David Brooks and the Downward Spiral

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Explosion of nuclear device from Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Nevada, 1952.

One of the most fruitless things one can do is respond to a newspaper column. Given the strictures of the medium and the frequency that is demanded of each columnist to write one, the quality varies wildly from piece to piece. It’s a tension that arises when someone’s job is to say what they think on-demand. The best the columnist could hope to manage is something clear and serviceable for someone’s morning commute or lunch break. A reader committing more thought beyond those timeframes is a loser’s gamble.

Though at times I envy the columnist’s exposure, I never forget the steepness of its price, and venture infrequently into that octagon. When I do, I need to have a very good reason first: a sort of clear and present danger rule for hot takes.

Today’s very good reason comes from David Brooks, which is already a fairly dicey proposition. Mr. Brooks provides people who pay attention to this kind of thing with routine fodder. (And this is not the first time I’m writing about him on here.) Much of his output is sort of lightly, if unintentionally, comical in that sidewalk-sage-trying-to-make-sense-of-the-world-around-him kind of way. He tries to address monumental subjects with accessible frameworks and anecdotes that end up somewhat eccentric on the page. Remember the sandwich column? His prolificity in this type of column was always astounding to me at first; then I read one of his columns aloud, and got caught in the gentle grace of his prose as countless regular New York Times readers likely do. But it would be one thing if Brooks was some kind of spin class Andy Rooney; Brooks sees himself rather as a moralist defending the American civil order from corrosive actors, and when he hits his stride he reaches noxious levels that his benign style cannot mask. Such is the case with his June 13 column “Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!”.

Mr. Brooks’s column opens thus:

Most of human history has been marked by war. Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without some great power fighting another great power. Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.

Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. That order consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power — military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.

For much of the 20th century, Brooks argues, this was the great unifying idea of the American people. Yes, there have been “terrible mistakes” like Vietnam, but that was the price America paid for defending and upholding “the liberal order.” “This was abnormal,” Brooks writes, unprecedented in the history of world power, but it was a positive good all the same.

But Brooks finds this sentiment less compelling among the American people in 2019. He finds Americans not only disinterested but “actively hostile” to the prospect of “maintaining the liberal international order.” “Instead of widening the circle of concern, most Americans want the U.S. to simply look after itself.” Their highest priorities include “negative aspirations” like “protecting against terrorist threats, protecting jobs for American workers and reducing illegal immigration.” They are evidently less interested in “promoting democracy, taking on Chinese aggression, promoting trade, fighting global poverty and defending human rights.” Brooks does not entirely blame the American people for this shift to “the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy,” but he shakes his head nonetheless. David Brooks, ever the national Dad, is not mad, just disappointed.

“Social trust has collapsed” in the past few decades, “especially among the young. Distrustful, alienated people don’t want to get involved in the strange, hostile, outside world.” This has given rise to a “low-trust voter,” of which there are two types: “On the right there are the Trumpian America Firsters, who want to cut immigration and break alliances. On the left there are the New Doves. These are young people who express high interest in human rights, but having grown up in the Iraq era, they don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting them.”

This distrust amounts to a “dark spiral,” a “dark view of human nature” that enables “wolves” like Putin and Xi to wreak havoc in the world. He concludes with the hope that a leader can “build a younger, credible leadership class and embody an optimism” to pull us from the spiral.

I suppose we should be flattered that Brooks thinks that we, the Young Americans of America, have such power as to entirely deflate the national mood; and not just deflate it, but spiral it into the blackest recesses. It’s almost as if we don’t even need to have an election. The true powers have usurped democracy because they’re cranky, freedom is cancelled until further notice. Yet I’m going to err on the side of modesty and place emphasis away from us, if the young folk (who aren’t reading this anyway) wouldn’t mind indulging me for a bit.

Brooks’s argument, again speaking at least in part to the restrictions of the column form, is full of vague gestures and contorted logic. He writes rhapsodically about America’s moral mission after World War II, and its dovetailing with “the liberal order.” Though it is peculiar that he treats events like Vietnam and Iraq as lapses of judgment and not the logical outcomes of that very order. Vietnam, Christopher Lasch wrote, “was not a war thrust on the country by reactionaries or marginal elements; it was a liberal war, the culmination of twenty years of cold war carried out under liberal auspices and reflecting the traditions of a ruling class supposedly enlightened, mature, and superior to the grosser strains of American life.” “It was the French Jacobins,” John Gray wrote, “who believed that democracy could be spread throughout the world by fiat; today it is American neo-conservatives. … [T]he neo-conservative intellectuals who are calling the shots at the [Bush] White House accept that terror will be necessary; but like their Jacobin predecessors, they believe it will be just as merciful, a brief pang before the advent of a new world.”

“Terrible mistake,” moreover, is the language a parent would use to paper over a major breach of decorum, like slapping a child in a heat of an argument or crashing through the garage door after having “one too many.” It barely covers those transgressions, but applied to Vietnam and Iraq it is a laughable Gob Bluthism. Sure, they were “mistakes” in the sense that region-destabilizing and credibility-deflating strategic blunders maintained through escalating acts of questionably lawful (sometimes completely unlawful) cruelty just to save face are “mistakes.”

But Brooks makes his own terrible mistake when he writes how young people “don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting” human rights because of Iraq. This is raw emotional blackmail, for one. It also waves away serious concerns that young people like myself had in 2003 and beyond that our invasion, already conducted under vague and shifting rationales, was making a bad situation much worse and that human rights abuses were happening in our name. Far worse things have been committed and are being committed in the history of warfare, we’re not that stupid and the expanse of digital media gives us greater exposure to those realities every day; but to see the United States conduct the war in the way it did was to see a leadership that was either overselling its moral qualifications or those qualifications are of less value the further we go into the 21st century. Brooks reduces this dissenting view as the dithering of do-nothing extremism. Brooks is channeling, if not agreeing with, the sentiment that is not mad, just disappointed that Lynndie England had a camera.

And what of those qualifications? America’s leading “a community of nations to create a democratic world order” and its “magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide”? People outside the United States are sometimes intrigued by our reliance on comic books, though it’s pretty clear from how Brooks appropriates their language here. It’s language that makes victory seem assured and destined, the resulting peace right and welcomed, and its maintenance just and wise. In a word, it spins a utopia out of what any other previous world power would have called an empire. Of course empires aren’t very nice. They have to keep order and appease their interests before any altruism can be divvied out. At least Brooks is right that the United States brought (relative) peace to the world in 1945 with an idea. Though the idea was less the promise of democracy than it was the awesome force of the applied sciences.

Brooks seems more interested in placing blame than offering any clear prescriptions beyond “credible leadership.” We could go to war with Iran tomorrow and he could still find a way to blame the voters rather than risk praising Trump for doing something he evidently approves. But the voters have been given hint after hint that a new kind of world is emerging, one more complicated than a “dark spiral” that is not amenable to simple assertion of National Greatness or moral authority, such as it is. To suggest that the problem is as simple as a spiral and that its vortex was set in motion only recently brings Brooks ever further away from intellectual seriousness, and leaves me with a feeling somewhat higher than disappointment.

“What? Who cares?” –Me

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