To a degree, I understand that David Brooks’s myopia is a product of his upbringing and that this isn’t very unusual. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, and it wasn’t a typical experience. All I had to do to figure that out was to travel one town over to play a baseball game and interact with the kids there. They might work a summer job and take all the money to buy a Camaro. This was incomprehensible to the people I went to school with who would much sooner spend that money on a jaunt across Europe or a trip to Nepal. Having a muscle car wasn’t going to bring us status or get us girlfriends, and wasn’t even considered cool. What was cool was being smart, getting accepted to an excellent college, and having the kind of experiences that made for interesting stories. Ronald Reagan carried New Jersey twice, with ease, but in Princeton his appeal was just as hard to understand as the appeal of a Z28.
I learned early on that much of America disliked Princetonians by default. And while they rightly considered many of us unforgivably arrogant and condescending, they also simply didn’t get what made us tick. We certainly did not get what made them tick. It wasn’t just that our systems of rewards and punishments were completely different. Princeton was a highly multicultural place, even by the standards of New Jersey at that time. Our classrooms then were similar to the classrooms people see now—filled with kids from all over the world with different religious backgrounds and ethnic traditions. Largely for this reason, but also because it was an Ivy League town, it was a liberal place that remained out of step with the Reagan Revolution. And this is why the assumptions that David Brooks ascribes to people of our generation don’t feel right to me.
I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.
There was also an assumption that while we might disagree on the means, we all wanted basically the same things. For example, though America was plagued by economic divides we all wanted a society in which social mobility and equal opportunity were the rule. Though America is plagued by racism, we all wanted more integration and less bigotry, a place where talent and character mattered more than skin color and prejudice.
On the surface, that description isn’t too far off in describing how Princetonians viewed the world in the 1980s, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll discover the problem. To us, the Reagan presidency represented a break with those types of assumptions. Primarily, it put an end to the idea that the people of our country all wanted the same things. To anyone who lived through the 1960s, this would have been an odd thing to think anyway, but there was a period in the 1970s when it did appear that there was a growing consensus that the civil rights leaders had been correct and that racism had become disreputable. The New Deal consensus was still ascendant but suddenly under assault through the Democrats’ loss of the Senate in 1980 and through the rhetoric and appointments of the Reagan administration. Progress on civil rights, women’s rights, and environmentalism stopped and began to roll back.
At the university, there was a movement to force divestiture from South Africa. Reagan’s foreign policies, particularly in Central America, were almost universally opposed. More than anything, though, the Republican Party began a process of discrediting itself among intellectuals. Even in Princeton, moderate Republicanism was common and usually signaled a higher social status. More than anything, it suggested accomplishment and success, if not necessarily empathy or concern for the least of us. In the 1980s, Republicanism began to signify something different. It started to have the taint of ketchup-is-a-vegetable anti-intellectualism. It suggested a lack of respect for the rules of debate and a willingness to offer any argument, however disingenuous, to gain some kind of emotional advantage. In short, it violated every principle and assumption that Princetonians held dear. And since it also challenged what we had thought was settled, whether that was the prohibition of funding schools like Bob Jones University or the Roe v. Wade ruling or the science of acid rain, we definitely saw this period as one of disorientation and the breaking of norms and consensus.
But, as I said at the top, my upbringing wasn’t typical. While 49 states were reelecting Reagan in a massive landslide, my people were wondering what had happened to our country. After high school, I moved to Los Angeles, which had a much different kind of multiculturalism. And I began to learn new things and, more importantly, to unlearn much of what I thought I knew. It really took a couple of decades to get to a point where I had shed the perspectives that had blinded me to what this country is really like, and the process is undoubtedly incomplete. We can never fully transcend our formative experiences.
It doesn’t look to me like David Brooks has gone very far along in this process, but I’ll give him credit for recognizing that he has trouble understanding today’s college kids because he comes from a different generation that operated with different assumptions. This doesn’t improve his column as much as it should, though.
As his normal practice, Brooks attempts to explain the world through the use of a dichotomy. In today’s example, he contrasts those who he describes as “mistake theorists” with those he describes as “contrast theorists.”
Mistake theorists also believe that most social problems are hard and that obvious perfect solutions are scarce. Debate is essential. You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning. Basically, we’re all physicians standing over a patient with a very complex condition and we’re trying to collectively figure out what to do.
This remains my basic understanding of how citizenship is supposed to work.
If you were born after 1990, it’s not totally shocking that you would see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe…
…In the conflict theorist worldview, most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity, but by malice and oppression. The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades. Debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. Discordant ideas are not there to inform; they are there to provide cover for oppression.
This is supposed to explain why college students today are in the practice of shouting down people who come to speak at their universities whom espouse intolerant views.
Students across the country continue to attack and shut down speakers at a steady pace, from Christina Hoff Sommers to Jordan Peterson. I confess that I find their behavior awful. My gut reaction is that these student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.
But empathy is the essential character trait for our moment. So I thought it might be a good discipline to try to see things from the students’ perspective — to not just condemn or psychoanalyze them but to try to understand where they are coming from.
From this Princetonian’s perspective, it’s inaccurate to say that debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. From my point of view, debate is something you engage in with a shared set of assumptions about the rules, and that includes what passes for a fact and what constitutes evidence. To be productive, there must be good faith from both parties, and that’s what broke down during the Reagan years. There’s really no point in debating Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter or Donald Trump because they don’t operate by these rules and they define bad faith. What the college students of today have internalized is that the conservative movement isn’t offering guest speakers on their campuses for the purpose of having a debate. They’re there to insult and create divisions. They’re there to question the entire intellectual process and the values that underpin academic discovery. What the youth don’t remember is a period of time when the right in this country could operate within the rules and when they were concerned to actually convince people of their views based on facts and evidence.
Personally, I think the comity and intellectual rigor of this bygone age is exaggerated in Brooks’s telling, but in my experience it did actually exist. It may have only existed in elite circles like Ivy League towns and the Acela corridor on the East Coast, but there was a brief period when we had debates in this country that were worth having.
The conservative movement put an end to that. And they keep pushing us further and further away from it. Rush Limbaugh becomes Fox News and Fox News becomes Breitbart. Reagan becomes Dubya and Dubya becomes Trump.
For college kids today, we’re asking them to pretend that provocateurs are intellectuals with some important ideas that will shake them out of their lazy assumptions and mental complacency. But that’s roughly like comparing Sean Hannity to Bill Moyer. These college speakers are coming to make a name for themselves by being rude, hateful, bigoted, and disrespectful. They seek praise, career advancement and book sales from an anti-intellectual movement. It’s a movement that made David Brooks who he is today, but he is only intermittently self-aware of this.
Brooks will seemingly look everywhere but the conservative movement to try to explain why the world he grew up in and valued has vanished. His gut tells him these college kids reject bigots because they’re snowflakes who can’t tolerate being made to feel uncomfortable. He suggests that they’re the ones who have lost faith in rationality and the merits of honest debate. But when he seeks them out to get a fuller view, he doesn’t learn a single thing. He concludes by reiterating that this new generation is an irrational lynch mob.
So I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions — the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression — and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.
The second would be in constitutionalism. We dump on lawyers, but the law is beautiful, living proof that we can rise above tribalism and force — proof that the edifice of civilizations is a great gift, which our ancestors gave their lives for.
How Brooks can look at our culture in the era of Donald Trump and blame liberal college students for the growth of tribalism and force is perhaps explained by something in his upbringing. But I think it’s better explained by the fact that he simply can’t come to terms with what all his work for conservatives has come to. Spending your life in the service of a movement you should abhor is taxing on the soul.