Thursday, April 13, 2006

The devil on our shoulder

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my head ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."---from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As usual, I'm behind on the news. I skimmed David Brooks' notorious "All men are potential rapists" column on Sunday, but it was while I was at a restaurant waiting for my lunch to arrive and when it did I didn't think much more about what Brooks had written, except to note that he'd wrapped it up with an approving nod for Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons that he obviously felt proved his point to anyone who'd read the novel.

Brooks once recommended reading Tolstoy to learn how to have a happy marriage, so spectacular a misreading of the great misogynist that you have to wonder if Brooks has actually ever read anything by Tolstoy.

The fact that Brooks was using Wolfe to make his case made me think I should go back and give I Am Charlotte Simmons a second chance.

When the novel came out last year both serious literary critics and their opposites, Conservative culture warriors, pretty much agreed that Wolfe had written a "satire" that had somehow managed to blame liberal professors for the fact that Division I "student"-athletes don't like to study and occasionally behave badly towards women and weaker men.

And this is why Brooks used it to cap off his column, which, when you get right down to it, was really all the column had to say about the Duke lacrosse team. Liberalism made them do it.

Men are animals, says Brooks, but once upon a time the wiser of them knew their true natures and preached a gospel of stern self-discipline and moral vigilance. Then along came moral relativists---LIBERALS, in case you didn't know---who tore down the father figures who kept us in line. Next thing you know, there are strippers and underage drinking on campus and the poor misguided Duke lacrosse players are giving in to urges Liberalism robbed them of their defenses against.

This is the Right Wing Kulturkampf ur-myth restated. Once upon time we were all good and well-behaved, if plagued by demons and temptations within. You know, back in the day, when lynching was a spectator sport, children were worked to death in factories and mineshafts, and employers thought nothing of hiring goons to beat and kill workers who dared strike for safer working conditions and decent pay.

Then came the Fall, and with it moral relativism, post-modernism, Freudianism, Marxism, feminism, birth control, Roe v. Wade, situation comedies that make dad into a buffoon, and black people who expect to live in our neighborhoods and send their kids to our schools...whoops, did we say that last one out loud? We meant entitlements, the nanny state, and the culture of dependence brought about by Welfare.

Abler minds who are quicker to the keyboard than I've been able to be have already vivisected Brooks' op-ed piece, first and foremost among them Shakespeare's Sister, who has links to some of the best of the rest. All that's left for me to do here is agree with one of the ideas in Brooks' column.

Ok, it's wrong to say I agree with one of Brooks' ideas, because he doesn't have any. What he has are a bunch of muddled opinions he gussies up with a prose style that sounds to some less discerning ears like good writing, and most of these opinions are defenses of a general prejudice that white conservative men are good folks and the world would be a better place if the rest of us would just shut up, get out of their way, and let them run the show as they see fit.

I liked Amanda Marcotte's shorter David Brooks:

In exchange for shutting up and giving up this silly fight for sexual and racial equality, we white men promise that we won't rape. As much. Well, it won't get into the news, that's for damn sure.

But I think Amanda's done Brooks the favor of making him appear to have been more coherent than he actually was.

So the best I can do for Brooks is disagree, a bit, with an idea Shakespeare's Sister had in response to Brooks' muddled opinion that all men are at heart marauding huns bent on pillage and rapine.

Brooks manages to cast all [men] as, apparently, having an angel on one shoulder and a naughty little rapist on the other.

Why is it that so many conservatives seem to subscribe to the notion that each of us has within not only the capacity for atrocity, but also the real probability of committing any and all manner of offense without perpetual vigilance? A lot of us just don’t need to struggle to not be rapists or murderers or thieves. I am deeply troubled by anyone who feels compelled to frame arguments with the assumption that actively wrestling to keep such proclivities at bay is universal.

As it happens, I believe that human beings are capable of all manner of bad behavior even when they are exercising vigilance. We're not all rapists, murderers, and thieves at heart, but we all have Hydes inside us waiting for our Dr Jekyll side to relax and let them loose.

We are all sinners who commit various evils, large and small, petty meannesses, minor crimes and misdemeanors, and ethical lapses just about every day. And that's when we're trying to behave.

This is why we are constantly reminding ourselves to watch it, be careful, hold on, hold it in, think before we act, do what's right, not what we feel like doing.

We call this civilization.

We are civilizing ourselves every minute of the day.

Civilization comes at us in all kinds of ways. One of the simplest and most direct is gossip. "Do you know what she said? Did you hear what he did?"

But what we read, the movies we watch, the jobs we take on and the duties we give ourselves to do, all this is perpetual vigilance.

