David Brooks on the 21st Century

David Brooks spoke in the Silicon Valley recently.  The Pierces really like listening to him, by the way. Especially his talks on character building.

He spoke on the state of US society in 2017, the recent Presidential election, and his observations traveling the country over the course of the last year.  His picture was not pretty.  To summarize, US society will never again be like it was during the second half of the twentieth century.  Those days of prosperity and ease are over. Now we have hefty doses of psychological dysfunction, unemployment, suicide, drug abuse and poverty for many Americans.

According to Mr. Brooks, whereas the primary political tension in the twentieth century was big government vs. small government, the primary tension going forward is open vs. closed. For many in our society, the affluent and successful middle class (the dominant class), the urge is toward openness. Open trade, open morals, open society, open borders. For those who are not doing well, the tendency is for closedness. Closed trading channels, closed borders, closed moral systems, heterogeneity. While the affluent feel the winds generated by openness blowing at their/our backs, propelling us/them to greater wealth and security, or at least, sustainability,  those who suffer from the change fight the wind blowing in their faces.

Okay, Robert likes the metaphors.  He can go with this.

But, it is worse than this.  And Robert thinks that public intellectuals like David Brooks need to take the next step in the analysis. They need to stop allowing the affluent dominant class to get off so easy. It is not only that “the system” is allowing some to flourish and others to suffer.  More completely, it is the actions of individuals in society that cause the pain of the underclass. There is moral blame here. Individuals in the upper and middle classes, and that is many of us, even if we don’t feel blameworthy, can’t be allowed to avoid responsibility. Personal responsibility.

So much of the dominant classes’ success is generated from damage done to the secondary class.  Individuals in the dominant class create and market the violent filth of the cinema that results in violence borne largely by the underclass. Individuals in the dominant class drive a consumer marketing behemoth that preys on human weakness for screens and celebrity.  Individuals work for the end-purpose of commercializing childhood. Individuals participate in the marketing and distribution of guns.  Very few of us wake up every morning with the goal of hurting others. Most of us feel like we are just trying to get by the best we can. To build some security for ourselves and our families. But very few of us are without blame. Our actions, however slightly, help keep others in our society back. Our actions directly or indirectly rely upon treating others as consumers of things that are not good for them. It adds up to a very ugly whole. We sow the seeds of our destruction.

Individuals in the dominant class (and I mean most of us) don’t simply benefit from a system that is not of their own making. Individuals in the dominant class, however so indirectly, are “winning,” at the cost of their morals. Every day we wake up and go to work as a middle manager at an Internet advertising firm (Google or Facebook) or at a conglomerate distributor (Walmart) or at media conglomerate (Disney), or at one of the vendors and enablers of these industries, we are acting increasingly immorally. We violate the categorical imperative. Unfortunately, in the modern day, by participating, even very slightly, we end up treating others (and ourselves, by the way) as means to and end. Not as ends in themselves.

We don’t need to destroy capitalism, or even the underlying self-interest that fuels it. But we need to look at ourselves, individually, as the source of what creates the intolerable whole. Someone needs to take the descriptive stories told by very smart people like David Brooks, and to create a normative path. Someone needs to help us point fingers at ourselves. Tell us what is moral, and what is not. Maybe there can be competing views, but we need to move away from relativistic storytelling.  Especially on the left.

By the way, Robert is not as angry or weird (hopefully) as he may seem in this post.