Saturday, June 5, 2010

The New “F” Word: The Right Fights over the Founders. Part I Ideological Origins?

It’s an indication of the confused state of American Politics, when an ideological tent as large as the supposed "modern American conservative movement" goes up in spectacular six-alarm style flames like it is now. I know I shouldn't, but I'll admit, I get certain glee (I'm not proud here, just honest) watching politicians and pundits on the right eat their own. Witness David Brooks as he dismisses Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, British sojourner in the American colonies, and supporter of American liberties on the eve of the Revolution with Great Britain.

Paine's Common Sense has since become a buzzword, shorthand for Tea Party activists who (simultaneously and anachronistically) evoke both the founding -- read small government, tyrannical executive authority, blanket patriotism, shorn of any historical context -- and the supposed no-nonsense Truth and obvious righteous rightness inherent in the tea party movement; i.e., it just makes "common sense." Needless to say, also shorn of any historical context.

So what is David Brooks doing trashing Paine? There's something rotten in the state of Kansas. The unhappy marriage (or is it a state-sanctioned civil union? I’m not sure) between reactionary Christian-conservative evangelicals, working-class white Reagan Democrats, Wall Street free market-fundamentalists, and Bill Buckley intellectual-type conservatives is quite simply falling apart. If the Right had a Facebook page, its relationship status would read "It's complicated." 

Clearly, Brooks and others of his ilk (the ideological descendents of Buckley) are trying to reign in the rampant, and I'll agree quite crazy, Sarah Palin-Rand Paul Populism of the current Tea Party season. Oh, if only history could, in that old cliché, repeat itself as when the populist insurgency of the 1890s -- which combined a hatred of corporate monopoly with a hatred of African Americans and immigrants -- was co-opted by the Progressives of the first two-decades of the twentieth century. The result? An expansion of the administrative state, attempts to curb the excesses of corporate power, and calls on the super-rich to be morally accountable for how their wealth was gotten. But history, no matter how the conservatives want to tell it is not cyclical. Oh well. But, man, they are sure interested in telling it these days: Glenn Beck, David Brooks, Peter Lillback, Jack Goldstone, David Barton, and good old Lynne Cheney.

With all these claims on the American Revolution, there's bound to be some disagreement, I suppose. But it's getting nasty.

So what is Paine's mortal sin according to David Brooks? He’s a man with a plan. In other words, Paine is an idealist in the age of Enlightenment who shares too much with … who else? The French philosophes who, according to Brooks, thought a better world can be imagined and then brought into being. Stupid French (read worthless liberal egg-heads. I'll have those Freedom Fries now).

In other words, more David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, less Descarte, Rousseau, and the other French guys whose single names (why don't they have two names?!?!) are hard to pronounce. But it's two Englishmen that Brooks uses to explain the split: Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. 

Brooks says that Paine believed the past to be of no merit (not true, btw: Paine argued that the past is not inherently of any merit, just, or moral. There's a difference). Brooks is better with Burke, which is no surprise; Burke has long been the darling of conservatives of Brooks's ilk. Burke believed, in Brooks's telling, that people "serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down," hence, conservatism. Conserving the supposed wisdom of the past. There's a moment when Brooks (whose commentary I usually hate with a passion I reserve only for the smug punditry), almost comes across as thoughtful, telling his readers: 
We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one. 

Ah, David Brooks! What's going on? Are you making a thoughtful argument.

But … wait for it. Unable to withhold his own judgmental irksomeness, his butter knife-blunt wit ruins a perfectly good sense of nuance. The French and the Tom Paines, intellectual ancestors to both liberal technocrats and Tea Bagging nut-jobs, have won! The proof? "Polemicists" on the right and left have crowded out good thoughtful Scots-minded moderates like himself. But not to worry, (check out the non-polemical Brooksian tone):
There is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance. 

Yes, David Brooks. Sooooo modest.

