David Brooks, ever flailing to dress up his own loyalties to a sick political movement in the language of "character" and intellectual high-mindedness, has written a truly extraordinary column today -- The Tree of Failure -- to explain the lack of political civility in America today.
Brooks asserts that one good speech, Obama's, won't wave away partisan "thuggery" (about that, we can all agree). Brooks has, in his mind, a more profound view of what ails us. He waxes poetic about the nature of human imperfection and a world in which people acknowledge those imperfections. Political civility flows, in his view, from that self-awareness.
So this is where civility comes from -- from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.
The rejection of this sensibility explains our current predicament:
The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation's founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.
But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn't ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.
Let me start by asking a question, or a series of questions. If you had to guess, would you say that the athlete who engages in an ostentatious celebration is more or less likely to have grown up in a loving, supportive environment than an athlete who quietly goes about his business? Personally, I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Many, many children are not raised amid a chorus of applause in America today (a fact I know Brooks knows, but is awfully inconvenient for his particular brand of analysls). Many are raised amid broken homes, poverty, gun shots and chaos. And haven't people like Brooks been complaining for years and years that it's the athletes who have emerged from those circumstances who are too preening and selfish in their behavior on the field of play? Haven't sports media been lamenting the Black athlete, in one way or another, for decades? And is Brooks actually suggesting that the problem for the Allen Iversons of the world (to take one iconic example of the ostentatious and often-vilifed modern athlete) is that they grew up in a too-adoring and applause-infused childhood? Brooks is simply sociologically incoherent here.
The blindness and desperation of Brooks' column is more serious than that, of course. He says that the founders were aware of their limitations. Well, they may have been, but the modern American right sure isn't. According to them (and not just the tea party types), the founders were demigods who conceived a perfect system of perfecrt liberty. Therefore, any attempts to disturb, change, amend, correct or even interpret that perfection which was the original constitution, for instance, is simple, unforgiveable heresy (you know, "judicial activism" and so on).
Then there is the reality that is simply staring Brooks in the face but that he refuses to see. Yes, Obama gave an eloquent speech about coming together. Compare that to Sarah Palin's "blood libel" speech. Brooks refuses to confront the painfully obvious -- that one side, his side, of the political divide -- has given itself over almost entirely to resentment, hatred and the reduction of every complex issue to simple-minded ridiculousness. It snowed the other day, so there's no global warming. A GOP-inspired health care plan supported by the private health insurance industry is Stalinism; Obama is a Kenyan revolutionary; a provision encouraging doctors to discuss end-of-life planning with patients means "death panels."
Consider two media icons of the ideological divide -- Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh. How did they respond to the Tucson shootings? Olbermann was self-reflective; he expressed concern about his own tone. He said he would make certain changes in his show. How did Rush Limbaugh respond? He flailed in every direction. He made the most absurd claims imaginable, including the utterly preposterous assertion that Democrats would support Jared Loughner's acquittal (you wanna bet, Rush? Seriously, any sum of money you like).
Jon Stewart, to take another liberal media icon, had a very sober, self-reflective opening Monday night. Contrast that to not only Limbaugh, but Beck, Malkin, O'Reilly, etc., none of whom, as far as I have seen, has acknowledged for a single, solitary second that there might be anything for them to reflect on. Instead, they have only amped up their anger, their conviction that they are the persecuted minority and demonstrated, yet again, the amazing self-pity that seems to run through the contemporary right.
In sum, the qualities of contemplation that the right-wing has contemptuously and vituperatively rejected -- introspection, self-awareness, a sense of one's own limitations (and the necessary, corollary, empathy, a recogniton that you could imagine yourself in the shoes of those who are struggling) are, according to Brooks, the very barriers to incivility that he so desperately wants to restore. Brooks' latest a-pox-on-our-whole-culture column reflects his ongoing need to think of himself as a thoughtful, modest, self-restrained conservative of the classical type. But he lacks the awareness, self-reflection and, dare I say, character, to face the implications of his own political allegiances -- that the contemporary right is the anti-thesis of all of those things. In trying to blame "the culture" and in attempting to obscure the poisonous nature of his side's brand of politics, he's missing the forest and the trees.