Sunday, June 08, 2008

Mastering Your Demons


Ah, the good old days, which David Brooks told us were all about wrestling with sin:
The concept of maturity has undergone several mutations over the course of American history. In Lincoln’s day, to achieve maturity was to succeed in the conquest of the self. Human beings were born with sin, infected with dark passions and satanic temptations. The transition to adulthood consisted of achieving mastery over them.

You can read commencement addresses from the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the speakers would talk about the beast within and the need for iron character to subdue it. Schoolhouse readers emphasized self-discipline. The whole character-building model was sin-centric
That probably helps explain why, as the sin-centric model of maturity faded from public consciousness, the middle class stagnated and died, American industry failed, the economy collapsed, and... Oh, wait. I got that backwards. But then, this is David Brooks lecturing me about "satanic temptations" - It's unfair of me to pretend that he is being sincere.

Brooks tells us of Lincoln's inner struggle:
In January 1841, Abraham Lincoln seems to have at least vaguely thought of suicide. His friend Joshua Speed found him one day thrashing about in his room. “Lincoln went Crazy,” Speed wrote. “I had to remove razors from his room — take away all Knives and other such dangerous things — it was terrible.”

Lincoln was taking three mercury pills a day, the remedy in those days for people who either suffered from syphilis or feared contracting it. “Lincoln could not eat or sleep,” Daniel Mark Epstein writes in his new book, “The Lincolns.” “He appeared at the statehouse irregularly, hollow-eyed, unshaven, emaciated — an object of pity to his friends and of derision to others.”

Later, Lincoln wrote of that period with shame, saying that he had lost the “gem of my character.” He would withdraw morosely from the world into a sort of catatonic state. Early in his marriage, Epstein writes, “Lincoln had night terrors. He woke in the middle of the night trembling, talking gibberish.”

He would, of course, climb out of it. He would come to terms with his weaknesses, control his passions and achieve what we now call maturity.
Climbing out of that type of madness may have more to do with somebody saying, "Mr. Lincoln, perhaps you should stop taking mercury pills" than it did with clobbering back an inner beast. I'm not sure if David Brooks is aware of this, but mercury is poisonous and mercury poisoning leads to a cluster of symptoms evocative of Lincoln's melancholy - depression, anxiety, insomnia, intestinal problems, tremors, fatigue, fits of anger, loss of weight.... (The expression, "mad as a hatter"? It's about mercury poisoning.)

Let's also be honest here, Brooks did not pick Lincoln for his example because he desires a President who has struggled with and apparently overcome significant mental illness and suicidal impulses. He picked Lincoln because he's Lincoln, as part of his effort to advance the prospects of the so-called "Party of Lincoln." If a Democratic presidential candidate had in his background the type of psychological episode Brooks identifies in Lincoln, Brooks would happily join other right-wing columnists in declaring him unfit to govern. He would not be suggesting that it is somehow a "good thing" that the candidate called his wife "mother". Brooks focuses on ravages of the soul, not ravages of the body, because otherwise he would have to bring up the disease-related struggles of FDR and JFK.

There's also something utterly dishonest in this type of column, that has nothing to do with Brooks' politics. Columns like this are produced on a regular basis, declaring paths to maturity that would somehow make our society better.
In the last few years, we may be shifting toward another vision of maturity, one that is impatient with boomer narcissism. Young people today put service at the center of young adulthood. A child is served, but maturity means serving others.
The greedy, shiftless, ungiving baby boomers, finally being replaced by "young people" devoted to "service"? How nice. But why is it that these calls - mandatory military service, mandatory national service, struggles with inner demons, or even something as soft as a putting "service at the center of young adulthood" - almost always come from people who have never lifted a finger to do the very things they demand of others? And while it's nice for Brooks to part from the standard by claiming that young people now value public service, it should be remembered both that (as usual) this appears to be something Brooks made up on the fly, and also that his primary purpose in this piece is to undermine a presidential candidate who happens to be a boomer.

The column also advances an utter fantasy, that the public at large knew of Lincoln's troubles and voted for him anyway - or perhaps even in larger numbers - due to his successful battle. As if Lincoln ran campaign ads, "I used to take lots of mercury pills and wanted to kill myself, but I'm stronger for the experience. Vote Lincoln." There may well be politicians on the national stage who have struggled with mental illness, and one day we may learn of it through their biographers, but it's not going to be a centerpiece of their campaigns. Brooks' preferred candidate, John McCain, has made a point of contending that, despite six years as a P.O.W., he returned home in exactly the same state of (perfect) psychological health as the day he left. Anger problem? That's a fiction created by his opponents.
Obviously, it’s not fair to compare anybody to Lincoln, but he does illustrate the repertoire of skills we look for in a leader. The central illusion of modern politics is that if only people as virtuous as “us” had power, then things would be better. Candidates get elected by telling people what they want to hear, leading them by using the sugar of their own fantasies.
Because Brooks' entire column does just that, and doesn't invite candidates to lead him by using the sugar of his own fantasies? Did you see how Brooks elided from history the G.W. Bush narrative that he did engage in a struggle of the soul, beat back the demon rum, found God, and became a greater man for his struggle? It's only as Bush is about to leave center stage that Brooks has noticed that Bush in fact remained intellectually incurious1 and gripped by narcissism?
All this suggests a maxim for us voters: Don’t only look to see which candidate has the most talent. Look for the one most emotionally gripped by his own failings.
Um, yeah. Because you wouldn't want to close with the impression that the whole column is a partisan jab at Obama, this generation's presidential candidate from Illinois.... Let's all vote for the candidate with the least talent!
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1. Brooks actually describes G.W. Bush as displaying "intellectual insecurity". I don't mean to misrepresent Brooks by instead referencing incuriosity, but I have yet to see any evidence that Bush is even slightly consciously insecure about his intellect.

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