David Brooks returns to the New York Times opinion page after a 3 month fast from political writing, and opens musing about “How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?”
On the one hand, there are those who are completely cynical about politics. But, as the columnist Michael Gerson has put it, this sort of cynicism is the luxury of privileged people. If you live in a functioning society, you can say politicians are just a bunch of crooks. But, if you live in a place without rule of law, where a walk down a nighttime street can be terrifying, where tribalism leads to murder, you know that politics is a vital concern.
On the other hand, there are those who form their identity around politics and look to it to complete their natures. These overpoliticized people come in two forms: the aspirational and the tribal. The aspirational hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning …
Then there are those who look to politics for identity. They treat their partisan affiliation as a form of ethnicity. These people drive a lot of talk radio and television. Not long ago, most intelligent television talk was not about politics. Shows would put interesting people together, like Woody Allen with Billy Graham (check it out on YouTube), and they’d discuss anything under the sun.
Now most TV and radio talk is minute political analysis, while talk of culture has shriveled. This change is driven by people who, absent other attachments, have fallen upon partisanship to give them a sense of righteousness and belonging.
This emotional addiction can lead to auto-hysteria.
I continue to enjoy the luxury of privileged people, but only because nobody, in either party, seems even to begin to “get it” as I see it. Both parties, to a man, want to hold the levers of Leviathan. Nobody is interested in politics on a human scale. (Well, maybe Congressman Glen Browder, whoever he is.)
I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun. I wish our talk-show culture reflected that balance, and that the emotional register around politics were more in keeping with its low but steady nature.
Once upon a time, the word “Christian” had to do with the religion one observed, well or poorly. And “gentleman” referred to a man of noble birth or superior social position, even if the gentleman was
a real bastard reprehensible.
Then somebody decided that one who was of base birth and low social class was a truer gentleman the the reprehensible nobleman. And, as they say, the idea went viral. I had to muck around a bit to confirm the older definition.
Someone else decided that a righteous Jew was a truer Christian than a reprehensible Christian. I can think of no excuse for turning “Christian” into hollow approbation, but it want kind of viral by C.S. Lewis’ lifetime. It has, I think, receded a bit, but only because a nice guy is likelier to be approbated by “mensch” than by “Christian.” Possible reasons for that are beyond my scope.
Today, Frank Bruni (who “has a horse in the race”) hauls a fresh load of coal to the Newcastle of “family” redefinition: “family” now means, he declares (“If that’s not family — real family — please tell me what is”), a really special, enduring and intimate friendship.
I protest. He’s not only redefining “family” but he’s further debasing the concept of “friendship,” which has fallen on hard enough times already, thank you.
Beware: Bruni is not alone. Maybe (remember that this isn’t scholarly research) this goes back at least to Jimmy Carter’s White House Conference on Families. That’s what some conservatives were objecting to back then, and it’s looking kinda prophetic from here and now.
It’s a shock for most people that it’s a shambles. A fellow very friendly to the administration, a longtime supporter, cornered me at a holiday party recently to ask, with true perplexity: “How could any president put his entire reputation on the line with a program and not be on the phone every day pushing people and making sure it will work? Do you know of any president who wouldn’t do that?” I couldn’t think of one, and it’s the same question I’d been asking myself. The questioner had been the manager of a great institution, a high stakes 24/7 operation with a lot of moving parts. He knew Murphy’s law—if it can go wrong, it will. Managers—presidents—have to obsess, have to put the fear of God, as Mr. Obama says, into those below them in the line of authority. They don’t have to get down in the weeds every day but they have to know there are weeds, and that things get caught in them.
Here I will say something harsh, and it’s connected to the thing about words but also images.
From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads. They haven’t read the histories, the texts, which carry more information, more texture, data and subtlety, and different points of view ….
The Slactivist tells of the resulting kerfuffle when one American Legion [Post] demands that free citizens must recite a loyalty pledge written by a socialist or else.
I do have a hot button about the expectation that we’ll all offer Caesar a pinch of incense at public gatherings. I congratulate Dan Ashta, wishing him all the best between now and when he’s replaced as Park Commissioner by a Real Christian.®
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)