’s now conventional wisdom to focus on the excesses of the top 1% — especially the top 0.01% — and how the ultra-rich are hoarding income and wealth while incomes for most other Americans are stagnant. But the more important, and widening, gap in American society is between the upper middle class and everyone else.
Reeves defines the upper middle class as those whose incomes are in the top 20 percent of American society. Income isn’t the only way to measure a society, but in a market economy it is crucial because access to money generally determines who gets the best quality education, housing, health care, and other necessary goods and services.
...Various forms of “opportunity hoarding” among the upper middle class make it harder for others to rise up to the top rung. Examples include zoning laws and schooling, occupational licensing, college application procedures, and the allocation of internships.
That's what made me check it out, something I did in haste.

Dream Hoarders might be the most elitist book I've ever read, and it didn't take long to figure it out. This whole book is a long essay on the cultural, moral and intellectual superiority of the wealthy, along with an argument that it is these aspects and not money, connections, or other structural elements that have made it so hard for anyone to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Now, as with most proper elites, he's not gauche enough to celebrate this - he presents his case with that mix of shame and pity that you get from some of these think tank/ideas festival types. Nevertheless, the argument is premised on the rich just being better than the poor, in many ways that have nothing at all to do with money. They're better parents who send their kids to better schools - and we know those schools are better because of all the rich kids there (and yes, some of the arguments are this circular). At one point, he even seems to argue that thanks to assortative mating, the upper classes are biologically superior to the lower classes.

Richard V. Reeves, the author, never really questions if this Brooksian "meritocracy" he describes actually exists. There's certainly evidence to suggest that the poor are hedged out because the wealthy have structured the system to favor their own kind regardless of whether their own kids are superior - that's my take. Reeves also believes that the system is fixed, but that it's fixed in such a way that rich kids really are superior. An example to illustrate the difference: A lot of employers screen for candidates who went to fancy, expensive schools. I would argue that these schools aren't necessary superior and that this is one of those ways in which the wealthy reduce competition by creating artificial barriers that the poor can't overcome. Reeves maintains that those fancy, expensive schools really are superior (he knows because of the totally unbiased metric of standardized tests and that feeling he gets on parent-teacher night) and do create superior children.

At one point, Reeves actually admits that poor kids who manage to make it through the obstacle course set up by the wealthy have a reputation for being better at their jobs than their born-on-third peers, which would suggest that this system is not remotely a "meritocracy." That would seem to back up my take more than his, but he promptly forgets he said that before the next chapter, the better to argue for his dreaded "market meritocracy" selecting the best people...all of whom just happen to be rich. He never really considers that these distinctions might be illusory.

My point here is not to bash some random Brookings wonk, but rather to point out an important fact: The notion that rich people are personally superior to poor people is not remotely controversial within the Brookings Institution. And if that's true, then it might not be controversial among elite circles at all.

And speaking of things that are inexplicably not controversial among rich assholes...

Charles Murray

Let us now take a few paragraphs to discuss the "redemption" of Charles Murray's career. I use the quotes because Murray never actually went away; after The Bell Curve blew up, we sweaty peasants quit talking about him for a while, but the man never stopped working, nor did he stop getting cited - Reeves namechecks him several times, and David Brooks has always been fond of him (and vice versa).

He kept on writing books, including Human Accomplishment (a catalog of Great Men which gave him another opportunity to argue for the superiority of white men), Real Education (i.e. Some Kids Are Just Dumb, Get Over It), By the People (his plan to impose bigbrain libertarian rule over the objections of the littlebrain voters), and the somewhat inexplicable The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead (a sort of high school graduation book for the disgustingly privileged which I very nearly featured here). But it was his book Coming Apart (i.e. The Bell Curve, but only for whites) that brought him back to the attention of the brutes.

He's made the news a few times in recent years. There were the protests at Middlebury College last year, which got him proclaimed a free speech martyr by Our Wonderful Newsmedia (the right to make large sums of money to speak at places where you aren't really wanted being a less celebrated component of the First Amendment). In the wake of that, he appeared on Sam Harris's podcast to discuss genetic "differences" in intelligence. Two affluent white egomaniacs calmly discussing the inferiority of black people and then patting themselves on the back for being "brave" truth tellers...I really never thought I'd see such a thing in my lifetime, but such was 2017.

In spite of all of this, Murray remains most notorious as the co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve, a doorstop of a tome in which he argued for the intellectual inferiority of people of African descent. But what most people don't remember is that only a small part of the book concerned ethnicity at all. As a whole, the book dealt with a rising "cognitive elite" created through "cognitive sorting" (sounding familiar?) and, in the end, arguing from the likes of Aristotle that these differences are chiefly natural and need to be embraced rather than challenged. You can read a rather long takedown of this conclusion here; this post is long enough as is.

My point is that, for his notoriety, Murray writes about class a lot more than he does about race, and he mostly writes about race in the context of class. Losing Ground, which preceded The Bell Curve, was his argument that the welfare state is doomed to fail because it encourages bad behavior in the underclass. The 2006 book In Our Hands took the opposite approach to reach the same ends, suggesting that we should just give money to the poor and let them destroy themselves with it, thus freeing us of any responsibility. And then there's this obscure little AEI report from 1998, in which Murray writes about divergent cultures in a way that would become mainstream a decade and a half later thanks to Robert Putnam and Murray himself.

Putnam and Murray are frequently mentioned in the same breath, and for a reason. Their philosophies are not identical - Putnam doesn't go in for biological determinism, although Murray has likewise downplayed this in recent years - but it's hard not to notice the similarities between Coming Apart and Putnam's Our Kids, both of which wholeheartedly embrace the cultural superiority argument for disparate outcomes.

