What David Brooks gets right about the left

Relying on a mic check to make strategy is a big mistake

Topics: The New York Times,

What David Brooks gets right about the leftDavid Brooks, philosophe

As he often does, in his column Friday New York Times columnist David Brooks offered what looks like a “nonpartisan” analysis.  Social movements, he warned, are suffering because everyone thinks they should make up their own belief system. Unless you’re Nietzsche, Brooks advises, this is a guarantee of failure. Every man is not a political genius.

It’s not a hard task to figure out whom Brooks is really criticizing: Occupy Wall Street. But it’s not alone. The democratization of ideology is vastly more tempting to the self-inventing liberal left than to the authoritarian right. Nobody does emotionally consistent talking points like the conservative right. Nobody does “whatever floats your boat” like the liberal left. The belief that every man is a philosopher makes progressives vastly more vulnerable to the destructive dynamic Brooks describes. It is an irony Brooks would appreciate that the left acts more like the right believes (and vice versa).

Brooks’ criticism is dead on. Letting every person with a “mic check” suggest a fundamental strategy for the movement is a recipe for disaster. Not only have existing intellectual traditions been the product of superior minds, they have stood the test of time. Anyway, how to act collectively when everyone is pursuing his own quixotic dream?

Of course, anyone who follows the debate knows the left must beware of Brooks bearing gifts. The Times’ conservative columnist is always making sensible sounding suggestions to the left, which, upon closer examination, turn out to be ticking bombs. In this case, the right has a perfectly good foundation in the libertarian tradition, Brooks reports. So it doesn’t need to reinvent its first principles .

For his friends on the left, however,  Brooks advises a simple reversion to their philosopher, Karl Marx. Now there’s a thought.  When the centrist Democrats of the filibuster-bound Senate passed a healthcare plan modeled on the Republican scheme from Massachusetts, the Republicans branded their leaders as socialists, or worse, as taking their beliefs from Paris, if not Nairobi. Imagine if they started actually quoting Karl Marx.



Fortunately, should the left be capable of giving up its endlessly proliferating individual belief systems, two schools of thought other than the return to the specter of communism would be available to them.  There is a robust utilitarian tradition, represented most recently in the work of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, that asks people to rise to the demands of altruism. As a matter of ordinary morality, you’d pause on a walk to pull a drowning child out of a pond, Singer begins. Why would you not give up a trivial expensive treat to rescue someone starving in Africa?

Or, closer to home, living in a shelter somewhere in New York, or in Washington’s McPherson Square. The well-worked-out analysis of Singer’s argument for beneficence is a vastly better foundation for a long-term social movement than any of the slogans on OWS placards. “Tax the rich” is catchy, but dissolves when confronted with Brooks’ comrades’ libertarian first principle: “It’s my money.” Singer offers the opportunity to argue about why keeping every last penny of it when others are in real need is, well, immoral.

Another great 20th century philosopher, the late John Rawls, made a very well-worked-out argument for why it’s not “your money” at all. It’s only your money, as citizens of many less well-favored societies than the United States know, if other people are willing to refrain from killing you to get it. Otherwise, life is, famously, “solitary, POOR, nasty, brutish and short.” Rawls set forth elaborate conditions for when societies agree to let the rich keep the money without having to live behind walls topped with ground glass.

Most important, Rawls posits, inequality must also benefit the people on the bottom, e.g., by expanding the size of the pie. This was the case for much of American history, and the society was the better for it. But now that finance has replaced manufacturing as the engine of the economy, not so much. The endless claims of money movers like Mitt Romney that they are “creating jobs” reflects the deep power of Rawls’ construct. If they’re not, what is he doing with all that money? Rich people’s claims to be complying with Rawls’ condition can only go on so long in face of the robust evidence to the contrary.

Brooks is right about one thing: Ideas matter. The resurrected right has relied on the power of libertarian ideas for decades. During the same period, the left has relied on mic checks and bumper stickers (“the audacity of hope”). When we see them start to use the rich store of liberal thinking available to them, David Brooks, watch out.

Linda Hirshman is the author of “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution,”. Follow her on Twitter @LindaHirshman1

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>