I swear that David Brooks wakes up every morning thinking to himself, How can I attribute the wrong cause to an existing problem, and then propose no solution? From The New York Times, January 17th (“The Lord of Misrule”):
When elites try to quash the manners and impulses of the people, those impulses are bound to spill out in some other way. By the Middle Ages the cathedrals were strictly hierarchical, so the people created carnivals where everything was turned on its head. During carnival (Purim is the Jewish version), men dressed like women, the people could insult the king and bishops, drunkenness and ribaldry was prized over sober propriety.
As Ehrenreich puts it, “Whatever social category you had been boxed into — male or female, rich or poor — carnival was a chance to escape from it.”
So Brooks uses 555 of his 970-word column to reach this point:
Carnival culture was raw, lascivious and disgraceful, and it elevated a certain social type, the fool.
And so he uses this bizarre and ill-fitting example to parallel the election of Donald Trump:
We’re living with exactly the kinds of injustices that lead to carnival culture, and we’ve crowned a fool king. Donald Trump exists on two levels: the presidential level and the fool level. On one level he makes personnel and other decisions. On the other he tweets. (I honestly don’t know which level is more important to him.)
I’m not at all readily familiar with medieval history and know nothing of ‘carnival culture’ (and given David’s propensity for oversimplifying history, I doubt he does, either), but Brooks really seems to be stretching the elasticity of this not very well-thought-out metaphor to the breaking point.
First is that if fools “were rude and frequently unabashed liars. They were willing to make idiots of themselves. The point of the fool was not to be admirable in himself, but to be the class clown who had the guts to talk back to the teacher,” then this would apply to everyone in the Republican party who goes on television. They lie constantly, turn 180 degrees on their ‘conservative principles’ when they’re inconvenient (and so look like idiots to those of us who can retain information for longer than, say, thirty seconds). And by Republicans’ own claims, they’re constantly ‘talking back to the teacher’ when they decry liberal elitism and PC culture (“tolerance,” as I call the latter).
Second is that Brooks’s description of ‘carnival culture’ sounds more like people relieving themselves of a hierarchical structure that appointed itself and squashed dissent, not a relatively free and open society with officials elected to carry out policies aimed at benefiting the citizens. And Brooks admits as much, but either mistakenly so or completely oblivious that it kind of undermines the point of his piece:
The carnivals were partly a way to blow off steam, but in hard times they served as occasions for genuine populist revolts. In 1511, a carnival in Udine, Italy, turned into a riot that led to the murder of 50 nobles and the sacking of more than 20 palaces.
Only now it’s movements like Occupy or Black Lives Matter that mainstream media treat as ribald, inarticulate riots, while Trump’s supporters—like the KKK, or neo-Nazis—are portrayed as the salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing, and, gosh darn it, good and decent down-and-out white folks that need to be paid attention!
Look, some of those white folks have legitimate grievances, and they’re often right to blame government. But the problem is that they often go along with Republicans, who are the fools already ensconced in the hierarchical order leading them off a cliff telling them it’s the way to move up. That’s why Brooks’s metaphor doesn’t work. Trump isn’t an outsider burped up from a bottom caste completely disconnected from the ruling class—he’s a deplorable billionaire who’s a natural product of decades of Republican lawmakers and right-wing media telling that caste that Democrats, women, minorities, and foreigners were out to ruin their lives.
But whatever. At least Brooks acknowledges there’s a problem. So, then, David, what’s the cause of this sudden upheaval?
We live at a time of wide social inequality. The intellectual straitjackets have been getting tighter. The universities have become modern cathedrals, where social hierarchies are defined and reinforced.
I remember election night. My wife came home and asked me whether it was really happening, whether the country was so stupid as to elect Donald Trump. When I responded in the affirmative, she fell onto the couch, despondent, a hand across her forehead. She asked me a simple question: “Why?” And I told her:
It’s such a stupid answer that I’ll let blogger Driftglass sum it up:
Nothing about race, Not a word about misogyny. Or xenophobia. Or paranoia. Or pig-ignorance. Or Fox News. Nothing about Russia or Rush Limbaugh or the pure, malignant “Suck it Libtard! I drink your tears!” spite that binds Mr. Brooks’ Republican party together.
Because always remember: both sides. The ‘both sides’ argument is like at university when you had a paper due the next day that you hadn’t written more than a paragraph of, and so in a desperate attempt to appear even slightly well-read and intellectual you pull that stunt of pretending to entertain an idea while bringing up the polar opposite as an alternative, but then, whoa, what if, like, it’s both? And then, whatever, you turn it in, give me my B+ and we’ll both move on.
His tweets are classic fool behavior. They are raw, ridiculous and frequently self-destructive. He takes on an icon of the official culture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the message of the tweet. It’s to symbolically upend hierarchy, to be oppositional.
The assault on Representative John Lewis was classic. He picked one of the most officially admired people in the country and he leveled the most ridiculous possible charge (all talk and no action). It was a tweet devilishly well crafted to create the maximum official uproar. Anybody who writes for a living knows how to manipulate an outraged response, and Trump is a fool puppet master.
The sad part is that so many people treat Trump’s tweets as if they are arguments when in fact they are carnival. With their conniption fits, Trump’s responders feed into the dynamic he needs. They contribute to carnival culture.
I’m reminded of a review music critic Robert Christgau wrote about Dave Mason’s crappy debut album, wherein he derided a song called “Just a Song” because “songs have words.”
So do tweets. It doesn’t matter whether they are ‘fool behavior,’ whether they level ‘ridiculous’ charges or are not really arguments. They’re words, and words have meaning, and people derive meaning from those words, which is why liberals and leftists have been calling out the right on their dogwhistles forever. So when Donald Trump says this about John Lewis:
there are people who take it as gospel. It robs Lewis of the work he’s done for decades. It’s not merely ‘carnival.’ It’s invidious.
I don’t expect better from Brooks, but his concession in this column is one of the things I feared in the fallout of a Trump victory: He’s too horrible to be hurt by his horribleness, so his horribleness should be ignored. And I’m willing to bet a lot that the people, like Brooks, who are telling us to ignore it are the same people who will more quickly get tired of people calling out Trump on every horrible things he says and does than they will of the horrible things Trump says and does.