Saturday, February 04, 2012

David Brooks Takes On The Rebel Without a Cause

Taking Brooks out of context in a completely unfair manner,
My own theory revolves around a single bad idea.
Which of your theories doesn't, David?

Now to be more fair...
For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition.
Brooks' example is of a guy who railed against organized religion in the name of Jesus, then retreated when confronted with scripture showing that "In fact, Jesus preached a religious doctrine, prescribed rituals and worshiped in a temple." The fact that he retreated in the face of authority, it would seem, undermines Brooks' point. When confronted with authority this person didn't say, "I don't care what facts you have, I'm entitled to my own views and interpretations," he folded. Brooks also overestimates how completely we can divorce ourselves from the society in which we are raised - from the values imbued by our social institutions, parents and families, peers, role models.... It was only a few days ago that Brooks was claiming that there's some form of unified white culture, breaking down on economic lines, with the top twenty percent having a different value set than the bottom thirty - so much so that he used the term "tribe" to describe each group. Now he would have us believe that each and every person in those groups formed their values in a vacuum and that the similar outcomes are a matter of pure coincidence?

Brooks tells us a lot about himself when he lectures,
If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.
Brooks' conceit of the "young rebel", it would seem, is a college student who is expressing strong, unfocused opposition to the status quo but does not have an academic framework upon which he can hang his opinions. It's reasonable to say that if somebody who has that form of unfocused opposition doesn't find peers who share his views, a movement that shares his views, a credible history or movement that supports his views, he's unlikely to either persuade anybody to share his views or to create a movement. Why does this theoretical individual concern Brooks?

What I suspect Brooks is really trying to do here is to attack the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, to titter at them as a bunch of uninformed kids who don't really know anything other than that they're angry. "At least the Hippies1 knew they opposed the draft, right?" Never mind that the Occupy movement wasn't driven by college students and had, at its core, a very clear impetus - "We don't know the means, but we need to reform a system that benefits the top 1% at the expense of pretty much everybody else." That inspiration is remarkably similar to the objections that brought about the Tea Party movement, a bail-out of wealthy bankers with taxpayer money. If anything, the rapidity with which the Tea Party movement was captured by corporate interests and channeled into a movement defending the status quo is much more deserving of Brooks rejection of "rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision" s "just a feeble spasm". Seriously - to go from vehemently objecting against the financial industry bailout to being a tool of the political party most wedded to Wall Street? How feeble is that.

Brooks continues his lecture to the theoretical "rebel without a cause" college student,
Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.
So the message is, unless you can find a way to replace existing authorities and institutions with something better, don't bother? It's not enough to advocate unless you identify a means? And as you'll inevitably fail in that endeavor, why trying? Instead ally yourself with the authorities and institutions that give your ideas "focus and a means to turn passion into change" - that is, support the status quo and try to change things from the inside?

Indeed, a core idea worthy of David Brooks.2
1. Brooks' editorial is titled, "How to Fight the Man". What decades does he believe this is?

2. This is the story of how "Don't trust anybody over thirty" becomes "Don't trust anybody under thirty", a story not of social change or revolution but of assimilation.

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