Take us out of civilization and we will revert to savages. Not all of us, not Piggy and Ralph and Simon, but none of us knows ahead of time if we'd be a Ralph or if we'd turn into a Jack, so we need to practice a lot ahead of time, just in case.

I'm not saying this because I read Lord of the Flies too many times. History is full of examples of human beings removed from civilization. They are called soldiers. War is the planned erasure of civilization. Not every soldier in battle becomes a Lt Calley or one of his men at My Lai. But they are in danger of giving in to the worst in themselves and the ones who don't give in are the ones who are lucky enough to have strong-willed buddies and officers and generals and Presidents who insist that civilized behavior must persist even in civilization's absence.

Shakespeare's Sister is engaged in civilizing herself and those of us smart enough to read her and heed her every day. She is a stark, raving moralist.

But then Liberal bloggers are constantly arguing about right and wrong. Their Right Wing counterparts never do, because they know what's right and what's wrong. Wrong is Liberal. Right is them, and that's that.

Religious conservatives like to quote Dostoevsky, "Without God, all things are permitted." But really it's with God---when they think they have God on their side---that people permit themselves to do anything, as long as they are doing it to God's enemies, who, conveniently, are usually people in the way of the Believers' getting the worldly things they want.

David Brooks speaks for a class of people who mistake their privileges for morality. He tries to sound like a moralist, but there's not much in it but the old expression that the well-off and well-bred are somehow naturally well-behaved.

There is no tradition of self-examination or self-criticism supporting Conservatives' assumption of moral superiority, only a lazy assumption that having been born to it or having risen to it, a certain level of worldly success automatically confers the fruits of a tradition of self-examination and self-criticism.

We are Christians, we are Americans, we are Conservative. Christians are good. Americans are good. Conservatives are good. Therefore we are good.

It's morality as an entitlement.

Shakespeare's Sister asks why Conservatives like Brooks subscribe to the notion that people are rotten and just waiting for the chance to prove it.

Well, some of it is that vestigial Calvinism they've inherited.

Some of it is a form of paranoia that comes from having too much of what other people lack and sorely need. "I've got mine, you get yours," is fun to say. Makes you sound tough. But it's an idea that inspires terror within---What if they try to get theirs by coming after mine!!!!!

But some of it is just the notion's usefulness.

Because, you see, it's not really that they think people are rotten. They think other people are rotten.

Other people's rottenness, their undeservingness, justifies all of my privileges and good fortune.

If they were as good and as smart and as deserving as I am, they'd have what I have, wouldn't they?

This sense of being blessed is often confused with being bless-ed. Favored by God. Which leads to a sense of entitlement that leads to lackadaisical attitude towards self-regulation and self-discipline---that excuses the need for the perpetual vigilance Brooks thinks he believes in.

The rich are different, Fitzgerald said.

Yeah, growled Hemingway, they have more money.

Hemingway meant that the rich are just as rotten as the rest of us, they can just afford to be good and buy their way out of trouble when they decide to be bad. But he was undestimating Fitzgerald, as he had a habit of doing. He slighted Fitzgerald as a man and an artist but also as a moralist and thinker.

Hemingway thought Fitzgerald was beguiled by the rich.

But Fitzgerald was trying to say that the rich are different because the rules don't apply to them.

And he was not beguiled by people who live as though they aren't bound by rules, not unless you think he admired Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The convenient thing about believing that people---other people---are rotten is that they become very useful as excuses. Others, those who aren't "our kind," are tempters, devils who come in and corrupt. They lure us away from our better natures. The well-off and the priveleged aren't the only ones who do this, blame others for their own crimes and misdemeanors. But it's even easier to do when you come from a background that assumes moral superiority is proportional to social standing.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan are careless people who have no problem using Gatsby and Myrtle and then throwing them away because they have the built-in self-exculpation. Gatsby and Myrtle are not their kind. They are outsiders and outsiders bring corruption. They both got what they deserved for having had the nerve to tempt Tom and Daisy.

Our kind does not sin. We are merely led astray.

Tell me that Brooks wasn't providing the Duke lacrosse players with a Buchanan-like excuse.

Bad behavior among our kind, even rape, is not our fault. It is the fault of sociologists, moral relativists, sexual liberators and levelers----Liberals!

I really should go back and re-read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Brooks has got to have gotten it all wrong.


As I said, not every soldier turns into a Lt Calley, which is why the name of Hugh Thompson, Jr. should be as famous as Calley's is infamous.

And Scott Lemieux wants to know, if this wasn't the worst Brooks column ever, just what one was?

His readers make some suggestions, with Scott's LG&M partner, DJW, coming through with the winner.

Scott leaves the dismantlng of that one to hilzoy.


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