After a long while, David Brooks, Esteemed Conservative Intellectual©, has finally written a column so vacuous that I feel the need to return to dismantling the inane propositions he puts forward (“The Crisis of Western Civ,” The New York Times, 4/21/2017).
In his latest column, Brooks laments the rise of authoritarians in an age where traditional democratic values are being challenged for their legitimacy:
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
And believe it or not (but do, because it’s David Brooks, so even fleeting familiarity with his cockamamie attributions of the causes of society’s ills means you won’t be surprised for what he has in store), Brooks briefly mentions just who is to blame for this:
Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
That’s correct: blame your lefty history professors, because they ceased to teach the virtues of Western civilization (whose virtues are so mythical that they wind up belonging to the same spirit of that bizarre insistence on Brooks’s part that Americans, for example, need a national myth in order to identify collectively), and, you know, everyone just forgot about them, I guess, even though a large motivating factor of Trump’s voters is that their votes were cast in reaction to the sort of “Western civilization is oppressive” narrative in the form of anti-political correctness in its abstract and more concrete (racism, sexism, xenophobia) forms, so how can Brooks find it anything other than absolutely loony to assert that all they needed was a better uni prof and all our problems would be solved?
What Brooks is promoting is not dissimilar to what Alan Bloom proposed in his book The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987): a bunch of smart white guys should decide the canon of Western thought, and everyone should learn that and not be so infatuated with their conflabbit Walkmans (Walkmen?) and pop music and Tom Selleck! The idea being that students being fed an identical diet of “great thoughts” coast-to-coast would give them a common core (what?!) of ideas to react against, which somehow wouldn’t ever lead to the similar ends Bloom and Brooks deride.
But I’m curious how Brooks would attempt to seriously make the argument that the history of Western civilization isn’t a history of oppression—despite whatever freedoms we do or don’t enjoy, they’ve only been granted because of popular struggles aimed at the ruling classes with the intention of convincing them to permit those freedoms to be enjoyed. Even today the concentration of wealth has allowed relatively few people to decide how large swaths of the world’s population to decide how, where, when, and for how much they will work. The restrictions those decisions place on most of us is hard to classify as anything other than oppression.
It’s hardly worth addressing, though, because Brooks is attempting (poorly) to conflate the ideals of classical philosophical texts of Western civilization with the reality of how Western civ has panned out, and sprinkles it with points like this:
The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future.
—which I’m sure he believes backs up his point, even though 1) he doesn’t know anything about Turkey, as I’ll demonstrate, and 2) Turkey isn’t and never has been part of “Western civilization,” at least in the way Brooks is sort-of-but-not-really describing.
So of course Brooks thinks this, because Brooks’s knowledge of the history of the Turkish Republic is no more complicated than a hyperlinked Reddit post that was super-upvoted and gilded twice.
Regardless of whatever narrative you about the founder of Turkey’s republic, Kemal Ataturk (that he was a Western-styled intellectual bringing democracy to a former theocracy, or a proto-fascist , the republic itself was hardly a bastion of Western values practiced in earnest. It was essentially a one-party state until Ataturk’s death in 1938. Many of the people who support strongman Erdogan do so out of spite; they believe, not wholly incorrectly, that Ataturk severed them from the nation they once were. And that’s true to an extent; in the wake of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, Ataturk initiated the adoption of the Roman alphabet, which now, nearly 100 years later, has left several generations unable to read in their original form anything written before the 20th century.
And all this is not mentioning the fact that Turkey’s democracy has always been extremely fragile—the country has undergone multiple coups and military memorandums, has had government coalitions crumble, assists to perpetuate a nearly 40-year internal military conflict with the Kurds, and has always suffered from extreme political violence against politicians and journalists (among others).
If all this bullshit misinformation parading as deep thought weren’t enough, he leaves us with this kiss-off:
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
Look, if Brooks can find a large group of serious people who point out the oppressive elements of modern Western civilization while simultaneously either praising more repressive systems or being wholly ignorant of them, I’ll eat my hat. But this kind of phony logic is akin to scolding an Iraq War critic because hey, you don’t like this war? Why can’t you just be glad it’s not World War II?