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Haphazard Men

May 19, 2019 (1,017 words)

Whenever David Brooks riffs on our wayward culture in the op-ed section of The New York Times I am always at full attention. (His political commentary, offered on television as a guest panelist for various cable news outlets, is less captivating from my perspective.)

I love the way he clearly senses something is amiss with the prevailing ethos, and how he wrestles with what can be done to improve upon it.

He works from a slightly different angle than his fellow scribes at the paper. Mr. Brooks is said to be a “conservative voice” at the Times, I guess because he usually steers clear of causes that have become de rigueur among enlightened members of polite society today: marriage equality, reproductive rights, and the like.

My favorite columns are when Brooks focuses on the fault lines in our economic/political arrangement, and hones in on the excesses and oversights that reduce the “humbles” to just so much flotsam and jetsam. An optimist by nature, his criticism stops short of questioning the broad outline of “liberal democracy” that fuels the American Experiment.

His specialty is to appeal to our better angels so that we might regain our cultural equilibrium.

I always find myself agreeing with David Brooks, with his examples and case studies of what a just and equitable society should look like. I certainly agree with his sentiment that what we have now is far from a desired ideal.

But I part company with Mr. Brooks in one important regard: His bedrock assumption that our economic/political rules of engagement are inherently good, if only we would abide by their inner dictates.

To my mind David Brooks – like so many well-intentioned “conservative voices” – is too accepting of the historical American status quo. This lack of discernment results in a misreading of the tea leaves, and prevents him (and them) from properly identifying the true source of our cultural malaise.

Take the following example, from his May 14 op-ed piece:

”A society is healthy when its culture counterbalances its economics. That is to say, when you have a capitalist economic system that emphasizes competition, dynamism and individual self-interest, you need a culture that celebrates cooperation, stability and committed relationships.

“We don’t have that. We have a culture that takes the disruptive and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism and makes them worse.”

Here Mr. Brooks captures the essence of our economy and our culture, but he gets the relationship between the two exactly wrong. It is impossible for culture to counterbalance economics, because economics dictate culture.

The “dehumanizing” aspects of capitalism Brooks references have been there from the beginning. For centuries now it’s been an ongoing tug-of-war between the “dynamic” quality that successfully promotes self-interest, and the corresponding “disruptive” quality that undermines the very things most people think make life worth living: a sense of cooperation, stability, and committed relationships.

David Brooks wisely chalks up The Rise of the Haphazard Self to more than just an economy in which formerly middle-class or “working-class” men can no longer provide the same standard of living that their fathers could provide.

He rightly identifies “cultural forces” that have also played a role in the way such men now shy away from committing to being in a full family unit, and show no qualms about walking away from the women who bear their children.

He points out this blue-collar phenomenon is part of a larger, society-wide emphasis on personal autonomy, focusing on one’s personal growth, and rebelling against any constraints on that growth.

After all, the under-employed white guys at the lower end of the socio-economic scale Brooks is talking about are not responsible for creating the “personal autonomy” paradigm. They are merely internalizing the signals sent out by the dominant culture, as defined by those on the higher rungs of the ladder who benefit from our cut-throat, every-man-for-himself economy.

I applaud Mr. Brooks for bemoaning the way a new, irresponsible ethos “has replaced the older, working-class ethos of self-discipline, the dignity of manual labor, and on being a good provider.”

And he is correct in assigning a portion of the blame for this turn-around to the celebration of the individual that has taken center stage in every strata of society.

But this is not a new thing. Rejecting custom and tradition in favor of “personal emancipation” is what “liberal democracy” is all about.

It’s encouraging to read Brooks has co-founded an organization called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. “Part of the work is to build thick communities across the country so everybody, including detached young men, will have a chance to be enmeshed in thick and trusting relationships. But another purpose… is to get people to think differently. It’s to get more people to see that the autonomous life is not the best life.”

It’s a praiseworthy effort, a first step in an arduous journey: Convincing a generation of haphazard men to honor their commitments, and repairing the damage done to a generation of young people when Dad up and left.

Also encouraging is how Mr. Brooks sees the need for what he describes as “better economic policies, like wage subsidies.”

And sure, that’s one possible tool that might be used to try and recalibrate from without, in an attempt to address the drastic economic inequities that have derailed so many formerly middle-class white guys, and sabotaged their better angels.

But achieving the cultural restoration David Brooks heroically calls for will require more than a few tweaks to the existing Leviathan. We need to reconsider the basic assumptions built into the competitive model.

We need to rethink “liberal democracy” from the ground up: the ethos of personal autonomy that undermines committed relationships, and the ethos of self-interested economic behavior that leaves the social fabric in tatters.

These two fit together like hand and glove.

If a re-boot is required, what should the new blueprint be? Well, we could take our cue from the third verse of America the Beautiful:

Where all success is nobleness and every gain divine

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 19, 2019

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