Ah, the self-satisfaction that comes when sitting at the junction of Right and Wrong. Brooks's view is that those Frenchies were the ones that history, especially American history, has proven wrong. I think Brooks has been spending a little too much time reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in Itwhat appears to be the latest entry in the nationalism book marketing wars. Otherwise known as Blank: How the Irish/Greeks/Jews/Insert Ethnic Identity here Changed the World/Saved Civilization/Fundamentally Altered the Course of Human History.

But I digress.

For Brooks, the idealists got it wrong because human nature is not revolutionary. The mechanistic view of the world that the Scots gave us -- the right one, mind you -- suggests that society changes slowly and that big plans to remake a social order are doomed to fail. It’s not surprising that the Scots gave us Newtonian mechanics, industrialization, and economics, while the French left us with liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Stupid French.

Of course Brooks ignores that in the hands of politicians, or rather, when these folks were in the position of politicians, like his hero Edmund Burke, even this philosophy helped to create plans to remake the social order, just at a different speed. Like a machine (a metaphor of the world both sides shared), the plans for society the Scottish/English Enlightenment created were simply geared at a lower-ratio.

Brooks dresses ideological preference and political posturing in the guise of history. Needless to say, that p*sses me off. He prefers what he calls the sober, slow-path-to-reform sensibility of the Scottish Common-Sense realists to the fiery, social-order-overturning, revolutionary sensibility of the French and apparently their English speaking ideological cousins, the two Thomases: Paine and Jefferson.

But even Brooks’s cynical painting of Paine with a French brush won’t play at Tea Party rallies. To the Tea Party folks, Paine’s radical critique of centralized authority is fundamental to their way of thinking. So too is Paine's eschatological sense of human perfection: the theory that we are trending toward a perfect end of days. This perfectionism is too deeply ingrained in American political thinking to be nudged by Brooks facile arguments. From the Puritans’ City on a Hill, to Manifest Destiny, to Bringing Democracy to the Middle East Americans believe that they can create a better world. Not surprisingly, the evangelical right, with its vision of millennial perfectionism, is one of the main streams of this movement (so was the radical left, though post-modernism and relativity have gone some distance to dampen that kind of arrogance). In the end Brooks is fighting a losing cultural battle. What’s more American than the Pilgrims?

Yo! David Brooks, learn to pick your battles, dude.

And yet …

In a weird democracy-of-information, wikipedia kind of way, if we step back, all this hubbub actually gets us closer to the full story. It's just hard to pick out the narrative signposts amidst all the conservatives' shouting (That’s not hyperbole. They actually shout. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin: stop yelling, you're hurting my ears). So I guess I should thank this current culture war within conservatism, at least it’s giving us a fuller picture.

Which is to say, "The Founding" was not a single moment driven by a single ideology, Brooks is right about that. The American revolution, and the turbulent creation of the United States of America that followed, was part of an expansive historical current, the confluence of many different, related but conflicting, ideological streams. It was both Hume and Rousseau. And America still is. There is no single meaning to the period because, if it doesn't exactly contradict itself, at the very least, it is large; it contains multitudes. The problem is that Brooks is too simple-minded to hold the question open (or at least, nuance doesn’t make for good punditry).

More importantly, it's the unfinished, conflicting nature of the revolution that is its particular genius: Scottish reform or French revolution (in Brooks's telling), or was the Revolution radical or conservative. Also: central authority vs. local authority, individual liberty vs. community welfare, agrarian nation or industrial nation. Just to name a few (and to stress that it was more than just "two sides"). To indulge in a little American exceptionalism, those messy tensions are what drive American history. And History is not a decider. "The Scots were right, and the French were wrong"? Whatever, David Brooks. Why don't you and Francis Fuykyama go hang out at the end of history ('cause that’s not eschatological at all).

David Brooks! Dude. Stop explaining the world with "human nature." It's a stupid argument. Wait, can I play the history-as-universal-lawgiver game? All history is complex. See? I've answered everything but explained nothing. But there's a difference. At the end of the day, the real truth of history -- complexity; that societies are different across time and space; diversity not universality -- opens up a conversation, it doesn’t end it. Human nature? That’s something you shout at someone when you are tired of arguing with them. Where can you go from there? But, difference? That forces us to look further. And those with a true sense of history know that.

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