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David Brooks: Is This His Great Awakening? July 21, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Philosophy.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is best known for two things: Apologist-in-chief for the disaster called the Bush Administration and writer of vaccuous pop sociology books based on his intuitions rather than research.

Apparently he is now turning his attention to philosophy.

In Friday’s NY Times (behind a subscription wall) and also in Saturday’s print version of the Union-Tribune, Brooks praises what philosophers call the “relational self”. Commenting on cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s recent book “I Am A Strange Loop”, Brooks writes “A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others…”  

As Brooks rightly points out, this conception of the self emphasizes how much each of us is shaped by relationships with others, and Brooks goes on to argue that this exposes the errors of Ayn Rand individualists who think that a person’s success is wholly a product of her own efforts, and new age narcissists who think the self is some sort of inner being that exists prior to social influence. In other words, we are social beings all the way down and are deeply influenced (though perhaps not determined) by the environment in which we live.

I must say, when I reached this point in the article I began to get a bit queasy because I agree with everything Brooks has said about the self and this is a new experience for me. I have never agreed with anything Brooks writes. And the best is yet to come. Brooks continues, this relational self explains “why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty” because “habits that are common in the underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust”. And the relational self also “illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty. That universal hunger may exist in the abstract, but we’re embedded creatures and the way specific individuals perceive liberty depends on context.” 

This is all so very surprising because Brooks is pulling the philosophical rug out from under decades (if not centuries) of conservative thought, and Brooks has built a career on praising the virtues of every half-baked neo-conservative idea projected from the bowels of the American Enterprise Institute.

Conservative policies have long been governed by extreme and implausible conceptions of individual responsibility. Their domestic policy has been driven by the idea that if you are poor, sick, uneducated, gay, irreligious, etc. it is because you lack the self-control to make good decisions and act on them. Their foreign policy has been driven by the idea that if you are opposed to U.S. influence in the world, you are simply evil–beyond the reach of reason or moral appeal–and should be eliminated. Since 9/11, conservatives have been constantly bleating that attempts to understand the context of our enemies grievances are irrelevant, and efforts to ameliorate the condition of those with grievances nothing but appeasement. For conservatives, evil is not the product of fallible people facing adverse circumstances, but is some sort of infection that has contaminated the self and can be controlled only through violent suppression.

Operating behind these conservative policies is a view of the self as an isolated individual who flourishes only through strength of will. The self is constituted by its ability to exercise control over itself and others–a cult of the will to power (with apologies to Nietzche for misusing his famous phrase). There is nothing relational in this view of the self. Of course conservatives often praise some relationships. “Family values” have been high on their agenda as long as the family is headed by a father with the strength of will to control his wife’s desire for autonomy and to punish the kids if they turn out to be gay. And patriotism also receives high praise as long as that means a willingness to beat up on anyone who is not American. The relationship is simply raw material on which the will acts–it does not constitute the self.

So what gives with Brook’s encomium to the relational self? Is this his great awakening? I doubt it. He probably is just clueless about the implications of Hofstadter’s view. But then cluelessness seems a constitutive element of the conservative self.