06 October 2016

Wouldn't it be lovely?

There was something pathetic about David Brooks's latest New York Times column, in which, for all intents and purposes, he repudiated Republican conservatism. That wasn't what made it pathetic, but that's where it started. Brooks wrote that someone who thinks of himself as a "taxpayer" first isn't really a good citizen. "The problem with the taxpayer mentality," he writes, "is that you end up serving your individual interest short term but soiling the nest you need to be happy in over the long term." A good citizen, he implies, pays taxes cheerfully if not unquestioningly, which isn't only a repudiation of modern Republicanism but also, as I hope all parties would agree, a repudiation of critical thought. Citizens have a right within reason to question why taxes are levied and how they are spent. That's true whether you think taxes are wasted on Welfare or wasted on war. Reasonably enough, Brooks argues that "Some things the government does are uncontroversial goods: protecting us from enemies, preserving the health and dignity of the old and infirm. These things have to be paid for, and in the societies we admire, everybody helps." But everyone knows there's more to taxes than that, and questioning the expense and purpose of taxation doesn't itself make someone the sort of atomized wretch Brooks decries. Still, it's not his new(?) view on taxes, inspired by Donald Trump's "brilliance," that makes Brooks's column mildly pathetic. Instead, it's the simpering language with which the columnist idealizes a sort of sentimental patriotism that may once have prevailed in this country, but definitely doesn't now.

The older citizenship mentality ... starts with the warm glow of love of country. It continues with a sense of sweet gratitude that the founders of the country, for all their flaws, were able to craft a structure of government that is suppler and more lasting than anything we seem to be able to craft today.The citizen enjoys a sweet reverence for all the gifts that have been handed down over time, and a generous piety about country that is the opposite of arrogance. Out of this sweet parfait of emotions comes a sense of a common beauty that transcends individual beauty. There’s a sense of how a lovely society is supposed to be. This means that the economic desire to save money on taxes competes with a larger desire to be part of a lovely world.

So sweet is Brooks's vision that I found myself suddenly craving insulin. Even more appalling is his apparent adoption of "the lovely society" as his latest buzzword. "In a lovely society we all pull our fair share....In a lovely society everybody practices a kind of social hygiene....In a lovely society everyone feels privilege, but the rich feel a special privilege. They know that they have already been given more than they deserve, and that it is actually not going to hurt all that much to try to be worthy of what they’ve received." This is Brooks's alternative to Trumpism, yet it makes you long to hear Trump heckle him, just to break the mood. Now I'm probably being too hard on the columnist. Edit out the hackneyed language and his is a vision of a good society. It's also a naive vision. I doubt whether that warm glow of love is possible or sustainable in advanced (decadent?) cultures like ours that accept very few things unconditionally, though my ironic guess is that the Americans most likely to describe their feelings this way are those most likely to support Trump. That he appears to love the country uncritically, as perhaps only a rich old white man can, is a big part of his appeal. The rest of us may find the degree of "reverence" or "piety" Brooks appears to want suspiciously "collectivist" or "totalitarian," depending on our ideologies. Perhaps public education can inculcate something like what Brooks wants without the cloying language, but I suspect that there was a reason why many appeals to patriotism in the 20th century equated love of nation with love of a leader. It may be that once developed nations have gone through the sort of upheaval that recent centuries have seen, once people are self-consciously divided against each other along lines of class, ethnicity or ideology, the sort of lovely love Brooks longs for simply can't return until something new becomes the object of collective love and virtual patriotism. The idea that Donald Trump might be that object for a lot of people appalls a lot of other people, but if not him, who -- or what? And if we find Brooks's emotive language appalling in its own way, can we offer a compelling alternative. We may think of some, but if something more than reason is needed to bind us together as citizens, as Brooks seems to imply in attacking the self-interest of the taxpayer mentality, what does any of us have to offer at this point in history?

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