A Question for David Brooks
Alexandria, VA On Monday night of this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke at Georgetown University at the invitation of the program that I founded and direct, “The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.” A large audience of students and members of the D.C. community turned out to hear him speak, and were unquestionably rewarded for their attendance (we expect to have a recording of the lecture available at the Tocqueville Forum website soon). His lecture was entitled “The Era of Self-Expansion.”
His lecture was at once funny, riveting, and bracing. He spoke of the transformation of the American understanding of “self,” from one of humility and self-restraint, to a contemporary “expansive” notion of self-assertion, self-realization, and self-esteem. In a short and pointed set of remarks, he provided a wealth of examples and evidence for the rise of this “expansive” self, including comparisons of popular culture of today and a half-century ago; contemporary measures of “self-esteem” that show striking disparity in people’s estimation of their ability and their actual ability; the transformation of the language found in textbooks and educational publications that show a remarkable rise in the language of self-assertion and therapeutic boosterism; even the change in lyrics of popular music, from songs stressing “togetherness” to most contemporary hits that stress our individual uniqueness.
Brooks eloquently suggested that this transformation was more than merely cosmetic, but represented a fundamental rejection, among other things, of a distinct theological tradition that he traced ultimately to Augustine, but also had received powerful expression in mid-century America from Reinhold Niebuhr. He spoke of a story of a rabbi in his own tradition who kept a note in each of his pockets – one which said, “You have been created by God in his image and likeness,” and the other which said “You are dust and nothing, to dust you shall return” – and stressed that both were true and needed constant reinforcement. As a culture, our second pocket was metaphorically empty.
He argued that there were “real-world” implications attending this transformation, and regarded the current economic crisis and our deeply polarized politics as two primary examples. In all facets of life – business, education, politics, entertainment, culture – the cult of “self-expansion” was a destructive force in our shared community life, our sense of responsibility, obligation, debt and gratitude to those who came before us and those who would come after us. Several times he invoked the name of Edmund Burke, as well as Michael Oakeshott, as thinkers who urged a chastening of our temptation toward the self-congratulatory idea of “self-expansion” and the corresponding narrowing of our temporal horizon.
The question-and-answer period that followed was as good as the lecture, and (to brag a bit), the first set of questions posed by Student Fellows of the Tocqueville Forum were penetrating, insightful, and challenging. Toward the end of the evening, Brooks received a question from a Student Fellow about whether too many people today were attending college. His answer, while touching on many issues, concluded by expressing his devotion to widespread university-education in the service of the Hamiltonian ideal of social mobility. In that one passing moment, Brooks invoked the arguments he has made especially in his previous books – Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive – as well as countless columns praising the aim of “national greatness.” In that passing moment, he seemed to contradict, or at least throw into question, everything that he had been arguing in the course of the whole evening.
I was holding the microphone as he offered this reply, and wish I’d asked the question that I’ll ask here now. But, I had already announced that the previous question would be the last question, and not wishing to play the bad host (as well as be overly self-assertive), I demurred and brought the evening to a close (Brooks then spent at least a half hour greeting and talking with everyone who formed a long line to talk with him. He was truly gracious and generous with his time, for which I’m deeply grateful).
When I greeted Brooks before his lecture, he asked me “How is Front Porch Republic doing?” Apparently to someone else he expressed hurt (faux, I hope) at having taken a few hits on FPR in recent weeks. So, David, I know (and am flattered that) you are reading this, and I hope that you’ll find the opportunity to answer this question (feel free to use the comment boxes, though please don’t post anonymously, or better yet, pen a column and we’ll provoke a great interweb dialogue).
The question(s) I should have asked:
Can you reconcile your call to Hamiltonian national greatness and your call to Augustinian humility of self? Can you reconcile your defense of social mobility with your defense of familial, cultural and social institutions that cultivate a strong sense of obligation and gratitude? Will not the project of national greatness, and the gigantism in our politics and economics that it encourages, eventually and inevitably undermine the stability and authority of those local institutions that you laud as formative in the cultivation of a more humble self? Doesn’t the ideal of “national greatness” in fact directly contradict the theology of Augustine (and even Niebuhr, though he’s a bit uneven on this point), who urged a self-understanding in which we were to be pilgrims upon this earth, not wholly understanding ourselves to be citizens of this world, and that our humility was derived from the primacy of our devotion to God and not to our investment in the nation? Nations, to Augustine, were essentially large “robber bands”; if he could find anything to praise in political life, it was the classical ideal of the republic – small, limited, modest, devoted to the inculcation of virtue, but certainly not the modern (Machiavellian, and Hamiltonian) project that redefined “republicanism” effectively as indistinguishable from the project of empire.
At the heart of your argument I find a contradiction that seems evident in the heart of America itself. We harbor the ideal of the classical republic – populated by some version of Winthrop’s model of Christian (and Augustinian) charity, the virtuous yeoman farmer of Jefferson and the self-governing ideal urged by the Anti-federalists, among others – and, at the same time, the world-conquering, Hamiltonian expansionist, American exceptionalist, Wilsonian and Bush II ambition to rid the world of evil as a political project. While in your lecture you suggested that we can trace the rise of the “era of self expansion” to the baleful influence of the psychologist Carl Rogers, might not a deeper and more pervasive source be the modern rejection of the Augustinian theology more broadly, a rejection that was substantially realized in the political realm by the work and arguments of (among others) Alexander Hamilton and his vision of making us at home in the world?
So, your mission David, should you decide to accept it, is to explain how you reconcile your call to humility with your recommendation of national greatness. As always, the New York Times will disavow any knowledge of what you are talking about.
I, for one, think that this is a mission impossible. But, you are welcome to try to pull it off. Good luck.
Sincerely, and with deep gratitude,