So why is it that Putnam gets so many liberal heads nodding while Murray remains despised? Answer: Because Murray done fucked up when he brought race into it. If he'd left those chapters out of The Bell Curve, his reputation wouldn't have taken such a hit (it also probably wouldn't have sold so well among the conservative set, but details). At some point, though, if you are going to make this argument, you have to discuss what it says about race. If you're going to claim that class is the natural result of personal decisions, eventually you have to make a note of the disparate difference between white and black in this country. If poor whites are poor because of their inferior morals and culture, then what does it say that poor blacks and Latinos are doing even worse?

To date, Murray is the only one dumb or arrogant enough to answer that question. Everyone else sidesteps it and only talks about whites, but make no mistake - the question is there, taunting them. If poor people are inferior to rich people, and indeed are poor because they are inferior, then it follows that certain ethnic groups are inferior to others. You can try to argue for structural racism, but that brings in the possibility of structural factors in poverty more generally and there goes your superiority argument. Even so, as long as you only talk about poor whites or poor people generally (implied to be white unless otherwise stated), then no one will push you on this.

As you can see, there's a fairly extensive history of conservative and "centrist" pundits talking about class as though it were personal inferiority that causes poverty, to the point where it is a central idea in elite circles. But wait, I feel like I'm leaving someone out, maybe someone who's made an appearance in everything I've ever written...

David Brooks

I hope that the above sections have helped explain why David Brooks has a career, because they sure helped me grasp it. Brooks has had a hand in this nonsense for his entire career. His first two books - the "Paradise Suite" - consist of endless sub-Erma Bombeck musings on the superiority of the upper class and their whimsically absurd and absurdly whimsical ways. The Social Animal was him throwing that into a blender with some bad fiction and worse science. There have been traces of that more-in-sorrow wailing on the plight of the benighted Poors in so many of his columns and tied up in the Great Man sermonizing that comprised 90% of this monstrosity.

I don't want to talk about those, though. I'd like to highlight a column that was one of the more broadly mocked things he's written in recent memory, despite being pretty trivial. But maybe the triviality was an illusion. Maybe Brooks gave away the game.

I'm talking, of course, about the sandwich column:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named "Padrino" and "Pomodoro" and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
A few things off the bat: One, Brooks actually mentions Dream Hoarders in this column, but I swear I didn't remember that when I started writing this. It was just a beautiful serendipity. Two, while I thought that Reeves came across as extremely superior in that book, Brooks seems to think that he didn't go far enough in that Reeves recognized some structural impediments (e.g. education, though see above as to my thoughts on the subject). This means that not only is Reeves not controversial, he's actually the moderate in the room.

The above paragraph, in all of its shitty rich guy glory, was Brooks' response to Reeves. Seriously. Brooks wrote that piece dumping on a totally real person who was for real a friend who was earnestly flummoxed by sandwiches with funny names in order to prove...what, exactly?
To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.
Brooks was arguing that rich people and poor people are so far apart that they are totally incapable of communicating. He's gone into this nonsense before regarding urban vs. rural - the infamous "One Nation, Slightly Divisible" debacle, in which he envisioned the United States as a nation containing New York, Chicago and then Mayberry for thousands of square miles - but this is a step past that. This is someone being rendered nonfunctional by a fancy sandwich, by bread and meat.

That right there proves to me that this person (provided she really exists and isn't a Friedman-like convenience construct) can't possibly be Brooks' friend in any real sense. He views her like a child, endowed with a very simple, unrefined intellect rendering her incapable of appreciating the diet of a superior figure, a mind so basic that it was frozen fast by a menu. In true upper-class ninny fashion, he presents this in a somewhat self-deprecating manner, but that doesn't change the fact that he views her as his lesser, someone lacking in what he considers very fundamental knowledge.

But then again, why wouldn't he view this totally real person as his lesser? That's a lesson he would have learned many times in those years since he learned that kissing William Buckley's ass would give him a pass into the world of the elite. What he writes about the poor is certainly less hostile than what we've seen from Williamson, McArdle or Murray, more in line with the "noble savages" sentiment of the delicately aristocratic, but in practice that doesn't mean much. Think about the views of well-to-do Englishmen on the original noble savages - noble, yes, with a pure and harmonious existence, but still decidedly inferior, in need of the correcting influence of their "civilized" betters. To Brooks, people from the sticks might as well be the denizens of some lost tribe, and the problem is that we're not taking his good advice.

This, however, is only a small part of what I hope to lay out. Part I addresses how one gets into what Driftglass calls the Club. The answer is simple - show that you hew to the prevailing worldview of the other members of the Club. But while the belief in personal superiority is a critical part of that worldview, it's not the whole thing. In Part II, we'll delve a little deeper into the world that those elite journalists serve.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

More Content A-Comin'

I'd like to start by leaving this link here. Please click and let all your friends know.

So I'm not long for this country. Currently, I'm in the process of fleeing my physically and mentally grueling poverty-wage job to gamble for the chance at something - anything - better. This hasn't left me a lot of time to write nonsense on this neglected space, but I do have something, one final statement on bothsiderism that draws on things I've featured here and a few I haven't.

But while I attempt to put that together, I'd like to call some attention to the fact that I have finally had a piece of fiction published in a pro-rated market. It's Nature magazine, believe it or not, and I sincerely hope that you'll take two minutes out of your busy lives to read it and maybe tell some other people.

Thanks in advance, everyone.