Our Mr. Brooks: Civic Engagement & Anti-Intellectualism

Our Mister Brooks

In the early days of television, Eve Arden played “Our Miss Brooks”– a sardonic, wise-cracking and self-aware observer of life around her.

David Brooks, our present-day “Mr. Brooks,” is a columnist for the New York Times who often produces perceptive analyses of governance and American society–and sometimes follows them with truly bizarre “meditations.”  The link is to one of the latter.

He opens the column with a broadside:

The campaign of 2016 was an education in the deep problems facing the country. Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

As Robert W. Merry put it recently in The American Conservative, “When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem.”

It has become fashionable among highly-educated and self-important writers commenting on current American schisms to sneer at “elites,” a category they themselves rather clearly inhabit. (We live in an irony-free age.)

I don’t know what “faculty lounges” Brooks has visited, but conversations among my colleagues in the halls of academia (we’re a state school–we don’t have lounges) are rarely characterized by “political correctness”–unless that category includes bitching about grading papers and the inability of students to write a grammatical sentence.

Most of Brooks’ column was devoted to the subject of alienation, which he has apparently decided is the explanation for many if not most of the ills of American society.

Alienation breeds a hysterical public conversation. Its public intellectuals are addicted to overstatement, sloppiness, pessimism, and despair. They are self-indulgent and self-lionizing prophets of doom who use formulations like “the Flight 93 election” — who speak of every problem as if it were the apocalypse.

Alienation also breeds a zero-sum mind-set — it’s us or them — and with it a tribal clannishness and desire for exclusion. As Levin notes, on the right alienation can foster a desire for purity — to exclude the foreign — and on the left it can foster a desire for conformity — to squelch differing speakers and faiths.

Here, Brooks paints with a very broad brush. Are there people who exhibit these behaviors–who are “self-indulgent and self-lionizing”? Certainly. Are there partisans who divide all of humanity into “them” and “us.” Indubitably. Do these descriptions fit all, or even most, of those on either side of the political divide? I don’t think so–and I don’t think such facile characterizations of entire groups of people advances either  public understanding or civility.

The truth is, I know some privileged people who are wonderful human beings, and I know some who are assholes. Some disadvantaged people are saintly, and some are real jerks. Humans are complicated that way.

Brooks makes several points with which it is hard to disagree: America does need a political establishment– people who have been educated to actually know something about public policy problems, people with government experience and a commitment to ethical public service.

But then he gives us this:

Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take an active role in their own self-government.

As someone who has spent the past 40 years trying–largely in vain– to encourage greater civic participation, first in City government and later in a number of voluntary organizations and  in the classroom, this paragraph made me want to strangle its author. Bromides like these join other endless Sunday sermons and pious political exhortations: We should all welcome the stranger, fight injustice, get out the vote, encourage poor people to eat better….the list of what we should do is endless; the all-important “how” is hotly contested when it isn’t totally ignored.

What Brooks is yearning for requires broad culture change, and cultures don’t change quickly or easily. They certainly aren’t changed by “devolving” social welfare programs–i.e., turning the money and rule-making authority over to the states. We’ve done that in the past, and the consequences weren’t pretty.

The great irony of Trump’s improbable election is that it has done more to prompt civic engagement (albeit not always as courteous an engagement as Brooks might like) than people like me–and Brooks– have done in half a century. We can only hope that the very real concerns that are sending people into the streets will ultimately move the civic culture toward more participation and inclusion–not to mention more self-aware punditry.

A bit more “Our Miss Brooks” and a bit less smugness.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on May 24, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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